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.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Three Stans - Istanbul III

Another fabulous day with Eyüp and Ayşegül.... today with nice driver to the Archeology Museum, by far my favorite part of the Topkapi complex....and the only of the Istanbul museums built as a museum by the famous Hamdi Bey at the turn of the 19th-20th century...I just had to see my favorite pieces there, the stunningly simple statue of the young athlete, the two from life busts of Alexander the Great and his thrilling, utterly intact [and still retaining bits of color after being dug up in Sidon, North Syria by Himdi Bey] astounding and massive coffin with sculptures by the literal hundreds.... and now quite astonishingly displayed in its own vast room, quite phenomenally lighted in an otherwise dark mauve colored room.. It is I think the finest single bit of archeology to be found in this nation where the stump of every toe seems to turn up more. The Turkish land bridge of Anatolia WAS the main street of the ancient world...from the Hittites of almost pre history who left their massive basalt lions now framing the entry to the Istanbul Archeological to the Uartians, several waves of Greeks, the Romans, Seljuk Turks, Armenians and modern Turks....Every wave left something....something of dramatic importance, too. On he whole good taste which is certainly NOT a given was in richer bloom in days long gone by than in our worlds today.

We then drove to the Chora Church which was converted to a mosque with its pluperfect frescoes covered only to be revealed within the last 50 odd years with enormous help from the Ford Foundation. Sitting in a hilly, scruffy, oddly colorful part of Istanbul [itself largely forgotten by the city until well into the last century} the rather humpy looking building from the outside reveals itself on the interior as one of the truly astonishing interiors on the Continent of Europe...those frescoes with the piercing Byzantine eyes. eyes which follow a body somehow knowingly from any corner of the chapels and which lay covered by only a thin whitewash for 800 odd years only recently to be revealed as major icons still violently affecting after an equal number of years of sleep!

A Turkish tycoon has restored a nearby wooden mansion overlooking the Golden Horn through a lush garden of wisteria. peonies in riotous bloom roses and the last of the tulips and turned it into a discreet little hotel, the kind of place where a writer could retreat to write the novel, a dreamer could ponder the world, a couple could have an extraordinarily romantic tryst....We had a long lunch in the lovely club like restaurant, a kitchen famous in Turkey for recreating the Ottoman classical dishes....the cubed chicken with walnuts and pomegranates, a wonderful almond and grape soup; one of those peculiar dishes which sound too odd to be true, a sort of pinto bean with dill and wild mushrooms and garlic and celeric which is pureed and then turned into a
sort of baby brick...a taste combination and presentation of which İ had never seen nor heard and which was maybe the star of lunch.....we finished with a goblet of Turkish sparkling wine with the intense raspberry liqueur called Ahududu....a word from the land of Oz and an odd and quite beguiling dessert. Glory be!

Prices have risen here along with the strength of the Lire which has zoomed from 3 million to the Dollar to a worth today of circa 80 cents a pop. I paid for lunch for 3 and with a good tip it was
about 140 Dollars and worth every sou. To fill the office Mercedes today costs 150 Dollars [the Turkish key board has no dollar sign}...gas being almost 3 times the cost of the wicked prices at home. the Euro is king here...every fancy establishment quotes Euros for most things now.

Tomorrow Ayşegül and I fly along the Yellow Brick Road EAST...and I am psyched. A. has gotten a warning from a friend in the Turk diplomatic corps about bad times in the far North of
Afghanistan so we will see....

These days in Istanbul have been magical. the city is so clean, so much in the process of anthills of renovations mostly in GREAT taste....and I heard on the BBC that it was named one of the THREE safest cities for visitors in Europe along with Helsinki and Vienna. ZOUNDS.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Three Stans - Istanbul II

Istanbul April 25, sunny and cool

Yesterday glorıous...the vısıt to the sumptuous new Four Seasons due to open June 15th...a long lazy drıve along the Bosphorus where all the derelıct old yalıs are gone to be replaced by million dollar replacements or new buildıngs mostly ın good taste...then lunch at the İstanbul Modern...a superb museum cafe overlooking the Bosphorus as ıt morphs ınto the Sea of Marmara wth the Golden Horn spıllıng out beneath Topkapi....I had a fabulous köfte wıth pıckled aubergıne and drank the ayran of my dreams...the specıal exhıbıt was on how art seems to be born ın cıtıes wıth some sort of spontanıety where they featured on a tıme lıne Vıctorıan Englaqnd, Vıenna and the Werkstatten, Dessau and the Bauhaus. Parıs and art deco, Mılan and the post WW2 desıgn of things lıke Vespa and Olıvetti typewriters and the lıke then Los Angeles and exhibits lıke Eames Chaırs and so on...really interesting...then a huge show of Russian photography of the avant garde untıl the breakup of the State...Rodchenko of course but also a fabulous guy named Grınbaum whom I had never heard of.....then a longısh walk on İstıkal past the oh so updatıng shops...a nap...and then dınner at Hamidi about my favorite restaurant wıth a groaning board of mezzes and three dıfferent kebabs...lots of rakı and home to bed...all seems very rıght ın the world...

Three Stans - Friday Istanbul

A report on the Central Palace Hotel which is in a largely pedestrian only street south of Taksim about 3 blocks from the Divan and the Sheraton which is now the Intercontinental. This is a solid medium priced hotel with large rooms...mine has a huge bath with a diabolical looking shower (comeplete with a jacuzzi and steam bath feature which I cant begin to figure out)...this is largely a reworking of a late 19th century tall Ottoman era building which has been redone in what I would call Dubai Baroque...lots of guilding; lots of fake egyptian stuff; lots of brocade....but I rather like it. It is what new rich Dallas would build if they were from Adanaç Breakfast just now was a dream with homemade yoghurt, twelve kinds of Turkish breads, even little crepes with maple syrup and lots of home made jellies some from fruit which looks peculiarin its purple or mauve sheen....bring the hotel up on Google and you will get a good picture of things! Aysegul comes in an hour and we will do the latest exhibits including one on the new city which contrasts Istanbul with London, Vienna and Chicago at the Istanbul's a great museum and this should be fun. From the land of Insallah

Three Stans - Chicago to Istanbul

The CHICAGO WHITEHALL is tired and they have lost a lot of their joie...for example they ask for picture room ac roared but nothing came out and it was stuffy...but the adjacent Italian restaurant is interesting and I had a good dinner...Tony you were right on as Le Colonial is just around the corner north of Delaware of Rush and I had a grand drink there...not much else for now...I am in repose until tomorrow AM when Aysegulh as a full car and driver program which I know will be wonderful...flew OVER Munich and thought to is an odd world

The flight on TK was exemplary from check in at O'Hare until arrival Istanbul....Business on the Airbus has 36 seats and four attendants are assigned....lovely creatures they...the menu is handed out and my name is on it....the dinner is lengthy and glorious and the raki flows....fabulous mezze and then I elected halibut grilled with wild mushrooms...then an orange crepe cooked on board!....the seat is ALMOST of the Turkish stewardesses told me that their impetus in joining Star Alliance meant a whole new service level and believe me they put such members as United and Lufthansa to shame...breakfast was little lemon pancakes with sausages....the whole thing utterly professional and friendly and enjoyable. Aysegul awaited me at the airport looking radiant all done up in tartans she bought in Edinburgh...Sally this strange hotel is yes strange...sort of done up in a Turk's idea of HIGH Las Vegas with gilded this and that, a huge shower that doubles as a steam bathi jacuzzi and no doubt also a telephone and muffin maker... I managed to take a shower without wrecking the diabolical looking monster (which one encloses oneself in with a bit of prayer)...