Thursday, January 06, 2011

Frommer vs. Frommer: First Family of Travel Disagrees About AFAR

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Three Stans - Hong Kong Musings

May 15, 2008

The terrible earthquake in Szechuan province could be a billion miles away; It takes more than that from the good burghers of Hong Kong to stop their frenzied dance with materialism.

Yesterday I took a lazy harbor cruise to see the 100s of big projects which didn 't exist the last time I was here more than 10 years ago. I have always loved the Peninsula Hotel but have only tolerated Hong Kong: with the exception of its rapturously beautiful setting and some A+ architecture, the city offers less for the mind than, say, a city such as Indianapolis which is less than a tenth as big.

What HK has is shopping and the glitz of the world. GRAF (or is it Graff?) here in the Peninsula which is now the world's premiere diamond merchant has a 14 carat solitaire ring and a necklace (I had the courage to price it) for is USD $11.7 million in its windows

HK shows some better taste than Dubai (perhaps it is a bit more Palm Beach than Dallas) but SOOOO much good taste begins to cloy and then to irritate! Most locals live in egg carton apartments reaching often 40 stories in 20 identical building units (Orwell is reaffirmed) and they are definitely not in the local society magazines. Still, I get the feeling that most would like to be. That most moms would like for their sons to be tycoons driving a Ferrari rather than philosophers planting gardens. Maybe HK is the world.

The manager of the Peninsula is a Viennese guy called Svoboda (probably from the Favoritenstrasse district where most residents trace back to Bohemia) and he has a fabulously light hand. The bar has Josef Hoffman-knock off bar chairs. The new tower actually blends well and one can have breakfast at the pool on the 8th floor with an unobstructed view of the harbor...or take a helicopter from the 30th over to Macao for the tables. Still the soul of this hotel is the original 7 floors. My Porcelain Pagoda Suite is where the governor general of the Crown Colony surrendered to the Japanese generals in 1941. The hotel continued to operate through the war with Swiss management. The Swiss continued managing the hotel until very recent times which must account for the CHESA Restaurant, a Zurich-cuisine place all done up with cuckoo clocks on the 1st floor. Fondue in HK's humidity is about as appropriate as an Eskimo pie in Iqualuit. A few other lighter touches now under the Viennese management: a Demel's like pastry each evening by the bed instead of some rock hard Lindt chocolate as an example. Last night was a little Dobos Torte.

It is rather easy to be beguiled by Hong Kong when you're in the mood to be stroked. It is perhaps far easier though to be repelled. There is an earthquake with perhaps 20,000 dead not THAT far away (less than a Little Rock-Denver distance) but nothing could stop Chanel's sponsored CAMELIA (or was it MAGNOLIA?) Ball last night for the
Prada clad ladies whose grandmothers had bound feet. When is enough enough? My wallet thins.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Three Stans - Homeward Through Hong Kong

Monday May 12th.....Hong Kong - who SAYS luxury isn't salubrious!!!! I flew out on a late night departure on Turkish Airlines. We flew over Bangladesh and Burma (northern Burma near the Himalayas - a long way from the devastation) then the South China sea after Hanoi.

Upon exiting the jet bridge I find a red uniformed man with a leather board with my name on it and am shown to a waiting electric cart. The distances at the airport are really overwhelming. My man takes me to baggage claim and then passport control, turns me over to his colleague who then takes me to the Peninsula Rolls where a bespoke driver (I promise there is such a thing) drives me in sybaritic luxury to the Hotel. Wingo, the Asst Sales Manager, waits at the entry and we go whoosh straight to the Porcelain Pagoda suite which they have assigned to me for the little indignity of having to register (Wingo does it all for me). The living room is larger than my flat with an enormous chandelier which could light the Staatsoper. There is a trio of juices in carafes, an assortment of fruit and an array of chocolate, pretty furniture, sort of English country house yet formal. My bedroom is lush with a wall of closets. The bathroom with 6 soaps from which to choose, every appurtenance known to man, a separate WC-bidet has a separate shower large enough for four and bathtub which could service Babar the elephant. It is all beautiful which when you think about it is rather rare in posh suites and also old shoe comfortable. When I first stayed at the Peninsula in 1964 I thought it the best large hotel in the world. IT STILL IS!

It is muggy and overcast in HK and I may (truly) never leave the hotel for the next four days! ALL IS RIGHT IN THE LAND OF INFINITE BLISS!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Three Stans - Back to Istanbul

Istanbul May 8th 08....65 degrees cloudless...feeling much like San Francisco though better! Aysegul and I left a 2:30am call at the Hotel Tajikistan and of course this type A personality wakes up every 30 minutes and looks at the trusty LL Bean clock....what happens next is KEYSTONE COPS but when it is happening to me it is not remotely funny. Our wonderful driver Svengali (neat name-eh) was there...we got stopped on the way to Dushanbe Airport only once by cops for no reason. They earn STRAF which is a nifty word to know and means all over Central Asia a dirty bribe. Police in Dushanbe make USD80 per month and it makes them all a little rapacious though the usual STRAF is about 2 Somalis which is 76 cents. We arrive at the airport which has exceeded my former WORST [that was Moroni in the Comoros] and what follows is rather boggling. The check in with TK is ok...though oh-so slow. This is after security check #1. Then it is to security check #2, where an enormously bovine Russian-looking woman takes a little time from chewing what must be the largest wad of gum between Tashkent and the Wakhan Corridor. Though the gum could have been a large bale of alfalfa come to think about it. She has never seen nor apparently heard of a pacemaker and I get lovingly patted down. Aysegul stands aghast. I am determined not to give him STRAF...we have a 10 minute standoff with a huge line building....he says that I will not be allowed to board the flight because there is something missing from my visa documentation...I stand my ground though Aysgul says my face was crimson....finally the guy gets the picture.

Now we are in the departure terminal. There is one active gate and the only two international flights of the day are scheduled within 10 minutes out of the gate. The other flight is Air Ghastly going to Yekaterinburg - that is how they spell the Russian town where the Tsar and family were murdered. One can tell the TK passengers, generally a well groomed lot smelling of bottled and sprayed essences....the ruffians (a hundred of them] bound for Yekateriburg all smell like exceedingly tired cheese---that peculiarly Russian smell which reminded me instantly of the Moscow Metro. Of course the passengers are totally confused....a gang fight almost develops...but it is all sorted out. It is now 510AM and my mind is like a lava lamp....we board...utter serenity. The attendants are lovely. I am so glad I have a window seat for the Aral Sea view again. Turkmenistan looks about as inviting as E New Mexico from the air. Then we flew over the Caspian and Baku and Tiblisi and good old Ararat looming up to the far south… over Batumi. It is a radiant clear day as dawn follows our progress over the Black Sea. We had a perfectly lovely breakfast too served in 2 courses; muesli, a fresh fruit compote, lovely yoghurt and then the main course, a lovely Turkish börek (flaky cheese filled pastry) with to shame Starbucks. We arrive at Istanbul’s Yeşilköy airport on a radiant morning. The driver EYTOO who drove us in Eastern Turkey is there. I’m wafted to the simple, utterly pleasant Richmond.

Istanbul seems SOOOOO welcoming and after Central Asia so WITH IT and European. Zegna has their main shop across from the hotel. Also a branch of the wonderful Viennese coffee house-pastry shop Diglas.

Eyüp, Ayşegül, Eyüps sıster, Amre and I had dınner at a Meyhane very close off the İstıklal, my favorıte walking street ın the cıty. A MEYHANE sort of translates into a neighborhood dive and thıs one on an impossibly lovable little lane ıs called AMALI. the place ıs narrow and crammed wıth old photos and other art...the clientele is exceedingly local (a favorite of author Orhan Pamuk) but it is decidedly REAL and the lace hasn't a cute bone.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Three Stans - Over the Mountains to Dushanbe

May 7th 2008 - 75 degrees and sunny.

Again yesterday in Khorog the Tajik Airlines 40 passenger YAK jet was cancelled...this time because of "possible clouds".....time in Tajikistan, the poorest of the former SSRs, is somewhat illusory!...but it turned out to be a GREAT adventure to add to the many we have had (including the vodka party in the Afghan Customs Post in Iskhashim!). Aysegul and I had a very early dinner (wonderful homemade tomato soup with mountain herbs, a club sandwich and kefir...all very healthy) and we arose yesterday morning (Tuesday here) at 530 AM to meet our driver Hami...who it turns out is a miracle man with a car. He tells us the MOUNTAIN road back to Dushanbe has opened and off we go. It is again quite surreal. We go up up up from the Pyanj River 13,500 feet up into deep snowfields. It is ravishingly beautiful country though the road is rather like a slippery two lane track with 1000 feet drop-offs...but we trust Hami and are rewarded with our trust (after all I am writing these lines!). We see a Marco Polo sheep, an endangered critter with curlicue horns...gorgeous. We see a fox mother and 3 playful kits. We finally reach the summit and what has been slip/slide going up in our Toyota minivan turns out to be a modified slalom on the way down finally reaching reassuring lush valleys with the first fruit tree blooms of spring...and the first village which also seems reassuring!

At a huge road construction site being done by the Chinese we are told that the delay will be 6 hours. Aysegul takes over and somehow in Turkish explains that I am the American Consul and have an urgent flight to catch in Dushanbe a further 6 hours down the road. It works and we are let through! Hami is very impressed. Aysegul speaks Turkish to a Chinese guy who speaks only Chinese but it has worked. We now go down the worst road yet. My pervasive feeling that Chutzpah is utterly necessary in travel surges. The road now deteriorates one gigantic rock after the next. I am so happy though and the country is superb. High plains and lush valleys unfold in the first green of Spring.

This was a horribly hard winter for Tajikistan. There were threats of starvation in many villages and MUCH help from UN Agencies and the Aga Khan. Finally the road improves because we pass the president of the "Republic"'s country house. At 800 PM, 14 1/2 hours after we departed Khorog we are in Dushanbe and back to our relatively lush Hotel Tajikistan. We say goodbye to dear Hami (who along the way has reattached the muffler and also talked two village boys into washing down the car from a stream) and go to my absurd sitting room to drink Raki and thank whomever up-or-down-there that we are intact.....although jolted about rather like a smoothie.

Today is our last in Tajikistan...a country of gloriously friendly, good looking, proud but very poor people. They hide their poverty but one can feel it. I am sad to leave Central Asia. We await Chanal, our guide, who insists that we go to the Dushanbe's "famous musical instrument museum" which no doubt will rival the world's largest revolving clock in Billings in sheer spectacle. All is very well.

We had a strikingly unusual lunch today with our guide Chanal and our driver Sangalle at SALSA – what must be the only Ecuadorian restaurant in Central Asia. Lunch was a plantain salad with salsa and tortillas, arroz con pollo with fragments of mystery veggies, ice tea (outside the temperature approx 99F if my math is halfway extant) and then a brownie sundae mit schlag. It was delicious. I paid $40 for 4 people in what Chanal says is the most expensive restaurant in Tajikistan.

A truly insightful lunch dealing with lots of issues. After the breakup of the USSR Tajikistan got its independence and the troubles truly began. The Tajik language is based on Parsi (Persian) though the people are either SUNNI or Ismaili - a progressive sect of Islam. Probably inspired by Iran there was an attempt at an Islamic revolution where Taliban-like militia tried to take control. A civil war resulted and about 90,000 people died. The pseudo democrats WON about 6 years ago and order has been restored but the gross national product has been dreadfully reduced. NOW mosques are in very little evidence, it is forbidden for women to cover their heads or faces if they wish to go to school or university. I get a pervasive feeling that these lovely Tajikis, (by far the most "European" looking of the Central Asians), just want to get on with life. This might explain the horrendous roads the dire lack in the rural areas of some basic supplies and so on. I SO like these people...they are bright and I sense not very naive...I shall miss them.

Today we also went to the Modern History Museum which is a C- but has a brilliantly beautiful 14th century Mihrab. We had endless cups of tea at the local hot spot sidewalk cafe and watch the very decorative locals being observed and loving every moment of it. We went to a museum of Soviet Art.I do dig these often ghastly but ALWAYS fervid paintings. And now it is time to go to Istanbul.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Three Stans - Into Afghanistan!

We finally arrive Khorog after a minor fender bender at a police post (3 hours----Tajik Time is rather abstract I discover....and the town is beautifully situated...where two rivers (one unpronounceable) meet at a sort of Pittsburgh Golden Triangle to form the Pyan. The town is VERY green with a few pretty houses...a largish bazaar...the headquarters of the Aga Khan good cause group (and he is utterly revered...these Ismailis have no mosques as such, the women are totally head scarves....and the priest is a normal citizen a bit like someone normal to us as a Presbyterian preacher or a reformed Rabbi). Nothing would do but we head to Amahl' house where her gregarious, English speaking a rather vodka loving husband (he looks like John Garfield of eld) has set a lunch of lamb pilaf, beautiful new tomatoes, yoghurt and kefir, delicious bread, honey.....and finally to the Serena Inn where we lodge. We see Khorog...not much to see specifically but one lovely botanical garden in the hills.

The Pamiris, the high mountain people, are a breed apart from most ordinary Tajikis. They are often very tall, have the superb posture of mountain people, adore gardens and trees and with the help of his highness they have prevailed upon the world to send specimens of trees which can thrive at 6000 feet. Oddly the winters are not unbearably cold so that even some of our southern trees thrive here; cottonwoods and even hickories. NOW finally we reach the Serena is a long slung rather lodge-like hotel of 8 rooms which would grace someplace liked Jasper or Jackson. My room is absurdly opulent of course. The local travel agent, a TERRIFIC guy named SHARGAF and his buddy, Amahl's husband who is KORAM arrive with two bottles of chilled Tajik vodka. So we sit in my highness’ room and get merrily stewed and work our way through dinner which is secondary in the priorities for sure.

ALL plans are made. This morning Aysegul obtains an Afghan visa for a $40 bribe. Koram invites his buddy, the senior Tajik customs inspector, along...and we roar up the GUND River 125 KMS to Ishkashi. We have a some rather happily spirited moments with the Tajik inspectors at the international bridge which we cross to enter the Afghan customs post where Koram spreads out chocolates, deviled eggs, dried fruit and a sweet bread...along with two huge bottles of vodka bought for the occasion. The Afghan guards, proceed to drink the forbidden nectar of Tajikistan and get truly roaring drunk.

In walks an Englishman named Andrew who is the good-works manager for the Afghan Aga Khan group. He invited us to his office where I am now. He outlines a lovely drive a few km up the WAKHAN corridor (also spelt WAKAN and VAKAN) into unbelievably rough, beautiful country which reminds me of the Big Hole in Montana. The Afghan villages ARE poorer though they DO all have schools in this region and the women are not wearing the Burkha...these Afghanis are mostly Tajiks and since the USSR dissolved are discovering family roots across the border. The stores are rather sparsely supplied but people look healthy, even robust and meet our glances with a direct and proud demeanor. It is wrenching to me to see essentially the same people living vastly different lives on two sides of a river no wider than the White at Calico Rock; and having been so horribly manipulated by foreign powers. I guess these lovely Tajiks have suffered since the day of the Great Game between the Russian Empire and the British Empire when the Wakhan Corridor was established so that the two bellicose nations would not have a common border. The map is even more absurd than the Oklahoma Panhandle......and before I return to Tajikistan later today I hope to have calmed my thoughts of imperialism at least a little.

Travel is glorious. The plane to Dushanbe is cancelled for tomorrow...the aternate road through the higher Pamirs has been closed by rockslides....and if the damned highway were not so bumpy I could read WAR AND PEACE....14-16 hours.....yeeeek. Travel is glorious.

Three Stans - Ishkashim

Ishkashim, May 5, 2008 cloudy and about 65

The last 2 1/2 days define what travel is all about. Let me go backwards! Look at far SW China....running out of it is a razor thin corridor of Afghanistan called the Wakhan illusion is that China is the mother, the Wakhan the umbilical cord and Afghanistan is the still attached baby. Get a good map and it will make sense. Aysegul and I are now is Ishkashim a town both in Tajikistan AND Afghanistan, the last town traveling east in this bizarre, superbly jammed with snow capped peaks utterly extraordinary part of our world. I am attempting to send this from the Aga Khan Foundation, the "lord highness' of the Ismali people who inhabit both sides of the border. We are based at the Serena Inn built by His Highness and as a matter of fact I not only sleep in his bed.

We left Dushanbe a 530 AM Sunday for the Air Tajik fights to/from Khorog high in the Pamirs have been cancelled because of "clouds".....the drive is astounding: leaving the capital on a normal road, it deteriorates into a rocky dirt track for 125 km. Our driver Hami looks rather like a wizened troll.

Suddenly we reach the PYANJ (pee-ange) River, quite a roaring stream like the Arkansas around Canon City...and on the other side of the river for 350-odd km Afghanistan is to our times close enough to wave to children...the land looks peaceful though the villages are stunningly poorer than the ones in Tajikistan. The Soviet Union definitely brought a level of prosperity here as well as utterly liberating its women. No wonder there were so many Soviet sympathizers in Northern Afghanistan. Traveling with us is the very pretty late 30s wife of the best friend of the Khorog travel agent, his daughter and her friend...returning home to the mountains after studies in Dushanbe...all speaking wonderfully creditable English. At one big town we break for lunch at the university roommate of Amahl, the mother.....lovely fruits, cold roasted chicken, apricot and cherry juice, kefir and yoghurts and home made bread all around.....then on the road again which has deteriorated one point we drive on jagged stones under a sizable water fall...I do not exaggerate. Next: VOILA we hit a superb stretch of 3 lane cement highway built by Turkish Aid. It is Tajikistan there are police checkpoints about each 50 km....this helps create employment and also hopefully helps stem the opium/heroin trade from IS May and the poppy fields are in full bloom red to the horizon across the Pyanj. Dusks falls and it is not safe to drive the road which has turned back into a rutted track.We stop at a little town, Kolekum, where Amahl's husband has a friend. The guy, dashing and rather suave has room for everyone but me and the driver in his house. So we large lodged in a sort of guesthouse next door....which we share with about 10-12 Tajik army noncoms who lounge around and try to use their ultra limited English with me...again, utterly surreal. Tajiks by the way are very good looking people...the women remind me often of the late movie star Teresa Wright....the men look at bit like the late Cornell Wilde.

I sleep amazingly soundly though snores come from every part of this two story wooden house. Breakfast is brought at 5:30 AM including fine homemade bread actually warm from the oven with home churned butter, local honey, kefir and yoghurt and Nescafe. Nescafe in Tajikistan seem to have a soignée cachet.....Aysegul reports that her house (where she slept in an enormous room with the three other women) was lovely and comfortable with all of the mod coms. We had no electricity in ours but I had my trusty LL Bean flashlight and lo and behold there was a western styled toilet. No hot water, no shaving.

The topography becomes wilder and wilder.....jagged snow capped peaks in literally every direction....well cultivated valleys (in Afghanistan too) and many adobe-type houses looking oddly like a Central Asian Santa Fe. Lorraine poplar by the thousands (they are quick growing and their long timbers are prized for construction). There are lots of roses in the villages, bluebonnets and huge forsythia bushes. The apricot and cherry trees bloom. I am an awfully long way from home.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Three Stans - On to Tajikstan

The last two days have been utterly remarkable. Up at the crack of dawn to the Bishkek airport to our waiting Soviet-made (circa 1955!) equivalent of the old F-27, that lovely plane to fly as the wings were over the main body and flight seeing was unlimited.....but they say that a plane's age should be multiplied by 5 or a person's age so that our sturdy craft was a flying great grandmother of 260-odd years.

The flight was beyond spectacular....the heavily snowcapped Tai Shan range just out of Bishkek was utterly spectacular except the flying Great Grandmother seemed awfully close to the peaks which rose Teton-like.....THEN the fertile Fergana valley shared by THREE stans...there were the highest peaks of all, the Pamirs way off to our east with Pik Lenin or whatever they have morphed the name into rising highest the tallest mountain in the old USSR, something like circa 22,000 feet. Just as a nice snack was served, chicken-tasting chicken with cucumber on a little baguette, homemade tasting gingerbread, a chocolate bar, coffee or tea (this mind you on a flight of Air Kyrghyz which doesn't appear in any computer nor airline guide) the FAN mountains (I love the name) appear and we manage to fly over them without getting a dusting of snow from their peaks. The 40+ seat plane was full, including the Tajik national basketball team among others, and since no one including the two pretty flight attendants seemed the least rattled by the mountains Aysegül and I affected a nonchalance.

Landing at Dushanbe gave a tiny portent or what might follow. We sat on the ground waiting for the airport bus.......a good 10 minutes....we have landed it seems in Insallah-stan......then it is into a glorified shed with one customs entry for all passengers (locals in these Stans do not quite understand the Queue) with landing papers to fill out (Tajikistan has the most complicated bureaucracy save the DPRK in the world) all in Russian and Tajik........when I finally ascertained what was what my form looked like chickens had attacked the page....but we managed.......bags WERE there.....and so was our guide Jamshed....a lovely guy about 40 with 2 children a wife.

It is a warm and sunny day....get into a rattletrap Moswitch (I think it is) and drive into one of the more remarkable cities on my travels. Why? there must be a million rose bushes in full bloom...great avenues of gorgeous trees....all of this nature sort of occluding the essentially Soviet architecture only infrequently interposed with some new or old buildings. Despite the architectural miasma the effect of all of these roses and all of these towering trees in great allees down almost every street lend an air of opulence. Nature has made a silk purse from a sow's ear. We go to the VEFA Apart-hotel as among their first guests. Aysegul and I each have a huge apartment with a completely furnished kitchens, a massive bathroom, a living room twice as large as mine in the flat, a bedroom with a sturdy bed...all done in not too hideous furnishings save the Day-Glo paintings on the walls. We could have 50 up to dance in both of our units. They are SOOOO kind at registration...everyone is all smiles....and then bits of reality set in: the bath and shower in my unit has been improperly installed and doesn't work........the kitchen is serviced with nescafe and tea but no salt or pepper or bottled water (the tap water of Dushanbe is said to have more gardia bacteria than that of St P's)...little things are awry. These units eventually will be lovely for a family of 6; there is plenty of space for kids.

Jamshed came up for a 2 hour briefing. He is almost the personification of an old INTOURIST type...the usual answer being "oh that's impossible".....but we like him. Jamshed WANTS to please. Here are some excerpts: "the road to Khorog has landslides and is impassable" (not true), the state theatre has closed for repairs (not true), I doubt if we can FLY to Khorog in the great Pamirs right on the border with Afghanistan (we will see) get the picture. As soon as Jamshed left Aysegul and I went out exploring (it was MAY longer a festival day of parades...but a day as Labor Day should be, everything is closed up tight...a lovely time to see a city physically)...we walk to the old Tajikistan Hotel, Intourist's finest.....half of it is open, the other half under total renovation...the Turkish speaking manager shows us the new little suites (smashing) and we make arrangements to move this morning after one night at the Vefa Apart-hotel. I do not blame dear Jamshed for putting us you were in Tajikistan you would think the place was the Bel Air.......with Aysegul in tow, we tell the nice people at the Vefa that we are moving....and they promise full refund to Jamsed (which he doubted this morning when he came to pick us up (never for a second doubt the ability of a Turkish lady of regal bearing to have any hotel penalties forgotten).

NOW we begin today to be a tourist in Dushanbe....the hit (and it is a biggie) is the National Museum of Ancient Art and Relics...which has on its second floor a reclining Buddha made of terra cotta) the same medium used in the destroyed-by-Taliban masterpieces at Bamian just over the border in Afghanistan....this Buddha is the largest reclining terra cotta Buddha in the world...easily 40 feet long.....but such claims of size may be dubious. My favorite was in the fine city of Billings "the home of the world's largest revolving clock>" The Buddha IS magnificent. If the largest reclining terra cotta Buddha can not exude serenity there is no hope on this earth for any of us. There were also many GREEK relics definitely from the days of Alexander the lots of ancient Greek or Greekish statuary (look at Dushanbe on the is a hell of a piece from Macedonia I tell you).

Rather a fabulous museum....then to an ultra secret place: Tajikistan was renowned in the old USSR for its gem mines and accomplished polishers. We went to the source. Nothing really PRECIOUS except in the realm of good taste: breathtakingly pretty jade, amethyst (including polish amethyst)....river seed pearls of great size and quality. Aysegul who would rather shop than breathe was in the land of nirvana. THEN we drove out of the city (after a stop at the locally soignee coffee house for some great lattes and odd sandwiches) to a town called HISSAR (which I know means FORT in Turkish) ....and it means FORT in Tajik, a language akin to Farsi and the only STAN not Turkic. It is a local must sight...the 18th century fort and I hope no Tadjik reads this missive for I would give the fort a C- most charitably. Still we saw the countryside with luxuriant fields just sprouting summer wheat, many vineyards, hundreds of acres in apricot orchards and so is Friday and Mosques are full: our driver Svengali (I love it!) and our Ismaili guide Shonal (a pretty lady from the Pamirs) are good company...the old rattle trap does us well.

The Stans turn out to be almost nothing alike one from the other. Kyrghyzstan exudes prospertiy and a positive air...Tajikistan is much poorer (though far form hungry)...the Kyrghyz are infinitely "with it" and the Tajiks are not....the pure Kyrghyz looks a bit like a slightly-westernized MAO....the pure Tajik could be someone's next-door neighbor in Cedar Rapids......some oriental types can be seen but so can Swedes (and these people are NOT Russian)...this is about as far as Alexander the Great got east and seemingly heredity shows it.

We are off by AIR or road to Khorog about 400 kms east...Aysegul says if we go by road that she is perfectly willing to sleep in someone's barn...she means it. GREAT travelers are a rare breed and I am blest with one to put up with your irascible correspondent.

Tajikistan says hi!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Three Stans - Karakol Excursion

Bishkek late afternoon Wednesday April 30th

We just returned to our Turkish high rise (with especially generous servings of good caviar at $9 a pop) from two absolutely striking and exciting days. Our driver Valentin is A+...the son of an important local functionary and the representative in Kyrgyzstan for George Soros and his foundation....a young guy of 30 with 2 children and a computer programmer wife (whose family thinks he has lost his mind for wanting to be in travel)....he has a growing organization of cars and drivers, minibus and buses....and I would trust him with my granddaughter I like him so much! We have also been accompanied by a guide named Svetlana who is agreeable. We cut out early yesterday and drive east...first through the suburbs and into steppe-like landscapes...then into a long a gloomy and very windy canyon which looked remarkably like that landscape south of Butte.....the canyon then opening to the wonders of Lake Issyk Kol.

How much can one write about a lake: yes it is 170 km long and 80 km across...something like 75 rivers and steams and streamlets run into it but nothing flows out of it....despite being surrounded by snow capped peaks (some well into the 20,000 foot range) the lake is fed by underground thermal springs and never is shockingly blue....and was closed during the USSR days to all foreigners as the Reds tested their torpedoes (and other horrors) is shaped rather like a cucumber, it is the second highest alpine lake (Titicaca is larger, Baikal as I may have written is not alpine), supports a large fishing fleet and what locals wags call the Kyrghyz navy (converted-into-pleasure craft excursion boats now). The SOUTH side is rather arid but with marvelous copses of blooming apricot trees here and there and Kyrghyz cowboys with ridiculous looking tall felt hats sum crowned by luxurious hawk feather managing huge herds of mostly sheep but also cows and horses. Geese strut about the highway sure that no one would dare kill is other worldly in a way and yet it not totally unfamiliar ground to people who know part is our west...just substitute a cowboy hat by a chapeau which Dior might have fashioned.

We arrive in the main lake town of KARAKOL (famous for its sheep and the tightly woven wool which was fashionable in the 30s and 40s as a far coat or jacket) was not founded until the 1860s and the Russians (many military, many jacks of all trades discovering the wild wild east) and the Kyrghyz who drifted in from their yurts and high mountain life to give up their nomadic ways to farm and be fixed adobe cow-people... (when I think about it I would wager that ALL of our ancestors were nomads too.....but at a date far earlier than the 1806s)...we sought out a good bowl of borscht and good tea and then set about sightseeing.......the requisites here include the Chinese Muslim Mosque (the Uighers who fled from the Urumchi area when the Hans became a rather unpleasant majority a bit ala Tibet) built without a nail....with Uighers starting at Aysegul who of course knows Mosque etiquette......then to the Russian Orthodox Church which, mostly because of its absurd globular domes and interior 4th rate icons, where a lady of the church physically attacked me (picture an enraged chicken clucking at the maximum and beating me with its wings) because I had stepped into some particularly sacred space...I am still not sure what it was...but then again only the Zoroasters (Parsis) have a god which we can all agree exists, the sun. we left a nice offering at the Chinese mosque but nothing at the cathedral. Those poor people in the latter had no doubt suffered indignities more heinous than mine in the Stalin days.Our hotel in Karakol was comfortable, a new building all done up in orange and I think terra cotta, one with very pretty huge felt hangings in every room (the local craft...Aysegul, the worlds number one shopper almost bought one....big ones are circa $200...but better sense prevailed). We went to a restaurant for dinner called KENCH which I swear sounds like a soubriquet for Lotte Lenya in a spy movie...and at said KENCH was had a magnificent beef stroganoff and would you believe crepes suzette all around...dinner for the 4 of us was $38 including lashings of vodka and beer. Man, Karokol is a bit of all right and the fanciful Russian wooden houses are off a stage set. Anything of course done after 1917 or so looks like Ciudad Juarez.

After a luscious breakfast of homemade yoghurt and the local muesli and an egg certainly laid 20 minutes before (we were all awaked by the rooster), we hit the road on the VERY green north shore of dear old Lake Issyk Kul. The trees of the area are mind bogglingly beautiful and there are 10 mile allees of Lorraine poplars...then birch...then weeping willows. Hardly a mile could pass outside a village without these spectacular (and well cared for) avenues of trees....all nicely interspersed with cherry and apple trees in FULL Bloom. The country north of Kygghyzstan is Kazahkstan and you might like to know that its largest city is ALMATY which in the Turkic tongues of the region means "father of apples".....couldn’t resist the trivia.

The big stop today was at a rock strewn region at the bottom of towering snow capped peaks...above the kitschiest resort town on the lake (picture decaying Soviet era sanatoria plus new modern-than-tomorrow buildings calling themselves Meridien, Beau Rivage and of course Four Seasons (no relation). LO in this area of boulders uphill and still within sight of the resort town of Cholpon Ata was one of the greatest petroglyph sites on earth: bronze age fashioning of snow leopards and ibexes, still quite visible, amazingly intact without graffiti....the ancients kept using these huge stones as their canvases even after the arrival of the Kyrghyz in the 8th century. Some of the art, crafted by people as mysterious as our Anazasi, was done by a lost people called the Saka-UIsuns who also arranged some stones here and there in oddly shaped circles which seem to have little to do with one can figure out WHAT the shapes are there. It was spitting rain; deserted, eerie...the place was as exciting to me as Stonehenge or the possibly more dramatic Zoarts Stones in SE Armenia...

Now it is back to Bishkek after a stop at the Burana Tower a pre-Islamic sort of minaret in a deserted city in which lots of Scythian gold treasures can be found ...from the top of 4-5 srory remains of the tower I could make out the humps and angles of the ancient city....11th century mostly. Neat place. Scythian gold working is about as elegant as anything man has done (some good pieces too in the adjacent museum at Burana)....and the stuff keeps showing up in the damndest places like Graz, Udine and Zamosc!

Can you tell I am having the time of my life? Sure you can! I wish each and every one of you were along.....It is a true thrill to be somewhere on this earth immensely valid to visit but largely devoid of world tourists. They will come.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Three Stans - Arrival Bishkek, Kyrgystan

Bishkek Monday morning April 28 80F

Deep in Central Asia, I am in Bishek the green capital of Kyrgyzstan, a nation which I award the kudo of being the "hardest to type" of any of our nations! It almost seems in some ways be Oz, to fly nonstop for five hours east from a darkening Istanbul....night falls over the Black Sea and the captain announces that the bright almost-full moon is making the shrinking ARAL SEA, the best example of ecocide on earth, is in eerie view abut an hour and a half before arriving in Bishek. With three hours time difference (later here) it was close to 200 AM when we landed.

Twenty-odd minutes later the bags show up---voila---and we meet Valentin our Russian driver....a young fellow I'd age at about 30 who has two children and a wife and rudimentary English but who somehow I like. We drive down a darkened expressway: Bishkek is having a usual power outage and various raions (or districts) are in Oz-dark...twenty MILES to the Ak Keme Hotel, a high-rise looking like a possible escapee from Dubai where the registration has never heard of us (now 300 AM) a situation which we eventually righted. I was too keyed up to sleep and today, Monday the 28th of May I have been led around like a slightly addled bull with a ring in its nose.

Today bright and early at 900 AM Valentin shows up after Aysegul and I have eaten a Kyrghyz breakfast which consists of several types of limpid rolls, delicious honey, a vaguely Nescafe hot drink, odd juices (apricot looked the least lethal) the whole thing rescued by a succulent homemade yoghurt. It's off first to meet our guide Svetlana, who is a 20 plus year old Russian-Kyrghyz dish. We like Sevetlana. She will travel with us tomorrow for our two day sojourn east.

Bishkek is an immensely green city, once a mostly treeless steppe which has proved that even a largely Soviet city can be made into a bit of a sow's ear. To the south are Innsbruck-massive and snow capped mountains, looming and beautiful....we drive through avenues of Lorraine poplars and elms and oaks and still blossoming fruit trees. We see the requisite sites, pretty much like seeing the requisite sites of Wichita...and yet a day which turned magical; proving indeed again that we were in Oz. On a Stalin-vast square in front of the nation's massive history museum (looking like a slightly soviet Memphis Airport) a great jamboree is going on....among yurts put up to hawk "crafts" (mostly Tahitian painted-on-velvet level but then rescued by the region's famous felt not only molded into yurts but into clogs and boots and headdresses complete with prominent hawk fathers. To a cacophonous blaring of over-amplification we see groups of school girls, elderly grizzled old guys who play weird stringed instruments; one looks like a huge stalk---or whatever one should call lit---of okra, elderly AARP types of Russian folk singers having the times of their lives; many with gold teeth above old fashioned prom dresses, accomplished ballerinas doing interpretive dancing; one seems to involve an endangered mountain sheep being attacked by a hawk.. At any rate you get the picture and Aysegul and I delight in two solid hours of home made fun...innocent, the entertainers having a guileless and joyous time under clear skies.....Ted Mack's Amateur Hour (for those who can remember it) come to the Steppes of Central Asia. We definitely are in Kyrgyzstan: the entertainers' families, three or four thousand of them, busily snapping photos of their loved ones who were dancing about as mountain elves or forest ogres and ogresses. We stopped then at the fuss-feathers Stalin baroque opera house though nothing is scheduled during our stay: I had quite looked forward to something like La Boheme in Kyrghyz having "done" Aida in Kazahk lo those many years ago in Almaty---with my late, dear friend Hella on the trip on which we met.

This city has a quite astonishing swatch of physical types. The pure Kyrghyz looks a bit like a young Patrick Swayze to morph into a heavy jowly eyebrowed and large-headed older man very reminiscent of Brezhnev though I don't think he had an ounce of Kyrghyz blood. The Russian minority is about 40% and the street signs are all in Cyrillic letters for them...they look like Russians....and the two majority groups seem to get along splendidly and naturally. There are others: Chinese who have escape the Cultural Revolution and wandered in over those 16,000 foot passes to the east, Germans, resettled here from the Volga by Stalin in the late 30s and 40s, Tajiks who are the Asians often with blonde hair and blue eyes and yet "something" genetic which sets them apart from your typical Dutchman......there are Kazahks and Uzbeks (I used to be able to tell them apart)....and about every other neighboring person that a Kansas-like tornado could sweep together here in Frank Baum's Asian kingdom. There is a fair sized American airbase here but these warriors are simply not seen on the streets.

I am having a hell of a good time. We set out (Valentin, Svetlana, Aysegul and I) in V's lovingly kept '94 Mercedes to drive the whole circumference of Lake Issyk Kul, the second largest ALPINE lake in the world (Titicaca is larger and Baikal is not an Alpine lake) no doubt odd ethnographic and geological pearls of reflection will ensue. We'll spend the night tomorrow at Karakul, a little Russian-mostly (and Chinese Muslim) town at the very east end of the great into which scores and scores of rivers and streams wash but nothing flows out.....could it be possible? Yes, for we are in Oz.