Kosh Agach to Bayan Olgi

The guesthouse in Kosh Agach was nearly full, mostly with Russians, two groups of which I met looking for . . . a guesthouse.

The first and largest group were installing a fiber optic link in this small village near the Mongolian border which rests on a salt marsh at 6500’/2000 meters. Finished with their project and eager to return home . . . they set about cooking and drinking – wine, beer and vodka. I shared some toasts and some food (dumplings) but managed to escape alcohol poisoning. 🙂 It should surprise no one that the bulk of their caloric intake seemed to be liquid.

The other group was a pair doing seismic studies for the Chinese government who are eager to build a natural gas pipeline from Russia to China across Mongolia. They had a few more days in Koch Agach but showed strong support of their Russian counterparts in celebrating the end of THEIR project.

In the morning they posed with me and the KTM as I waited for the sun to warm the battery so I could leave for Mongolia. At 10AM they were all sipping beer in the cold. Several of the Russians tried to give me warm clothing or food before I departed. Great people.

It's a sad thing that two big countries wasted so much time avoiding being the great friends their people would easily be.

This time I met actual humans at Russian border control and had my paperwork processed for me fairly quickly. For whatever reason the Russian Customs official decided to be difficult with the paperwork for the KTM. Her grasp of english seemed strong but she used words inconsistently and NEVER matching those on the English-language Customs form. I found it a bit wearying. Eventually I was sent off to Mongolian border control, a further 24km/15miles away.

Here I was scammed into be sprayed with disinfectant by a Mongolian who charged me 50 Roubles ($1.75) for the privilege. He asked me if I wanted to change money. The rate he offered was hilariously low and when I countered with a better rate he protested loudly. Then agreed. 🙂 I don’t ilke transactions with such people and told him I was no longer interested in changing money. He told me that Mongolian Border Control had just closed for 90 minutes for lunch.

I sat in the warm sun and cold air for nearly 2 hours. Once I was allowed to enter the facility I was stunned by the English language signs directing me to Customs/Immigration, etc. There were NO signs providing such information in any language since . . . Turkey, 12,000km/8,000 miles ago.

Mongolian Immigration went quickly but Customs became sticky when I was told that I must exit Mongolia WITH the KTM. I suggested it was late in the year, cold, that I’d corresponded with a number of people including Mongolian government officials about this matter beforehand and would “do what I could do”. This honesty delayed my departure a further hour as was marched around the facility in front of several officials, none of whom spoke to me but simply listened to another official’s version.

When I finally departed it was nearly 3PM, windy and getting colder. The road quickly disintegrated into huge waffle board vibrating the bike harshly and reducing speed to 10kph/6mph. Scenery was rolling high desert with ample evidence of a fairly recent and heavy snowfall. (I would learn that a meter/3′ of snow had fallen in mid-September.) At Tsaanaguur I had a choice about riding toward Ulaangom or Olgai. Olgai was just another 100km/60miles and it was already late in the day. Ulaangom was nearly 200km/125miles and I had no expectations about an autobahn experience in the near term.

My GPS indicated a way that diverged significantly with the “evidence on the ground”. So be it, I followed land contours and often found my self on an off-camber hillside but moving generally in the direction of Olgai. Large mountains peeked and then demanded attention as I neared the second of two 8500’/1800meter passes.

Mongolia is difficult to sum up in a few words. The commonalities one experiences are gers (the Mongolian yurt), horses, goats, and a huge variety of landscapes, all quite picturesque including grass lands, salt marshes, alpine valleys, high desert and huge lakes.

When Olgai finally came into view I was shocked. It had sprawled crazily since last visiting 5 years ago. The backdrop was spectacular and a number of Mongolians waved at me to join them for tea and snacks. It wasn’t so late but I was tired and eager to find a place to hide the bike from the cold overnite.

I enjoyed this 30km/20mi of tarmac. There would be 30 more in the next 1100.

The local eagle festival had just ended and the last remnants of tourists were myself and a Swiss couple on an 80’s BMW boxer (road) bike. After the three of us left they would close the resort for the season. The Swiss had come from Ulaan Bator and were planning on riding to Novosibirsk (the capital of Siberia), far to the north and considerably to the west. I suggested that the cold I’d just negotiated would soon be mixed with snow, given both the cloud cover and forecasts. He, Michael, seemed undaunted. Europeans will just take more chances than Americans, generally. I don’t know why. (Eg, if one examines the American Alpine Institute’s statistics on climbing and then a counterpart for Chamonix or the Swiss Alps you’re immediately struck by two things. The Americans put MANY times the number of people on their similarly sized mountains and have a small fraction the number of fatalities of the continentals.)

Unfortunately the Russians had cut electrical power to Olgai and my chance until Ulaan Bator for internet access ended. So did an interruption in my “no shower” streak which would stretch 11 days to Ulaan Bator.

LOTS of these in the coming days, some homemade, some proper copies of 30's BMWs.

I was shown a menu of food and then told that nothing was available but that they could cook me some cutlets and potatoes. In the morning breakfast was stale bread and pseudo-Nutella and local jam (all sugar and coloring and perhaps fruit in the neighborhood when it was made.) I ate nearly the entire basket of bread and would think longingly back at that “meal” in another 18 hours.

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Ust Kan to Kosh Agach

The nite wasn’t too cold – always concerned with the “little battery that could” having a bad day.

One of the more emotionally stirring 'Great Patriotic War' memorials

The guesthouse I stayed in had filled up with truckers and in the AM there was a bit of, ahem, noise as they went about their ambulations and ablutions. The funniest thing was that THEY waited for it to warm up more than I. At 9:30 my suspension was stiff, my saddle rock hard and the tires granitic from the cold. But off we went toward the Russian-Mongolian border crossing at Tashanta.

Approaching the Altai Mountains passes got higher, valleys deeper

The road was quite good and the scenery excellent. With a lack of morning fog I managed to be warmed by the sun fairly soon.

Fewer and fewer leaves on the trees reminded me to press on . . .

I stopped for lunch at Atkash at a very unimpressive looking cafe that served unimpressive shorba soup and goulash of unimpressive quality with impeccably unimpressive service. Oh well, it’s about the road, not the food.

There was something about this 'Gateway to the Altai' . . .

As I neared Koch Agach it seemed quite reasonable to make for the Mongolian border crossing and get to Bayan Olgai. This would be a fantastic achievement, putting me in Mongolia on Sunday nite. Most of the altitude and snow threats would be behind me. The little battery that could would generally be in a warmer place . . . hurray !

Wookies in full winter suits . . .

So I used most of my remaining Roubles to buy benzine and headed for Russian Immigration & Border control. I was checked for documentation 50km from the border and ushered onward. Unfortunately at the border the store was . . . closed. At 4:30 ! So to make a long, somewhat angry, definitely frustrating story short – I returned 40 miles to Koch Agach to look for a room and hope it didn’t get too cold at 6500′.

Late day color on a 6500' elevation salt marsh near the Mongolian border

Now able to recognize the Cyrillic for “hotel” I managed to find a simple place with the help of some Russian telecom workers. A short trip to a local store secured sustenance and I managed not to share too many vodka shots with the gregarious and generous Russians who were happy their work was over.

Monday . . . Mongolia.

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The Obama Cafe to Ust-wherever

It sits on a beautiful street in the Kyrgyz capitol, amongst many good restaurants

I’m sure this series of post(s) (to come) that is a reflection of the past two weeks violates some blog Hoyle rule but . . . here comes the first violation.

Kazakhstan: If not landscapes, absurdity - gambling in a 'Muslim' nation at the Aladdin Casino

So with my fresh Kazakh visa and a decent breakfast in my belly I rode the 20km to the Kazakh border. A relaxed chaos welcomed me. Vehicles drove like sailing ships in the open ocean, with little or no regard for a path or right-of-way. Inspections other than ‘Customs’ were cursory at best IF you were in a vehicle. Foot traffic was corralled like beef cattle and crushed itself against two narrow French-doors within a hooded ring fence. It was astonishing. None of the herded animals that have crossed my path over the past several weeks were as nearly poorly behaved except perhaps the horses that just ran around on the road within 2 km of the Kazakh capital.

Didn't get that bankable Kazakh sunset but . . . amazing clouds and rainbows.

There were no signs, no written guidance. Officials would simultaneously wave me through and away, and which ever one I chose to acknowledge was always the wrong one. After much shouting, not necessarily at me, I was taken before the Customs official who had to assist me fill out the Declaration form (in Russian). She sat at a desk next to an open window where a queue would mount a collapsed sawhorse to hand and receive paperwork to/from her. It was so absurd how seriously everyone took it.

What's crazier, the cloud or bricking-up the windows on Soviet apartments ?

Finally, I entered Kazakhstan and made for Almaty as fast as the roads undulations would permit. (It’s been my experience that being airborne on this trip is not that unusual. I’m just glad the bike is so unflappable. (Several times other riders have told me they eitehr by-passed the roads I’ve taken OR ridden them much slower.) The Kazakh capitol takes itself very seriously and is a mix of Cirque de Soleil and Vegas – showy, gaudy and very staged. Brand new Mercedes flew past me dodging mad horses on the road in full gallop. I kept wondering when I would wake up.

Here we see the 'Police' preparing for revenue generation

But it was hunger that caused me to stop at a rotisserie full of chicken carcasses. Friendly, funny, helpful and ultimately stymied the Kazakh staff but not their smiles. The chicken I was served . . . well, I used to welcome the site of Muslims almost unconditionally when it came to meat as food – they know (I thought) how to raise it, butcher it, select it and . . . cook it. No one in Thailand would have eaten this and my own ingestion would have drawn shouts of ‘bah !’ (crazy) from any Thai I’ve ever met. KFC has an opening in Kazakhstan. So after ducking stallions on the road, eating badly cooked meat, passing scantily clad women on billboards and then the Ali Baba Casino . . . Borat came to early. It’s a very strange place that takes itself VERY seriously.

My room was in a Kazakh trucker hotel and cost about $13. The bed was formerly used in a penal colony.

As night fell I had one more moment – Karl Marx appeared in relief in marble near a bus stop. Karl Marx. The hotel was another hoot. The rooms were NY-sized with doors for the entry, bathroom and armoires all require synchronized opening, one and only one at a time. The “staff” consisted of one Kazakh girl in a vest due to lack of heating, and several waiters conversing amongst themselves and no customers. The reception girl was clearly irritated at having her conversation with her friend interrupted. There were two sets of elevators, apparently the old Soviet elevators and the new Chinese elevators. Those two means of navigating the vertical aspects of the hotel may have represented a tremendously boring race to the bottom. The russian elevators clanked and clunked as though every trip might be the last. But they opened properly. The chinese elevators whisked but . . . never opened within 8″ of the floor, either high or low.

The Duckling always appreciates a colorful splash of the new black

The rooms were entirely outfitted in low-grade Chinese (redundant ?) furnishings. The mattress was familiarly shaped but it’s suspension defied description. There were hot pots with no outlets to plug into. Similarly for the small refrigerator. Many lights could only be turned on or off with a wall switch, including the desk and night lights.

The 'Road to Russia'

Breakfast the next morning brought out characters mostly from a David Lynch piece. There were the Kazakh “bizness men” (crude mafia types) who seemed very self conscious and endlessly fidgeting or cracking their knuckles. Two “real” business consultants took their places, one a young American woman. Chinese “investors” also were seated. A young russian associate of her young colleague pranced about seemingly expecting applause for her walking manners or her dress. She was completely overshadowed when a 6-foot something aspiring model in a blouse dress with here incredibly short “manager” appeared. Even more fun was watching everyone negotiate the “food” offerings. Non-varietal meat products were savaged by the Kazakhs and Chinese and given broad way by the rest. There were chinese clones of French Red Cow cheese. The compote (fruit juice) potentially had some fruit in it. The coffee was instant and so was the dissatisfaction with the food.

Endless harvested fields, crazy rock outcroppings and colorful fall . . . Russia

Apparently, as observed before, the Kazakh government is using casinos as their new means of generating jobs. You can see the pursuit of American style “build it and they will come” capitalism everywhere. In Thailand. In Kazakhstan. In Kyrgyzstan. In Uzbekistan. (Okay, not in Germany.) But it is a global issue. These sheep are running off to the same cliff we fashioned, there just a bit behind us and believe, “because America does it”, it must be okay. Well, that’ll end in tears . . .

The Capitalist west has mega-farming and . . . so did/does the (formerly) Communist east

The next day I rode over 700km in an attempt to broker the Russian border ASAP. Unfortunately for me, it rained, alot and coldly. At my lunch stop, when I actually was a bit concerned about how wet I was and how chilled, the woman serving me food stepped outside and ran back in complaining about the cold and wet. But somewhat soon after lunch the clouds lifted a bit and the rain became more localized rather than the widespread deluge it’d been since 9AM. This produced beautiful rainbows, crazy one-piece clouds that went on across the measure of the sky that dispatched lightening on one end and rain on the other.

You've seen this pose before . . .

While the wet began to dry, the temperature began to fall as a new clear, cold front pushed aside the warm wet. An hour after darkness I pulled into a very tidy place that had the Russian word for “pension”. Inside it looked even better and there was a smell of delicious food (not something I associated with Kazakhstan but there had to be an exception . . . or I was just hungry). But a woman, observing my mild shivers said, “nyetto”. Miming sleep and saying “kilometer” she pointed down the road and said in Russian, “30” (20 miles). So off I went into more high-beam hell from the truck drivers coming from Russia.

The 'Great Patriotic War' is still honored, perhaps more than anything else from the Soviet Union

By the time I encountered a large traffic circle I was tired and shivering a bit too much. I saw men gathered outside and a gated parking area and suspected this must be a candidate stopover. A very professional Russian women with a huge head of hair showed me to my room, told me the price (2000 Tlingit – $13) and I said, “Da !” Once again I had to put the mattress on the floor or sleep in a seriously compressed fetal position on a bed suspension system that looked like a giant cheese grater.

These roads were nearly as good to ride as they were to view

I slept like a dead man and when I got up the owner ended up telling me about his daughter in California (this happened often . . . ) studying in university. We exchanged photos and email addresses while I ate my second portion of blini’s with heavy cream (I’ve grown to respect Russian food . . . really). As the heavy fog finally lifted I could depart – there are no windshield wipers on motorcycle helmets and riding in steamy/foggy environments if very quickly blinding. Not good on I-5 or I-95 but suicidal on these roads with their often appearing Volkswagen swallowing potholes, invariably located right after an abrupt rise so that the best one could do was brace for impact.

Surprise, surprise, there were still a few onion domes left to see, but largely empty

As I neared the Russian border the landscape changed again. Mostly Kazakhstan is a giant windswept parched steppe with considerable mineral wealth beneath it. Sometimes, though rarely, there are large farms or ranches. But it’s rarely compelling to look at though you ponder why someone would live there – cold as hell in winter, hot as hell in summer. Nearing the border birch (larch) trees began showing and the banks of rivers were green with lush grasses. The land rolled and looked fertile. Oskemen (aka Ust-Kamenorsk) was another run-down Soviet outpost with mostly ramshackle wood housing and manicured parks. I stopped at a recommended shashlik place that really disappointed.

Ancient houses and half-century old motorcycles . . . like Harley 🙂

The double-naming of Oskemen is a good opportunity to relate another artefact of this trip once you depart Russia. The road name or route designation may be one on local signs, another on your map and a third on your GPS. You can’t get too hung up on labels. 🙂

Living in the houses their grandparents did . . .

After a quick stop at a magazin for some calorie supplements after the meatless, flavorless shashlik (and did I mention that Kazakh bread is AWFUL ? It makes Wonder seem like a plausible option) I drove the 80km to the Russian border. Now here was a very picturesque Kazakhstan. Overwhelmingly settled by Russians, it looked like the better parts of Russia. Huge farm tracts, colossal wind breaks of birch. This continued to improve and the road remained decent by the recent weeks standards. At the last benzine station I unloaded my remaining Kazakh Tlingit.

The rural eastern Russian landscape is littered with these Soviet relics

The final irony was that as Kazakhstan continued to flex it’s newfound wealth building gaudy new-money cities and erecting giant signs announcing your entry/exit to the “glorious nation of Kazakhstan” it peered across the border at it’s former master (and it must be said, close business partner) and observed a broke and perhaps broken country. In just 20 years the master had become a proud but poor sovereign and Kazakhstan had become it’s own master of tasteless and gaudy displays of wealth.

The Kazakh officials perused my Passport like kids with a new toy. Eventually I said, “um, the sun is setting and I’m on a motorbike’. The Russian side was manned by young military who were full of attitude, very professional and unsmilingly helpful.

The ride into Russia just got better with each passing kilometer. My only difficulty was figuring out where I’d spend the nite. Requests in every village garnered a “nyet” and gesturing down the road, further north. Finally, at Kurya I found a place that was exceptionally neat and tidy and cheap. I was pointed to a magazin where I could buy food. (Many of these places have shared kitchen areas and this is the norm, you sleep and cook your own food.)

When I explained to the girl in the magazin that I was American and would not be able to speak much Russian she didn’t hesitate to sneer. The ‘Da Factor’ ! Examining some cheese in the cooler she pulled out an uncut piece. As I pointed to the clearly dried out or worse parts she dismissively set it aside and chose an already cut and wrapped piece. Amazing. She’d have sold me the bad cheese without hesitation.

Back at the communal kitchen I tore in bread (finally, decent Russian bread) and sausage and cheese while drinking beer. Two Kazakh businessmen entered and to the extent we could we conversed. Again, the Terminator came up. I tried to explain that he was not so popular due to his behavior. The Kazakh “boss” told me that getting three women pregnant would make him look good. “Well, I live(d) in California, not Kazakhstan.”

The next day was a lovely ride, some of it more challenging than necessary via a “bypass” of the M52 Federal Hwy. Picturesque rural Russian villages, beautiful farmland, unmanaged rivers and lots of decent sunshine and minimal cold. (Remember, I’m riding as fast as possible to get into Mongolia before Mother Nature locks me out.) My goal was Aktash but like most days my goals were unreached and unreachable without taking chances in the dark from either the road, the other drivers or the cold. I would have preferred camping for several reasons – to avoid locals who always wanted me to drink HEAVILY with them, and to avoid heavy drinking locals which is a sad reality in this part of the world. But my camping gear is good to about 30 degrees and the necessity of stopping early to set camp AND have to wait until it’s warm enough for my little replacement battery that sometimes can’t turnover the big LC8 engine would further cramp progress.

There aren't that many opportunities for landscapes in Kazakhstan - you go through it, not to it

As I pulled into Ust Kan I passed a number of young Russian men passed out on the side of the road . . .

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Rumors of the Orange Duckling’s demise are greatly exaggerated

Okay, so nothing since 26/27 September. Yea, no Internet access. I arrived in Mongolia to the end of the local eagle hunting festival and to Russian shutdown of the power . . . So 13/14 days without an update . . . for me it was 11 days without a shower – the the streak breaker was a cold one ! And the final 2500km (1500 miles) became 4000+km (2500 miles) . . . whose counting !

I’ve had fresh camel milk, slept in a ger with a Mongolian family, been truly scared at how far from anything I was, been awakened in the middle of the night by drunken Mongolian men, used recycled Mongolian tea for a coolant, somehow missed the “guaranteed” Kazak sunset (but did see a storm cloud out of a sci-fi flick – too huge to photo, dispensing water and lightening), snapped my best double rainbow EVER, camped at 6500′ in summer gear, found ice on my radiator cap, rode thru a spectacularly beautiful Russia (again), and . . . have decided to come back next year for part II.

18,000km (11,000 miles)
ONE rear tire.
Eleven countries, two twice (Kazakhstan & Russia)
Best food: Uzbekistan
Worst food: Mongolia
Best eating secret: Just be real hungry – I lost over 12 pounds on the trip.
Worst cultural faux pas: NEVER offer a gloved hand to a Mongolia for a handshake. NEVER.
Biggest Regret: Too few days in Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan

He REALLY liked the new black. He offered to trade me his Ural sidecar model for the Duckling.

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The most important event to relate is . . . the surly KZ Embassy (staff) have miraculously come through and rendered a Transit Visa for yours truly. This means I’ll either get to Ulaan Bator before freezing in place in the Altai . . . or am off to oblivion a bit earlier. Stay tuned.

Tortugul Reservoir

I’m afraid “staying tuned” will once again be primarily about following the ‘Where I Am’ link . . . as neither my time nor internet availability will be good again until I’m in Ulaan Bator (presumably). So I have about 2500km (1500 miles) left to get across. (If it means putting the KTM in the back of a truck – if I can find one – I’ll do it to avoid losing a digit or so.)

Tortugul Reservoir

So, what about Bishkek, the capital of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan ?

Near Tortogul Reservoir

Kyrgyzstan is world’s ahead of Tajikistan in terms of the professionalism of it’s officials (the police are excepted – pure revenue generation, they “work” 9-5 and then vanish from Bishkek’s view), the quality of it’s roads (really pretty amazing, leaving aside the wonders of Chinese infrastructure development), and the sense of a fledgling democracy in practice, not just words. Service jobs ARE performed at a high level, not commonly, but not as an exception, like in Tajikistan. The cafeteria at the ‘Beta Store’ is a marvel of efficiency and quality.

Ah, BOTH honey and horse milk at the same stand. And look, here comes lunch !

That said, it has some relics from the past . . . you can still find Lenin proudly pointing the way to the great socialist/communist future in school yards and municipal squares, though his aura is clearly in deep decline. (I have to comment about an article written in ‘The Nation’ over 20 years ago which was essentially an obit on the Soviet Union and Communism. The article was unusually short of logic or facts, though there were a few ‘zingers’ for Mr Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, for ‘The Nation’, but maintained the normal high standards of moral indignation the publication has been known for throughout it’s 100+ year history.)

What's all this talk of snow and freezing to death ? 10,500'

The article essentially said that while the Soviet Union had exhausted itself subsidizing it’s “colonies” and failing to permit it’s own human capital from flourishing due to an authoritarian government supported by a labyrinthine bureaucracy it was only “just” bankrupt ahead of the Capitalist West. That looks very prescient right now.

We had a fine chat - check out his gun

My only other comment, which is pitifully obvious – we need a new economic system. Socialism doesn’t work. Capitalism suffers from a quest of “growth for the sake of growth” or, in the words of Edward Abbey – “the mantra of the cancer cell”. Accountants CAN mark with cheer “growth” but it can look alot like “updating, not upgrading”, or worse.

Goats and sheep get EXCLUSIVE use of the tunnel (@ 11,000')

How does this relate to Bishkek or the other pick-a-stans ? Well, they have some dead cities that were created out of thin air and socialist dogma. On the one hand, their economic engines were highly un-optimized factories belching pollution and needless and/or poor quality products. This was summed up eloquently by “we pretended to work and they pretended to pay us”. In any of the Stans’ capital cities you can see lovely gardens and parks and graceful thoroughfares. But look just a little closer and you see that the next block over is empty housing and offices built by the Soviet machine that’s too painful or expensive to tear down. Everywhere there are 50’s sci-fi props acting as architecture (bazaars, circus building, state opera houses, etc).

From the Pamirs to a 3000' valley to an 11,000' pass

The jobs market is one of service sector positions (taxis, private buses, retail, restaurants, bars, insurance) but little that actually CREATES value in a society or economy. Sound like anyplace ELSE you’re familiar with ?

The way forward is SOCIALISM ! (Or not)

The amount of chinese junk says as much about the dearth of manufacturing as it does about China’s own desperation to corner such markets – really, the Tajik economy is smaller than any COUNTY of the state of Delaware !

Shashlik !

Without naming any names, for fear of getting someone in trouble, I heard lots of testimony about favoritism stymying careers and dreams of “winning the ‘Green Card’ lottery” (really, it’s essentially a fact in many countries that its some sort of sweepstakes !)

Bishkek's shopping mall, multi-media park

Bishkek has the ‘Obama Cafe’ which sits on a street regarded for some fine restaurants. But the one name I’ve heard more than any other on this trip thru the ‘Stans is . . . the Terminator. Arnold might not be able to run for President in America but he’s a landslide winner here.

The monument to the Martyrs (of WW II)

My (short) take on Bishkek is that it’s lovely, framed by huge mountains (and may suffer from some of the poorest air quality I’ve experienced in some time – possibly worse than Kathmandu), has virtually NO western brands in any sector, has the best food outside of Almaty in the ‘Stans, is filled with good people (as long as they’re not driving – if horns were machineguns this city would have a population in the dozens !) and, like the other ‘Stans is a bit like California in that it’s common to see mix-race (God, I HATE that scientifically untestable word that was delivered to the world by the British to justify their “white man’s burden” racism) friendships, dating and marriages. A couple comprised of one with an epicanthic fold and the other with blond hair and blue eyes is wonderfully common. But the city is NOT dynamic nor exciting. Yes, you can go to the State Opera for nearly nothing and see a decent performance but this isn’t Paris, Texas, never mind the real city of light, by eons. It’s denizens where unusual head gear, whether the classic Kirghiz hat, felt skull caps, etc and can be seen in the modest dress of the muslim middle east and . . . the shrink wrap, push-up, styles of the west. A minaret is a stone’s throw from my guesthouse but no ones seems to stop anything during the imams’ call. And alcohol is never further than a few feet !

This theatre was built in 1963 - check out it's celebrations including Yuri Gagarin

Why ? Well, Stalin took a look at what the British had done and “improved on it”. (It’s noteworthy that both Stalin and Hitler looked at history as a guide to what they could get away with and HOW they could achieve it.) Stalin carved up Central Asia simply so that he could maintain just enough ethnic tension to keep the focus off of him and the lack of economic development. Many Tajiks state freely that “it was better under the Soviets”. I’ll bet – the Soviet subsidies sent were enormous, possibly more than 100% of the Tajik economy. Currently, there are more Tajiks living in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. The mix of groups across the ‘Stans is curious if you think these countries arose from some organic force. They did not. Like the Middle East, their borders were created from the devious imaginations of their occupiers. Like the Middle East, these areas were primarily inhabited by nomadic peoples.

Kyrgyz souvenirs and crafts

Now, thrown together in a “republic” with a name which celebrates (or denigrates ! ? !) an ethnic group, even though its a lumpy mix of any and all of the ethnics and you get . . . hardly an inspired nationalism. Which is good if you want to eliminate imperialism but makes selling a national identity very hard. And in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union these places have struggled, mostly aping the practices of their former masters – crush dissent, eliminate a free press, use patronage to control rivals or woo potential loyalists, and shanghai one or more “national” symbols as a means of placating various religious or ethnic groups. And the marginalized ethnics have repeatedly called for autonomy or independence – “generals always fight the last war”, none of these folks “gets it” that going it alone these days is an economic death sentence, globally.

The State Opera House

Anyway, my plan now is to drive well beyond Almaty tomorrow and then Oskemen the next day which will put me within 100km of the Russian border. It’s possible that I could clear the Russian border and approach the Mongolian border within a single day meaning, weather permitting, I could cross into Mongolia on Saturday or Sunday.

50's sci-fi prop as architecture. The MB's are all wedding rentals . . .

Please pray for sunny skies, even if they’re cold skies, and manageable water crossings.

One last comment – if it’s the LAST comment . . . this trip has been wonderful but it’s made me REALLY appreciate how fantastic living in Thailand is. The Thai’s are great. Their food is great. Our house is great. It’s always comforting and pleasant to think of being in the LOS (Land of Smiles).

Sawasdee !

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Introducing Kyrgyzstan

Since a “picture is worth a thousand words”, I’ll just list photos with captions for the most part as the previous post was image free. Remember that virtually every photo was taken between 3200 and 4700 meters (10,000-15,400′).

Normally, I don't even use a bucket to put fuel in a lawnmower . . .

A sign you don't want to overlook.

Stick to the roads. Don't walk the moors ! - yes, the road shoulders are mined.

Endless Hwy shot #1

Lunch stop looking over to Afghanistan

Sometimes the scenery was just conventionally breathtaking

Endless Hwy shot #13

What I kept thinking was - ok, there's a road, where are ANY vehicles ?

The Road: dirt, gravel, stream beds, rock gardens, landslides, snow, mud and . . . sand dunes

Aydar, one of his daughters and his granddaughter

Here is a proper petrol station with assorted funnels and buckets for any vehicle

If the moon had lakes, they'd look like this . . .

Endless Hwy shot #94

Parking space is not a challenge to find . . .

Ger (in these parts, yurt) on the range

Murgab from a distance

That's the fence which the Chinese have used to, um, claim 30km or more of Tajikistan's border

The riding was challenging for hours and of amazing variety - it was really enjoyable to ride the bike in conditions in which it was intended to prevail.

There are so many lakes like this, of differing colors, with snow-capped backdrops . . .

The new black, like the old black goes with all seasons and all places

That's the 'Pamir Hwy' on the left - you're forgiven for not noticing

Introducing Kyrgyzstan

Chinese road building in action . . . not a single flagman

I DO NOT watch too much Chinese television !

Some anxiety inducing information – observe the Ulaan Bator weather report . . .

It's getting cold . . .

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Dushanbe to Osh: Wakhan Valley & Pamir “Highway”

Well, it’s been a quiet week . . .

Except for a dozen passes over 14,000′ (4300 meters) with the topper 15,500′ (4667 meters). For six days I was above 10,000′ feet (3100 meters) and it was beautiful and . . . cold.

The roads were everything from spots of clean tarmac to 10 mph (15 kph) sand/gravel/mud paths with impossible steep switchbacks and not a few water crossings were the road had been washed away. One 100km (62 mile) section required over 4 hours – I never got the Duckling out of 2nd gear. The strangest part was the absence of traffic. On some of the lunar-like landscapes I’d see a vehicle every 3-5 hours. I did pass two bicyclists who were riding in their down jacktets !

People, again, were a very strong feature, overwhelmingly positive. In Dushanbe, a Tajik (by birth), who is also a Christian lamented his visit to the US – “the melons tasted like cotton . . . horrible fruits, poor vegetables and meat no one here would eat.” (I can’t disagree with most of that . . . ). The guesthouse in Khorog was hosted by a Tajik woman who spoke flawless English, always smiled, and made a beautiful breakfast.

During the ride thru the Wakhan Valley I was asked to stop for tea at virtually every encounter with the Pamiri’s. It was harvest time and the fields were busy, beautiful and a fantastic contrast to the Pamirs and Hindu Kush behind them.

The Hindu Kush (“killer of Hindus”) stopped India’s Hindu community to some degree, not that they were really ever out proselytizing, but Buddhists came in large numbers and it has to be said, even today, the most indelible imprint in the area is India’s, not Chinas – in the food, words, artefacts, architecture, etc.

However, if the Chinese keep making roads here . . . you’ll be able to ride alot of it with a Harley soon. Though I think it’ll be a long time before other services for travelers are “harley-ready”. Between Dushanbe and Khostvo I was stopped to “fix” a landslide. When they allowed me to proceed I’d wished they hadn’t. As I rode on the repaired way, the hillside began moving DRAMATICALLY and large, trash can sized boulders careened past me (or toward me). Crazy.

In Vamg, a Tajik named Aydar is a former Russian teacher whose opened a museum to a prominent 19th century Sufi (Mubarak), and who effortlessly straddles the 9th century and the 21st. When I arrived he was mending a mud-brick wall. We installed a new battery in his Korean SUV and he showed me how he’d bypassed the starter relay (two wires, pressed together in his fingers), and later asked me to use his laptop to connect to the Internet via mobile network. He has family all over the world and not a few are prominent academics. Warm, generous and easy going.

The Tajik border officials were . . . awful again. Requests for money were relentless and met with “Russki, chuut chuut”. (“I speak very little Russian.”)

Afghanistan was so close so often that . . . I had to remember that the road way to the riverside is heavily mined. When you stop for a loo break . . . you stay ON the road. On the Tajik side, a very poor country recovering from a civil war, there is a road of some note that is able to support trucks of delivery size. On the Afghan side there are mud-brick villages without electricity and a path pushed into the cliffs that even a Nepali would marvel “how . . . and why ?”.

From Vamg to Sary Tash marked two days of the greatest scenery fatigue I’ve ever experienced. Maybe it was the thin air but I don’t think so and doubt anyone who sees some images will, either. Sary Tash is on the Kyrgyz side of the border and is best known for it’s unemployment, it’s waypoint as a place that drugs from Afghanistan enter Kyrgyzstan via Tajikistan. The Tajik border officials only wanted MY money and asked not a single question regarding drugs. The Kyrgyz officials asked LOTS of questions about drugs and searched my bags in a more than cursory manner.

In Murgab I met just the 3rd American of the trip, a retired 60-plus former Federal worker. He was completely out of his element and nearly spent the night unsheltered between the Kyrgyz and Tajik borders at over 14,000′. Just because there’s a guidebook doesn’t mean it’s Disneyland . . . not that it seems that many have even read the guidebook they carry.

Now it’s off toward Bishkek (660km/400 miles) away and pursuit of my KZ Visa. Weather is good and hopefully things will go well at the KZ Embassy.

12,500 km (8000 miles), so far.

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When nobody in line is NOT a good thing . . .

One last comment regarding history and it’s hold/motivation on people. At the Sultan Ali concert in Bukhara part of the light show displayed camel caravans and the crowd LOVED it. And these people KNOW that dromedaries (one humper) and bactrians (two humper) to a lesser extent are rarely smart, often in a poor mood, and stubborn. The Soviets “reformed” these nomads and now . . . they’re (largely) just like us, though not as wealthy (or free). But the romantic appeal of the old days (VERY old days) is strong. Maybe like the old West or being on a farm appealed to many Americans.

Postcards from the edge - where next ?

But it’s a FACT that those caravans moved between cities which were largely or entirely crafted from Tajik peoples. (In fact, several times there’s been a petition to make Kiva, Bukhara and Samarkand part of Tajikistan (the current placement within “Uzbekistan” is the work of a historic charmer and do-gooder, Joseph Stalin.) That fact is completely lost on most Uzbek ethnics. Uzbeks speak a Turkic-based language and Tajiks speak a Farsi-based (“persian” – from modern Iran) language.

A very cool place whose likelihood is . . . statistically improbable

The Tajik’s kind of remind me of Nepal, and most importantly, the Kathmandu Valley’s Newari’s. The Newari’s are NOT in control of Nepal nor the Kathandu Valley and never really have been. But they CREATED what is popularly known as Kathmandu. They were the craftsmen and architects and designers of an enormous amount of far-reaching work that we can see any, and everyday. (For instance, the tiled roof on Chinese/Korean/Japanese houses and temples – originated in Nepal.) Their woodworking skills have been considered amongst the very best, ever, for some time. Newari craftsmen did much of the fine work at Thupchen Monastery (perhaps the Sistine Chapel of Tibetan Buddhism).

My wife normally picks these out . . .

So with the KTM’s electrical issues seemingly solved I was “free” to visit a few sights and prepare for the next part of the trip. The plan was to pick up my Passport and new KZ Visa at the Embassy at 5 on Wednesday and then drive toward Fergana and enjoy some ultra-ethnic experience and learn about the production and processing of silk in the world’s 3rd largest producer of silk, Uzbekistan.

This man's hat is so cool it looks good on me and today, I have a special price.

Rustam rode me out of town and even directed me to a shortcut. It meant that I only made it to Kokand, even then quite late, but I would be within 75km (45 miles) of Fergana in the AM. The place I found in Kokand had NO electricity. It was new, festooned with all sorts of blingey chinese crap with names like “Delta Quartz” and “Finest Fashion”. It had a nice veneer . . .

All the bread I've eaten at breakfast for weeks has been . . . warm.

Unfortunately, I did NOT have my new KZ Visa. For whatever reason, the approval had not come to the Embassy and I was informed that I would have to “wait”. There were several others present who also did not get their Visa as expected, including a Spanish couple who’d been waiting 10 days after being promised 5 days.

This bread is cool, huh ? Oh, you're photographing my grandfather ?

Kokand was another of the Glorious Maximum Leader’s “Potemkin Towns”. It had HUGE shopping areas, some houses fit for a Glorious Maximum Leader and a park lighting array surrounding the old medressa worthy of Times Square. I really think alot of the world has followed the US right off the cliff with a manufactured (ie, created/manipulated) housing boom. The attractiveness is too much for any pol or leader. Lots of jobs, instant “renewal”, a feel-good unavailable without controlled substances . . . everything until the bill finally comes due.

Turning a silk worms work into pretty fabric is hard, grubby work.

What is one to make of a country which has a glimmering cookie-cutter template for it’s college structures that are buildings which do NOT indulge questioning students that have air-conditioning but no running water . . .

NO chemical dyes, and the tea (chai) is strictly for drinking.

So I got up very early, wanting to see the earliest sign of life in the Fergana bazaar from my powerless “hotel”. The drive was very pleasant – clean air, light traffic and lots of good, rural, agricultural scenery and scents.

This is what sweatshop labor does NOT look like.

At Fergana I stopped at a recommended place and . . . it was so cool I didn’t know what to do. They had illy coffee. (It’s been 6 weeks since I’ve had real coffee . . .) They also had a bag of Starbucks which cracked me up. (Starbucks summons Abe Lincoln’s wisdom “If that’s the coffee, I’ll have the tea, and if that’s the tea, I’ll have the coffee.”) Anyway, a bowl of russian meat ravioli soup and 3 double espresso’s later (they were $1 each), I went to the Fergana bazaar.

Carpet making - back breaking, detail oriented labor. Stop smiling !

The bazaar was interesting enough but apparently no match for the Orange Duckling. Within seconds there was a crowd of surrounding me. The response to “America” were much more emphatic surprise than normal. (I’ve met just two Americans on this entire trip, they were fresh out of school and traveling together. Since 9/11 we’ve become VERY rare things.) I quickly moved on to have a look around.

Uh oh, no queue is never the fast queue . . . and it wasn't nor pleasant.

Fergana is an Uzbek village in a conservative Tajik region. Almost immediately a man chased after me. When he finally caught me he gestured great concern for the KTM, my documents, etc. He seemed certain that the bazaar was full of thieves. He didn’t appear to have any official standing but he carried himself quite seriously. I forced him to take a long path back to the bike so I could see more and when we returned to 50 or so men he pointed with almost a “I told you . . . ” look.

The multi-colored mosaics are a Soviet standard in Tajik towns and cities.

So I rode on to Margolin . . . to the silk factory where almost no electricity is used, no chemical dyes and where one can buy a meter (40″) square of silk for about $15. There was also a bazaar to see since it was Thursday, the Kumtepa.

Neither disappointed. I fell in with a Spanish tour group and we were shown the whole tale from worms to looms. The Kumtepa was truly something special. Again the Duckling drew a huge crowd but this time there was considerable difference. This was more of the VERY conservative Fergana valley. There was very little western clothing. Almost no baseball caps. Lots of white beards and women covered. The part selling chinese junk was . . . less interesting. But the bulk sold produce, bread, meats & fish (fresh and prepared) and . . . lots of tea. There were no other europeans – at all. And the sense that there wasn’t a West was the strongest I’ve felt in more than 20 years. It was fantastic.

So from an early start to a fantastic indulgence the day had worn on a bit too fast. I scrambled to exit Fergana and head for Khojand/Khunjand/Hojand and exit Tajikistan on the way to Dushanbe. (The transliteration of words from Tajik/Uzbek/Russianized Cyrillic is a never ending amusement. For instance, Kiva/Khiva/Xiva can be pronounced ‘kee-va’, ‘kee-wah’, and ‘she-va’. From Urgench to Kiva it’s 30 km (20 miles) and I saw just three signs indicating direction – ALL different spellings !)

This fellah fought the Mongols - with average success - poor.

There is at least one thing worse than a huge queue at a border crossing. No queue. When you are that one, mischief ensues. Consider many developing country border crossings as “tax collection centers” with a fluid rate. They must process the queue and so while fishing “throw the little ones back and keep the big ones”. According to the Uzbek official who greeted me no foreigner had been through in several months. At the gate it didn’t look like ANYONE had been through in months. When I first drove up it seemed abandoned.

Camels and orange buildings - what could be better ?

The Uzbek side was formality though hardly a process. Somewhat polite and somewhat gruff with even basic information requiring repeated entering/responding even if it already existed on a previously stamped Uzbek form.

But the Tajik side was another story. From the initial moment I was asked for money, just to be “let in” the gate to the officials kiosk. At least 7 officials asked for money, two “official” baksheesh. The only thing that saved me was my lack of Russian, alot of experience crossing crappy borders, and an insistence on behaving a bit madly (ultra-eccentric). When they took my photo at the last un-official inspection (after brandishing a sub-machine gun) I posed with the Hawaiian good-luck symbol pointed to the earth for them. Awful. Makes you feel dirty.

Don't be fooled. This was the ONLY place I could stop - 10,500'.

That transitioned to a nearly abandoned town along the giant Kairukum reservoir that clearly hadn’t seen any municipal investment in years if not decades. Ironically enough, there was a ‘bankomat’ (ATM) that dispensed Tajik Som or USD and the Tajik men there were very friendly and warm.

Old Russian bridge. New Chinese bridge. Old Russian car. New SUV.

A 90-km ride along the reservoir to Khunjand was in the cards and no further the Tajik border extortion had failed but had exhausted the sun and now rain was coming. Surely it was snowing in the mountains to the south. While Tajikistan’s glaciers continue to shrink rapidly the Kairukum reservoir threatens to collapse due to an earthquake with the possibility of sending waters of destruction far into Uzbekistan, possibly as far as the Aral sea.

Fantastic mixed landscapes.

Tajikistan kept provoking memories of Romania though I’m not sure why, exactly. Yes, the women are generally wearing headscarves and not as colorful as Uzbek women. Yes, it’s incredibly poor with many people living in mud-walled, single room houses less than 15 meters (150′) square. Yes, there is little electric lighting in the towns which contributes to a “dark” atmosphere. Tajiks are classically of Persian descent and so you see almost no epicanthic folds . . . unlike Uzbekistan. But there was, early on, a sense of darkness or foreboding or just having been abandoned in Tajikistan – like the civil war had caused a giant brain and genetic drain and what was left was what couldn’t escape.

The road from Khojand to Dushanbe was a marvel. Wide, smooth, with a paved shoulder . . . it was the best road I’d been on since Austria and required less than laser focus to ride, which was a nice relief. No sudden giant potholes, walls of sand, gusting sidewinds (though quite a headwind, but steady), roaming cattle, mad dogs, crazy children. Just a relatively high-speed jaunt in the country. On one side there was green farmland from the reservoir’s irrigation, on the other side sun-baked dust to brown high hills with amazing canyons etched by water and wind.

It's easy to find Soviet legacy, it's less easy to find it so laughable - airport terminal building.

It was just 300km (185 miles) to Dushanbe and the first 130km were very pleasant. When the road “ended” it turned into a very rough track headed up steeply toward the mountains at 8000′. The chinese are constructing a tunnel to bypass this Russian track using almost exclusively Chinese workers but it’s some time from being completed. The pass is at 11,300’/3380 meters. It was hard to miss the evidence of fresh snow – it was cold, snow was everywhere, and the sun was making lots of water spill down the track to the pass.

So up I went chasing a rag-tag caravan of Mercedes sedans, SUVs, small vans and . . . fairly large trucks. They moved at between 15-25 kph (10-15mph). I could do 50-100% faster and did.

At about 10,000′ snow, ice and heavy mud began to cover the track depending upon how much sun was on it. At the top, the temperature quickly became warmer (southern facing) and the downside was almost plain fun. At the bottom I stopped at a chaikana for food (shashlik and shorba/soup and tea.

The ride to Dushanbe provided more great scenery and would have been very pleasant if not for the through the Anzo Tunnel. It’s length is variously reported as 14km/22km. My measurement showed just short of 6km.

Six kilometers (3.5 miles) of unlit, un-vented narrow tunnel. The floor is covered in water, sometimes up to 10″ deep and potholes that even the large trucks try to avoid. I’m sure my risk of lung cancer increased manifestly after that 45 minute ordeal. The headache from the fumes was awful. I’d heard about this tunnel and had determined that the old road over the pass was my route. But due to the snow I was virtually forbidden from trying.

God, I'm glad the Anzo Tunnel is behind us !

So into Dushanbe and now a spirited jaunt across really bad roads in the Panj River valley along the Afghan border and parts of the Pamir Highway to Osh in Kyrgyzstan.

My internet access is likely to utterly collapse for as much as the next 10 days and even SPOT readings might seem “irregular” – it doesn’t work that well in the mountains in general and poorly in steep valleys.

The next 1500km/1000 miles may be quite quiet on this channel.

My only comment on the actual economic crisis now unfolding (2008 was just the warning shot – giving countries and people time to adjust to the coming tsunami – few did . . .). Well, the exchange rate for Euros vs USD to local currency has been sliding hard since I entered KZ. In Dushanbe, the exchange rate for Euro/USD is about 1.2. Euro – BAIL !

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Power anxiety . . .

Well, it always could end up being a trip shortened by . . . something I can’t fix or source a replacement part/function.

But not yet. 🙂

Sorry, but this will be another installment of “how wonderful are the Uzbeks . . . they’re pretty wonderful”.

And for context, let me add that a regular experience of this country’s irregular internet access is . . . censoring. Yep, even a search on Google Maps is often stymied and one is forwarded to . . . MSN.com. In fact a major resource for KTM ADV information the KTM_HOW (KTM Hall of Wisdom) is inaccessible from within Uzbekistan. I do know where the central building is . . . but even better I’ve started showing locals how to bypass the “cloak”. Even real police states are generally clueless but these guys are really amateurs.

Glorious Maximum Leader's Independence (from the USSR) Memorial

But even available internet resources can be quite restricted. For instance, the HUBB is often VERY slow . . . and I remembered a potential source in Tashkent mentioned there for help and maybe a . . . battery. The Glorious Maximum Leader apparently has a great dislike for motorbikes. And so the available supply of basic parts and mechanics is nearly zero. It is very strange to be in Asia and see so few motorbikes or scooters.

However, the “contact” on the HUBB, Rustam (Muratov Rustam), whose English was attributed as “non-existent” was called by my hotel. There were some general questions and . . . he suggested a “house call”.

Long story short, this guy shows up with a big grin and typical Uzbek handshake. And a multimeter. And tools. And a clear sense of a diagnosis path. He even has a load tester for the old battery ! An examination of the the starter relay, switch, contacts, etc reveals . . . no obvious issues (the contacts were “as new” or “immaculate” and all were tight.) But when he saw my Chinese clone of a Russian battery (yes, it’s been confirmed that the Chinese ARE cloning poorly-constructed, old-technology, Russian batteries. The next superpower . . . how can America compete in this market ?) he laughed. “This battery is maybe 3Ah, maybe less. Can power small toy if toy does not have to carry it.” I think he accepted it from me because he’s polite not because he believed my insistence that it could be used for anything of value.

So he sourced a battery – a made in Japan Yuasa which fit in the OEM compartment perfectly. It’s not quite as strong as the original but . . . I’m at least several thousand miles and several international borders and some nasty customs and crazy shipping fees away from “perfect”. (Remember, a lifetime – or even very good – warranty is worthless in . . . the middle of nowhere.)

The other task to be completed in Tashkent was the new Kazakh Visa. It wasn’t the scrum that the KZ/UZ border was but it was pretty crazy. I arrived 5 minutes before opening figuring that given the time of year, etc there’d be no one there. Well, there was only ONE other westerner, an English businessman who lives in UZ. There were two other tourists – both Japanese. One of them I’d seen at the Korean restaurant the first nite. And there were about 300 Uzbek babushki and a few Tajik men who clearly live in UZ.

The Embassy did not open until 9:18. There was alot of shouting to get in and not a few protests when I was waved through. It seemed that many of the applicants did not understand that without a Passport or an Letter of Invitation they could not actually apply. Apparently many were “repeat offenders”. Once you entered the air-conditioned outer-inner sanctum a corpulent young Kazakh woman greeted you with a sweet smile or splashed you with Kazakh invective with a scowl. That woman could switch from Jekyll to Hyde in a blink of an eye.

So perhaps because Uzbek police controlled entrance to the Kazakh Embassy I benefited in some way from being a privileged person within a police state. It might not be the only time . . . On the drive to Tashkent which was about 200 miles and largely uneventful except for my needing to stop the bike ONLY when there was a hill suitable for starting it . . . I came to about the 11th of 13 checkpoints (200 miles !), and decided to “check” electric starter functionality. When I hit the button the bike died and it was rolling too slowly to roll start. Damn it ! So the Uzbek cop comes out and, first, shakes my hand. “What’s wrong ?”, he says. I point to the starter button, say “finished, nyet harasho”, and make a pushing motion . . . he simply points to a blue-collar citizen and tells him to push me. The guy RUNS over and . . . does what he’s told. He wasn’t too thrilled with me when it took three goes.

Uzbek restaurant interior

Let it be noted that given a CHOICE of international foods when I arrived in Tashkent I chose KOREAN. Korean food is a one-note, (not one-hit) wonder. It can be enjoyed thoroughly, though in short doses. I will admit that on a recent visit to Seoul I actually felt compelled to look for “something else” to eat after 4 days. (I’d be embarrassed but I ate Indian for 6 years in India, 3 times a day, with a bit of boredom but not … compulsion to eat something else. Even in Nepal, where the cuisine is reason NOT to visit, I never wilted, eating dahl bhaat – incredibly bland dal and rice with stones (!) – at one stretch 18 straight days, twice a day.) It must also be recorded that since I couldn’t DRIVE the KTM around I was limited to walking and . . . a Korean place was only about a kilometer away. It was either that or a Russian grocery – which was shockingly expensive. Or Uzbek pizza – food roulette. You get the picture.

Last of the golden onion domes . . . it's Islam or Buddhism the rest of the way

Three updates:
a) I don’t know how or why but you’ve all made this thing actually register on Google search in spite of my best effort(s). Thanks, I think !
b) As I prepare to depart for the Pamirs and Afghanistan (Hindu Kush) internet access will fall drastically over the next 2-3 weeks once I . . . so, if there are updates, they’re likely to be VERY short and image free. Sorry. This monster, which has required ever more feeding will now have to go on a protracted diet.
c) Tomorrow will mark 10,000km since departing Frankfurt. The bike has been excellent. I’ve ended the bike’s radiator cap leak by cleaning up the sludge under the spring seal. It hasn’t burned a drop of oil. The chain has been adjusted once. It has required fuel. 🙂

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The ride in was through construction and frankly poverty as yet unseen that conjured images of Beirut or . . . Somalia. Since the KTM was running on battery power I did not chance stopping to record any fairly uninspiring images.

But the hotel was incredibly close to Gur-e-Amir (Amir’s ACTUAL mausoleum) and even tired and a bit anxious about the KTM’s problem(s) (?) I got in some photos and sightseeing. And a nice, cold Baltika beer. (UZ beer is cheap but, if one can, you spend the extra 40 cents on a liter/quart of Russian import. :))

Since it appeared I’d be delayed getting to Tashkent for my new KZ Visa I decided to give in to spending as many as 5 days in Samarkand sorting the bike and seeing the sights and . . . getting caught up on rest. It now appears that Tashkent will be further complicated by some sort of athletic event as hotels are completely overbooked. I may try spending the night at a chaikana outside of the city on Sunday nite and then rushing to the the KZ Embassy on Monday AM. If they’ll return the Visa in the same day (quite possible) I may drive further on to the Fergana Valley and bypass Tashkent altogether.

And the potential necessity of staying at a chaikana is a good time to introduce the myriad perspectives one encounters when traveling (and really, almost anything else), that are . . . all, in their own way, true. Many of my fellow travelers are somewhat less enamored of UZ than I. They’ve flown 8,000+ kilometers and I’ve ridden. They’ve been largely constrained to tourist areas, tourist transportation options and tourists dining, viewing and touristic engagements with “locals”. I’ve had a bit of that. They’ve experienced so-so food and overcharging, some of it on a fairly egregious level. (Whether it’s a $2 or $20 overcharge it’s not a lot of money in the west, but when it’s five to 10 times what a local pays . . . it feels dirty.) My luck, good, not-so-good, and standard have placed me at the mercy and civility of locals since . . . the plane pulled up at Vancouver, BC. But even in the tourist centers I’ve had good luck finding or being pointed toward local flavor. I’ll flatter myself and say it’s the SF vibe people pick up on – food is KING sprinkled with a touch of “he smells like us” (from eating the same food . . . ) and therefore I don’t “seem” like another inappropriately dressed tour bus tourist. In any case, little or nothing in the way of “issues” I’ve heard do I think are whinging or fabricated. But that’s one of the reasons you travel overland, independently. You’re not a “local” but you’re certainly not one of the aliens who drops in and then lifts off after 30 minutes of snapshots and souvenir bargaining. In Urus-Krishlak I was confronted with sleeping in a field next to a road and was ready to do it. One thing about traveling by motorcycle – your exposure is not only on display, it’s impossible to hide. And that makes for a certain connection with “locals”.

Sher Dor Medressa

On the first nite I had dinner at a 19th century Sufi home. The room we ate in was beautiful and the food decent, including the plov. Sufi’s had been major players in UZ life for over a 1,000 years but since the Tsarist takeover have declined dramatically. Soviet control effectively ended their time but independence (of some sort) has nearly eradicated knowledge of their contributions. Almost every house and home has some Sufi designs or relics but very few Uzbeks know what they are or assume they are simply “normal” Muslim artefacts/designs.

Ulegbek Medressa (1420) courtyard

With Soviet oversight and collectivization the house was assumed by the State and put up for auction. It says something about the local community that no one would make a bid on it and so it became an impromptu homeless shelter for years. Unfortunately, between burning fires for heat, smoking and a lack of maintenance the house and room suffered considerable damage. It’s ironic that the Soviets were so imprisoned by their own dogma that in forced collectivization they completely failed to harness the mineral wealth of their colonies. And their environmental tinkering (eg, Aral Sea . . . ) – well, it makes the ‘god-less communists’ seem like they’d taken a biblical passage (Genesis 1:26) to heart – “let them have dominion over all living things (paraphrasing)”.

Azure blue mosaics

There ARE some sights in Samarkand. It’s often challenged or even re-viled for the sloppy or overdone way in which some of the restorations have been done. The Registan, at least the two new Medressas that Ulegbek (Timur’s grandson, who taught mathematics and was quite an avid astronomer) built. Timur’s contribution has required significantly less work after more than 500 years in a climate of extreme heat, sun and not a little cold and snow. This is true of many of the 500+ year old edifices. The workmanship is exceptional. But these came from a time when Islam was a center of learning and idea exchange, not an ever constricting orthodoxy. (Mind you, both Jesus and the Buddha had similar complaints about either a lack of debate and/or a thorough mis-reading of the scripture within Judaism and Hinduism, respectively.)

Tiling and majolica madness

Now, many of the restorations have political AND religious motivations that I doubt would please the originators. This is, without a doubt, a global problem. Here the govt desires to contain and control the religion. And the religion, wants to sponsor questioning of the govt but stymie questioning of the religion. You can find people writing their own history or denying it in Burma, the former Yugoslavia, and even the Tea Party in the US. Here, the medressa’s are still GENERAL places of learning, not like in Afghanistan or Pakistan, etc.

Casual observers will notice the advanced application of the new black

But that’s not to say they produce graduates who have the scientific or engineering knowledge to restore properly, nevermind build something like the huge Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built for Timur’s chinese wife, which was one of the largest mosques in Islam for centuries and severely strained 15th century construction techniques. (It’s interesting to note that the HIGHEST (though definitely not of the greatest MASS) edifice in the western hemisphere until nearly 1600 were the temples at Tikal in southern Mexico/central America.)

Shah-i-Zinda - a collection of edifices and tombs constructed over 700 years

But again, these are strange times and curiously hypocritical ones, too. A german and his spanish wife were mightily critical of “organic” produce at dinner the other nite. They were unable to DEFINE (in)-organic. But this did not chasten them from all but mocking science. They had an opinion and for all intents and purposes – that WAS their FACT. I enjoyed this perspective from folks who were benefitting from electricity (and lighting) in a 19th century room, who were both wearing optics made with the understanding of physics and engineered math, and that they did not refute their medications . . . Take your pick – “the devil can cite scripture” or a long-time favorite of mine – “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

As salaam alaikum

The scientists are pretty good at criticizing their “work”. After all, they’ve little to “believe” (er, “faith”). Except the faith of the sceptic as the path to either answers or understanding. I’ve as much frustration with physicists who “find” new sub-atomic particles, but gain no insights, or play parlour games with mathematics to “solve” an understanding as anyone. But if the, ahem, un-educated, are so eager to mock things – let them try pre-20th century life. For a week. No fridge. No TV. No phone, landline or mobile. No running water and when it does “run”, no hot water. No car. No medicine. Pardon me, but “religion” poked the eyes out of a man (Galileo) who had the temerity to speak a fairly obvious truth regarding the position of the Earth in the Universe. “Science” has had a very short run and NUMEROUS advances. Religion (or just deliberate ignorance) ? (Not conflating ignorance with religion, btw.)

It's 400 years old . . .

Consider Islam. It’s easily the newest of the Abrahamic traditions and has SOARED to heights in number of followers, teaching and creativity in a very short period. But other than number of followers what has happened occurred when it was open, and, dare I say, scientifically skeptical. And now ? All the faith in the world won’t build any of those amazing edifices, whether the Registan, the Taj Mahal, or the Alhambra.

Shah-i-Zinda (Tomb of the Living King)

And it wouldn’t help me fix the KTM’s battery “issue”. Dang it.

Muslim cemetery near Shah-i-Zinda

But what did help me was a Muslim who took me around to just one shop and another garage. At the shop I was able to purchase crude but suitably heavy gauge wire. At the garage the guys did some minor trimming and drilling should I need to join lengths to make a longer cable. UZ has a 70’s feel in that EVERYONE asks how high the speedo goes on the KTM and by association how “fast”. Then they asked me if it could go THAT fast in UZ. They laughed hysterically when I answered ‘NO !’.

Observing that being limited to geometry & script isn't such a limitation

Two hours later I had positive indications that the starter motor was alright and that I could at least limp into Tashkent for a different battery if prudent.

Siob Bazaar

So more sightseeing was in order and my first goal was to try to secure a ticket for a concert by an Uzbek artist known as ‘Sultan Ali’ (in Tajik ‘Sato Ali’). He’s definitely a modern fusion artist, using old (10+ violins in his ensemble) and new instruments (electric guitar, keyboard, drum machine) to wrap Uzbek folk songs with modern techniques for producing rhythms. It was an interesting concert lasting over 2 hours. The music was solid though not as enjoyable as the stuff I’d heard in Bukhara from him. He knew how to work the crowd very well. And it was all completely choreographed. EVERYONE knew when it was the last song and then a very obligatory showering of bouquets but patrons followed. The crowd was poorly behaved, another increasingly global symptom, talking loudly during the entire show – even the people recording video on their phones would talk loudly while recording ! They had no idea about rhythm transitions or seques – clapping and whistling loudly at the slightest down volumes . . . clearly not experienced concert goers. (This “show” happens once every two years and normally in August.) The sound mix was decidedly a bit harsh on the high frequencies, though I’m sure it wasn’t just the sound man – I saw the REALLY bad chinese copies of the UK sound system the next day.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque (for Timur's chinese wife)

I don’t know how Timur would have felt about a light show blasting abstract designs in laser light on the Registan. Nor do I think he would have been thrilled by Sultan Ali’s discussion about “different people”. Sultan Ali’s pronouncements concerned MUSLIMS of different backgrounds (Arabs, Kazakhs, Turks, Tajiks, etc) not ALL people. Timur had a Chinese wife. He believed in general education, not just religious education. He had no favoritism for artists who were Muslim. He presided over an empire from Kashgar to Egypt that made easy and considerable room for other faiths and approaches, including a Bukhara that had a population that was more than 10% Jewish. Now Uzbeks don’t even have Sufis (“mystic” Muslims) in their midsts.

Ulugbek Medressa & Tilla-Kari Medressa

The Registan was interesting to video and photo with all the sound equipment and stages and crowd seating. But I look forward to Friday when that’s all gone and I can wander in peace. The Glorious Maximum Leader had the streets closed off for the concert, a huge police presence and full scanners for security. This all for a crowd of not more than 400 people.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

The Registan IS a tremendous view and presence. And Bibi-Khanym Mosque IS gigantic and imposing. The modernized Siob Bazaar is rather sad – there are interesting things for sale and great views of ethnic variety (UZ is really starting to remind me of California – eye/hair/skin color mix is definitely a cocktail “shaken not stirred”) but there are TONS of crappy chinese junk for sale. And the area between the Registan and Bibi-Khanym is lined with opposite rows of stores all offering the same tourist stuff sold at the bazaar for much more in a country that really sees very few tourists. There’s not a single international brand outlet in sight. There is a pharmacological clinic in the middle of all the tourist vendors just opposite a very expensive private children’s school. The clinic has appropriated the look of a medressa. How subtle. One morning women in nurses outfits, with masks in place, were out sweeping the way in front.

Hey ! This cotton candy IS heavy.

The Gur-e-Amir mausoleum is lovely. Timur’s “accidental” final resting place, it’s almost too dear for the “original Texan”. (Again, my favorite story about Timur follows. Having vanquished another city he took all the artisans into his personal “protection” where they were “offered” the freedom to please Timur. One man, apparently unfamiliar with Timur’s sense of grand scale, made him a Koran that required a magnifying glass to read, such was the skill of his craft. TImur threw him in prison for 7 years. When he came out he completed a Koran that required a ladder to mount and read. Timur like. :))

These ladies shared information, food, laughs and warmth while in Samarkand

But without a doubt, the most memorable, most intimate sight is the Shah-i-Zinda collection of mausoleums. Astonishing tile quality and, again, the ones built between 500-600 years ago have required much less restoration such is the quality of their work, both structurally and decoratively – when Islam was particularly open to other ideas and perspectives and when the great medressas taught hard science, too.

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