Central Asia 2008

Part One: In

college I had written my honors thesis on International Cooperation in

the Central Asian States. For a solid year I lived and breathed Central

Asian history and culture. So, when the opportunity arose to make the

journey over there, it was the perfect reward and finale after months of

labor. The trip was all the introduction to complex, far out traveling, that I had never fully expected. Between

acquiring the proper fist full of visas and facing the embassy staff of

multiple countries, we were becoming well exposed to Soviet influenced

bureaucracy. Long car rides and long hikes reminded us about how different and how similar the geography of the world can look. It also reminds you to wear your seat belt. The

trip was an inspiring example of hospitality, but a reminder of the

consequences of eating local “delicacies.” It became a living example of

a simpler life at work yet still in need of various modern facilities. Central Asia opened my eyes past my paper and touched a part of my soul. It connected me to my family, the earth, and to new people.

Central

Asia consists of the 5 post soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan,

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The latitude of the region is

very similar to that of the United States, in fact Boulder, CO is sister

cities with Dushanbe, Tajikistan. However, unlike the United States,

these countries and people have some of the richest and oldest history

in the world. In fact, the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan was celebrating

its 2750th birthday while we were visiting! Once a major trading route

along the ancient Silk Road, Samarkand, and many other Central Asian

cities, were major world hubs for trading, invention, and education.

Much of the early knowledge in astronomy and mathematics can be traced

back to Central Asia where by the 13th century, madrasas taught not only

young boys and men, but girls and women as well. (Cultural Note: A

madrasa is not, as is unfortunately referred to by American media, a

school for inducting terrorists, but simply a school or university)

The

region is very ethnically and religiously diverse and in my opinion,

very misunderstood. Before the Soviet occupation, Central Asia was an

open steppe, surrounded by steep mountains to the east and south, desert

to the west, and the open tundra of Siberia to the north. Nomadic

tribes traveled over the land herding sheep and oxen on horseback. The

yurt, is a Central Asian place of dwelling. Warm and lined with wool, it

is easy to carry and transport so the tribes could follow the herds.

While the Central Asian races are similar, they all hold proudly to

their ethnic differences. (Cultural Note: While Central Asian tribes

share commonalities, they do not share relation to the tribes of

Mongolia) The Soviet occupation of the 20th Century brought Slavic

peoples to the area and even while the Soviet government had banned

Eastern Orthodox Christianity, orthodox churches began propping up

throughout the land. Islam is also a common religion for the ethnic

Central Asians and lives peacefully along side Christianity. For most of

the Republics, religion, whether Islam or Christianity, is secular. The

states do not push any one religion and their practices are mostly kept

to the private lives of practitioners. However, in southern Central

Asian, where Uzbekistan and Tajikistan border Afghanistan and Pakistan,

radical Islam is becoming more prevalent and terrorist threats are on

the rise.

I will try not to orate my college thesis though, as

this should be a story about my experiences traveling to Uzbekistan,

Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Thus, my dad who is an HIV/AIDS specialist

was going to Samarkand, Uzbekistan to help train their Ministry of

Health in the ideal function for their HIV/AIDS clinics and practices.

The whole family all flew from different locations on different days,

for many different reasons. But before we could even leave the United

States, months of preparation had to be done stateside first. Each of

the countries requires a separate visa and the visa requirements differ a

little per country. All require proof of airline tickets (to show what

days you are entering and leaving the country), a letter of invitation

from an official government ministry or officially recognized tourist

operation, and a fee (ranging from $35-160 each). Furthermore, you must

send your passport to their country's embassy in the US so that it can

be physically glued into your individual passport. And while you may

come to find that some of the embassy's are across the street from one

another, they will not walk them so, and you must wait for your passport

to come back before sending it again. So, if each country has about a

2-6 week processing time and you need three visas, it is wise to plan

several months in advanced. This is especially true, because it is

necessary to accommodate for any visa complications that, I promise,

will arise. For example, there are different types of visa (that all

differ per country) such as a single entry visa for the duration of your

visit, a single entry 3 month visa, or a double entry visa, but entry

must be spaced over a given length and are usually only for diplomatic

purposes. Thus, my boyfriend Scott and I needed an single entry Uzbek

visa, a single entry Kyrgyz visa, a a single entry visa to Kazakhstan,

because we would be flying into Tashkent, Uzbekistan and eventually

would drive to Almaty, Kazakhstan where we would begin our flights home.

My parents on the other had needed a double entry visa since they had

to fly to Almaty, stay one night, then fly to Tashkent. They would then

be leaving from Almaty again at the end of the trip.

For some

unknown reason, Scott’s and my passports were supposedly sent from the

Washington, DC Kazakh embassy, but were never received back in Colorado.

Fortunately, I have a cousin who lived in Washington DC and was able to

go to the embassy himself in attempts to track them down. The

Washington DC Kazakh embassy is very Soviet in nature. The entrance is

in the basement, then at the end of a long dark hallway to a single

window. An unhappy woman works the other end with very little motivation

to assist you. However, after 4 visits he finally tracked down our

passports for us and we received them 2 days before we were scheduled to

depart from Denver. (Note: the Uzbek and especially the Kyrgyz visas

were far easier to obtain). Finally, assuming that all family's are

legally ready to leave, our journey began.

Part Two:

Scott

and I left for Uzbekistan first. Flying first to Istanbul, Turkey via

Washington DC. We had roughly an 8 hour layover in Turkey, just enough

time to fully exhaust all entertainment at the airport, but not enough

to peek our heads outside and into the city. The flight from Istanbul to

Tashkent was miserable for Scott, who at 6'4" found the extra small

economy seats on Turkish Air to be even more uncomfortable than economy

on US Airways. Sleeping wasn't an option.

We arrived in Tashkent,

the capitol city of Uzbekistan, around two in the morning. I had

arranged a taxi to pick us up who would then drive us the next 4 hours

south to Samarkand. The cab seemed nicely spacious to Scott.

Our

first stop on the drive through the dark was a moment at a cookie stand.

Our driver pulled up to one of the many street side vendors and brought

out a grocery bag full of bills. I knew the national currency in

Uzbekistan, the Som, needed restructuring, but I didn't realize how bad

it was until paying for cookies required a quarter of the grocery bag.

The Som is exchanged with the dollar at 1700 Som to $1 and the largest

denomination the Som is $1000. So if you want to buy a bag of cookies,

perhaps costing 2000 Som, but you only have 100s and 200s or 500s (or

even coins!) you're going to need a lot of bills. (Now imagine going out

to dinner)

All of Central Asia practice interesting "laws" of

the road. For instance, headlights are not used for seeing, but for

communicating. So for four bumpy hours on a small Uzbek highway, our

driver only used his headlights to communicating in a Morse code sort of

way, flashing other drivers. The rest of the time was dark. And if that

prospect wasn't frightening enough, we later found out that manhole

covers are frequently stolen and melted down for the metal. Thus, large

holes are left gaping randomly in the streets for cars wheels to be

sucked into.

We were too tired to really fear for our safety on

the road (although the number one cause of death for American travelers

is automobile accidents... wear your seatbelts!) and never found the

ride too frightening. Instead, it was more of a quick introduction to an

understanding that Central Asian communication would be much more

visual than oral. (Insiders note: "Mooo?") Watching the sun come up over

the cotton fields was a beautiful sight, but bitter sweet knowing that

this cotton production was also causing one of the biggest ecological

disasters of all time.

When the Soviets occupied Central Asia ,

it was ordered that the vast expanses of Uzbekistan should be used in

cultivating cotton. Unfortunately, Uzbekistan is too arid to grow cotton

and thus, irrigation lines were drawn from the Aral Sea and from the

Tien-Shien Mountains in Kyrgyzstan to water the crops. The irrigation

was underdeveloped and poorly constructed, meaning that nearly as much

water as makes it to the cotton crops also gets lost to evaporation. The

Aral Sea was once one of the four largest lakes in the world and is now

less than 10% of its former size. Its drainage not only damages the

crops and agriculture for thousands of miles around, but fishing

villages that one surrounded the lakes are now left empty, with large

fishing vessels left marooned on dry shores.

The sun kept rising

as we drove further south to Samarkand. An arid plane stretched out far

until butting into mountain far to the east. The driver was blaring old

American pop songs from the 1990s, singing along with their tunes,

probably not even understanding the words. As we descended from the

hills into the ancient city of Samarkand, the sun is illuminating the

sparkling blue roof tops of mosques. It is a beautiful and quieting

image. In this culture, the roofs of the mosques are covered with the

most beautiful blue tile works to represent our desire to move on to the

blue heavens above.

It

was not yet mid morning when we pulled up to a beautiful, yet well

guarded hotel. In 2006 President Karimov kicked out all foreign NGOs and

while my father wasn't representing any NGO, meetings with the Minister

of Health had to be well protected. The marble floors were in the

process of going through their hourly hand washing when we arrived and

were checked into the most beautiful room I've ever stayed in. The

ceilings were at least 20 feet tall, with floor to ceiling windows

covered in richly colored wrappings. Complete with television and a

western toilette, this was the clearest definition of Central Asian

decadence.

We settled ourselves into our room quickly before

meeting my parents (who had somehow managed to leave after us, but

arrive before us) who were having breakfast in the hotel's pavilion. Not

unexpectedly, breakfast resembles nothing like what is served in the

United States. In fact, a breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon, pancakes,

etc. seems to be a distinctly American practice. Breakfast was a light

collection of cold cut meats, tea, juice, and melons. Uzbekistan grows

remarkable melons.

My

sister joined us at the end of breakfast, but not after having to

question briefly if her taxi had brought her to the correct location.

You see, the hotel was experiencing one of it's usual but brief power

outages, coincidentally at the same time she was being dropped off... to

a heavily guarded, dark building.

Part Three:

Following

our first breakfast and after acquiring our own shopping bag full of

Som, Scott and I headed out for a walk in the surrounding area. (Note:

the best way to recover from jet lag is to take a walk out in the sun)

Not too long into our walk we found ourselves on the main walkway of the

Samarkand University. Tall trees line the boulevard and a large

statue/fountain of Timur the Great stands proud in the center. Timur is

considered a national hero in many parts of Central Asia as the warrior

who conquered South, East, and Central Asia in the 14th Century. It was

at the fountain that Scott and I had stopped for a moment. Within

moments a group of young men, students of the university, had come up to

us. Their English was very poor but they were very interested to speak

with us. Foreigners do not often come to Uzbekistan and while my

bi-racial ethnicity affords me the ability to fit in in many countries,

Scott is 6'4" and of Norwegian ancestry. We stood out.

In the

United States, the first question you might ask of a new friend might

be, "What is your name? Where are you from? And what do you do?" Thus,

it comes as a little forth coming when the first questions that are

generally asked of new friends in Central Asia are, "What is your name?

How old are you? And are you married?" However, it would also be odd to

find a young couple, like me and Scott, to be traveling so far together

and not yet be married. With our "travel guide worthy Russian" and their

limited English we still managed to carry on a conversation, getting to

know one another, and dispelling any fear that any American should have

about "those people who live in the Stans." These young men were more

friendly and open that most college students I meet in the United

States. They were proud of their rich history, curious of ours, and

wanted to show us their city.

Going against, every travel

adviser's advise, we got into their car with them for a truly local

tour. We stopped at a quick drink stall, had something that was

alcoholic, almost like beer, and then went out to lunch at a "hole in

the wall" eatery. Lunch today? A standard Central Asian meal known as

plov, or pilaf as it has become known since leaving region. In Uzbek

plov, rice is simmered for several hours in a meaty broth usually with

mutton, carrots, onions and spices. Also served was a very traditional

Central Asian drink that we had read about called Kumis. We should have

known better than to drink it, but it would have seemed very wrong to

insult our new friends by refusing. I only had half the cup, but Scott

did the traditional honor, drained the drink and showed the empty bottom

to our hosts. We wouldn't notice the error until later that night, an

error that followed us miserably throughout the rest of the three-week

trip and even for a week after we got home to the United States. You

see, Kumis is a local drink made of unpasteurized, fermented, mare's

milk. I'll spare you the details but warn you that a massive

gastrointestinal meltdown in a country where the most common toilette is

a whole in the ground (a Turkish toilette is rare, let alone a western

toilette) is not at all comfortable and terrible to manage.

But let's move on, and just know that Scott and I had to suck it up and deal with it.

After

lunch, our new friends brought us to a nearby mosque, famous in the

neighborhood for a famous ancient traveler who was buried there. Oddly,

upon coming out we came across my parents who were touring with the

doctors group. We said farewell to our new friends and returned to the

hotel with my parents. Dinner later that night was traditional Central

Asian cuisine.

Manti, Lagman, and Shashlik, all based off mutton, are staple lunch

and dinner items across the region. Manti is oil and mutton filled

steamed dumpling. Usually eaten by biting off an end, sucking the oils

out, and then consuming the rest. Lagman is like mutton spaghetti while

shashlik is literally a shish kabob. Any correlation with language

there? Not sure, but it sounds close.

Part Four:

The

next few days, my dad would be in meetings with the Minister of Health,

so I had arranged for a tour of some of the local things to see. One

of our first stops was a local corner store, where our guide instructed

Scott and I to purchase 100% pomegranate juice as it is said to cure

stomach ailments (the food poisoning had begun). Unsweetened

pomegranate juice is perhaps the most tart thing you could consume and

I'm not so sure if it helped the moving bowels so much. But making the

most of our fortune to be in this great city, our processional continued

to an ancient observatory. Central Asia was really ahead of the time

when studying astronomy and sciences. The observatory we arrived at had

a 30 foot tall sextant and 12th and 13th century maps of the stars

painted throughout the observatory.

Mosques and mausoleums are plentiful in Samarkand, each with their own rituals and superstitions. At the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum, one must count the steps all the way to the last building. If you counted an even number of steps, you will have good luck. If you counted an odd number of steps, you will have bad luck.

The first building of the necropolis was built in the 7th

century to house the remains of Kusam ibn Abbas, a supposed cousin of

the profit Muhammad who came to Samarkand in the Arab invasion to preach

Islam.

Other mausoleums were built around his from the 9-14th centuries and include many family members of Timur the Great, aristocrates, and clergy. It is a place regularly visited by local residents as a place of quiet walking and family outings.

At

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, whose entrance is over 100 feet high, there stands a

giant marble Koran holder in the center of the square. It

is rumored that if a woman walks around the Koran holder 7 times then

crawls under the legs of the Koran holder, she will be blessed with

fertility.

The mosque was commissioned by Timur the Great in the 12th

century and built with the help of 90 elephants who carried the

precious stones that Timur had captured in his conquest of India. The

mosque fell into disrepair over the centuries and while some of the

building has been repaired, none of the original structure remains to

this day. However, or the bazaar that operates at the mosques base, little has changed over its existence since 600 years ago.

It

was at this mosque that I discovered how truly fortunate we are in the

United States and even Europe for any resemblance of a public restroom. Fore I had another attack from the Kumis and was in a grave situation. Our guide managed to convince a woman at the bazaar to let me use a “restroom” for the vendors. Behind a low wall was a hole in the ground that must have been in use for a decade by others suffering from indigestion. What’s worse is I had to call the unfortunate woman around and pay for some sort of tissue with which to wipe with. This

sort of toilette is not an anomaly in Central Asia and given what we

witnessed later in the trip, this might even be considered clean by

“public restroom” standards.

Perhaps the most significant building of both cultural and architectural significance is the Registan.
Deemed

a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific,

and Cultural Organization in 2001, the Registan represents a cross roads

of cultures between some of the greatest educational landmarks of its

time as well as one of the most significant representations of Islamic

architecture. The Registan is a square with three main buildings. The Ulugh Beg Madrasah, was the first of the buildings built and contained lecture halls and dormitories for students.

It is considered the best clergy university of the Moslem Orient of the 15th century. The

exterior is marvelously tiled with Arabic poems and animals. The

Sher-Dor and Tillya-Kori madrasahs were built two centuries later and

while they are not quite to the quality of the Ulugh Beg Madrasah, they

are spectacular in their own right, the Tillya-Kori madrasah’s main hall

being gilded abundantly in gold.

Before visiting the Registan, we had visited the more modern end of Samarkand for lunch. Scott had been feeling better and chose to have a beer with his meal. Our

guide advised him that that was probably not a wise choice, as even

though it was September it was still very hot outside and beer might not

mix well with the heat. Scott loves beer. Beer

is his “comfort food” and if he was feeling even a little better from

this terrible GI issue we were suffering from then he was determined

enough to want to enjoy a nice cold beer. Unfortunately, our guide was right. We had finished touring the magnificent buildings and were sitting along a wall next to the street. A

young girl, begging for change, was approaching us, but just as she

came within two feet, Scott vomited the entire contents of his lunch at

the feet of this young child. Bless her, she still considered continuing her plight, until she eventually thought better and left Scott be.

In

addition to mosques and other places of historical significance, one of

the most fascinating stops was to the Samarkand silk rug factory.

We

were introduced to the entire rug making process from the silk worms to

spinning and to finally the thousands of thousands of knots that make a

rug. While the price is

extraordinarily high (even by Western standards), a client can special

order a rug to any design or image they chose, although they might have

to wait upwards to two years to make. However,

most of the rugs created here are of general design and can be bought

direct from the factory rooms below the workrooms. Bill Clinton did choose to have a custom rug made from this factory though when he once visited. During his visit he awarded the factory with an international honor in workers standards. At

the factory, which employees around 400 women, it is mandatory that all

workrooms are flooded with natural light and free moving air. The women are only allowed to work eight hours a day and are given a paid year off after childbirth. The large workrooms were filled with the loud chatter of women gossiping and listening to the radio. We were also allowed to sit next to a few women and watch as they sped through their knots with amazing dexterity.

In

the shopping rooms below, we were able to look upon the finished rugs

with a much greater appreciation, including a greater appreciation for

their lavish prices (which were still far less expensive than anything

in the United States).

Part Five:

After

a few days, my father’s meetings had concluded and we began the journey

back north to Tashkent where we would spend the night before catching a

plane to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This time, instead of hiring private taxis for the drive north, we took a bus with the meeting’s other attendees. What was once a 4 hour drive by air conditioned taxi became a 7 hour drive by non-air conditioned bus. While,

I do not think I would have minded the bus at all under those

conditions, the hot, cramped bus only seemed to make my continued food

poisoning only worse. Which was a

shame since there were several wonderful sights along the drive that I

would have loved to enjoy, sights not only outside the bus, but inside

as well. Thus, while I did get to enjoy the roadside fruit stands, I did

miss the face my dad made while trying Kurut for the first time. While

it is known by many other names around the world, Kurut is the Uzbek

and Kyrgyz term for sun dried salted cheese balls made from boiled

mare’s milk. It has a powedery outside and looks much like a powdered doughnut hole. Thinking thus, my dad popped on in his mouth. The

taste was so much to his dislike that he couldn’t even politely attempt

to swallow and even after secretly disposing for the half chewed ball

out the bus window, he was still left with the salty, rancid powder

coating the inside of his mouth. Fortunately, his colleagues never noticed his distaste and carried on their dancing. With

standard, bad Western music blaring from the bus speakers, some of the

most professional doctors in all of Uzbekistan were dancing in the

aisles, singing along, passing the hours away from Samarkand to

Tashkent.

Part Six:

The next morning we flew out of Uzbekistan and into Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan

is over 90% mountainous and is sometimes known as the Switzerland of

Asia. Perhaps the least dictatorial of the Central Asian republics,

Kyrgyzstan is about the size of South Dakota with a population of not

even 5.5 million people. Flying

into it’s capitol, Bishkek, is much like flying into Denver

International Airport, only wherein Denver, the large, snowcapped

mountains are only to the West, in Bishkek, huge peaks surround every

the city in every direction.

It

was early afternoon when we landed in Bishkek and our guide who I had

arranged for the trekking we would be doing, picked us up at the airport

and drove us to the guesthouse that would be our Kyrgyz base. Dima,

our guide and organizer, is ethnically Russian; about 9% of Kyrgyz

citizens are ethnically Russian, 16% are ethnic Uzbeks, and about 70%

are ethnic Krygyz.

There is much about Bishkek that resembles a typical Soviet era city. Trolly lines trapeze the streets and grey, rectangular buildings strongly represent Soviet era architecture. While

people speak several ethnic languages, Russian is still the official

language of most of the Central Asian republics, in fact all street

signs and official business is conducted in Russian.

Pulling off the dusty, grey streets of Biskhek, we pulled into the quiet compound of a local guesthouse. The guesthouse is run by a mother/daughter pair who live in the back house. The closer apartments housed guests, a dinning room, and traditional tea table. However, the most remarkable aspect of the guesthouse was the garden. It overflowed with blooming flowers while the house cat perused for small treats.

Scott

has a feline love and took much solace in holding said cat whose name

is pronounced something like “icky juice,” meaning “two faced” in

English.

Speaking of names and language. I

am a firm believer that George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, and other

science fiction writers took to the dictionaries of Uzbek, Krygyz, and

other Central Asian dialects for names and alien languages. For example, we met a man who was named, I did you not, Chubacca!

Part Seven:

Given

that the planet is amazingly small, we met another American at the

guest house who happened to be from Washington state, doing his

doctorate work on Central Asian container bazaars. Since he welcomed a break to speak English, we included him on our first day hike outside Bishkek at Ala-Archa National Park. Just 40km outside of the city, the park is laden with over 20 glaciers and peaks as high as 16,000 ft!

This day hike would serve to test our stamina before we headed deeper into the Kyrgyz mountains for the next few days. Since it was September, the foliage of the park was painted in a rich mosaic of reds and oranges. While

the hike to the waterfalls is strenuous, many locals still visit the

park and make the shorter journey the Mountaineers Graveyard.

We spent the evening taking a short stroll of Bishkek. After a week in Samarkand, Bishkek seemed remarkable industrial and more modern. While

Samarkand is an ancient city and large in its own right, Bishkek

conveyed an air of moderninity, with shopping malls and now that I think

about it, I never remembered seeing a stop light in all of Samarkand…. Nevertheless, we ate at a local restaurant, where we again, had Manti. Always more mutton.

The next day we drove 7 hours from Bishkek to Karakol, the entrance to the Tien Shien Mountains in Eastern Kyrgyzstan.

The drive was beautiful as we traversed the country, stopping at 13th Century watch towers for the Silk Road and a local’s yurt at the shores of Lake Issyk Kul for a afternoon tea.
The people were most accommodating and it was a pleasure to be able to see how traditional yurts are decorated. Long,

intricately dyed, wool draperies cover the walls between the yurt tarp

and inner lattice work, giving a sense of warm and color to an otherwise

small space. Traditional tea is served from a small stove with a strange variety of cookies to accompany it.

Part Eight:

In Karakol, we met our porters: young, ethnic Russians who lit their next cigarette with their dying one. Picking up supplies we transferred from the van and into a Soviet era tank/truck thing that pleased Scott very much. From there our group crawled up the Telety River valley until setting up camp by the riverside. The

Telety River runs with slate blue, glacier water that somehow feels

colder than any river in the Rocky Mountains of the United States. It

could be that the river originates from Karakolosky Mountain, an

“average” size mountain in the Tien Shiens, standing at over 17,000 feet

in altitude and permanently covered in snow. Later that night, after dinner, our young porters drank enough vodka to believe it a good idea to skinny dip into the river. Perhaps it keeps the blood refreshed and their legs strong. ??? My only reckoning is that young men, when intoxicated, will do such things. Somehow though, all six of them managed to squeeze into a 3 person tent for the night.

Despite

being thousands of miles from home, there were several elements of our

hiking that bared a strong resemblance to hiking in Colorado: coniferous

trees’ green needles contrasting with the changing fall leaves of

deciduous ones. We followed a tributary creek up a steep valley, climbing further into the mountains. My mother, who was certainly home sick by this point, was able to seek the simple comforts of petting a local herder’s horses.

Scott and I were equally happy for one ever so simple concept. With our food poisoning still effecting us, “public toillets” were all to negatively familiar to us. Thus, the fresh smelling trees and good earth was a surprisingly welcome restroom exchange for us. Amazingly,

the vodka and chain smoking had no effect on our porters who all ran

ahead as if there were no such thing as 80-liter packs weighing on their

backs. We would round a corner near midday to find that lunch had been set up, complete with hot tea! Before our final elevation push for the day, tea and cookies would be set up, picnic style by the creek.

I

am grateful for their strength and snacks because unlike home, where

trails make switchbacks up a mountain or scree face, Kyrgyz trails

simply go straight up.

The next evening’s stop was on the shores of one of the most beautiful high mountain lakes, Ala-kul Lake. The bright teal of the lake is indescribable.

Since

we had arrive in the mid-afternoon, we spent the time in the warm sun

reading, exploring, napping, and as is the case with Scott and the

porters, throwing rocks into the lake. I

find it refreshing that no matter where you travel in the world, no

matter what languages or cultures divide people, boys will still be boys

and have a rock throwing contest.

The

hike over the pass to Altyn Arashan provided such a splendid vista of

glaciers and mountains we all took a long break simply to marvel. In Colorado we have 14,000 foot peaks.

Some of the highest on the North American Continent, but in Kyrgyzstan 14,000 feet are the foot hills. In

this area of Kyrgyzstan the Tien Shans butt up next to the Pamir

Mountains both of which are part of the Himalayan belt that was formed

in the Cenoziac age when the Indian and Eurasian plates crashed into

each other. Some of the rocks in the range date back to 540 million years ago. While

it was a geopolitical Soviet game that gave Kyrgyzstan its borders,

over half of the country is over 9,000 feet and these mountains define

the lifestyles of its people. The decent into Altyn Arashan traveled down through a valley where the grass had been sheered close by sheep and goats.

There

is little private property in these deep valleys; instead herders let

their herds wonder the valleys, eating what little grass there is to

find in their short summers.

Despite being only one valley over from the Telety River, Altyn Arashan is regionally famous for its abundant natural hot springs. While

our porters were setting up camp and dinner, Dima took us for an

afternoon stroll down by another stream that eventually led to a natural

hot spring located up in the cliff wall. Closed in by locals, a pool had been made in the side of the cliff that resembled a swallow’s nest. A

short climb brought us to its warm waters that we were allowed to enjoy

the ever-present tranquility that one finds in the Tien Shans.

The Soviet beast showed up the next morning to begin the crawl back down the mountain valley. Through

the condition of the road and the jerking of “the Beast,” our final

round of relaxing hot springs at a guesthouse’s baths had lost their

muscle soothing effect. But we

had another 7-hour drive of pavement ahead of us after hitting solid

pavement road, so we were simply subject to surrendering to the rocking

of a car.

We

drove along the North side of Lake Issyk Kul this time, driving past

small fishing villages, larger “lake resort” towns, and farmers and

their families digging up their harvest of potatoes from the earth.

Part Nine:

The Bishkek guesthouse was a welcome oasis after our long drive that day. While

we were all welcome for a fresh shower to wash off the sulfur of the

hot springs, we were reminded again of the advancements that Bishkek has

still to accommodate. Cold showers are still cold. But clean and refreshed we were able to relax at the guesthouse tea table with snacks and tea. Unfortunately, our solace would not last too long as we discovered some new visa problems. Scott and I were fine, since we did not fly through Kazakhstan, my father, mother, and sister however, were not so lucky. Somehow, they did not have the proper visa to re-enter Kazakhstan, even for the two days for their flight. Scott

and I were scheduled to fly from Almaty one day before the rest of the

group, but we had all planned to go to Almaty together. We

set Dima about to the Embassy, but it seemed like this is a regular

occurrence and all he was sent away with was, “try again later.”

Since nothing would change until at least the next day, we figured dinner would be a good bet. Not

knowing the city or buses that well without our trusty American

graduate student and with Dima running around trying to figure out their

visas, we simply found our way to the mall again. While

it seems strange to eat dinner at a mall when you’ve traveled halfway

around the world, it is also a place where you can see the average local

in action, more so than at “traditional ethnic restaurants.” Unfortunately, our Kyrgyz was non-existent and our Russian hardly functional. We had heard a funny story from my dad’s friend about having to resort to animal noises once when ordering. Regrettably, Google Translate had not been invented as an app yet, and we secretly worried that this would also be our fate. At a mall restaurant we were determined to eat something other than manti, lagman, and shashlik . Fortunately, there were picture menus; unfortunately we did not understand the choices in meat. So what did we do? Put our fingers to our head to make the image of a bull and say: “moo?” Yeah, that was us asking for beef. When you’re hungry, humility and embarrassment go out the window.

Dima

was still hard a work figuring out the visa issue for my family while

we took to the markets with the American grad student. While there are a few super markets in Bishkek, is much more common for people to buy their goods at the open-air markets. Simply arrive and leaving from the market is an inherent danger in itself.

With

cars, scooters, dirt bikes, and buses zooming in and out of the

entrance to the markets, it is one of the most frightening traffic scene

I think I’ve ever experienced. But

once through the gates, the chaos organizes itself into vendors that

sell everything anyone could need from food to clothes, to laundry

detergent.

My favorite part of any market is always the food.
In Central Asia there is bread called Shepherd’s Bred. It is flat, circular bread that is thrown upon the inner walls of a large clay oven that resembles a huge beehive. They are soft, warm, and my savior against the recurrent feelings of food poisoning.

During our time at the markets, Dima had managed to figure out my family’s visa problems. Fortunately,

there was no need for them to change flights, but they would be delayed

in Bishkek for a day while Scott and I headed onto Almaty ourselves and

leave a day before them. They would arrive in Almaty the next day, have our same hotel room, then depart for home from there.

Part Ten:

Crossing the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border was interesting. All vehicles are stopped, all passengers and luggage are asked to leave the vehicles and walk through an immigration office. After

everyone has passed through immigration, the driver, and the driver

only, goes back to the parking bay to drive the vehicle through across

the border. A process that takes about 2 hours per party.

All through our time in Kyrgyzstan, I had never seen Dima worried about the quality of any food items that we ate. So, I was worried then when at a “Kazakh truck stop” Dima inspected in silverware with a suspicious eye, polish and wipe his fork (something we had never seen him do), and then not even touch the glass that tea was served in. We

had pulled up to what must have been a familiar restaurant to him along

this drive, but it turned out to be no longer in business. So, this “truck stop” was our option. We should have known better then after “lunch” that using the toilettes, sorry, hole in the ground, here would be a bad idea. The woman’s was not too much worse than the worst I had encountered here, so I was relatively un-scared. Scott however, experienced the most foul bathroom experience I can safely say he will experience for the rest of this life. EVER. The

holes had not been emptied in a long enough time that the designated

spot for a hole didn’t matter anymore, as any place in the concrete

stalls became a publically suitable place to leave ones excrement. Rising

in massive piles off the floor, Scott ran out of there so fast that he

failed to notice for a moment that the “sleeping” dog outside was not

actually sleeping, but was sadly dead. He came back to the fan, shell shocked and begging for my hand sanitizer. I believe that those shoes never made it home, but were instead left in a trash somewhere in Almaty.

Further down the road, we were stopped at a checkpoint station. Apparently, it is a standard thing for the Kazakh government to stop any car with foreign plates. While it may have been common, it did have Scott and I momentarily, if not scared, then startled. The

men checking our travel documents happened to have their faces covered

with ski masks and were carrying heavily loaded automatic weapons.

Part 11:

Somehow, the 150 mile trip had taken all day and we welcomed our hotel. After good bye filled with much gratitude for Dima, we began the search for dinner. Definitely over manti, lagman, and shashlik, we simply began walking the city. If Bishkek looked more modern than Samarkand, than Almaty was nearly European. Large Nike stores and other major brands had locations along main boulevards and public restrooms even had a porcelain toilette! We chose to explore a local super market, since I had a craving for cereal. Unfortunately, we stood in the dairy isle for nearly a half hour. We

had learned our lesson about unpasteurized dairy, and now that our

colons were beginning to feel a little more normal, we were under no

hurry to get food poisoning again, especially with about 24 hours of

travel coming up. We finally found what we thought was regular, pasteurized milk. It even said 2% fat on it. Thinking

ourselves truly prepared for a well-missed bowl of cereal, we even

bought bowls and spoons; we headed back to our hotel room to enjoy our

treasure. Only, it wasn’t milk. Or at least it wasn’t the consistency of milk. It smelled like milk, but it was the consistency of egg nog. …. …. We had dry cereal for dinner.

Since,

like many international flights out of Almaty, our flight didn’t leave

until 1am the next night, Dima had the forethought to set us up with a

colleague in Almaty who would show us around the city until taking us to

the airport for our 10pm check in time. Bishkek

had reminded me of what a Soviet city must have looked like right at

the collapse of the Soviet Union, Almaty on the other hand looked like

Moscow and St. Petersberg look now… well, without the gilded czar

palaces. We passed miles of statues, government buildings, parks, even the circus. But the end of the day provided the biggest reward: A private concert at the museum of ethnic music. A

woman gave us a brilliant concert on a wide variety of Central Asian

string instruments, playing beautifully composed songs that I only wish I

had a recording of now.

Part Twelve:

The flights back home were long. Fortunately, from Frankfurt to Chicago we were upgraded to Business Class which meant… yep, Frankfurt Business Class Lounge. Nothing is better on a 24 hour travel day that the Frankfurt Business Class Lounge complete with showers, couches, and open bar. Figuring

that it was 5 o’clock either where we had been, where we were, or where

we were going, a strong Bloody Mary was a perfect way to relax and

reflect on our amazing trip.

For

three weeks we had suffered from the worst gastro-intestinal bull s**t

that we had ever and have ever experienced in my life. We had seen the

most disturbing bathroom situations in the world. We

ordered by “moo.” But as that part only took the twenty seconds of

reflection they deserved, we took the next 10 hour flight and the rest

of our lives to look back on how everything else that trip has been such

an enriching addition to our lives.

Central Asia is a region with an amazing history. A

city celebrating nearly 3000 years of civilization and a region just

beginning to modernize itself, the culture of Central Asia is rich with

different races, languages, politics, and geography. It

doesn’t present itself as a region of self-enlightenment like visiting

monasteries in China, or Mecca, or the great cathedrals in Europe. But I left Central Asia feeling more connected to the people of this planet more than I ever had before. It is a shame that much of Western Media has portrayed these Muslim countries to be harsh, unforgiving, dangerous landscapes. Before I had left, I had people asking if I was afraid to travel there, being a woman and all. Was I going to have to cover myself? Were we going to be at risk of a terror attack at any minute? I shake my head at these ignorant questions. I

think what people always need to remember is that no matter where

someone is, what their religion is, or what their geopolitical situation

is, is that people are still people. Humanity is still humanity. The

beautiful buildings, tiled blue so as our souls can reach the heavens

are a direct reflection of the snow covered mountains that feed lakes so

blue we can’t even form words to describe them… These

are examples of the beauty of the land and the people of Central Asia

in a way that no amount of history or writing will ever be truly

capture. Central Asia is a unique, diverse, and life changing region.

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