Ice, ice baby

Turns out, visiting Mongolia in late summer is basically the equivalent of visiting almost anywhere else in the dead of winter! But at least snow is pretty and the four layers of clothing covered up the weight I almost certainly gained eating platters of crusty homemade bread every morning. Now, let’s get to it.

We left off last in Ulaanbaatar, after returning from our foray to Northern Mongolia. The following morning, August 8, we were met at our hotel by our guide, Jay, a very fluent English speaker with a penchant for Mongolian rap and a vast collection of headbands. We flew to the dusty town of Bayan-Ogli, the provincial capital of the westernmost province of Mongolia, and arrived in what was one of the smallest airports I’ve yet to see in all of my travels (though Rurrenabaque, in the Bolivian Amazon, still takes the prize). There, we were met by our Driver, Ibek, and our cook, a jolly woman named Bogy (obviously a nickname for tourists). To our delight, Ibek also drove a Soviet beast van, though he had tricked his out with modern luxuries like actual seats and a Bluetooth radio (from which he would play the same 15 songs over and over at max volume for the next seven days). Ibek was younger than Dakh, smoked constantly (including TWICE while suck siphoning gasoline out of another vehicle), and wore the same navy blue track suit and fedora for six days straight. Though his Soviet wagon had some modern accouterments, no mere cosmetic change can make up for vehicle age and driver experience. On steep downhills, Ibek’s car gave off a disconcerting smell of burning brakes and, on steep uphill climbs teetering on moving rocks, he frequently killed the transmission and we started to roll backwards towards a drop off. While it is really hard to objectively compare the quality of the “roads” in northern vs. western Mongolia, I can say with confidence that Ibek was less skilled at preventing bodily harm to those of us being flung about the back of the vehicle. Western Mongolia is quite rocky and there has been no apparent attempt to remove rocks from the path of traveling vehicles. In fact, it seemed at times like the largest boulders were actually found straddling the tire tracks. The giant boulders, pools of mud, and steep hills made travel cripplingly slow with 40km (about 25 miles) taking 3 hours to cover. The drive was like being in one of those old motion simulator rides at the mall (or Star Tours at Disneyland) but without seatbelts or any assurance that the vehicle wasn’t going to tip off of a cliff and kill us all.

Beast wagon beast wagon beast wagon 🎵.
Soviet beast wagon convention on the road to the Altai.

After airport pick up, we left immediately and headed out to our first destination in the west, Altai Tavan Bogd national park, which has the highest peaks in Mongolia and straddles the border with Russia and China. Ogli is in a dusty valley surrounded by dry peaks, not unlike Las Vegas or Phoenix. As we climbed toward the mountains, the vegetation changed remarkably little, with a few tufts of wiry grass and spiny red plants covering otherwise barren hillsides. As with the north, there were nomadic gers and herds of animals, but even these were sparse given the poor grazing fodder. Additionally, we passed collections of squat stone dwellings lived in by Mongolia’s Kazakh population. There are ~100,000 Kazakhs living in western Mongolia, Muslims who speak the Kazakh language and apparently live a more traditional nomadic Kazakh life than the Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. Whew. I just used “Kazakh” five times in a sentence – pretty proud of that. Though there weren’t many people, plants or herds of farm animals, there was an abundance of morbidly obese marmots, some so fat that Brad and I though they were dogs from a distance, until they shuffled their fat bodies into a hole.

Arid landscape on the way to the Altai mountains.

In the evening of our first night, we arrived at the eastern gate of Tavan Bogd national park and set up camp. The following morning, Kazakh camel herders were supposed to arrive and load our stuff, while we trekked into the mountains to camp and climb a 14,000 foot peak that straddles the Russian border. Brad and I were obviously quite excited to illicitly put a toe into Russia from the summit. It was frigidly cold, with an icy wind lashing at our tent when we went to bed. In the morning, we woke up to two inches of fresh snow in our camp and no camel herders (they apparently opted out due to the storm). With no way to pack our stuff to base camp and with blowing snow whipping around, our guide decided to pull the plug on that day’s trekking and drive to the south gate of the park, which has a lower elevation and a better trail to base camp. Despite being geographically very close, it took FIVE hours to drive to the base camp, all the while being battered in the automotive boxing match of Mongolia’s roads (my head: 0, wall of car: at least 5). 

Our first campsite, BEFORE it snowed. It’s colder than it looks.
What we woke up to in the morning 🥶.

The southern gate of the park was in a lovely valley alongside the White River (which is actually not white, but an opaque aqua blue from the suspension of glacial silt) and surrounded by lower mountains. We arrived in the early afternoon to a driving rain that filled our tent with puddles as we set it up. By the evening, the rain transitioned to snow.

Brad in the white river valley during a brief break in the rain.
White River Valley.

Though the rangers at the gate had told our guide that the weather was expected to continue for four days, by some miracle we awakened to a clear-ish morning with only some high, puffy clouds and a layer of frost coating the grass. Given the quantity of snow in the mountains, our guide had already pulled the plug on what was supposed to be a non-technical (i.e. not on snow) hike of Malchin peak, but since the weather was good we could at least go up to base camp and see the view, about a 12 mile round trip. We left early, to take advantage of the good weather, and enjoyed panoramic views of the glacier carved White River Valley, lined with snow-dusted hills. In front of us, the high Altai knifed into the sky, glaciers tumbling down their flanks and thick cornices of snow precipitously balancing on ridge lines. Disconcertingly, herds of Bactrian camels (wooly-haired, two-humped Asian camels) wandered in the snow, in stark juxtaposition to the wintery environment. Our guide Jay (not his real name, but he refused to listen to us trying to pronounce his actual Mongolian name) had a tough time on the hike, since he hadn’t been at altitude in a while, but still used every opportunity afforded to him to take a smoke break. I mean obviously tobacco smoke helps the lungs acclimate. 

Morning view of the mountains – weather finally breaking!
Starting our hike. Look at the camels!!
View back down the valley early in our hike.
The snow started pretty early in the hike – Brad enjoyed the icy water crossings!
Glacier and high peaks of the Altai mountains.
Camel packing in the snow.

Following our hike, we visited a nomadic ger in the valley to enjoy some milk tea and yak-milk curds. Just a word here on curds for my Wisconsin friends – these are not your midwestern, squeaky, soft, fried curds dipped in horseradish ranch. Curds in Central Asia and Mongolia are petrified, hard little nuggets that are dried to the point of cracking your molars, with a texture akin to a Jawbreaker candy and the flavor of salted, sour sand. They are meant to last and sustain nomadic families through a long, harsh winter. Some are almost inedible without sucking on them to soften them in saliva for 30 minutes before attempting to chew. Some are profoundly sour, some are obscenely salty, some are actually edible. The yak milk curds at this particular ger were among the best I’ve had on this trip – one type she had prepared had a small bit of sugar to cut the acidity but even her sour curds were not as mouth-puckeringly tart as others – and were soft enough to chew with only minimal mouth-soaking time. Following a feast of curds, fresh bread piled with rich yak-milk butter, and cups of hot milk tea, our hostess busted out an old pickle jar filled with a clear liquid. Jay referred to this liquid as “vodka” but I learned through some questioning that it is actually a moonshine alcohol made from fermented milk products with no grain at all and, per his description, “the first cup goes down well but be careful because the second cup may finish you off.” Here I committed my first major cultural faux pas, as the hostess handed a cup toward Brad and me and I reached for it first, leading to some confusion and an explanation from Jay that Brad should have taken the cup first as it was being offered to him as a sign of respect for men, to which Brad replied “FINALLY.” 😒😒😒

Since I have no photo of Brad being respected for his manhood, here is a shot of the family’s livestock instead. Seems fitting.

The milk moonshine was tart, cold, served in a full tea glass, and definitely alcoholic. I was forced to drink two full cups, Brad had three. This did not help with our stability in the backseat of the Soviet beast as we crashed back down the mountain that afternoon, to our next camping spot.

The next morning we left our lovely but alarmingly windy camping spot by a small river and loaded into the beast, with the goal of driving to Khoton Nuur, a lake in the southern part of the national park, for some additional hiking and camping. Jay’s hope was that the weather would be better at a lower elevation. We’d only been in the car for about 15 minutes when Ibek pulled over. This seemed a bit quick for a smoke break, even for Ibek, and there was much chattering between him and Jay. Turns out that the gasket sealed around the oil filter had essentially disintegrated (realistically, it probably hadn’t been replaced since the last time the van was used as a Soviet ambulance) and ALL of the oil had leaked out. We were 50km (~30mi) from the nearest town on a barren, rocky dirt road in a valley next to a river with no sign of habitation or even a ger or herd of animals. Ibek fashioned a new seal out of an inner tube, using his mouth and some sort of glue and we waited. We were informed by Jay that this rutted out dirt track is a “main” route between areas of the park so assuredly cars would come by. And they did. Roughly one car every 30 min. Fortunately most of these had spare oil to share and, little by little, Ibek refilled his oil while Brad and I wandered the valley. Serendipitously, our breakdown happened next to a grove of seabuckthorn berry bushes. Seabuckthorn berries are tart, juicy little orange berries with terrifying, two-inch long spines surrounding them on the bush. Sustaining only minor injuries, we grazed on berries while waiting for Ibek to swindle oil off of passing drivers.

Our lovely, riverside campsite. It looks warm. It was NOT.
Monument in the moonscape valley.

Given the prolonged delay, we didn’t arrive to the lake until late in the afternoon. After we finally acquired oil, we drove through a profoundly dry moonscape valley surrounded by parched mountains that were adorned with ribbons of shiny black basalt. The valley was filled with Bronze Age and burial mounds, which confirmed my instinct that only the dead should inhabit this valley, as well as deer stones, and other monuments, including lines of upright stones extending east to mark the rising sun. Finally, as we approached Khoton Nuur,  a few thickets of evergreen trees appeared on the flanks of the mountains and some tufty grasses and hardy wildflowers pushed up through the dry soil.

Khoton Nuur was gorgeous, a crystal clear turquoise lake with a range of snow capped mountains to the north and west and dry, desert hills to the east. We set up camp on a grassy meadow on the lake shore while being blasted by icy wind. By the time we had set up the tent, it was snowing again. So much for that better weather. 

Khoton Nuur.
Another shot.
OK, just one more.

In the morning, our tent was encrusted in a shell of ice, it continued to snow, and, just like Elizabeth Warren, the wind persisted. Bogy, our jolly cook, decided this seemed like a perfect time to heat up some water and wash her hair outside while wearing a tee-shirt. Meanwhile, I was huddled in the cook tent wearing four jackets. This seems like a good place to talk for just a minute about Bogy. I know I mentioned our cook Daldei on our trip to the north and how he made elaborate, delicious meals despite being in the middle of nowhere. Well, Bogy put him to shame. She was incredible. For breakfast every day she made eggs, crepe pancakes, fresh fruit for the pancakes, homemade buttery, crusty, pan-grilled onion flatbread (which I can credit for at least 10 extra pounds of body weight), coffee, milk tea, oatmeal, and meat. Every lunch and dinner was a multiple course affair. She made pizza on a cast iron pan. She made hand cut fresh noodles. She made a lamb barbecue one night that elicited noises from Brad that I’ve never heard him make while eating. Her effort and skill allowed me to forgive her for blasting some truly terrible music during the few times when Ibek let her mix up the rotation of his 15 songs. One of her favorites was a Kazakh singer named Dimanche who apparently won The Voice in China. His special skill is screaming out insanely high notes that would make Mariah Carey jealous and probably alter the patterns of migratory birds. Please look him up. Please. Actually, here. I’m going to include a link to make it easy for you:

Our snow-covered tent. AGAIN.

Finally in the afternoon the weather broke and we headed up a small nearby canyon to hike to a waterfall. It was just gorgeous, with the fresh snow layering the multihued rocky canyon walls and dusting the evergreen trees. When we arrived back at camp, Jay and Ibek headed out to fish for dinner and Brad and I scrambled the surrounding hills for views of the lakes, the nearby row of mountains and, in the distance, the craggy high Altai.

The hike to the waterfall.
The waterfall.
View of the canyon from the waterfall. So lovely with the fresh dusting of snow!
Finally clearing up so you can see the color of the water.
View over the lake from a ridge above.

The following morning, we packed up and left the lake and the national park, heading east back toward Bayan Ogli town. Our plan was to go to the Altai Eagle Festival, which started the following day (Saturday) and would last through the weekend. As I mentioned previously, Western Mongolia is has a large ethnic Kazakh population and a very harsh winter climate. Historically, the Kazakhs of this region (and Kazakhstan) used eagles to hunt for rabbits and foxes to use for meat in the winter. The practice declined dramatically during communist times, though some families still trained eagles and retained the knowledge of caring for them and managing the wild eagle population to ensure its health (crucially, releasing the eagles back to wild when they are still of breeding age). In the early 1990s, after the fall of communism, eagle festival competitions were started to encourage hunters to continue to train eagles, maintain the skills and recruit young people to take up the practice. The largest is held in Bayan Ogli town the first weekend in October, but there is a second, smaller annual festival that is typically held in Sagsai (a town with approximately 60 eagle hunting families) in September, which we planned to attend. This year, this festival was moved to Tolbo, a nearby mountain lake. These festivals are increasingly popular and have become somewhat of a tourist shit show – the one in October is one of the largest tourist draws in Mongolia – and, consequently, there are some problems. The eagles that do well at the festivals sometimes aren’t the best hunting eagles, because those eagles are more overwhelmed and distracted by the crowds, so there is a question of whether these festivals are really helping hunters maintain the practice in a genuine way. But most people seem to agree that they provide a financial stimulus to support the community and the people who compete ARE from families who have hunted with eagles for centuries. Additionally, there are traditional Kazakh horseback competitions, food, and people selling local handicrafts.

Tolbo lake from our campsite. The Eagle Festival was just over the ridge, next bay over.

The first day, Saturday, the festival competitions started two hours late with an event that was scheduled for Sunday. I wasn’t too amped about this – at least it started the day it was supposed to, which exceeded my expectations – and, while we waited, Brad and I wandered the festival grounds, scrambling the surrounding rocky peaks and taking photos of waiting eagles, horses, and competitors. But other people were not ok. As I mentioned, these festivals are HUGE tourist draws and, I quickly realized, specifically are a draw for older travelers with many, many, many very large cameras, portable chairs, and a sense of profound entitlement. Camera-wielding old men jockeyed for position and hollered objections when anyone happened to accidentally block their shot while quiet complaints simmered to a slow boil the later the start was pushed.

Don’t get in the way of man with large camera.
Or in the way of all of these people with all of these cameras.

Let’s just be clear for a minute about the grounds of this festival. It was in a bone-dry field covered with yellowing grass. There was no clear designated area to sit, stand, or view. Aside from some circles delineated by painted rocks where competitors stood, there really didn’t appear to be anywhere that was off limits. As people naturally do, spectators had arranged themselves into a loose semicircle around the main competition area, some standing, some sitting on the ground, some on camp chairs. Once this arrangement happened, people became very, very attached to “their” spot and would scream, yell, and generally throw a fit if someone else happened to sit in a place that blocked their view. After a bald man with a white beard and three cameras came over to personally yell and Brad and I because we dared to impede his perfect view and “he paid the same amount as us” (never mind that we were among the first few people who arrived and were sitting around a ton of other people), we decided to climb a hill and watch with the more chilled-out tourists on the rocks. The late start did nothing to calm down the photography groups, who aggressively circled any approaching horse rider or eagle handler. National Geographic released a documentary called “The Eagle Huntress” about a female eagle hunter from Sagsai a couple of years ago. Her dad was one of the judges for this competition and when she arrived, riding a fat little pinto horse and clad in a crisp white fur hat and jacket, her eagle perched regally on her right forearm, the crowd swooned, men with cameras broke into a jog to get close to her, and the photogasm was at full climax. Despite all of these aggressive male photographers, I was pleased to note that the largest lens I saw was possessed by a woman. As we’ve all known all along.

The Eagle Huntress appears.

Aside from the jostling photographers, the people watching at this festival was stupendous. We spotted multiple male western tourists in head-to-toe Mongolian fur garb that they topped with nice, thick hipster man-buns. An exceedingly tall European man with long blond hair sported a tan, full-corduroy suit. A Slovak tourist hammered on Australian wine that he was gulping out of a plastic cup chatted with Brad about his knife collection (he was, at that time, wearing two large knives in a holster over his howling wolf tee shirt). An older Australian miner volunteered to us that he wasn’t wearing underwear (and hadn’t for 7 days) because he accidentally mailed it all home from China. Three separate young men (all locals) walked into the field between events and openly urinated in front of the crowd. I caught an older American woman in a puffy down jacket photographing the pit toilets with her ~$3000 camera. Brad also caught people taking photos of the toilets. Though, to be fair, the “toilet” at this event was a giant square hole that was only obscured from public view on three sides by a thin layer of waist-high plastic. Upon the hole, two 2×4 boards had been perched for standing on, teetering alarmingly while you balanced on them and attempted to relieve yourself without falling into the shit pit and while staring at people walking by the fully-exposed fourth side. Now that I describe it, I guess it was photo-worthy.

I did not make this up.

The first event (scheduled for Sunday, happened on Saturday) was an eagle calling contest, where the eagle’s trainer stood in a circle in the field and called their eagle to them. Eagles were waiting with a handler atop a nearby hill, approximately 500 feet away. The trainer would run in circles, screeching, hooting, and flapping a ribbon at their eagle. The best trained eagles heard the call right away, locked onto their trainer, and took off from the hill, flying rapidly straight to their target. Eagles were judged on how quickly and straight they flew and also how well they landed on their trainer’s arm. Some eagles took a joyride, meandering around in the sky before eventually going to their trainer. Some opted out completely, landing on a nearby mountain or flying over the ridge and disappearing, leading their trainers to borrow a horse and gallop off to find the wayward raptor. And quite a few eagles decided that they weren’t interested and ignored their trainer’s screams, ca-caws, flailing, and running, refusing to take off at all, content sitting on the hillside. After allowing the trainers to make fools of themselves for 20 seconds or so, the announcer would disqualify them and the handler with the reticent eagle would hike back down the mountain in an avian equivalent of the walk of shame.

An eagle hunter prepares his bird.
The opening parade.
I have no idea what is actually going on here, but I like to think he’s having a little chat with his girl, encouraging her to fly straight and fast.
Walk of shame.

The best eagles (16) from this event qualified for the finals the next day, where they would be required to fly from the same hill and “attack” a fox fur or rabbit pelt lure dragged behind a galloping horse ridden by their trainer. Since these were the best birds, all 16 of the eagles in this final event took off immediately, most of them streaking toward the moving target, and nailing it with their giant talons. Trainers would hide pieces of meat in the pelt so the eagles got a reward for the strike, but some eagles refused to let go of the lure, perched on it with their necks arched and wings open like the dragons from Game of Thrones, cawing and chirping. It was clear that the eagles had the upper hand, their trainers cajoling them with scraps of meat and eventually outright begging them to let go and climb back on their arm. The winning eagles flew the fastest and straightest and had the most direct landing on the lure. 

The other events at the festival were traditional Kazakh horse games, including one where a rider had to extend his body sideways at a 90-150 degree angle off of a galloping horse and scoop small flags off of the ground. Remarkably few people fell off, though also remarkably few managed to pick up all of the flags. Having long arms was a clear advantage. Buzkashi was another highlight – a popular game played throughout Central Asia where two riders play tug-of-war on horseback with a large animal carcass. Some matches ended almost instantly whereas others went on for a long time, riders lying sideways with both arms wrapped around the body, horses bracing with all of their force, running, or leaning into the crowd. Finally, there was a Kazakh horseback “dating” game called kyz kuu where a man and woman race on horseback. The woman has a whip and can hit the man if he’s next to her, encouraging him get his horse to run faster. If she likes him, she whips him less hard or not at all. If she doesn’t like him / isn’t impressed with his equestrian abilities, she can absolutely beat the hell out of him. This was my favorite game 😈.

Kyz Kuu. Beat him hard!!
Buzkashi battle.

We stayed Sunday night after the festival in the town of Bayan-Ogli, at the “nicest” hotel, which cost $25 per night during high season, had no shower curtain, and had actual, honest-to-goodness mailing tape holding together a crack in the wall. In the morning, we went to the airport to fly back to Ulaanbaatar, jostling for position in line with many of the same aggressive eagle festival attendees. The “airport” was a single room. The power went out twice while we were waiting in line and the single stalled bathroom was out of service. I went out front and peed by a tree in the parking lot, because I no longer have standards or care.

Yesterday was our last day in UB. We spent the afternoon at an absolutely charming museum with the somewhat noble name of “The International Intellectual Museum.” This museum was founded in 1990 and was the FIRST museum in post-communist Mongolia. It was founded by a man who has a lengthy career of making wooden puzzles, elaborate chess sets, and magic games. The museum is four floors of puzzles and games, including traditional Mongolian games and international contributions. They have over 400 chess sets, many engraved wood, jade, and marble, some giant and some tiny. They have thousands of carved wooden and metal brain-teaser puzzles. The entry fee was approximately $3 and included an English-speaking tour guide who watched us fail to solve most of the puzzle tricks, pointed out the most important pieces of the collection, showed us some magic, and talked to us about something called “puzzle parties” which are annual conventions of puzzle makers! OMG! She showed us a picture of GW Bush visiting and receiving a handmade 3-D Statue of Liberty puzzle from the founder. She showed us cable car puzzles the founder made for the puzzle party in San Francisco. She showed us a massive chess set with an obese, seated Chinggis Khan as the king and giant felt Gers as the knights. She showed us paintings and sketches hanging on the walls, 50% of which were by the founder (a man of many talents!). One of these paintings was a large, brightly colored display of “Important Mongolians through history” which included the ever present fat, seated Chinggis in the center. Brad noted a shirtless man in the “modern Mongolia” section, a rifle slung over his shoulder. He asked the museum guide about this man and found out that he’s the current prime minister. Later, we met Jay for dinner at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant that was, remarkably, EXACTLY like the Mongolian BBQ restaurants in the states, and asked about this guy. Jay confirmed that he has a wee bit of a Putin complex, hence the weapon and bare nipples.

In the evening, we walked past the “G-spot gaming center” – obviously named by someone who doesn’t know English – and enjoyed some beers at Hops and Rocks, UB’s one and only true craft brewery. Mongolia was fantastic and we will both miss it – though we will not miss the almost complete absence of showers or pavement! This morning we got up bright and early to fly to Seoul for a couple of days enjoying the city, some spicy food (spiced with something other than mayonnaise or ketchup), and (of course) a little day trip to the DMZ before we head home. See you all soon!

Sunset at Tolbo lake.

How much milk could one man drink if one man could drink milk?

Because I like to give credit where credit is due, there were some stupendous alternate titles provided by Bradley (who has so many ideas that I secretly thinks he wants to write his own blog). 1) “We really could see Russia from our backyard” – quite clever, since we were so close to the Russian border that we had to get a permit and 2) “Move sheep, get out the way!” – a nice blend of dirty rap and running livestock, what could be better?

Move, sheep get out the way!
Also you, sheep.
This yak should also get out the way.

I met Brad in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s giant, bustling urban capital city on August 29th, after waking up ate 1:30 AM in Bishkek to catch a 4:15 AM flight and listening to my Bishkek taxi driver tell me about every American he’s ever met before in his life. Ulaanbaatar means “red hero” in Mongolian but the joke is that the city is so polluted in the winter that it should be called black hero from all the coal smoke and exhaust in the air. It is the world’s coldest capital city and many people burn coal to heat their homes, which creates quite a smog layer. Luckily, we weren’t here in the winter and so were able to go outside and breathe comfortably. Approximately 50% of Mongolia’s 3.2 million citizens living in ULB, so it’s quite congested. Fortunately, that means the rest of this giant country is completely empty.

We spent the day visiting some sites in ULB, including monasteries and other Buddhist temples (where we learned, among other things, the story of a female Buddhist deity who befriended a monster to win his trust, slept with him, was impregnated, killed him and then gave birth and killed and ate her monster baby – Buddhism is neat!), statues of Chinggis Khan, palaces of former Mongolian rulers, and Soviet memorials. Though Mongolia has purged its last Lenin (I weep!), the hammer and sickle and communist star still make more than a few appearances. In fact, the city was being gussied up for Putin’s visit on September 3, so a large hammer and sickle banner was displayed prominently in the central square. Mongolia is interesting because it was never formally absorbed into the Soviet fold, but is unofficially considered the 16th Soviet republic since its leaders were complete puppets of Moscow. Our guide for later in the trip would dispute this characterization and was very proud that Mongolia retained its independence. Apparently Stalin guaranteed Mongolia’s “independence” (you know, as long as its leaders did exactly what he wanted) so he’s a bit of a local hero. Well, not exactly a hero, but I guess its easier to excuse the 30,000 monks he slaughtered and all of the monasteries he burned since he safe guarded their independence.

Winter palace of the Bogd Khan in Ulaanbaatar.
The Chinggis Khan. He wasn’t a small man.
Soviet memorial, Zaisan hill in Ulaanbaatar.

What is definitely no longer Soviet in Mongolia is the language. Russian used to be the second language for Mongolians, but this is being quickly replaced by English and most young people no longer know Russian. Which meant that I had to try to quickly replace my terrible Russian with a few even worse Mongolian phrases. Mongolian is a Turkic language that is written in Cyrillic and sounds like someone has strung 75 consonants together and then forcibly hocked them out of the back of their throat. It’s impossible. Just completely impossible.

The next morning our English-speaking guide and interpreter, Batorgil (we called him Bat, after he quickly tired of us massacring his name) picked us up and we all took a turboprop flight north to Murun, a dusty little town with dirt roads nestled into a wide valley that serves as the provincial capital and gateway to the northern region. We would, for the next 7 days, camp and horsepack our way to the far north, to the taiga forest that stretches from Mongolia into Siberian Russia, with the goal of visiting the Tsaatan reindeer herder people.

Our driver, Dakh, picked us up at the airport in a giant, primer gray, ancient Soviet beast van (apparently used as an ambulance during soviet times). Dakh is from a town 280km away from Murun (about 180 miles), on the Russian border, that takes TWELVE HOURS to drive to because of the road conditions. This seemed impossible to me until we actually started traversing some of these dirt roads. Then 280km in twelve hours suddenly seemed optimistic.

The van, the myth, the legend.
In our travel sun hats, looking like fools.

The van was stuffed with food, horse gear and camping supplies and smelled perpetually of gas from the large propane tank we were carrying. Next to Dakh’s head, on the inner top rim of the driver’s side window, a large bolt jutted out and came alarmingly close to his head as the van careened off of boulders and ditches (Brad joked that this must be the Mongolian version of the driver’s side airbag). Dakh has been a driver for 30 years in this van and knew it inside and out. He eschewed a tent, choosing to sleep in his van. He used the dome light cover as a water glass. He used a portable camp shower to lovingly wash the van (but not himself) after a particularly brutal day of driving. Brad and I mostly sat in the back, on a springy bench seat that acted as a sling shot to launch us into the air over the pitted dirt “road” we traversed. Dakh was constantly cranking the wheel, pumping his clutch, and hitting the gas to rev out of deep ditches and water. If sitting in the car was an athletic event (which it was) driving it was basically the Olympics. He honked to show respect every time we passed a stone or wooden ovoo (Shaman symbol of respect for the natural environment to bless the journey) along the road and had a photo of the Dalai Lama on his sun visor. After the first hour in the van, I felt like it was completely reasonable to pray to every possible deity.

Ovoos along the “road” to Tsaaganuur
Dakh drove over this.
And this.
And, no I am not kidding, this.

Once we checked all the supplies and bought drinking water, Bat, Brad, Daldei (the smiley, candy bar wielding cook and camp assistant), Dakh and I loaded into the van and headed out of Murun, quickly leaving the paved road and crashing out into rutted dirt tracks through the steppe. Side note here – yes, Brad and I were alone on a guided trip and somehow we were provided with THREE people to take care of us. I didn’t know this until we got picked up. But, honestly, it was pretty great. Regardless of how many people are provided, rural Mongolia is nearly impossible to travel on your own – for example, our guidebook lists public transit times to Tsaaganuur as “8 hours to half of a year” and I think they are only kind of joking. Most travel is off-road and requires an experienced driver and navigator. People in rural areas are welcoming and friendly, but don’t speak English so an interpreter greatly adds to your ability to communicate. And having the cook – well that was just a pretty sweet bonus :).

Brad snoozing with Daldei in the shade of the Soviet beast during a break.

Anyway, back to the drive. The landscape was beautiful – thick, wind blown grasses covering wide valley floors, criss-crossed by crystalline streams and punctuated by slabs of dense evergreen forest and spinous rocky ridges. Mountain peaks surrounded the valleys and gathered storm clouds in the afternoons. White gers (Mongolian yurts) dotted the hillsides, while herds of shaggy yaks, fat cows, sheep, goats, and sturdy little horses roamed free (and often wound up in the path of our oncoming van, only to be scattered through vigorous honking). With very few exceptions, almost every bit of land in Mongolia is available to nomadic herders (who comprise 1/3 of the population) and for public use. While this may sound like it would destroy the landscape, it most definitely does not. The people are very connected to the land and density of human habitation is incredibly low. The animals live the way they were intended to, roaming free, moving seasonally to follow good grass and water, with their owners following. As a result, the animals have very few diseases. I asked a number of people about common horse ailments we see in stabled, managed horses in the United States like colic and laminitis. They just don’t see these things here – the animals are fat and happy and healthy. One horseman told me he once tried to give his horses hay and grain and they refused it because they prefer the grasses. The biggest threat to their animals is wolf attacks. Yes, wolf attacks.

Yaks in the valley.
Ger along the route.
Ger in the distance, Darkhad depression.

It also isn’t like people live this way because they are poor or uneducated. The literacy rate in Mongolia is 98% and school is required from 6 years of age. Nomadic children are sent to the nearest small town and live in free, government-provided dorms for school. Many people have hundreds and hundreds of animals and are rich in resources, if not cash. Most nomads have a solar panel and radio or TV to keep current on news and politics and cell phones are ubiquitous. I can’t tell you how many times we waved down a passing horseman or nomadic herder on a motorbike, wearing traditional Mongolian costume and asked them to take our photo, which they did with Instagram-level posing and adept use of portrait mode. So no, they aren’t shunning modern life. They just like to live this way, off of the land and off of their animals, in these stunning landscapes.

Scene from the road.

In the afternoon on the second day of driving down potholed, rocky dirt “roads”, Dakh guiding his Soviet beast wagon through the least horrifying sections of rivers and muddy ponds in a choose your own adventure of route finding, we made it the rendezvous point for meeting our horse guide and horses. For the next 3 days, we would ride semi feral Mongolian horses while Dakh and Daldei careened off of boulders in the van, driving ahead and setting up camp. Our horse wrangler was an old Mongolian cowboy named Lagua who wore a del (traditional Mongolian robe with a yellow sash) and had a perpetually half-smoked cigarette hanging out of his mouth. While we tent camped through the frosty nights in relative luxury with a nice Thermarest pad and warm sleeping bags, Lagua wrapped his del around him like a blanket and used his saddle as a pillow, sleeping outside. As Bat told us “these men do not need comfort.” This appeared to be true, as Lagua impaled his thumb with a knife trying to make a hole in the cinch for one of the horses and seemed irritated by Bat’s insistence that the hemorrhaging wound be cleaned and wrapped.

Lagua riding his horse, Dakh’s trust Soviet steed is visible in the distance.
Another shot of Lagua, you’ll just have to imagine his cigarette.

My horse was a fat little buckskin gelding with a thick zebra-striped mane and an overwhelming urge to eat constantly. He didn’t have a name, because Lagua owns around 200 horses who basically roam free and he catches them when he needs them. I dubbed him “fat brown.” Fat brown was pretty lively – no dead-broke trail horses here – and, when not allowed to constantly munch grasses, would throw his head around, prance sideways, and try to run. Brad rode a calmer gray horse he called “Bob.” Bob also liked to eat, but didn’t do it with quite the gusto of Fat Brown.

Fat brown, fueling up for the ride.
From left: Lagua, me, Brad, and Bat

Like the drive, the landscape for the ride was beautiful. As we rode up the valley (the Darkhad depression), we climbed into the hills and the scenery became more dramatic. One afternoon, nearing sunset, we rode along a ridge overlooking a river with a watercolor tableau of wildflowers, grasses, and craggy granite rocks. Massive birds of prey soared overhead, their wings so large and the landscape so silent that we could hear the air moving as they flew. We camped on top of the ridge, forcibly “enjoying” some cups of straight vodka with a bonfire at dinner. I don’t know if it was the scenery or the added milk-filtration (because everyone loves milky vodka), but I’ve never enjoyed straight vodka quite so much as I did at these campsites.

One of our lovely campsites.
Sunset from camp.

On the second day of riding, we passed through the village of Tsaaganuur (White Lake), where Lagua’s family lives. Tsaaganuur was lovely – a tiny collection of bright, multi-hued roofs clustered along the shore of a large lake and surrounded by grassy mountains. We had lunch at his family’s house, where his wife, a sturdy woman with a wide smile, plied us with gallons of milky tea, fresh clotted cream, home-made bread, and mutton dumplings. And this was just the appetizer. The main event was fish, freshly caught by her son from the lake and roasted over a fire. We ate heartily, to her delight. She told us over and over again how most tourists won’t eat any of the food and, through our willingness to eat, she could tell that we are “good people with positive energy.” Never before has my natural piggishness won me such kudos, but this is basically my dream. Will eat for appreciation. After lunch, Lagua’s son Saura joined us with a few pack horses. Saura was a miniature, even more stoic version of Lagua. He also sported a del, slept outside, and one night climbed a tree in the dark to get us more fire wood. You know, so we could have a warm, comfortable night while he went and bedded down on a pile of rocks.

From left: Saura, Daldei (our cook), Lagua, his wife and daughter, me, Brad and Bat, all at Lagua’s house.
Tsaaganuur village by White lake.
Leaving Tsaaganuur. Fat brown is pissed because he isn’t currently eating.

On our third day of riding, we left the Dakh and his van behind and entered the taiga, the swampy, boggy, mossy forest where the Tsaatan people live. They had just moved to their autumn location two days prior, which is closer to the road and, therefore, required less time horse packing through terrain that was like walking on a wet, cratered sponge. The forest was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, a tapestry shag carpet of pink, red, orange, gold, green and white lichens and mosses covering every single inch of boggy ground, lush with leafy greens, huckleberry vines, and blueberry bushes. The evergreen trees were thin, elegant, and spaced out such that sunlight could reach the forest floor and illuminate the painted ground. I’ve never seen a forest that looks like this. It looked like something imagined by Tolkien. But, beautiful though it was, it was absolute hell to ride horses through. Every step was a game of Russian roulette, with the horses sinking, tripping, and flailing through ground that gave out from under them, concealed boulders and logs, and sank into pits of mud and water. Fat Brown used every fall as an opportunity to grab some chunk of bush or leaves because, you know, they were at face level and seemed so appetizing. I admired his dedication. Why worry about drowning or sinking into a mud pit when you could enjoy a nice snack?

Approaching the taiga, before we started to sink in muck.
Things are getting sketchier.
But holy crap, look at these mosses!
And these lichens!
And these!
With the reindeer grazing, it looks like a fantasy land.
Also this view. 😍

We finally arrived at the Tsaatan’s autumn camp in the evening. The Tsaatan people live in both Mongolia and Russia, but the groups rarely mix. Even within Mongolia, they are split into a larger western Taiga group and the group we visited, in the eastern Taiga. The eastern Taiga Tsaatan group is comprised of approximately 20 families and approximately 700 reindeer and they live a nomadic lifestyle, moving 3-5 times per year as necessitated by the weather and feeding conditions for the reindeer. They live primarily on reindeer milk (which they drink hot and diluted with water, as a weak tea), reindeer cheese and yogurt, berries foraged from the forest, and bread, noodles, and beef (bought during monthly forays into the closest town). They rarely eat the reindeer – only when they have reached the end of their natural lifespan. Tsaatan people live in wooden-framed teepees lined with canvas, which are easy to move. In most of the homes we visited, the families had made wooden planks to lie on the ground so the floor of the teepee wouldn’t be straight dirt. Additionally, most families had low wooden benches built around the inner perimeter of the teepees with a stack of blanket and pads for sleeping and a small corner dedicated to kitchen supplies (one or two large pots, a thermos, and tea cups) and a small quantity of food. Personal belongings were sparse, aside from the ever-present solar panels, batteries, and satellite phones. The odd teepee even had a solar-powered radio. The teepees were heated with wood stoves, but it is BRUTALLY cold in this part of the world for most of the year and, really, they are essentially lying on the ground with a thin pad. Brad and I slept in a teepee for the two nights we were there, on a mat thrown onto the lumpy ground, with drafts blowing in under the canvas of the teepee. It was far colder and less comfortable than a tent. We visited with people in their 60s and 70s who have lived in this forest for their entire lives and are sleeping on thin pads on the cold, hard ground. I don’t want to pretend that this experience is going to make me less likely to complain about the occasional hard hotel pillow, because I’m sure I still will, but maybe at least I will think about it more? IDK, one can dream.

Brad in front of “our” teepee.
Our neighbor.

We spent our time doing our best to participate in the daily activities of the Tsaatan (mostly herding reindeer around the forest while they hooted at each other and ate lichens) and talking with families (obviously with the interpretive help of Bat). Everyone was EXTRAORDINARILY impressed with Brad, due to him being a pilot. The oldest man in the community told us that no pilot had every visited there before and, up until that very moment, he had thought that planes were flown by people with remote controls on the ground. No one cared that I’m a veterinarian because I’m pretty sure that here “veterinarian” basically means a person who sells dewormer.

“Helping” walk a reindeer.
“Helping” herd reindeer while they graze.
Hiking in the forest with this random dog.

Every family we visited immediately poured us a giant glass of hot reindeer milk tea (made from the weakest possible tea you can imagine and hot, fresh reindeer milk) and plopped down a bowl filled with that day’s bread (sourdough-style from wild yeast). During the conversation, the reindeer milk tea would be refilled. And refilled. And refilled. I have never had so much milk before in my life and hope never to again. It wasn’t bad – kind of rich and earthy in taste – but it was just so much milk. So much milk. Which is why I ended up needing to use moss as toilet paper to deal with the inevitable urinary aftermath of milk overload.

This is a real photo of real reindeer. The forest actually looks like this! Oh, and the white reindeer is shedding his antler-fur, which happens before winter. So this is a normal ratty antler appearance.
Oh yeah, you can also ride the reindeer! They are very smooth but like to stop and eat. A LOT.

During a visit to one family, a proud couple who told us they have never lived anywhere but the forest and still speak the Dukha language that is native to their people, I decided to ask how they feel about tourists coming to see them. Tourism to the Tsaatans has been on the rise and I’ve always felt a little weird about “ethnotourism” because it is inevitable that tourists change the culture of the community. Obviously, bringing money into these areas can be beneficial but not without its drawbacks. In answer to my question, the man talked for five minutes straight, without pause. Bat, bless his little heart, managed to remember and translate most of his answer. The man said that tourism has been great… for some families. Those that let tourists sleep with them get money and those that make reindeer antler crafts can sell them. But the community has started moving its camps closer to roads so it is easier for tourists to visit and, in a lot of cases, the locations are not ideal for the deer. He has seen the health of the deer decline and has seen members of the community start to care more about tourist dollars than about maintaining their lifestyle. Some people are buying cars while others, like him, rarely see a dime of tourist money yet have been forced to watch their deer population decline due to less ideal habitats. He acknowledged that for families that are seeing tourist dollars, their lives are becoming easier and more luxurious (though that is not a word I would use to describe this life!) and, in many ways, better. But it is an unavoidable truth that these people are changing their way of life to accommodate tourists and, while they are still largely living off of their reindeer, as tourism increases who know what will happen.

The last family we visited, who spoke with us about the impacts of tourism.

We loved visiting the Tsaatans, meeting the gentle reindeer and listening to them hoot at each other and scuff at the ground for lichens. We loved wandering in the fantasy-land forest, picking blueberries and huckleberries, often accompanied by one of the tribe’s resident (or non-resident interloper) dogs. We loved sleeping in the teepee and listening to the nightly rainstorms strumming the canvas, despite the discomforts. We loved talking with the people and learning how they care for their animals, how they live through the winter, how they keep up on current events and send their kids to school, and also learning their concerns for the community and the future. It was definitely good for us that we visited. But was it good for them? I’m not sure. It depends on how you see it and who you ask.

Brad riding with a random interloper dog.

After our two nights in the forest, we rode our horses back through the gauntlet of bogs and marshy forest back to the road, where Dakh and the trusty Soviet wagon awaited. Lagua sent us off with a goblet-full of cheap vodka, which we dutifully drank, and we set off back down the bone-rattling roads toward civilization. It took two days to reach a paved road and we stopped to camp on the way at yet another lovely site by a river. For those of you keeping track, this was SEVEN days without a proper shower, washing our hair (really more of a problem for me than Brad) or using an actual toilet. I understand that the people we had just visited live their entire lives this way, so I have no right to complain (clearly I’ve already failed on my pledge from a few paragraphs ago), but holy crap I needed a shower.

Once we emerged from the depths of rural Northern Mongolia, we went promptly to a tourist ger camp on Lake Khovsgol, the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia (containing 1% of all freshwater in the world), where it was cold and rainy but there were hot showers so it could have literally be armageddon outside and I would have been content, in my cocoon of warm water and soap. We stayed in a private ger with a heater! And electricity! And plugs to charge things! The next morning, we went on a short, chilly hike and then started back toward Murun, stopping to visit some Bronze Age deer stone monuments and finally staying the night at an absolutely lovely ger camp along the Delgermurun river. Also with hot water! So many showers in the last two days! This morning, we flew back to ULB and tomorrow we head out west, to the Altai mountains for more backpacking and no showering. I now know that I can survive seven days without a shower… so I’m prepared to do it again.

Khovsgol lake.
Bronze-age deer stone monuments at Uushigyn Uveryn.
Sunset at our ger camp by the Delgermurun river.
And one parting shot of the taiga. I just can’t stop. It’s too pretty.

The hills are alive with the smell of yurt cream

Greetings from the Kyrgyz Republic! It has been a bit since the last post, partly due to lots of yurt-sleeping with no internet and partly due to illness, but at last I can make it happen. I crossed the border from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan just over a week ago, meeting up with my friends from the states – Rachel and Ben – in the border city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. With Rachel and Ben having just arrived from the US after the exhausting marathon of flying, we spent a relatively relaxed day in Osh, doing some light sightseeing, scoping out a giant Lenin statue and finding a sweet hat at the market for Ben to wear for sun protection.

Me and a giant Lenin.
Please note that Ben’s hat says “Mix Fight” and was purchased at a market in Aravan, Kyrgyzstan from people who definitely did not know what it said.

Our reason for meeting in Osh, other than to purchase stellar headwear, was that it is the starting point for trekking in the Alay mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is an incredibly mountainous country, studded with glaciated peaks and crystalline alpine lakes. Most people come here to experience unspoiled trekking and see nomadic life but sorting through the trekking options can be a bit overwhelming. We eventually settled on the Alay because it is a bit less popular than some areas and is a range that is actually lived in, with nomads grazing their herds on high mountain jailoos (summer pastures) and living in yurts. Rachel’s dream since seeing a National Geographic special on Kyrgyzstan in the 7th grade has been to stay in a yurt, so YURTS MUST BE FOUND.

We were picked up at our guesthouse in Osh by our guide, Safar, a 19-year old who had started teaching himself English only 3 months ago and hiked with a warm bottle of drinkable yogurt attached to the front of his pack (which appeared to be his only liquid consumption for 3 days other than tea), in an old, jalopy Mercedes with a trunk that popped open and a backseat that had worn itself into a hammock. As is usual in third world countries, we stopped every 30 seconds leaving town so the driver could buy cigarettes, melons, gas, oil, chickens, vodka, a wife, etc. and then finally headed into the mountains. Well, ok, not a wife, but the rest of it is basically accurate.

The higher we climbed the prettier it was, until the driver eventually left us at the village of Kojokelen to start the trek. We gradually hiked uphill for the next four hours, following a narrow dirt road and passing herds of yaks, cattle, and sheep. One industrious cow walked with us for almost 3 miles, mooing incessantly. IDK what she thought she was going to get out of it, but we all enjoyed her company. In the evening, we reached the yurt camp where we’d be staying the night, and Rachel achieved yurt-nirvana. Yurtvana, if you will.

Valley at the start of our trek.
My cow friend.
My non-cow friends.
Night one yurt camp.
Rachel reaches yurtvana.
Yurt-snack smorgasboard! Nutella!!

Most yurt camps are occupied by just one family, who graze their herds on the summer pastures that open up when the snow melts. In most cases, these camps are present from June – early to mid September and then dismantled as the families and herds move back down the valley, to the villages below. In our camp, only the women and children live there full time, tending to the animals. The husband apparently works through the summer in Osh. It was remarkably clean inside the yurt, with a coal stove to warm it in the frigid nights. We were fed an absolute feast and beds were made on the floor after dinner with thick pads, blankets, and pillows that rivaled any hotel here.

The following morning, we woke relatively early, ate a hearty breakfast, and then started hiking uphill toward Jiptik Pass. As we hiked, the scenery became more dramatic, with soaring, steep, green peaks plunging to the rocky riverbed below and craggy, snow capped summits rising in front of us. As we climbed, the valley opened up into a broad meadow, filled with wildflowers clinging to rocks and fat marmots popping out of the ground to shriek at us. Jiptik pass is 4185 meters (13,730 feet), which didn’t sound that bad when I signed up, as I’ve certainly been higher. But what I didn’t factor in was the 30 days of traveling at approximately sea level and doing no physical activity aside from walking around in the heat (which I consider to be basically an Olympic sport) prior to this hike. So, yeah, it was rough. I had a pounding headache and started to feel dizzy every time I looked down (which I did many times to take zoomed-in photos of tiny wildflowers for my mother!). Clouds started to blow in as we approached the top of the pass and, finally, about 20 minutes from the top, thunder began to echo over the valley as the clouds spewed icy chunks of hardened snow. We reached the pass in a windy, thundery, snowy gale. I put on all of my clothes. Safar asked if we wanted lunch, apparently oblivious to the risk of death by lightening strike.

The valley stretching out behind us.
Mountains upon mountains back down the valley.
One of the many EXCEPTIONAL wildflower photos I risked my consciousness to take.
“View” from the top of the pass, during thunder snow-pocalypse.
The clouds started to lift on the way down, revealing this incredible valley. I felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings.
Another spectacular flower photo.

We did NOT eat lunch in the thunderstorm at the top of a rocky pass, but convinced Safar to go down to a safer area. The clouds eventually lifted and the snow/ice stopped, but it remained bitterly cold and windy. It didn’t matter. The scenery was worth it. As the clouds lifted, velvety green hills punctuated by spines of prehistoric rock cascaded down the valley in front of us. Out in the distance, their tops obscured by clouds, rose the glaciated high Alay mountains, including Kyrgyzstan’s highest, the >7,000 meter Peak Lenin (and yes, I LOVE that they have not changed the name). By the time we reached the yurt camp, the clouds had descended again and it was raining and frigidly cold. Nothing made us happier to be yurt-camping and not have to set up a tent.

This yurt camp was absolutely stunning, nestled into the mouth of the valley along a bubbling creek. The yurts were even more rustic than our first camp, with the outsides lined with animal hides and a leaky roof. In the rain and damp, the inside of our yurt smelled comfortingly like a sweaty horse. Our host came to light a fire… by igniting a pile of dried cow dung that she bare-handed into the stove. Shortly thereafter, she brought us snacks, including fresh apricot jam and Koymak, a fermented cream made from cow milk on the summer pastures. Rachel took to calling it “yurt cream,” a designation that I found somewhat horrifying but not enough to keep me from eating it. If the recent bare-handing of the cow dung didn’t keep me from eating it, then nothing would.

Yurt camp number 2 (photo taken in the morning, after the storm had blown away).
Rachel, Ben and Safar enjoying bread, apricot jam, and yurt cream.

We left the valley the next morning, hiking down to the town of Sary Mogul. The storm had blown away all of the clouds and the morning was crisp, cool, and clear. As the valley opened up, we were FINALLY able to see all of Peak Lenin and the high-Alay range in its glory.

Look at those mountains in the distance!! 😍
Another one, I can’t help it.
OK, last one. I PROMISE.

We eventually left the mountains and entered a dusty plain between the two mountain ranges. We approached a small village at the base of an immense open-pit coal mine that was servicing a steady flow of trucks, loading up coal to take back to Osh and then streaming down the dirt road, blowing dust behind them. Even the coal mine was somehow rendered kind of pretty by the surrounding mountains. Our driver picked us up in the village of Sary Mogul and, after having to swerve around thousands of cattle, sheep, donkeys and horses that were being herded down an active highway, we made it back to Osh.

One of the MANY full herds of livestock being herded down a 4-lane highway on our way back to Osh.

We flew the next morning from Osh to Bishkek on the illustrious Air Manas. My mother asked if this is a “safe” airline and I recommended that she not ask questions that she doesn’t want the answer to. After the flight, Rachel informed me that when she was trying to figure out how to buy tickets online, all she could find were crash reports. Well, clearly we lived and the flight was gorgeous, as would be expected when flying over such a mountainous country. Bishkek is the capital, but we were using it only as a waypoint to get to Kochkor, a few hours south, and the gateway for the Son-Kol lake. We decided to try and hit one of Kyrgyzstan’s few archeological sites on our way to Kochkor, and took a minibus to Tokmok, a town about an hour east of Bishkek. Tokmok turned out to be an unexpected Soviet gift, with a MIG fighter displayed by the entrance to the town and this exceptional billboard display in front of a Soviet apartment block:

Just outside of Tokmok town is the Burana tower, which is actually a minaret left from a destroyed old mosque. This is what we came to see. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a lot of “sites” – it’s more about the mountains and culture – so you take what you can get. On the ground around the Burana tower, the Kyrgyz government has helpfully scattered a bunch of carvings and stone tools found in other parts of the country, removing all historical context but turning them into a nice little maze of artifacts in the grass.

The Burana tower. A.K.A. “The leaning tower of Kyrgyzstan.” Please note the bride in the corner. Everywhere you go in Central Asia, there will be a bride taking photographs.
Random artifact in the grass.
My statue impersonation. I think it’s pretty good.

From the Burana Tower, our plan had been to take a minibus to Kochkor, but our taxi driver to the tower offered to drive us the hour and a half to the city and gave a pretty good price. He stopped on the way out of Tokmok to buy oil for his car (everyone seems to just “top off” oil when the mood strikes) and a bottle of Fanta and we hit the highway. The road descended precipitously into a deep valley and then started to climb. Almost immediately, the car overheated. Our driver pulled over, dumped his FANTA on the radiator, and we pressed on. Yes, Fanta. I’m unclear if the Fanta was actually purchased for this reason or if he planned to drink it and then it was just handy. Sadly, the Fanta did not provide long term cooling to the engine, the hill continued, and the car promptly reheated again. And again. And again. We all eventually forfeited our drinking water to the cause and then, in a panic, our driver pulled into a driveway and refilled all his bottles in a stream. The climb seemed interminable, and we stopped every 2 minutes to dump water on the engine. Ben peeked over the driver’s shoulder at some point and determined that oil was mixed with his coolant so, really, the Fanta was probably doing a better job. Eventually, we limped into Kochkor, paid our bedraggled driver and used Google translate to wish him good luck.

Kochkor has few sites (except for a Lenin!) but is a base for heading into the mountains and lakes of the central part of the country. Our destination the next day was Son-Kol lake, a large alpine lake with a hearty jailoo culture and TONS of yurt camps. That night in Kochkor, we stayed in a home stay (there are no real hotels, so most people stay in guest houses or home stays). Unfortunately, our home stay had one toilet for 6 people and 3 of these 6 people got sick overnight. Oh, and the plumbing went out. I’ll just leave it at that.

I’ll give you a Lenin photo instead of a toilet photo. You’re welcome.

The next morning, Rachel and Ben were feeling rough. I was still ok and ate breakfast. They decided that they’d take their chances and come up to Son-Kol, because at that point a pit toilet outside of a yurt was better than the home stay. We hired a driver to take us to Son-Kol, a 2-hour twisting dirt road through the mountains. It was predictably beautiful, especially as we got higher and the mountains became greener. Eventually, we crested a pass and the lake stretched out in front of us. Song-Kol is a large, crystal-clear lake situated at approximately 10,000 feet elevation surrounded by summer pastures (jailoos). Hundreds of herds of cattle and sheep and horses spend their summers here, enjoying the alpine grass and fresh water. Yurt camps surround the lake and, unlike the camps we stayed in during our trek, are close together, allowing for socialization between the families. Son-Kol is one of the most popular places in Kyrgyzstan for travelers, so we had expected it to feel really touristy but it actually didn’t. Sure, there were a few other tourists but not that many. It did have a very “summer camp” vibe, probably amplified by the fact that this is one of the last weeks people will be up here – most families leave and take their herds back to the lower valleys during the first week of September. The camp next to us was blasting music and having a vodka party at 2 PM. People were galloping around on horses and laughing and celebrating. The family we stayed with had two young girls, both expert horsewomen, who spent the day chasing each other on horseback and play fighting.

Sadly, Ben was quite ill and spent most of the day in the yurt, bundled in blankets. Rachel was feeling a bit better and decided to join me for an afternoon horseback ride. The husband from the family we stayed with took us for an hour long ride and we tried to converse, aided heavily by google translate. My Russian is at the “learning to speak” stage where I just point at objects and say their name (usually incorrectly). I managed to ask him how many horses he has (five) and then he asked me a question and I assumed it related to the number of horses I have. I said “2” because past tenses are beyond my skill level and then said “I also have 2 dogs” and was feeling quite pleased to have strung together a complete, understandable sentence. He started laughing and then asked me his question again. Finally, with much gesturing, I realized he was asking if I have a husband. So my answer to his question “Do you have a husband” was “I have 2 horses and 2 dogs.” I tried to relay that I do also have a husband, but I’m not sure it was clear (sorry Brad). To recover, I asked how many kids he has (3) and then tried to ask if they were boys or girls but actually asked if they were boys or wives. It went well, obviously.

Our family’s yurts at Son-Kol lake.
Yurt camps in the distance.
Rachel’s lazy redhead horse drinking some water during our ride.

By the evening, the illness had made it to me. I wasn’t as sick as the other two, but could no longer manage to eat anything and just went to bed, after a rather distressing experience with a persistent moth entangling itself in my hair (I think it was drawn to the light of my kindle). In the morning, Rachel and Ben were feeling much better and headed from Son-Kol farther south, to the town of Naryn. I was still feeling pretty turned off by all food and decided to just go back to Bishkek, get a nice hotel, and rest. I checked in at 3 PM and didn’t leave my room until the next day (today). Even today, my appetite was pretty poor and I took it easy, just a light wander around the city. Bishkek is FULL of Soviet marvels, so at least this doesn’t feel like wasted time!

Bishkek’s glorious Lenin (probably my last Lenin of the trip 😢).
Communist star flowers. MAINTENANCE of the Soviet imagery!
Hammer and sickle monument.

I’m feeling better this evening and planning to head to Ala-Archa national park tomorrow, which is in the mountains about 30 minutes south of Bishkek. It looks lovely and will hopefully be a nice place to spend my last day in this country. On Thursday morning, I fly to Mongolia where I will join Brad for three weeks and will finally get to stop explaining to people that YES I am married and NO he isn’t here and YES I am allowed to travel alone.

The museum madness of Uzbekistan

Well friends, I saved all my silly little registration slips, figured out a way to have my paperwork in order and managed to successfully leave Uzbekistan yesterday afternoon. Huzzah! I’m now in Kyrgyzstan and I have friends! Rachel and Ben arrived the same day from the US and I woke them up from their jet-lagged mid afternoon nap. Well, I woke Rachel up. Ben basically refused to move. Anyway, I promised a post about the museums of Uzbekistan, which I know sounds boring AF, but stick with me – ridiculousness abounds.

From Nukus, where we left off, I hired a guide and driver to visit the “fortresses of ancient Khorezm,” a group of crumbling, hilltop dwellings of the ancient peoples of Central Asia. Most of these fortresses were built in the 4-5th century B.C. – 8th century A.D. and largely persisted until Chinggis Khan burned them all to the ground. They are all in various states of decrepitude, being made of mud and all, and refreshingly un-refurbished. Mostly. A few have some ostentatious “rebuilt” sections that I found annoying, but most have been left to the elements, melting back into the hillsides. You’re allowed to climb them and scramble all over them like Indiana Jones. Some are so littered with pottery shards that you’re basically walking on nothing but ancient pot fragments that were left behind by archeologists because there were just too many to save. It was a lovely day. We stopped frequently to buy fruit, including juicy sweet Karakalpakian melons, the weather was actually pleasant, and I was not forced to eat any soggy meat dumplings or drink any camel milk. At the end of the day, my driver dropped me off in Khiva, the final “touristy” city of my trip through Uzbekistan.

Midzakhan Zoroastrian temple ruins.

Khiva is famous for its walled old city and everything I’d read made it sound just magical. A red mud-brick labyrinth that has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years and has a history as a a dreaded, vicious kingdom of slave traders and blood thirsty khans who ruled the desert. Like a combination of the Medina of Fez, Morocco and Game of Thrones’ Meereen. I saved it for last when I planned this trip, because I had expected to like it the most. Fortunately, I’d spoken with some other travelers at various stops along my route and realized pretty early on that my expectations were not likely to be met. Firstly, the old city of Khiva is much smaller than I’d been led to believe and secondly, it has been crudely “Uzbek-ified” and basically turned into a museum of itself. A souvenir-shop lined museum.

The souvenir stands of Khiva.
Khiva’s glowing, obviously reconstructed, earthen wall at sunset.

I arrived in Khiva at around 6 PM, dropped my stuff at my hotel and went on a wander around the city. Which took about 10 minutes because it is TINY. My guidebook recommended staying here for a few days. I’d planned one full day and immediately realized that might be too much time. It was lovely, of course, with twisting pathways, tiled minarets, and a mud brick wall that glowed orangey pink in the sunset. But there was really nothing to do and the city had, in that unique Uzbek way, been sterilized so intensively that it was almost boring. It was also STUFFED with souvenir shops. Just rows and rows and rows of vendors lining every street and filling every plaza and stuffed into every corner of every medressa and minaret. All selling the EXACT same scarves, wooden carvings, and painted tiles, none of which I saw anyone buying. There were no shops selling anything anyone needed to actually live, like groceries, which was proof enough that people didn’t really live in the old city anymore. I had a beer at an outdoor cafe filled with tourists, finished my book, and tried to figure out what the hell to do the next day. My guidebook was unhelpful – it was researched a few years ago and I think things have changed so much that most of the information is no longer relevant.

Plaza filled with souvenirs that no one is buying, Khiva.

In the morning, I woke up and went to buy an “attraction ticket.” Basically, tourists now require a ticket to enter the walled old city (my hotel was inside, so I could have avoided buying this ticket if I never walked outside of the walls, but I needed to buy water and snacks somewhere). Like there is a turnstile and everything. In case you didn’t KNOW it had been turned into Silk Road Disneyland, you had to go through a turnstile with a ticket to even enter the city. There were 3 levels of ticket – a basic ticket that just included admission to the city, but did not allow you inside any buildings; a premium ticket that allowed you into the city and to the top of 3 viewpoints, a minaret, watchtower and the wall; and a VIP ticket that also included “all museums.” I almost just bought the premium ticket because I had been in enough museums already to know that they were complete crap. But then something in me just snapped and I thought, “Here is how I can spend my day in Khiva. Going to every worthless museum and seeing what marvels are on display.” So I did.

I went to TWELVE “museums,” all stuffed into the courtyards or side rooms of medressas and mosques, turning every single interior of every single historical building save a handful into profit-making propaganda pieces. I visited the museum of applied arts, museum of medressa history, museum of music, museum of ancient Khorezm culture, museum of nature, museum of history, museum of ancient Khorezm (sans culture), coins of Khorezm, Kazikhana interior, the exhibition of Ak-mechet Mennonites, museum of handicrafts, and, I shit you not, the museum of “Independent Uzbekistan, the free and prosperous motherland.” I’m pretty sure these are all of the museums in Khiva, though there is no list, because they are all crap and no one has bothered to compile one. A brief rundown:

The “museum of musical instruments” had a couple of rooms of photos of Uzbek pop stars that had obviously been downloaded off of the internet and printed on someone’s HP at home and a single room with mannequins playing musical instruments and wearing the big furry hats everyone tried to sell tourists (“traditional hat of Khiva”) but no one actually wore. The museums of medressa history, history, ancient Khorezm and ancient Khorezm culture were all filled with old copies of the Koran, random unlabeled ceramics, bizarre unrelated artwork and bits of jewelry with no other information or cohesive exhibit explaining whatever the purported topic was. “Filled” may actually be a bit of an overstatement as the museum of ancient Khorezm was only two, sparsely decorated rooms. The Kazikhana museum was, to the best of what I could understand, vaguely related to law or justice or something. It was two rooms, one containing a case of whips and shackles and the other filled with weird mannequins that I think were representing the legal process. I’m sure that nobody knows. The museum of “Ak Mechat Mennonites” was ostensibly about a German Mennonite community and had the obligatory pale-skinned mannequins churning butter to represent Germans. It also had wall-sized print outs of quotes from Islam Karimov, the dictator who controlled Uzbekistan from 1989 until his death in 2016, about the close relationship between Germany and Uzbekistan. This is another important feature of the Uzbek museum. It must include a blown up quote from Karimov, translated into every possible language, so his wisdom can be spread. In the Mennonite museum, a wall was devoted to “Germany is a reliable and prospective partner of Uzbekistan” ~ I. Karimov. Doesn’t really seem like a wall-worthy quote to me. Also doesn’t really make sense.

Music man mannequin in a music man mannequin hat.
I think this is justice being administered at the law museum? IDK. Also, they’re both wearing the same hat as the music man. Or maybe it’s hair and there was a discount on the mannequin with the fro and beard combo so they bought in bulk?
Weird ass painting in the medressa museum. So, just to be clear, this is hanging in the museum of the history of religious schools. With no explanation.

The museum of nature gets its own paragraph. It was an absolute marvel. Housed in one of the larger medressas, it had more rooms (10-15 total), spread out around a ramshackle courtyard. The rooms actually had themes with titles, which was a level of organization I hadn’t seen in any of the other museums. Never mind that the titles were things like “birds” or “fruits” or “cattle breeding.” Those titles merely served to put your expectations squarely where they needed to be. But the contents of the museum were the real prize. A weathered, 1980s photo of a cow with the caption “cow.” Photos taken on someone’s cellphone of pile of cucumbers at the market. A stuffed pigeon. A diagram of a fruit tree drawn by someone’s five-year old kid while they were having a seizure. Just really some incredible stuff in there.

I wasn’t kidding. The room of “catle breading.”
I shit you not.
Yes, this is actually for real.

But the best museum was the exhibition of the “Independent Uzbekistan, the free and prosperous motherland.” This “museum” was a concert-hall sized propaganda piece with not one but two armed guards. None of the other museums had armed guards to blast you away with an AK-47 if you stole a cow drawing. The exhibition of the independent Uzbekistan, the free and prosperous motherland, had as its centerpiece a gigantic fold-out photo of Islam Karimov. Around the periphery of one wall were trifold standing posters of Karimov’s great successes. Like a poster dedicated to the national airline. And a poster dedicated to Uzbek olympians. And a poster of photos of Karimov meeting with various world leaders, all of whom, no doubt, considered him to be a megalomaniac dictator. And, my favorite, a poster dedicated to the noble soum, Uzbekistan’s spiraling, worthless currency. Along the other wall was a heavily redacted “history” of Uzbek independence that took considerable liberties with actual historical events. Karimov, a Soviet to his core, did not tolerate religion or civil unrest and his government looked on devout Muslims with a high level of suspicion. Unrest in the Fergana valley led to brutal government crackdowns, including likely hundreds to thousands killed in Andijan in 2005 (government numbers are unreliable, of course). This complicated, cruel, and politically unsavory history was completely rewritten, in poster form, rife with Karimov quotes, to paint protesters as dangerous and Uzbekistan as the warm, righteous motherland. It was an absolute Soviet wonderland. Just a museum straight outta the USSR.

Islam Karimov with very important people who like him very much and think he is very important. Please remember how important he is.

What I learned, from my day of museum hopping, is that all of these museums are filled with whatever random crap someone could find in their storage shed, or could commission their kid to sketch, or could be printed off of the internet and framed with short notice. These “artifacts” are punctuated by Karimov quotes. This is the formula. Find an old building, stuff it with crap no one wants, and add some quotes from the dead ex-president. Voila! You have a museum! Only the museum of applied arts seemed to have genuine artifacts, but the lights wouldn’t work so I was unable to see them. Each museum was staffed by hordes of bored young women flipping through their cell phones, working the turnstiles and appearing surprised that anyone wanted to go inside – but less surprised when the visit was over after 10 minutes.

The day after my museums, I woke up with a migraine – sadly untreatable since I’d had to throw away all my prescription drugs. I took a flight back to Tashkent and prepared to go to the train station for my train ride to Fergana in the east, near the Kyrgyz border. The taxi driver at the airport lied to me, said the airport was far from the train station, and when I called him on it  by pulling up Google maps he said “Google maps doesn’t work in Tashkent.” As though the buildings were somehow rearranged magically. Then I refused to get in the car until he lowered the price to a level that was still a rip-off but one I could tolerate. We went to the train station, which was close, as I knew, and then he pretended to not have change so I’d have to pay him more. I don’t know if it was the heat or the migraine or my day of craptastic museums, but I WANTED TO LIGHT HIM ON FIRE.

Then, still migraine-bound and crabby, I took a 5 hour train ride to the Fergana valley in eastern Uzbekistan. It was a cheap, old Soviet train not one of the high-speed tourist trains. Which served as a good reminder that on public transportation in third world countries, you can assaulted by foreign music videos or dubbed action movies played at MAX volume at any time. The risk is higher (~100%) when you have a migraine.

I stayed the night in Fergana, woke up in the morning and took a taxi to the traditional silk weaving factory in the nearby small town of Margilan. It was lovely. The Fergana valley is Uzbekistan’s agricultural heartland and it is hilly and cooler, resembling an Islamic California. At the silk factory, a delightful tour was offered in English. For free. From a legion of college-aged girls who are in a language program and want to practice with tourists. And who made jokes about Trump. And who said I look young 😍. It was one of the first times in Uzbekistan that I haven’t felt like someone was trying to rip me off. I immediately wished I’d spent more time in the untouristy Fergana valley and less time on the Silk Road.

From Margilan, I took another taxi to the Kyrgyz border, where Uzbekistan once again ran all of my belongings through a metal detector and checked my belt for weapons (I think my stuff was scanned at least daily by someone). The Uzbek checkpoint was strict, with lines and many guards and rifles. I left Uzbekistan uneventfully and walked across the border no man’s land to the Kyrgyz checkpoint, where there were no guards or weapons at all and the border agents sat in a wooden trailer with flickering lights and a weak fan that barely dislodged the flies from the desk. I filled out no paperwork and there was no customs at all. Walking across a border is my favorite way to enter a country. Like you can actually FEEL the difference. From the police state of Uzbekistan to the palpably chill Kyrgyzstan. I’m ready for it.

Guess who’s back, back again? Karakalpak, tell your friends.

**Note, the internet has been INCREDIBLY fickle and poor in Uzbekistan so I was only able to upload two photos over the course of 24 hours of attempts. I apologize. Just envision a flat, brown desert almost completely devoid of any life and you’re going to be pretty close.**

Well friends, I’m back in the “real” Uzbekistan after a lively few days in the semi-autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. Karakalpakstan makes up the western ~30% of the country and is the poorest province (made more so by the recent environmental disasters – we’ll get to that in a minute). Karakalpak means “black hat” so this region is called “black hat land.” I certainly hope no one ever wants to mix up their headwear. Anyway, Karakalpaks have their own language, which has far more in common with Kazakh and Kyrgiz than it does with Uzbek, so much so that many in the region can’t even understand Uzbek. In school, they can take classes in Russian or Karakalpak with English as a second language or Uzbek as a second language. Oh and there are some Tajiks in town who only speak Tajik. Also all of the praying is in Arabic. It’s all very confusing.

Karakalpakstan is home to a couple of interesting things for tourists all based out of the very uninteresting provincial capital of Nukus, a dusty, flat city of cement buildings arranged on a grid with the obligatory large, central Soviet park. I arrived in Nukus by shared taxi from Urgench. For those unfamiliar with shared taxis, this is a popular means of transport in large swaths of the world that are poorly connected by bus or train. Basically, drivers of large cars (sedans or station wagons) gather in a dusty parking lot somewhere and wait for people to show up and fill their car. My previous experiences were all in Morocco and West Africa, where no car was considered full until there were at least 4 people in the backseat, three across the front with someone straddling the shifter in the middle, someone sitting on a windowsill with their legs dangling into the back, at least one person on the roof, and something toxic in the trunk. So imagine my surprise and glee when the car left with only 3 paying passengers and no one loaded a gasoline barrel into the trunk. Unimaginable joy!

After arrival in Nukus, I visited the Savitsky museum (Nukus museum of art), which was founded by Igor Savitsky, a Ukranian archeologist and art lover. Savitsky saved a number of “banned” works from destruction by Soviet censors, and hid those along with local art in this desert outpost. The museum is huge and has one of the largest collections of Russian art outside of Moscow. It is also well organized and mercifully free from weird mannequins and displays that say things like “the people of Karakalpakstan eat eggs” with a corresponding tray of fake plastic eggs. As though no one has ever seen an egg before. Why thank you, government of Uzbekistan, for setting up this weird museum inside of a historical monument and showing me an egg. Sorry. I’m was just so thrilled to have visited a normal museum. Well, normal may still be a bit of a stretch. The Savitsky museum also has a robust collection of commissioned Soviet art, all of which was truly remarkable in its dreary glumness. There were so many paintings of factories and farmers and smoke stacks and desolate, gray cities. Also, these gems:

”Two young communist league members” painted by someone who appears to have never before seen a human face.
Another marvel of Soviet face-craft, with a well sketched communist star pin.

Aside from haunting Soviet paintings, the other reason tourists visit Nukus is to witness the deaths throes of the Aral Sea. I had booked a two day tour to the Aral Sea leaving the following morning, so I attended an evening presentation by the director for the Union for the Defense of the Aral Sea, Yusup Kamalov. Kamalov has worked on water issues and renewable energy in Uzbekistan for years and was honest and passionate in a way that was remarkable in a repressive post-soviet country. He was also quite jolly for someone who is devoting his life to a hopeless cause (I’m not being dramatic – the government of Uzbekistan officially gave up on saving the Aral Sea 5 years ago).

Kamalov was a short man with a pleasant, round face who showed up to the talk right on time but then spent 15 minutes trying to figure out the password on his ancient laptop that his son had recently “updated” to a 10-year-old version of Windows. Once the password issue was sorted, he pulled up a PowerPoint with 26 slides and then talked in free form fashion for 1.5 hours, with the PowerPoint that caused the technology kerfuffle remaining completely unused.

The Aral Sea was the 4th largest lake in the world (greater than 26,000 sq miles of surface area) and home to a bustling fishing industry before the Soviets decided to expand agriculture in the deserts of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan during the 1950s and 1960s. Needing water for irrigation, they used the same engineering prowess and attention to detail that brought us Chernobyl and built an enormous network of shoddy, unlined, leaky canals (>100,000km of canals in total) throughout the central Asian deserts, rerouting the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers away from the Aral Sea. The sea promptly started to dry up, the fishing villages ground to a halt with their boats rusting in the sand, and salty dust from the dry sea bed started to blow over the country in ever more frequent dust storms.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Aral Sea had shrunk but could still have been saved. Instead, the five new countries of Central Asia installed the same Soviet aparatchiks who caused this mess in the first place to positions on their agriculture and water committees and promptly started to blame each other for the loss of the sea. Turkmenistan, which has the gigantic free-flowing Karakum canal from the Amu Darya pouring tons of water into empty desert, has taken the most bizarrely aggressive view. Their citizens are not even allowed to call the Karakum a ‘canal’ and have to refer to it as a river because, the government claims, the Amu Darya river was theirs and was “stolen” and rerouted to the Aral Sea by greedy Russians years before. This is, of course, not true. The river naturally changed course over hundreds of years. But their view is that the water dumping uselessly into the desert is their God-given right.

At independence, Uzbekistan, like all of these countries, became a democracy in name if not in spirit. Its citizens still cannot own any land, including the farms. The government divides up land for farmers and sets the prices for crops so farmers can never really turn a significant profit. Water is “free” so farmers take the easiest possible option, which is to flood irrigate everything. Driving through Karakalpakstan means alternating between bleak, bone dry desert and bright green cotton fields, many soaking in inches of standing water. It’s like if someone tried to create an oasis in Nevada and stole the Colorado river to do it. Oh, wait…

In addition to draining the Aral Sea to grow more cotton for the Soviet machine, the USSR also tested biological weapons on an island in the Aral Sea and tested chemical weapons (including the infamous Novichok) in the Karakum desert of Karakalpakstan. Now that the sea is essentially gone, the waste from the biological weapons test site is mixed into the dust of the seabed, blowing across the province. The combination of these residues and the dried up river that barely reaches the province and is heavily laden with garbage and waste when it does has made the food supply in Karakalpakstan ONE HUNDRED times more laden with persistent organic pollutants than other regions of the country. Kamalov finished up this uplifting presentation by telling us how, despite how dire this sounds, he’s optimistic because, as he said with a robust chuckle, “if Armageddon comes, I know Karakalpaks will survive it because we have already lived through it once.”

Kamalov has transitioned from trying to save the sea to fighting for clean water for Karakalpakstan and fighting to change the culture of water waste that has prevailed since soviet times. He knows the sea is gone. Natural gas deposits were found along he dry seabed, so its imminent death is a booming cash cow for the state.

I visited the tiny remaining sliver of the Aral Sea on an overnight trip from Nukus the following day. After driving through hours of flood irrigated cotton fields, we reached the desert and, shortly thereafter, the supposedly abandoned fishing town of Moynaq, which is now 150km from the sea shore. Except Moynaq wasn’t abandoned. Construction was EVERYWHERE. Every street was lined with stacks of cement blocks and piles of rebar. Girls in floral dresses walked down dusty streets giggling and eating ice cream cones. Men mixed concrete and stacked bricks and stopped traffic to move equipment. I thought that this was a town that “died” when the Aral Sea retreated – reasonably so, since its industry was fishing and you can’t catch fish on sand. I asked what was going on and was told with MUCH excitement that the new president decided not to abandon Karakalpakstan to the dust storms and toxins and instead started a project to invest in these ramshackle towns. Moynaq is getting an airport and a big hotel and a casino! So, I asked, what are people going to do here for work? “Construction.” “Yes, well, once all of the building has been completed, what will people do then?” Long pause and then “Tourism?”. Just to be clear, Uzbekistan is dumping a TON of money into building up a town that has no water and no industry or resources or jobs in the hopes that tourists will come to see… what? Their “museum” – a single, inadequately air conditioned room with some mannequins wearing local clothes and stuffed dead animals? Their new casino in this blighted, isolated desert outpost? The completely dead Aral Sea with no water at all? By the time the airport is finished, the sea will be almost assuredly be gone.

Moynaq IS home to at least one popular attraction, the cemetery of ships. When the Aral Sea receded, fishermen abandoned their ships and left them to rust and settle in the sand. My understanding was that there were thousands of decaying ships scattered through the Aralkum desert (new desert formed on the desiccated lake bed) by the city, ready to explore. But oh no, alas, that type of natural degradation process would fly in the face of Uzbekistan’s need to adhere to Soviet standards of organization and control. Instead of rusting hulks scattered atmospherically in the deep sand, some ships had been “gathered”, placed in a row, and encircled with a cement walkway. Just as nature intended.

After visiting the cemetery of ships, we loaded back into the Land Rover and went off road, through the dried bed of the Aral Sea. It took HOURS to get from Moynaq, where fishing boats bobbed in the harbor just 30 years ago, to the sea shore today. It was heartbreakingly dry. Bone dry. Brittle. Just sun baked, blistered ground with rare tufts of wiry grass as far as I cold see in any direction. Eventually we climbed out of the sea bed and onto the Ustyurt plateau, overlooking the former basin. The cliffs were rather pretty, lined with mineral deposits and worn by centuries of water. We finally reached the sea shore at about 7 PM. Only 10% of the Aral Sea remains, most of that in Kazakhstan (which is doing a commendable job saving the northern portion, mostly by building a dam to cut it off from the southern portion). The Uzbek sea is tiny, sometimes receding by 10-12 meters in a single day. The shore is muddy, a black, thick, sucking mud that pulls off shoes and emtombs them in its depths. The remaining sea is now 10x more saline than it was before, on par with the Dead Sea. Nothing lives in it except brine shrimp. Because I was there, and because I’ll never get to again, I swam in the Aral Sea. The salt made it nearly impossible, as my legs bobbed around like buoys over my head. It was smelly and muddy and sad.

We camped in yurts by the dying sea and left the following morning, banging back down single track dirt roads with clouds of noxious dust rolling into every crack in the seams of the car. I had to hold a Kleenex over my nose to breathe. We stopped at another village along the way, Kubla Ustyurt, whose existence was foretold by piles of trash scattered with increasing frequency along the rutted dirt track. Kubla Ustyurt exists to service natural gas lines and looks like a truly foresaken place to live – not a single tree or drop of water for miles. We also stopped at ruined 14th century caravanserais and nomad burial grounds and fortresses, all of which existed along the banks of this formerly bountiful sea.

We wound up back in Nukus in the evening and I left the following morning, taking a tortuous route through the desert back to Khiva, stopping at various Zoroastrian hilltop fortresses and burial grounds, all very atmospheric with red mud crumbling into the hillsides.

Sorry if this was a bit heavy. Don’t worry. I plan to dedicate my next post to the museums of Uzbekistan, which are without a doubt the most ridiculous delusions a tourism ministry could concoct. I am in Khiva right now, which is just chock-full of “museums” and little else. I wasn’t going to go to them, because I knew what to expect. But then this morning I woke up and just thought, “what the hell?” I’m here. I might as well see what the Uzbek government wants to show me. So I went. To ELEVEN fake museums. And took photos. Get ready. It’s a real show.

Greetings from the land of aggressively renovated historical sites

Hello from Uzbekistan, a land of powder-fine dusty sand, unrelenting heat, desecrated monuments and cripplingly few functional ATMs. But also a land brimming with historical sites and with food that has been considerably more flavorful than Kazakhstan (same basic staples but with the magical additions of salt and spice and adequate cooking technique).

I arrived in Uzbekistan on Wednesday, after throwing away all my prescription migraine medication (Uzbekistan has many, many, many pages of rules about prescription medications and I finally decided it wasn’t worth the inevitable hassle and bribe to get them in), and spent a considerable portion of my day in Tashkent seeking an ATM that was actually stocked with money. Uzbekistan is in somewhat of a currency spiral and is now printing 100,000 soum notes (worth approximately $11). It used to be necessary to carry a backpack for all of your cash, but the new, larger denomination notes mean only a large purse is necessary. Regardless, ATMs are frequently out of cash or nonfunctional or will dispense only $100 US dollar notes and no local currency. Which isn’t all that helpful for taking a taxi or eating or, really, doing anything. Aside from the ATMs, Tashkent struck me as a large, pleasant, typical capital city with no exceptional charm. Almost the entire city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966 and was rebuilt by the Soviets, so now it has gigantic, blocky cement buildings, wide avenues, and many tree-lined parks. It wasn’t terribly exciting, so I will spare you the details.

I only spent one night in Tashkent and then took a train to Samarkand, where I spent two nights, and proceeded from there to Bukhara. Both Samarkand and Bukhara are busting at the seams with historical buildings – mosques, medressas, necropoli and other burial complexes, palaces, caravanserai (the ‘shopping centers’ of the Silk Road), statuary, mosaics, and minarets. Samarkand is the grander of the two, brought to prominence in the 14th century by a local-born warrior named Timur (Tamerlane) who rose in the power vacuum left when Chinggis Khan died. Timur went on to conquer a grand swath of Central Asia, taking it back from Mongol khanates, and, in the process, butchering and torturing scores of people. He took all of his plundered loot and his enslaved artisans back to Samarkand, where they were put to work building this showpiece city. And it is spectacular. Immense, shimmering mosaics adorn the faces of gigantic mosques and minarets, blue-domed mausoleums dot the skyline, and every ceiling is a gold-filigreed masterpiece. But, if you were to visit Samarkand (or, quite honestly, anywhere in Uzbekistan) without a historical background, you would leave with the understanding that Timur was a kind, powerful, and benevolent ruler, and would know nothing of his depravity. His name is everywhere. Statues and monuments are everywhere. But nowhere is there a mention of the bloodbath that he left in his wake.

Gur-e-Amir mausoleum, where Timur is entombed.
One of many magnificently tiled and painted ceilings at the Shah-I-Zinda burial complex.

Bukhara, Samarkand’s less flashy, more earthy sibling just down the Silk Road, is an Islamic holy city and was the religious heart of the region prior to the rampages of Chinggis Khan, who burned it to the ground in the 13th century. It was a bit of a backwater during Timur’s time but then was largely rebuilt in the 16th century by the Uzbek Shaybanid dynasty (who would rule the region until the Bolsheviks finally brought Bukhara to its knees in the 20th century – but not before the last Khan stirred up an anti-Russian mob who slaughtered the first Soviet delegation in 1918). Bukhara now has over 100 protected historical buildings. It is smaller and dustier than Samarkand, dotted with medressas and caravanserai topped with earthen domes and pillars. The streets are narrow, with covered markets leading to small plazas or opening into frescoed courtyards. All of which sounds lovely. And it is lovely. It would be lovelier if every single plaza, alley way, and courtyard wasn’t overflowing with carpet, cloth, and porcelain sellers. But, even setting aside the souvenir stands, the whole time I was in Bukhara, I couldn’t shake the feeling that things just weren’t quite right.

Chor Minor in Bukhara. Note the SPOTLESS plaza and the beginning of a souvenir shop at the entrance.
Kaylan minaret in Bukhara – actually an original!

It’s all a bit too perfect. The Uzbek renovation squads are notoriously overzealous and some of the renovation work has been so ostentatious that UNESCO has put a handful of these sites on the ‘endangered’ list. But I don’t even mean that, necessarily. It’s more that I get the feeling that we (tourists) are being purposefully shown a very orchestrated, Disney-fied, clean version of the country that doesn’t exist in reality. For example, if you go to Rome or Athens, both cities that are chock full of grandeur, you will see crumbling ruins and romantic fountains and plazas seeping with history. But your trains will also be late and you will see variable (sometimes large) piles of trash and pigeons will shit on you and someone will try to pickpocket you on the bus. Here, the high speed trains (catering to tourists) are ON TIME with a Swiss level of precision. There is no trash. None. There is no pigeon shit. There seems to be an extremely low level of crime against tourists, despite the fact that we all have to carry asinine amounts of cash since there are no functioning ATMS and every hotel wants US dollars. This all begs the question, what is going on? Do the birds not poop on the plazas in Uzbekistan? Am I walking around in some sort of weird, living museum? Where the plazas are scrubbed in the middle of the night and if a tourist sees a piece of trash, someone gets thrown in jail?

Shakhrisabz is a prime example. Shakhrisabz is a village about 2 hours south of Samarkand, over the mountains toward the Afghan border. This village was the birthplace of Timur, where he built a giant summer palace, mosque, and mausoleum. Apparently it used to be a charming village with crumbling ruins, but then about 10 years ago everything except for the most prominent pieces of the ruined buildings was bulldozed and a gigantic park was built with bits of Timur’s architecture sticking out from large squares of concrete and grass. I knew this, but went anyway because, well, I wanted to see it for myself. My driver was a younger Tartar guy who loves Eminem and who’s father is a pilot for Uzbek airways (where the pilots get checked for drunkeness by a doctor EVERY DAY before they can fly). The drive through the mountains, passing little villages perched on crumbly slopes, was gorgeous. The town itself… a monumental piece of post-Soviet arrogance where every historical feature has been wiped clean, renovated, filled up with cafes, or covered in concrete. There are still some original mosaics and original columns but they are small islands in a tremendous sea of sterile, empty park. I’m still glad I went though, if only because my guide kept telling me how young I look and how great my skin is. Ok, ma’am, even if you’re full of shit about how great this new park is and you keep trying to get my to buy “good price” souvenirs from your friends, you’re still my favorite person in Uzbekistan.

Aq-Saray, the entry gates to Timur’s summer palace in Shakhirisabz. Very impressive, but would have been more so without the inappropriate bulldozing of all associated ruins.

The Ark (fortress of the Shaybanid leaders) and Zindan (prison) monuments in Bukhara are another example of rampant Disney-ification. Both of these monuments have been renovated and reconstructed to within an inch of their lives, with only small, token patches of the real walls remaining. I was excited to visit the Zindan, because prior to this trip I’d read in The Great Game about the despot (butcher of Bukhara) Nasrullah Khan’s imprisonment and subsequent slaughter of two English emissaries, both of whom spent their imprisonment festering in the “bug pit” of this jail and were ultimately slaughtered when the Khan was offended that he waited too long for a reply from Queen Victoria. Well, it turns out that the Soviets dropped a bomb on the Ark and its environs and the “prison” looked to me like it had been completely rebuilt. Of course, the “bug pit” is present as part of the exhibit but I’m quite confident that this hole only resembles the one in which the Englishmen rotted for months. In what I’ve also realized is an Uzbek museum standard, the “prison” was filled with unrealistic mannequins dressed in costumes and the ark fortress was filled with fake knights. When I left the Ark fortress and prison, someone was walking a camel outside for tourists.

The walls of the Ark… bet you can tell which part is original.

So, the thing is, a lot of this stuff is really beautiful. Some of the buildings in Samarkand made me smile to myself like a crazy person and actually emit an audible gasp when I walked in. That city overall felt a bit less “retouched” and more like a place where people actually live. But in Bukhara, I really felt like someone was constantly trying to put one over on me. Make me think these pristine, brand new buildings are the same as historical monuments. Translate everything in the “water museum” that inexplicably occupied one of the medressas into English EXCEPT for the part about the Aral Sea (can’t show that something is bad here!). Try to make me think that old town Bukhara is a real city and not just a mass of hotels, cafes, and carpet shops. Ok, well, if people lived there I’d probably be able to find a store selling bread and water, right? But I had to leave the old city walls to find anything resembling a normal town, buy a bottle of water, or get groceries. 

Sure, Uzbekistan has “opened up” a bit in recent years but this basically amounts to a crack where there used to be a dead bolted door. I still have to register my location every night and carry around little pieces of paper (registration slips) to show the border guards when I leave. It used to be nearly impossible to visit if you weren’t on a guided tour, meaning the sites you saw were dictated by the tour guides. Though I’m now “free” to roam throughout the country, most people I meet are still traveling with a tour group and everything seems to be very well set up for this kind of orchestrated experience. There are far more tourists than I saw in Kazakhstan (though it is easy to be far more than zero!) but it still isn’t really that busy. Even during peak hours, most of the plazas are pretty empty and it’s rare to enter a building and find any other person inside. I took a brief trip out of Bukhara this morning to Char Bakr, a large burial complex 13km from the city that I’d read had been mercifully left off of the renovation list and was a bit more authentic. It was very easy to get to and outstandingly beautiful, nestled between apple orchards and grape vines, with a large mosque and multiple tiled mausoleums. I spent an hour there and only a few other tourists ever wandered in. So, I don’t know who is buying all of these carpets and ceramics or why entire cities seem to be set up to project an image of perfection to tourists. It’s weird. And very Soviet. There may not be any Lenins or communist stars left, but the heritage remains. 

Char Bark burial complex, outside of Bukhara.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m not enjoying my time here – I definitely am. In Bukhara I bought a $10 (900,000 soum) ticket for a “fashion show” in the interior of one of the medressas. The ticket included dinner and was a tourist hellscape but, frankly, where else would I be able to see bird-boned Russian models parading around in clothing of Bukhara’s ancient nobility to the tune of Uzbek folk music? It was worth every penny. I took no photos, though I’m sure I could ask one of the many men with large cameras who stood in front of me and filmed the whole thing to share. But I prefer to let it exist only in my memory. Like Jack in Titanic. I also considered visiting a hammam (bathhouse). But then I remembered my experience in Morocco, where I was forced to lie naked, face-down on a ceramic tiled floor while an immense Moroccan woman scrubbed me with tepid water and I decided to get a very cheap and very excellent massage instead.

I left Bukhara today and took a broiling 5-hour train ride west, across an absolutely bleak landscape of dusty gray sand sprinkled with tufts of prickly weeds, with a railway staff who insisted on letting the beleaguered air conditioning attempt (but fail) to cool our cabin and yelled whenever anyone opened a window. Tonight I’m staying in Urgench, a city with no tourist attractions where people actually live (no one, including myself, can figure out why I’m here). Tomorrow, I will spend another 2.5 hours driving across the desert to Nukus, in the semi-autonomous republic Karakalpakstan, to see a museum filled with an epic collection of art that was saved from destruction during Soviet times by hiding it in this isolated desert outpost. As my Lonely Planet says, this museum is “a reason to come here, apart from sampling the general sense of hopelessness and desolation.” Can’t wait.

One last mosaic for the road.

“People were to be sentenced not for what they had done, but for who they were”

That quote is from Gulag, a detailed and deeply depressing account of the gulag system in the Stalinist USSR by Anne Applebaum. Highly recommended on a day that you feel like your mood is too good.

Kazakhstan was second only to Siberia in terms of the size and number of prisoners held in its gulags during Stalin’s control of the USSR. The Gulag system operated from the early 1920’s (though political prisons did start to appear immediately after the October revolution in 1917) until after Stalin’s death in 1953, with the highest number imprisoned during the purges of 1937-1938. By the late 1950s, most camps were closed. In total, 1.2 – 1.5 million people died (due to freezing, infection, starvation, and execution) and approximately 15 – 18 million were imprisoned (though some believe this number is higher). Unlike some parts of the post-Soviet world, Kazakhstan has taken steps to memorialize the victims and catalog the crimes of the USSR. More surprisingly, given the nature of post-Soviet politics in Central Asia (democracies in name only, still controlled by former USSR communist party apparatchiks with tendencies inflate the importance of the state and crack down on anything that reflects poorly on them), these memorials and museums are actually supported by the government.

I visited two of these memorial museums during my time in Kazakhstan. The first is Kar-Lag (short hand for the Karaganda labor camp) outside of Karaganda, a coal mining city in the central part of the country. This was the largest camp in Kazakhstan, and the 4th largest out of the 480 camps in the entire gulag system, encompassing 1200 square kilometers. It was not fenced, as the brutal, empty steppe would kill any prisoners who escaped, but guard towers dotted the perimeter and white patches were sewn over the heart and knees of prisoners’ uniforms so guards would have a target for aiming their guns. Prisoners largely worked in the coal mines, though the highly educated were allowed to perform work toward “the improvement of the motherland.” This meant that scientists and engineers produced airplane designs and electrical devices to help the very nation that held them captive. Artists could paint, but their work had to be in praise of the motherland and was unsigned.

Guard tower at Kar-Lag museum (actually called the ‘Museum of the Victims of Political Repressions’).

The museum at Kar-Lag is at the former administration headquarters of the labor camp and has multiple rooms of exhibits, including Soviet documents, lists of names of prisoners and known deaths, artwork by the prisoners (including a massive, entire wall-sized painting of Lenin seated at a table with a young Stalin at his shoulder), Soviet propaganda in (a needlework shawl depicting Stalin with his arm around a young boy and the words “thank you Stalin for my happy childhood” was particularly haunting), and replicas of torture chambers and interrogation rooms (all based on information gleaned from available records). At the height of his paranoia, Stalin sent even party loyalists to the gulags if they had knowledge of ‘sensitive’ materials. Such as nuclear projects. Or military secrets. Or the gulags themselves. As such, many former gulag administrators were imprisoned at the end of their tenure. And unlike the Nazi party, there are few detailed records – the identities of famous or important prisoners are known, but there are many who are not. In one room, dedicated to victims, a large book is available for people to write information about relatives who may have been in the gulag. A university in Karaganda has a program dedicated to researching Kazakh gulag history and will contact these families if they turn up any information.

The village surrounding the Kar-Lag museum is called Dolinka and is now a typical small Kazakh farming village. Well, typical except that most of the houses are converted prisoner barracks and the medical clinic is the former gulag hospital. Maybe Kazakh children don’t get nightmares…

Former gulag hospital, now local clinic. Mind you, this was not a hospital for prisoners. Just for the soldiers and administrators of the camp.
Oh, hey look! There’s a Lenin in the grass!

The second site I visited is called AlZHIR. AlZHIR is an acronym for the Russian name for the camp and is a memorial on the site of the “Akmolinsk camp of wives of traitors of the motherland.” This was the only camp in the entire gulag system that was intended to imprison the wives of men sent to the “real” gulags. 18,000 women (predominantly wives, but also some mothers and sisters) were imprisoned at this camp over its 29 years in operation. Their children were sent to orphanages and brainwashed into believing that their parents were traitors. Some women died and many were never reunited with their children.

Arch of Sorrow at AlZHIR memorial.
Wall of remembrance with the names of the known victims at AlZHIR.
AlZHIR museum complex.

AlZHIR is located about 30 minutes outside of Astana / Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s wildly futuristic capital city. Astana was recently renamed to Nur-Sultan, dedicated to the first president of independent Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev was the first secretary of the Kazakh communist party (essentially the leader of Soviet Kazakhstan) from 1989 – 1991. When the Soviet Union crumbled, he was reluctant to leave and Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence. He gave them back their nuclear warheads, the first and only nation to ever voluntarily give up nuclear weapons. Then he was promptly elected president and had remained such, winning farcical “elections” with 97% of the vote every 7 years, until he resigned in April of 2019. The next day, the capital city was renamed in his honor. His handpicked successor reliably won his election in June but, not to worry, Nazarbayev declared himself “Leader of the Nation” a few years back, a title that grants him the right to shape policy and to be immune from prosecution for the remainder of his life. Nazarbayev is everywhere. Every city has renamed prominent streets in his honor. And statues. And squares. And universities. And libraries. And museums. At the top of the Bayterek monument in Astana (which I will continue to call it, as most Kazakh’s I spoke with do), there is a gold cast of his handprint and people wait in long lines to take a photo with their hand in his. At the Kar-Lag museum, dedicated to victims of political oppression, there is an entire room inexplicably dedicated to Nazarbayev with hard-cover books for each year of his presidency describing his “great works” and pictures of him with foreign leaders. I guess what I’m saying is, I wouldn’t feel too warm and fuzzy about the Kazakh government sponsoring these gulag memorials. Nazarbayev’s political rivals were often jailed and occasionally wound up dead and Reporters Without Borders ranks the country as 158th in the world in terms of media freedom. A gulag by any other name smells just the same (rhyme!).

The main square in Astana with the Bayterek monument as the anchor, where you too could put your hand in the first president’s handprint!

So let’s talk about Astana, Nazarbayev’s urban pair of shiny truck nuts. Astana was a medium sized city at the time of independence, but exploded with growth after Nazarbayev moved the capital there from Almaty in 1997 (reportedly due to Almaty’s high earthquake risk). The word ‘Astana’ literally means ‘capital’ in the Kazakh language (the city had previously been called ‘Akmola’). At the time, most people lived in the old city, along the Ishim river, in some lovely old Stalinist buildings (again, Stalin and those pastels – what a guy!). But this wasn’t enough. Nazarbayev set out to make Astana great again. Or make it great for the first time, I guess. Anyway, he invited architects from all over the world and allowed them to design their most outrageous fantasies on a canvas-flat, empty piece of Kazakh steppe. What has happened since is an absolutely mind-boggling rate of construction. In 10-15 years, an entire new city has arisen across the river on the steppe. And not just any plain city. A city of outlandish architectural wonders, rife with symbolism from nomadic times (many buildings feature the shape of the shanyrak, which is the sacred top of a Kazakh yurt, emblems from Kazakh mythology, or patriotic motifs). The buildings are gold or dark blue or shiny or round or triangular. There is a dazzling blue globe and a sparkling glass pyramid and shiny aqua skyscrapers lined with a ribbon of gold glass. There is an art school shaped like a shimmery navy blue donut. There is a shopping center designed like a circus tent with the “fabric” made out of teflon to resist the city’s infamous winds. There is the largest mosque in Kazakhstan, holding 10,000 people. Side note – yes, most Kazakhs are Muslim, though in sort of a buffet-table way. Most women don’t veil and most people don’t pray 5 times a day and I never heard a call to prayer even though people swore to me that the mosques do play it, but also someone told me that more young people are fasting during Ramadan now because it’s “trendy.” Anyway, the city is tremendously impressive, both from a design perspective and a speed of construction perspective. Perhaps more impressively, the city seems to be very grounded in Kazakh-ness, whereas almost every other city in the country was designed by the Russians. This is undoubtedly important in developing a national identity for a historically nomadic, tribal people who were only settled into cities first by Tsarist Russia and later by the Soviets. But is also important in tying the people to their president and in allowing the president to show off the riches of his nation to the world.

Hazrat Sultan Mosque

Astana is beautiful and impressive, certainly. It is also a deeply weird place. Most people still don’t live in the new city, so it feels vast and empty. There is no buffer between the new city and the steppe – no gradual drawing down of civilization, no suburban sprawl. The skyscrapers just abruptly stop in a line along the prairie and the winds howl in. Astana is incredibly windy (there are only 20 days a year that are ‘calm’) and cold. It is the second coldest capital in the world, with winter temperatures often in the negative 30 – 40 degree range. I can only imagine walking through these wide, empty streets in the freezing cold with the wind roaring. Out at the expo site (the ‘globe’ building), which is near the edge of the new city, I was completely alone with these giant buildings and this howling wind and it felt quite like a super-sized movie set. Like this is Nazarbayev’s showpiece for the world but it hasn’t quite become the real Kazakhstan. Yet. I do think it will.

Expo site, Astana.

It is an impossible challenge to grasp the spectrum of Kazakhstan’s relationship to its Soviet past in such a short amount of time, and I wouldn’t pretend to. Clearly there is some fond nostalgia for the socialist ideal amongst a generation that didn’t live through the atrocities of Stalin, but there is also open recognition of the horrors of the Soviet regime. There is quiet mocking (and some open mocking on Twitter) of the name change of the capital, but also a lot of people seem to really, genuinely like Nazarbayev and appreciate the economic and infrastructure expansions of his leadership. To his credit, this is one of the most successful and wealthy of the former Soviet republics with little sectarian violence or ethnic strife and a growing economy. I flew to Uzbekistan today to start the next phase of this trip and the ATM at the airport was out of currency. A currency that is so devalued that they are now printing 100,000 soum notes. Also, it’s 105 degrees. So, things could be worse in Kazakhstan.

The palace of peace and reconciliation, Astana.

In short, I am so grateful for my time in Kazakhstan – surprised by its natural beauty, awed by its cities, and so appreciative of all of the people I met who were helpful and enthusiastic. Next stop – Uzbekistan. But first, here’s a final Lenin to see you off:

The largest Lenin carved out of pink granite, in Karaganda city.

I’m waking up to ash and dust

For those of you who don’t know Imagine Dragons lyrics by heart, I’m sorry. You should. Also, this is a line from their seminal masterpiece “Radioactive”. I quite like Imagine Dragons, but I understand that is a controversial opinion

Sorry for the delay in posting – the Wi-Fi has been nonexistent or painfully slow for the last few days. When we left off, I’d flown to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan (now called Nur-Sultan for those of you busily planning your Kazakh holidays) and spent a day there admiring its wacky architecture (there will be more on this city in the next post, as I am returning to Astana). Though I wanted to visit Astana anyway, I was really using the city as a transit point to see some interesting Soviet historical sites in the north of the country. The north of Kazakhstan is predominantly Russian and, all the Kazakhs in Almaty told me, would FEEL very Russian. I took this to mean I’d eat more beet soup and no one would smile. 

Because it is nearly impossible to get to some of these places without a car and a Russian speaker, I’d contacted a company that provides custom trips with a guide. So, on Friday morning, Olga (a Russian-Kazakh English-speaking tour guide) and Oleg (a Ukrainian born driver) picked me up at my Astana hotel for a multi-day private excursion to the Polygon, the primary Soviet nuclear test site, which is located in northern Kazakhstan. Trips to the Polygon take days, as Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, distances between towns are vast and roads outside of the cities are frequently pothole-ridden or unpaved. The Polygon is located near the formerly top-secret town of Kurchatov, which was built to house the lead engineers and workers of the Soviet nuclear program. The Soviets successfully blew up their first nuclear bomb at the Polygon in 1949 and proceeded to detonate 456 more bombs (~180 above ground and the remainder subterranean) until testing was discontinued due to protests over high disease rates around the local area in 1989. The site was closed in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR. It is now possible to visit the Polygon by a guided tour.

Oleg insisted on taking my backpack to the car, a banged up Honda CRV with the driver’s seat inexplicably on the right (they drive on the right side of the road here). “I porterrr!” Oleg said, with a robustly rolled rrr. Oleg is an older man with a receding hairline and trimmed white mustache. He has icy blue eyes and high cheek bones belaying his Slavic heritage and was wearing a tan safari-type shirt that was unbuttoned to just above his navel, slacks, a straw cowboy hat and a fanny pack that he liked to sling across his hip. Oleg also apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that Russians don’t smile at strangers (this is true – Olga says she can spot a tourist because they smile at her), and frequently told jokes in Russian for Olga to translate and then flashed a wide, warm, gap toothed grin at the punchline. This grin also bloomed whenever he managed to conjure up an English word or when he showed me pictures of his hulking pet Labrador at home.

We loaded the car and headed out of town, winding through the suburbs of Astana on a mix of paved and bumpy dirt roads that appeared to be under perpetual construction and were gut wrenchingly dusty, dry, and ugly. Then, finally, we reached the highway, Oleg hit the gas, and we started barreling across the Kazakh steppe, a velvet carpet of grass stretching out in every direction. Occasional small hills rose out of the grasslands, wrinkling the horizon but otherwise there was nothing but pancake flat land and open space. Villages were far apart and, generally, a scar on the landscape. The villages in this area are mostly poor mining communities with tin roofed houses and abundant trash. We stopped at a roadside “rest area” consisting of a cinderblock hut with an earthen squat toilet that was so filthy that we all elected to use the outdoor space behind the toilet. We weren’t the first ones. This area also reeked of urine and was decorated with scraps of used toilet paper floating in the wind. Dorothy, we aren’t in Almaty anymore.

Around 1:30 PM we stopped for lunch at a roadside rest house with yellowed wall paper and a peeling linoleum floor. There were four tables in the stifling hot dining area and a back kitchen staffed by three generations of women making pelmeni (small beef dumplings in a “soup” that, as far as I can tell, is made of water and chunky sour cream). I have now eaten this particular dumpling dish on three different occasions and have yet to come up with anything good to say about it. The dumpling dough is like a noodle that has been left sticking out of the pot and cooked too long – gooey on the bottom and tough on the top. The inside tastes of watery boiled meat and onions. It is, however, quite popular here so it must have a redeeming quality though all I keep being told how it “reminds people of USSR times”, which doesn’t really seem like a selling point but to each their own.

After lunch we drove for 2 more hours across an increasingly dry, flat, and blighted landscape until we reached the town of Aksu. Aksu was an important railroad town in the Soviet Union. Near the Russian border, it served as a transit point for agricultural products from Kazakhstan moving north and prisoners sent to Kazakh gulags moving south. Aksu was, at first glance, a drab little soviet town like all other drab little soviet towns, with rows and rows of squat gray apartments and little else. But Aksu does have one important claim to fame. During the Soviet Union, all Kazakh towns had a statue or bust of Lenin displayed in a public square. When the Soviet Union dissolved, most of these statues were removed from the towns and, for reasons that no one can explain to me, deposited at a weedy roadside park in Aksu. So, for the Soviet-curious traveler like myself, Aksu is a goldmine of Lenins. Rows and rows of scowling, mustachioed Lenins. There’s even a Marx bust and a proletariat statue with a hammer and sickle thrown in for good measure.

The man himself.
A side view Lenin bust, to show off his chin line.
I wonder if the small Lenins are jealous of the big Lenin? Or if the big Lenin is the nicest one. Like the big lazy mastiff of the bunch while the little Lenins are the chihuahuas.
The majesty of a Soviet apartment block.

Once I’d had my fill of Lenins (though can anyone ever truly be tired of Lenins? I’d venture to say that I cannot), we proceeded to Kurchatov, arriving around 7 PM to our “hotel.” The hotel was a former dorm for workers in Kurchatov who were here for the nuclear program and has been ‘renovated’ in the loosest of possible terms. The rooms are no longer dormitories, but are still dismally Soviet with lumpy, uneven linoleum floors and lights that don’t illuminate the room so much as they just transform complete darkness into a vague dimness. My room also had a futuristic capsule shower with a remote control that I found very confusing to operate. The woman who ran the hotel had harsh, dyed red hair, wore bright leggings with slippers, and, like all good Russian women, never smiled.

My futuristic showering apparatus.

That evening, I took a walk around Kurchatov. Kurchatov was a top secret town during Soviet times and was filled with the brightest minds in nuclear technology. Many of its hulking, pastel, frescoed Stalin-era buildings are now derelict and crumbling, abandoned with the Soviet dream. By the former nuclear headquarters stands a giant, somewhat deranged-appearing statue of Igor Kurchatov, the head of the Soviet atomic bomb project. At an overgrown, weedy park, two teenage boys swung on a rusted, squeaky swing-set while across the way a small shop on the bottom floor of an otherwise abandoned soviet apartment building sold bruised, rotting fruit and small snacks. But people do still live in this town and it looked like some efforts were being made to improve it. There was a large, spanking new central square with flower beds and benches and an outdoor movie screen. A large soviet-era school has been renovated and reopened. I saw young couples with children out for evening walks. On the outskirts of town, large, new, clean buildings house the offices of the Kazakh nuclear energy commission, bringing salaried employees and money back into Kurchatov.

Igor Kurchatov and the former headquarters of the atomic bomb project.
Abandoned house in Kurchatov.
Shop beneath an otherwise abandoned soviet apartment block.

For dinner that night we went to the one open cafe, where a tiny Russian woman with blue nail polish and an aggressive bump-it hair style took our order (meaning she walked up to the table and stood staring at us until someone said what they wanted and then unsmilingly left). I got my first Kazakh beer (vaguely off-yellow water) and was told that Kazakh women like to drink it with a straw. No thanks. I’ll pass. I was able to avoid another meal of pilmeni, instead eating a watery yogurt soup called okrochka with cucumber, dill, potato and, of course, cubes of meat.

In the morning, I met Oleg and Olga for breakfast. Oleg was sporting some shorts of a length that immediately identified him as a European, shiny gold aviators, and his ever-present fanny pack. We ate at the hotel cafe, a depressing cafeteria with gold curtains, plastic table cloths, and squeeze packs of some sort of chunky ketchup on all of the tables. Then we were off – loaded into the CRV and banging through the steppe down rutted dirt roads to reach the test site, 45km outside of town.

Once we arrived to the outskirts of the Polygon, Olga showed me the radiation meter. The level at this point (0.06 mSv) was the same as in Kurchatov (which is, actually, less than in larger cities like Astana). We suited up in white protective suits, two layers of shoe covers, and face masks and I was told to walk cautiously as dust is the most dangerous part of the Polygon and contains the most radiation. The Polygon was carefully designed to test the impacts of a nuclear explosion. The site was divided into areas with houses, transit structures – including a replica of a Moscow metro station and railway and automotive bridges, purpose-built towers called “goose necks” that were placed at set intervals away from the impact site to assess damage, and bomb shelters. Eventually, the purpose of the site morphed into research on creating larger or more precise bombs (hence the high number of detonations). All of this is, of course, now abandoned.  

Radioactive dust and black rocks made that were formed at the time of the explosion.

First, we visited the impact zone, where the first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1949, and where the radiation levels remain the highest. We stepped out of the car, decked out in plastic suits, and into the blazing sun. Olga’s dosimeter started rhythmically beeping as we walked, the numbers getting higher and higher, peaking at 10.9 mSv. It was absolutely desolate – as far as I could see there was waving steppe grass and soft hills, with hulking gray stone structures stretching out in a line from the crater (the gooseneck towers). We approached the crater (impact) site, which was smaller than I’d expected, and is now filled with water. Ducks were lazily swimming by. Ducks. In a nuclear bomb crater.

The crater at the impact zone of the first atomic bomb ever detonated by the USSR.
Dosimeter going bananas!

As we walked away from the crater, we explored the damaged goosenecks and houses – obviously the worst damage was the closest to the bomb site and it gradually decreased further away. Olga pointed out black, melted looking rocks that were produced in the explosion and, apparently contain the highest radiation levels. We visited the replica Moscow metro station, which sustained damage but didn’t collapse, and some bomb shelters with 3 steel doors and an old rusted generator. We all wondered if people actually had to sit in these during the bomb tests as literal human guinea pigs.

You can’t see my sweat, but it’s there. Posing in front of a ‘gooseneck’.
Olga stopping to photograph some butterflies in the atomic grass.

Once we were far enough away from the impact zone, radiation levels dropped dramatically and we were able to remove the sweat, er protective, suits. Mine was basically flowing off of me at that point. We then drove over to another crater, produced by a “dummy” strike – not atomic. Olga explained that when most of the nuclear weapons were detonated at this site, additional bombs would also be dropped to “confuse” the Americans. This dummy strike crater was larger, was filled with crystal clear water and was starkly beautiful, which felt odd to think about something that was created so violently.

Crater lake created by a “dummy” bomb.

Finally, we were ready to “decontaminate” our throats and noses by gargling and inhaling water repeatedly. We climbed into the car and left. Oddly, the Polygon is now somewhat of a de facto wildlife refuge, as there are no people. On our drive back we saw numerous falcons, flocks of smaller birds, hares, and an absolutely gigantic, regal fox.

We arrived back in Kurchatov at 3:45 PM, Olga checked our clothing for radiation (all good – no need to dispose of my one comfortable pair of shoes!), and we showered immediately to remove any hitchhiking radioactive dust bits. We then went to Chagan, which was the Soviet air base that housed the bombers who dropped bombs on the Polygon. Chagan is now a ghost town, abandoned when Russian troops pulled out of Kazakhstan in 1995. It looks like it was abandoned more than 23 year ago, however. In fact, if I’d been told that it was actually bombed, I would have believed it. Olga explained that after it was abandoned, locals came in and ripped apart the buildings to get rebar and pieces of metal to sell as scrap. So now the buildings are mere shells, surrounded by piles of rubble, with flocks of cackling birds swooping through the windows. The town sits on a ridge overlooking the Irtysh river and must have been quite lovely in its day. There are still 3 single family homes that are occupied by Kazakh families in the town, one of whom has opportunistically made a fence out of abandoned, mismatched doors.

The ruins of Chagan.
More ruined buildings at Chagan.

At sunset, we drove out to the Chagan air strip, also abandoned. From 1949 to 1989, the Soviets kept two planes in the air at all times from this air strip, 24 hours a day, to monitor activity and to confuse the Americans about what was happening (decoy planes). So this was a busy place. Now, it’s weedy and overgrown, with a small tree sprouting out of a larger crack in the tarmac and faded communist stars adorning the control buildings. Oleg produced a large, ripe watermelon and expertly sliced it and we watched the sunset, eating watermelon, on this abandoned Soviet runway.

Airport building at the Chagan airstrip. Note the faded communist star.
Watermelon picnic on the abandoned Soviet bomber runway.

The next day, Olga suggested detouring on our way back to the city and stopping to stay the night at Kazakhstan’s first national park, Bayanaul National Park. This “detour” was a mere 6 hours, so why not? The first 5 hours of the drive were monotonous, flat steppe but as we neared the park, actual elevation appeared in the distance, then the ground started to undulate and sprout with large boulders, festooned with lichen. Ponds appeared in the depressions between rocky outcroppings, surrounded by meadows of blowing grass and wildflowers. Herds of horses and cattle roamed freely, occasionally holding up traffic. This was the nomadic Kazakh steppe scenery I’d been waiting for!

Then we climbed into the hills and descended to the main portion of the park, where lovely rock ledges, boulders, and towers decorated the hillsides surrounding a large lake. Tiny, scrappy evergreens clung to the rocks, never more than a few feet tall (probably as large as they can get and survive the frigid winters and howling winds). We visited a sacred cave shaped like, ahem, women’s anatomy and its accompanying rock formation, called the “dignity rock” probably because Muslims wouldn’t be so crude as to call it the “dick-nity” rock. But I will.

“Dignity” rock.
Its corresponding cave.
A non-anatomical view of Bayanoul national park.

We returned to the lakeshore after sunset and Olga convinced me that the lake was warm enough for night swimming. It most certainly was not, but I got in anyway and tried not to scream too much because, well, I couldn’t be the American weenie in front of a crowd of Russians bumping techno music. Also I didn’t want to have to see Oleg’s teensie weenie swim knickers in the daylight, so it was best to get this swimming thing over with in the dark.

Last notes about Olga and Oleg – they are both dog rescuers and Oleg rehabilitates Labradors and sends them to new families. His wife does therapy dog training for kids with disabilities. Olga is currently fostering kittens. This is not common in Kazakhstan and they are both working hard to change the culture toward pets. Olga shared that she may go back to school to be a veterinary nurse in the future, when she feels like she can.  They have both been just excellent and I’m so thrilled that I saw a small part of their country with them. Alone I would have gotten so much less out of these few days – this is NOT a place that is set up for tourism (in fact, I haven’t met a single other tourist aside from all the Russians in skimpy swimwear at this lake), I don’t speak the language and no one speaks English. I’ve been able to learn and ask questions with Olga as a translator, try a whole smorgasbord of foods (not all of which were unpleasant – a soda made from fermented bread called ‘kvass’ was actually quite tasty), and discuss politics, women’s rights, and the culture of this country in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

If any of you plan to go to Kazakhstan (and you should!) contact Nomadic Travel in Karaganda to set up any form of custom trip you’d like or just to get some advice. If you say that spending a cumulative total of 30 hours in a car with apparently functional by unused air conditioning to stand in a deserted, radioactive field and stare at a bunch of derelict Lenins isn’t your thing, then I’d say you just don’t know what you’re missing.

Sunset at Bayanoul.

Borat got it wrong and other great learnings from my first days in Kazakhstan

For those of you are are unfamiliar with Borat, my alternate headline choice was “They call it Almaty. What? It’s the apple city” but I didn’t know how may would understand The Office reference. If you haven’t seen Borat OR The Office, well, then I’m just not sure what is wrong with you.

Anyway, I’ve spent the last few days adjusting to the massive time difference (and by “adjusting” I mean waking up at 2 AM and wanting to go to sleep at 5 PM) and exploring the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty in the Kazakh language means “applish” or “appley” – basically the adjective form of apple (or “full of apples” if you want to be boring – I prefer applish). This is because the city is built upon the remnants of massive apple orchards. Apparently during Soviet times, the city was renamed “Alma-ata” but in Kazakh this means some nonsense like “grandfather of apples” and so this name was scrapped at independence in 1991.

Applish or not, Almaty is just a lovely city to visit. I could not be more grateful for this gentle introduction to Central Asia, allowing my tired body and brain to adjust. Almaty is a city of almost 2 million people in far southeast Kazakhstan that sits at the base of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountain range (essentially a spur of the massive Tien Shan mountains that straddle the border of China and Kyrgyzstan). The mountains, 30 minutes outside the city limits, soar up to 13,000 feet above sea level, with year-round snow fields, gorgeous mountain lakes (like Ozero Bolshoe Almatinskoe – Big Almaty Lake, which I visited today), skiing, and hiking.

Big Almaty lake
Big Almaty gorge

The city is exceptionally clean, with people constantly sweeping the sidewalks and picking up trash (I was told that this is a holdover from Soviet times, when “city cleaning” was a common job) and is filled with trees, parks, and fountains. There are many pedestrian-only thoroughfares, all shady and lined with benches. There are bike lanes and a bike share program (though cycling has yet to take a strong hold in the city and people generally will only ride the bikes downhill, meaning that every day a legion of workers has to pick up the bikes at the bottom of the hill to redistribute them to the uphill stations). There are underground tunnels decorated with mosaics and painted murals, piping Kazakh music, and monitored by security cameras to allow pedestrians to cross safely under busy streets. But even if you don’t use these tunnels, drivers actually STOP and wait when a pedestrian is crossing (without honking!). There is even a new filtered water station for refilling water bottles to cut down on waste. Hardly the backwater depicted by Borat.

Almaty bike share station
Mural in an underground pedestrian passageway

I arrived here on Monday morning after leaving Seattle early Saturday morning and sleeping not really at all for 36 hours. Monday was a bit of a wash but, as much as I wanted to perpetually nap, sit in parks, and drink coffee at the legion of charming cafes with outdoor garden patios for the rest of my time in Almaty, I knew there was more to see and do. So, in that vein, Tuesday I signed up for a pair of walking tours. The first was with an American expat who has lived in Central Asia for 11 years, did a pHD on Kazakh eagle hunters, speaks Kazakh and Russian, and is currently writing a book on murals in Central Asia. The focus of this walk was on the architecture and history of the city. The second was with a very enthusiastic local woman named Zhanar who has made it her mission to put Kazakhstan on the tourism map. This was a food and wine tour in which I put some of the best and worst things I’ve ever tasted into my mouth, both in high quantity, definitely resulting in a significant degree of GI unrest. More on that later. In between these walks, I visited a pair of museums, including one in the former apartment of the man who was the leader of Kazakhstan during the USSR, a splendid Russian Orthodox cathedral, and some very, very soviet memorials.

Ascension Cathedral

During both of these walks, aside from discussing the buildings and landmarks, we talked a lot about the Soviet history of Kazakhstan. Unlike most other former soviet republics, Soviet imagery is still visible throughout the city. Many Stalinist buildings are adorned with the hammer and sickle. The Soviet star features prominently on structures. Large, ferocious statues memorialize Kazakhs who died protecting Moscow (story of the Panfilov guardsmen – google if interested but note that there is some research that suggests that this heroic story was, ahem, embellished to make it a winning piece of propaganda). What was explained to me, first by the American expat and later confirmed by both Zhanar and Pavel (my guide to the lake today) is that many Kazakhs have somewhat fond memories of the Soviet period. Though fond may be too strong of a word – they certainly recognize the weaknesses that led to its downfall and don’t wish for loss of their personal liberty. It’s more that they recognize that during that time there was free health care and free education and less inequality – less worry for personal security and well being. Some Kazakhs have done very well in the new system but a lot feel left behind. Additionally, most of the people alive today are too young to remember the Stalinist purges and massive famines that were caused by collectivization of farms and killed millions of Kazakhs. Their memories are of the relative “good times” of the Soviet period, when the economy was stable, cities grew, and industry and training boomed.

Soviet building near Panfilov park
Bar that has taken up residence in what was a Soviet bomb shelter next to the science ministry (can’t have all the biggest brains in Kazakhstan hit by an American bomb!)
Memorial to the Panfilov guardsmen (Kazakhs who protected Moscow during WWII). Inscription reads “Great Russia, but nowhere to retreat. Moscow is behind us!”
Hammer and sickle on a Stalin-era building. Also, Stalin-era buildings are all pastel colored. Stalin. Not really the type of leader I typically associated with pastels.

Alright, one last point about the Soviet history (for today) and then I promise to move on (though, really, I could talk about this all day). I mentioned earlier that I visited the Konayev museum (house of the Soviet leader of Kazakhstan until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The museum was tiny and very odd, mostly filled with medals and light propaganda about Konayev. The real treasure, and worth every cent of my $1.25 (500 Kazakh Tenge) admission fee, was the 14 page booklet translated into awkward English that effusively detailed every bit of Konayev’s life in truly reverential terms. If Konayev is actually Jesus, then I think this booklet is pretty accurate. Otherwise… well…maybe there is just a LITTLE bit of truth to Borat. A favorite quote, “Unfortunately, we perceive, that the present youth do not remember the necessity of protecting and saving such sacred monuments from any dangers. Because of that, we are obliged to explain the holiness of such monuments to our youth. It is the duty of everyone who considers himself a Kazakh.”

OK, so onto what everyone really wants to hear about. The food. On Tuesday afternoon, I met with Zhanar, a bubbly local guide who taught herself English so she could understand the words to Tupac. Zhanar took me on a 4 hour food and drink extravaganza though the streets and alleyways of Almaty, chatting constantly about history and the environment and the greatness of Kazakh people. Her enthusiasm was quite infectious, though I remain unconvinced about the health benefits of mare’s milk. We started our eating at the Green Bazaar, an indoor market reminiscent of markets throughout the Mediterranean – multicolored piles of dried fruits, nuts, and spices, racks of sausages, stands adorned in pyramids of cheeses, plump berries, and, of course, plentiful apples. I sampled thick, gooey figs; plump dried apricots the size of a fist; pecans so rich and fatty that they almost tasted like chocolate; macadamia nuts as smooth and rich as butter; fresh raspberries and juicy watermelons. Then we entered the meat and dairy section and the fun stopped. J/K, it was still fun – if terror counts as fun. As most of you know, I’m a vegetarian in the states but tend to be pretty loose about it when traveling (because I don’t want to offend people or miss out on experiences because of dietary restrictions). So I went into this tour determined to try everything I was handed. I just didn’t think the first meat I would be handed would be horse sausage. Followed shortly thereafter by some sort of cheese product that is produced by boiling and drying the cheese into a hard little pellet that resembles astronaut food and doesn’t require refrigeration because it is, in fact, no longer cheese but rather a dry, crispy yet powdery, horrifying little nugget of putrified whey. This was washed down with a swig of mare’s milk which is, to put it mildly, a God awful acidic, rancid substance and I’m surprised foals don’t just give up and refuse to live (my equine vet friends may argue that most foals actually do exactly that). Zhanar assured me that it is full of healing properties but I honestly think I’d rather remain unwell than drink that again. Then I tried a different type of boiled cheese (soft boiled, if you will) that resembles, in both taste and texture, a mildly mildewed sponge. This was washed down with camel’s milk – which is only good if you’ve recently consumed mare’s milk.

After the Green Bazaar, we headed to two separate restaurants to try some other Kazakh delicacies. The first was a tiny canteen with paper napkins (like actual pieces of brown paper with zero absorbency) and a hand written menu – as Zhanar said, “It reminds us fondly of USSR times!” – that served borscht (beet soup) and some sort of dumpling with beef, as well as a heavily milked Kazakh tea. The second was a “fancier” canteen with modernized Kazakh favorites, where I sampled beet salad, various fried breads filled with chunks of meat or cabbage (bilash and pieroshky), plov (a rice pilaf dish with – you guessed it – chunks of meat), sea buckthorn tea and some fancy little cakes. Finally, to wash down my distended, dough and meat filled abdomen, we went wine tasting.

Yours truly with a giant array of foods – mind you, this was stop number 3 on the food tour. So, yeah, I’m definitely losing weight. Thanks for asking.

Arba vineyards, located in a valley outside of the city with a tasting room downtown, is doing its part to put Kazakh wine on the map. I tried 8 samples and they were all genuinely delicious. Not in a “delicious because I have been wine tasting all day and have no idea how anything tastes anymore” kind of way but truly delicious. Their Riesling won a gold medal recently in an international blind tasting contest. Of course, the tasting was preceded by a 10 minute “promotional” video espousing the virtues of Kazakh wine and a glossy handout (can’t beat the Soviet out of them just yet) but the tastiness of the wine made up for it.

My delicious wines and promotional material

Other highlights of Almaty included the lovely museum of folk instruments (a remodeled building with nicely labeled displays – including English! – and Kazakh music piped into the rooms) and the big Almaty lake. Lowlights included my terrible attempts at Russian, which have assuredly traumatized the city, and my inability to find un-gassed bottled water (probably because I can’t read the Cyrillic labels). I decided to try to learn Cyrillic after being gently shamed by the expat on our walking tour. What I’ve learned so far is that the “P” makes and r sound, the “B” makes a v sound and this: “ж” – is something out of hell that apparently makes a Zh sound. It’s going well.

Kazakh museum of folk musical instruments

Tomorrow I leave this lovely city on a morning flight to Astana, the capital. Astana was recently (~4 months ago) renamed “Nursultan” – the first name of the president who led the country for almost 30 years. More on this to come. I will be flying on Air Astana (in lieu of a ~30 hour train ride), which is the national airline (though perhaps it has to change its name to “Air Nursultan”?). I have great confidence in this airline. As my lonely planet guidebook puts it “All of the former soviet republics swiftly formed national airlines from whatever Aeroflot planes happened to be parked on their runways on the day after independence.”


Why Central Asia?

Strangely enough – and, believe me, I do understand how strange this sounds – my interest in Central Asia was piqued by a 2000 Outside Magazine article titled “Fear of Falling” in which the harrowing story of the kidnapping of four American climbers who were attempting the Yellow Wall in Kyrgyzstan was relayed. I had never heard of Kyrgyzstan and the article made it sound as though it was a climbing nirvana – a land of soaring, rocky peaks where budding alpinists could test their mettle.

I fancied myself to be budding alpinist. Nevermind that I was in high school, had never rock climbed, and the most rigorous alpine ascent I’d undertaken was a day hike up 9,495’ Mt. Mclaughlin near my hometown of Medford, Oregon. I hiked it wearing jeans and a Disneyland tee-shirt. Hardly the stuff of legends. Regardless, I became enamored with the idea of climbing and trekking in this relatively unvisited alpine paradise. I visited the internet (hardly a convenient undertaking on our dial up connection – it was the year 2000, remember), found a few photos of Kyrgyzstan that looked paradisiacal, and filed it away on my “to visit” list.

Unfortunately, plane tickets to Kyrgyzstan were beyond my very limited means in college and the time needed to travel there eliminated it as an option during the years of 7-10 day vacations. But I knew I wanted to take a long trip upon completion of my residency, before starting my new job. When my original idea of traveling for 6 months around the rim of South America proved impractical (apparently, I have to start working sometime), I revisited the idea of Central Asia. The scenery, the Soviet history, the inaccessibility (relatively speaking), the challenges posed by the language and culture – all my boxes were checked and the planning started.

Kyrgyzstan was always part of the plan. For the inclusion of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, I have Lonely Planet to thank. Had they sold Kyrgyzstan guidebooks alone, my plans may have been very different. But they do not. Kyrgyzstan is included in a 5-country Central Asia book, and by the time I’d merely glanced through it, I knew I wanted to go to all of them. Ultimately, Kazakhstan won a spot on the list due to its many Soviet sites and oddities and the descriptions of its bustling cities. Uzbekistan won for its incredible Silk Road architecture. And Kyrgyzstan won me over years ago, from that first internet search. Of course, things have changed since 2000 and now Kyrgyzstan is actually quite popular. Uzbekistan sees so many tourists in high season that hotels and trains will fill days in advance. Kazakhstan is must less visited, but has a developing tourism industry.

What about Mongolia? I did mention that, following Central Asia, I will meet my husband there for 3 weeks. My obsession with visiting Mongolia started even before Kyrgyzstan and will be discussed in later posts. For now, I will sign off. Next stop – Almaty, Kazakhstan!