Saturday, 29 September 2012

Jeti Oguz, or where I reasonably fear I might freeze to death on a mountain

After wandering around the market perimeter trying to find out where marshrutkas to Jeti Oguz would leave from, I finally found a formal station near the stadium where marshrutkas left from (in the 2014 Lonely Planet it's marked as the Southern Bus Station, but it was unmarked in the 2012 edition).Before getting there I bought some supplies while I was in the market, as I figured the options in Jeti Oguz might be limited. Chocolate bars are a reliable (and compact) source of energy which are easy to take with you when hiking, and I had been  buying a lot of them since I was in Kyrgyzstan (and often snacking on randomly instead of keeping them for occasions when I would be away from other food sources).

I caught marshrutka 355 from the Southern Bus Station, which stops in Jet Oguz village and continue all the way along the southern shore of Issy Kul before ending in Kochkor. Jeti Oguz Village is still a good 10 km from the sanatorium where the famous rock formations of broken heart and the seven bulls are located, and I started to walk, figuring I could probably try to hitch along the way. Two other western tourists were on the same marshrutka, and they seemed to have the same idea. Although I started out ahead of them, they soon passed me as I kept stopping to take pictures, and they were hitched a ride after a kilometer or so of walking. As both the weather and the views were nice, I decided to keep walking.

Not far from the village, I came across a couple of super-skinny little puppies by the side of the road.

I fed them the sausage I had been carrying around since I saw that starving kitten in Pingyao. They were so unused to people they bit my fingers, too.

I hope they survived.

View to the west.

The Jeti Oguz river.

View to the east. There were lots of horses in the valley. Probably more horses than cows.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Karakol: a Russified village nestled between the Tian-shan mountains and Issyk-kul lake

You can catch a marshrutka to Karakol from the Western Bus Station in Bishkek. It cost 300 som for the 6-hour drive there, following the northern shore of Issyk-Kul lake. Issyk-Kul was a popular resort area during the Soviet era, and beach resorts line the northern shores. Slightly saline, the lake doesn't freeze over in the winter, which is why its name means "hot lake" in Kyrgyz.

It's a six-hour marshrutka ride from Bishkek to Karakol, broken up by a rest stop at a real, full-fledged restaurant in the lone pass between Bishkek and Issyk-Kul lake.

View from the rest stop.

Because the ride from Bishkek takes six hours, there's not much time to do anything once you arrive in Karakol and find a place to stay (especially since the bus stop is some distance from the center and the CBT office probably isn't open, in case you were hoping to stay at a CBT guesthouse).

I ended up staying at the Neofit hotel, which was 450 som for a single room, including breakfast. Bathrooms were shared, but they had ample hot water and good pressure. I thought it was a good value, but not the best place to stay if you want to meet other people and arrange trekking in the area.

The colourful entrance to the Neofit Hotel's restaurant. The hotel entrance is around the corner on the left.

Karakol's Chinese Dungan Mosque. Dungans are the local term for Han Muslims, and are basically what the Chinese would call Hui. The ladder on the right is to harvest the pears ripening on the tree.

Most of the worshippers look more Kyrgyz than Dungan/Han to me.

Students line the park in front of the University. I quite like the unkempt look.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Bishkek, part two: in search of the elusive Iranian visa

It's always something of a relief to return to familiar places, especially when you arrive fairly late, as you know where things are and how to get to where you need to be. This is becoming less and less of an issue with the GPS-equipped smartphones and offline maps that everyone has nowadays (as well as Google maps having a lot more listings with every passing year), but any way you slice it there's a lot less stress when you're on familiar territory.

I arrived at the Western Bus Station and made it to the Sakura without any problems, only to find that they were full. Not that surprising, really. They told me that there was a cheap hotel nearby, a couple of blocks south next to the casino. I made my way there and eventually roused the slumbering receptionist, if that's the right term. She was really more of a keeper of the keys, ensconced in a room behind a window. 300 som for a night was fine by me, so she gave me an old fashioned key and told me my room. Endless jiggling of the key eventually yielded entry, and I was in a simple 3-bedded room blessed with a functional electrical outlet.

I'm not entirely sure what this place was, but my best guess is that it was some sort of place where students stayed. Not all of the building was used as a hotel. I visited the bathroom and there were some dire squat toilets and barely functional faucets, but no showers. The bathroom had a common entrance for both males and females, with a divider down the middle that didn't reach the roof. For 300 som and one night, it wasn't a big deal.

Applying for the Iranian visa was a bit of a mess. You have to do all of the applying in the morning, and then pick up your visa in the afternoon of the next day. I already had my passport pictures and confirmation code ready (and thankfully they were able to find it this time), but they also surprised me by requiring proof of travel insurance. I didn't have insurance, so I had to go out to an internet shop and buy some online (it turned out being worth it, as I was able to make a claim on my damaged lens, which paid out more than the cost of the insurance). After submitting my now complete application, I had to go to the National Bank of Pakistan and deposit the visa fee of 50 Euros to their account there (perhaps the only embassy which doesn't price things in US dollars).

Had I arrived back in Bishkek a day earlier, I could have shaved a couple of days off of my stay in Bishkek: embassies aren't open on weekends, and by applying on Friday it meant I had to stay until Monday afternoon. Blah.

MiG-21 on display. Kyrgyzstan's flight training school used to be the major source of income for the republic, and Syria's Hafez al-Assad was trained there.

Monument to Fighters of the Revolution.

The wooded park that runs north-south along Erkindik Avenue. Unruly poppies and trees make it look both domesticated and wild at the same time—a common theme in Russian-style parks, it seems. I was sitting there reading my kindle one day when a Kyrgyz University student came up to me and started talking to me. She was embarrassed when I identified myself as a tourist that didn't speak Russian, and returned to her friends. So apparently I can pass as a Kyrgyzstani in Bishkek, where lots of people dress like me, even if few people in the country would make that mistake.

People's Friendship Monument, celebrating the anniversary of Kyrgyzstan's entry into Russia.

The statue of Lenin now sits behind the Historical Museum.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Back in Almaty

I returned to Almaty with a broken Kindle and without my iPhone. This meant I had no internet-capable device, and no handy way to get my email (assuming a wi-fi signal). I also was in need of additional storage space for my camera, as my 70 GB of storage were just about up, even though I was shooting in jpeg.

Incidentally, shooting in jpeg was a huge mistake (which I should have known, if only I had done some serious testing before leaving). I had always shot RAW before, but I had relied on bromides about jpegs from modern cameras being good enough for just about anything. For whatever reason, the jpegs produced by my D300 are atrocious. I mean, I'm not just talking about banding problems, but about severe and rather incomprehensible haloing as a result of its image processing engine. It's almost like the clumsy masking that you can see in some HDR photos. If you're wondering what I mean by this, look at the picture of Khan Shatyr, below.


Look at the edge of the illuminated tent, and notice how the area around the tent is artificially dark, and how it suddenly turns lighter a fixed distance from the tent, as though the tent has a dark halo. This is with minimal adjustment to brightness and contrast, and with more manipulation (to brighten the sky, for example) the effect will only become more evident. This horrific and inexcusable effect more typically appears in pictures where a darker object like a tree is pictures against a bright blue sky, where the sky immediately around the object is artificially light. Do any manipulation and the haloing becomes quite obvious. I only discovered this when I returned home and started to do some serious work on my pictures, by which time is was too late.

Anyway, since I was running out of space I already knew I would need either some new CF storage cards for my camera, or a portable hard drive to move files to. Given the difficulty in finding the less common CF cards, as well as the heightened expense that such a specialty product would have in smaller markets (SD and micro-SD cards were much more common, given their use in mobile phones as well as car stereos in the CIS), a portable hard drive seemed like the most likely option. But after I lost my phone, I gave serious consideration to a netbook. Thankfully I was in Kazakhstan when this happened, which meant there were real computer stores with reasonable prices: everything in Bishkek was at least 50% more than you would pay in the US (and if someone had decided to import things like Google Nexus or Kindle Fire tablets they could make a killing there). I found a refurbished ASUS netbook without an OS for 32,000 tenge, which was a reasonable price even by the low, low standards of US pricing, and decided to buy it. It wasn't that difficult decision, given that a portable hard drive would have cost at least 10,000 tenge, and likely more.

The decision to buy was only slightly complicated by a Canadian guy at the Apple Hostel who was interested in selling his Nexus 7 tablet, something which had only been released after I started traveling. He was happy with his Nexus phone, but I ultimately decided against it since it didn't have nearly enough storage and I would need to buy a hard drive as well.

This Canadian guy was really, shall we say, interesting. He was in his late 40s, and was Armenian-Canadian. He spoke Russian fluently, and was taking a year off to travel mainly in China, where—in his experience—foreigners are treated like kings. When I disagreed with that assesment, he said that maybe it was only white foreigners who were treated that way (although he was slightly swarthy, he strongly resembled Ron Jeremy, and said that his copious arm and body hair fascinated the Chinese). I think he's really the one who reminded me that I'm not white and that I do get treated differently than white Westerners, but some fair-haired Europeans at the hostel also disagreed about white people being treated like royalty, so I suspect that things have changed considerably since the last time the Canadian had been in China.

Anyway, he was spinning his wheels in Almaty because he had somehow managed to lose both his passports and all his travelers cheques (who carries these, anyway? ATMs give you just as good, or better, rates) on the streets of Almaty. Am-Ex was refusing to reimburse him because they found his account of his loss suspicious, and the Canadians were unable to issue a new passport in less than either 30 or 90 days (based on my attempt to get a new passport in Washington, DC, I believe it was the latter): the best they would do was issue him an emergency travel document to allow him to return to Canada. His Georgian passport (more on that in a minute) was his lone ray of hope, as they said they would be able to issue him a new passport in under two weeks, though he would have to go to Astana to pick it up.

How, you may wonder, does an Armenian-Canadian get Georgian citizenship. Well, according to him, the President Mikheil Saakashvili was a rabid xenophile with a Dutch wife, and he had instituted a policy where any foreigner (or maybe any Westerner) who lived in Georgia for more than 3 months could apply for citizenship. So that's what this Canadian guy did, and he got his citizenship. As a former CIS member with reasonably close ties to other former-Soviet republics, carrying a Georgian passport made travel within CIS states considerably easier. It sounds preposterous, as did his claim that Saakashvili mandated that foreigners be given a free bottle of wine on arrival at the airport, but that was his story.

As a result of losing both passports and all the money he had on him, he had to make a lot of phone calls to different parts of the globe. This involves different time zones. Because this was very confusing, he decided on the basis of his confusion that everyone in the world should switch to a common time system. And since we would all be switching, anyway, why stop at the simple adoption to GMT or UTC? Why not go to a complete base-10 system, and away from 60 minutes and 24 hours? I pointed out that Swatch Internet Time, with its 1,000 beats per day, embodies exactly this idea, but for some reason had not been widely adopted. He was very insistent that the idea was superior and that change should be foisted upon us, and could not be convinced otherwise.

For someone who looked like Ron Jeremy, he had a surprisingly intense interest in younger women. Although he had been in Almaty for less than a week, he had already gone on a date with a divorced Kazakh woman he had met through an online service. As a divorced woman with a daughter, I suspect her prospects in Kazakhstan were limited, and perhaps someone with a Canadian passport sound appealing. That's the only thing I could figure. He was also very enamored of this Georgian girl who had once interviewed him about how he obtained Georgian citizenship, saying she dressed like a hooker in her Facebook pictures, and was eager to show them to a Dutch guy who was going to Georgia. She was in her mid-twenties, and the Canadian said she was almost too young for him. The Dutch guy then asked him who he would consider to be too young for him, a question to which we never got a real answer.

Despite his quirks, he could be an interesting guy to talk to, as he speaks Russian fluently and Russian is what everyone in Kazakhstan speaks. Unlike in Kyrgyzstan, where Uzbeks will speak Uzbek to other Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz will speak Kyrgyz to other Kyrgyz (although the language are both Turkic, as are Kazakh, Uyghur, and Turkmen, there are enough differences to make them only as mutually intelligible as Italian and Portuguese, for example), Kazakhs will speak Russian even when amongst other Kazakhs. To a large extent this is because many Kazakhs speak no Kazakh, and even more are not fluent in it. Indeed, it is remarkable to hear Kazakhs actually speaking Kazakh in public.

The Canadian's view on this was kind of surprising, because he thought Kazakhs should use their local language more. The reason this was surprising was because he also thought that there should be no sympathy for people like the Georgians who insisted on using a backwater language with a unique writing system that effectively limited their economic opportunities as compared to if they all spoke Russian or another major language. In his mind, economic progress was really the only thing that mattered, which is why he was also effectively on the side of the Han in dismissing the complaints of the Uyghur and Tibetans in China. On the other hand, he was also critical of Japan, which hasn't apologized for war-time and colonial atrocities in Nanjing and elsewhere, and where the Prime Ministers continue to visit Yasukuni shrine, where multiple convicted war criminals are interred. I pointed out that this kind of anti-Japanese antagonism only makes sense from a moral perspective, and not from an economic one, and that if we were adopting a moral perspective then the Han treatment of Tibetans and Uyghur were equally problematic.

He eventually got really mad at me and told me to stop talking to him when I pushed back against his time-zone idea and suggested that it would introduce a lot more problems than it solved. I think everyone else in the hostel (and life) was content to simply tolerate his views as the source of amusement, especially since he had some difficulty understand when people were taking the piss out of him. At one point he touched the screen of someone's laptop, then apologized for doing so. I said that he probably didn't like it when people touched his screen, and he said that when people at work did that to his computer, he would briefly excuse himself and walk to the bathroom, return with a mess of wet paper towels, scrub and dry his screen, then turn back to screen-toucher and ask them to continue their thoughts. He said this usually prevented them from doing it again. I suspect it prevented them from ever visiting him again.

But it was nice to go out with him and have him be able to translate things or decipher menus or ask what things in cafes were.

The Green Market in Almaty is a nice mix of an organized Central Asian market and Western hygiene, especially in the central fresh-market area. The surrounding areas are just seedy enough to feel exotic and "authentic."

Almaty is a very chic place. There are top-notch international stores and brands, and in many ways it feels like what I imagine certain Baltic states must feel like: very European and modern, but with unmistakeable traces of Soviet influence, or that it had been a little down on its luck not so long ago. The edges are roughest around the Green Market, but they never really get that rough.

Part of that is because of the people, who are really very young and stylish. The German girl I met in Xiahe said the women were really attractive (something I also heard from others), and it's true: they are. I'm not sure many of them are actually any different than Mongolians or Kyrgyz so far as fundamental appearance goes, but it's just that they dress like Russians, put as much money and effort into their appearance as Russians, and have very Western style sensibilities combined with the resources to implement those sensibilities. What does make some Kazakh women unique, however, is that the large numbers of Russians in the country have resulted in some Kazakh women being of mixed heritage, and many of these women (and men) can be incredibly stunning (and perhaps the only people from whom the word "Eurasian" actually makes any sense). Sometimes Russian blood manifests itself in light, sandy hair, which is sometimes explained as them being "real" Kazakhs, on the theory that many in Chinggis Khan's army had fair hair. Other times it's visible in a mixture of Asian and European facial features, or green eyes. Sometimes the effect can seem a little awkward, in a captivating sort of way, while sometimes it is simply stunning. People of mixed ethnicity are relatively rare, however, and it is even more rare to see someone who appears to be the direct result of inter-ethnic parents.

The dome of Almaty's Central Mosque, finished in 1999.

Interior of the mosque.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Astana: the weird, wacky, and wonderful architecture of Kazakhstan's showcase capital in the middle of nowhere

Astana isn't actually the last stop on the train from Almaty, but it's where almost everyone gets off. Because there really weren't any decent options available in Astana at the time (though the folks behind the Apple Hostel in Almaty, overwhelmed by the popularity of their hostel, have opened a branch in Astana), I decided to stay at the Station Hotel, which offered dorm accommodation for 2,500 tenge per night. The ladies working at the hotel were actually pretty friendly, which is always a bit of a surprise at an institutional hotel with Soviet roots.

Although the train station is some distance from the new city and its architectural attractions, it's still pretty convenient since buses run south along the main street to Khan Shatyr pretty frequently, and it's dead easy to get off the train and check in. Unfortunately, because most guests are taking the train, it means you have people checking in and checking out at all hours of the day or night—whenever a train arrives or leaves. And because of this constant churn, the staff changes the linens as soon as someone checks out, which means you will have noise at random times when you're trying to sleep. As with many other Soviet-style hotels, you need to pay extra to get a key to the shower: 3,000 tenge.

I took a quick nap after arriving and walked south towards the new city. Around the station the city is kind of a dreary Russian-looking city: a little bleak, not a lot of trees, large and characterless blocks of buildings (although the ground floors were typically occupied by modern shops and restaurants).

Although it was only mid-September, the change in climate was immediately noticeable, as Astana was much colder and windier than Almaty, and the vegetation nowhere near as lush or varied. In many ways, Astana felt like Calgary: dry, cool, and relatively inhospitable to most trees.

The further south you get, the more modern the buildings look, and when you cross the river and arrive on the left bank you truly arrive in the world of weird architecture in a planned city.

Almaty's building boom started when Astana was named the capital, in 1997. Although Almaty is a gorgeous city and one of the gems of Central Asia, it's also on the southern edge of Kazakhstan, next to Kyrgyzstan and quite close to China. The move to Astana, some 1,200 km closer to Moscow,  emphasizes the importance and primacy of Kazakhstan's relationship with Russia, while also creating an indisputable Kazakh presence in the ethnically-Russian north and providing the platform for the creation of a showcase city to announce Kazakhstan's bold ambition and new-found prosperity.

Most of the interesting new buildings are south of the Ishim river, which has been artificially widened as it runs through Astana. This southern area is romantically called the left bank, but it's no Paris. Almost all of the buildings are arranged along an axis known as Nurzhol Boulevard, which runs from the Khan Shatyr shopping center in the west to the Presidential Palace along the Ishim river in the east, and then continuing along the same axis on the other side of the river with a number of additional monuments. From one end of the other it's about 5 km in length, and long-term plans call for this axis of monuments to be extended considerably.

The exterior of Sir Norman Foster's Khan Shatyr shopping center. Security is pretty tight, and you have to go through metal detectors and security scrutiny as you enter. The building apparently cost $400,000,000 to build.

Traditional design in flowers.

The main entrance.

KHAN SHATYR!!!! For someone used to more differentiation between upper and lower case, Cyrillic can look monotonous and shouty.

A model of the central building with the networked apartment buildings that will surround it. You can see the pools and beaches on the top floors of the model.

Speaking of models, they had models as live mannequins at this Wrangler store. They would take a pose for 30 seconds or so, then move around and take up new poses. This picture kind of sucks because I tried to take it surreptitiously, since it seemed weird to take pictures of them, even if they were models.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Leafy, European Almaty

Marshrutkas run pretty regularly between Bishkek and Almaty, leaving Bishkek from the Western Bus Terminal. I was accompanied by a couple of German guys who had flown into Bishkek and wee looking at spending a week in the city—more time than they wanted. Although they had a now-unnecessary visa for Kyrgyzstan, they lacked one for Kazakhstan. I had read online that it was possible to enter Kazakhstan as far as Almaty under some sort of reciprocal program, so long as you had a Kyrgyz visa, so they were trying their luck at that. At the border, however, there was a long delay in processing them, so the rest of the Marshrutka passengers and I had to wait for an hour on the other side of the border while they were processed. It's a good thing that time isn't of much value in Central Asia.

When they were finally processed and allowed to enter into Kazakhstan, I found out what had happened: although the law did allow them to enter, it only allowed this if they had a double-entry Kyrgyz visa. Of course, since entry to Kyrgyzstan was now double free, this restriction didn't make much sense, so once the Kazakh officers told them that they were returned to the Kyrgyz side where the officers simply changed their visas to double-entry. That being done, they were allowed to enter Kazakhstan, on the understanding they would only visit Almaty.

On the road to Almaty. Most of the mountains in Kazakhstan are along the southern borders with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China.

We made a brief stop at this interestingly-decorated restaurant and convenience store. I probably should have bought something here or when I was waiting at the border, just to spend some som and get tenge in change, so I would have some money for bus or taxi fare to get to the hostel.

As you enter Almaty, it becomes clear that there are real differences between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: the highway is wide and smooth, there are large and modern shopping malls with 3D movie theaters, the cars are new and undamaged, and things look like they could be from a developed nation.

The Sairan Bus Terminal, where the Marshrutka dropped us off, is well west of the center, and we didn't really have any idea how far away we were. We ended up walking to the Apple Hostel, passing a surprising number of shopping malls along the way. Thankfully, we had been given very specific instructions on how to find the hostel, as it was totally unmarked and in a complex of three apartment buildings, each of which had six separate entrances leading to unconnected stairwells (so you had to get the right entrance), each of which could only be entered by buzzing an apartment. If you didn't know exactly where to go, you'd be lost.

The appropriately named Apple Hostel—Alma means Apple, and it was known in Russian as Alma Ata, or father of the apple, as this area is regarded as the birthplace of the apple—is basically just an apartment that a couple decided to turn into a hostel. They had their own bedroom—and a cute baby—but the other rooms were converted into dorms and smaller bedrooms. They have a full kitchen, a couple of bathrooms with showers, another without, a laundry machine free for guests to use, free and fast wi-fi (fast internet is very rare in Central Asia), and a couple of laptops you could use. Only the wife spoke English, but she was really helpful and interesting (unfortunately the girl who was there during the daytime didn't speak English) and the guests who stayed there tended to be interesting to talk to, too.

He looks a bit like a Kazakh Stalin.

Almaty's colourful Russian Orthodox Zenkov (Ascension) Cathedral is made completely from wood, with no nails whatsoever.

On my first full day in Almaty I had a few clear objectives: to buy a train ticket to Astana; to register with the OVIR immigration office; and to visit the Almaty offices of STANtours to pay for my Uzbek letter of invitation (because of the steep bank-wire fees for transfers from North American banks to STANtours's bank, I saved myself almost $50 by making the payment in person—I later learned that is a pretty cheap way to make transfers from North America.)

The STANtours office is a bit out of the way, but I was able to meet both Katya and David, both of whom are as helpful and nice in person as they are by email. It was a good chance to see what less-touristed parts of the city looked like... and actually it was pretty nice. Apple Hostel is already on the outskirts of the areas tourists are likely to go, just north of the Theater metro station, and as I walked southwest to STANtours I was impressed with the city. Confirming most of what I had seen the evening before, the quiet streets were lined with trees, and there were small shops and markets all over the place. It kind of felt like a peaceful Austrian city, but with a definite Russian flavour.

There was a large shopping mall not far from STANtours, and since I was in need of a second pair pants after my encounter with barbed wire in Ulaanbaatar, I decided to stop by. I had tried to find some between UB and here, but shops with western brands disappeared after Xian, and clothes made for the Chinese market don't fit me very well. In Kazakhstan you have lots of western brands, from  Russian-oriented brands to European ones like Zara and Marks & Spencer, to American juggernauts like The Gap. Although there's rarely a day in the US where The Gap isn't on sale, pretty much everything in Kazakhstan was full priced and I didn't relish paying that much. It was still interesting to see places like Burger King in high-end boutiques in Kazakhstan, and to see how much nicer these stores tend to be in places where they are considered relatively high-end stores.

I then headed to the other end of the city, where it was pretty easy to make a train booking for the 20-hour train to Astana leaving the next day. There are a number of trains each day, and I took one that leaved just after 1:00 in the afternoon and arrived in Astana the next morning at a little after 9:00 am.

Statue to Kazakh poet Abai Qunanbaiuli, with the well-kept Kazakhstan Hotel. Most Soviet-era buildings in Central Asia look their age, and are little more than peeling, crumbling shells of what they once might have been. Only in prosperous Almaty have these buildings, from the monumental to the pedestrian, been well maintained.

The Palace of the Republic lies behind the statue. The cable-car station for the ride up to Kok Tobe is off to the right.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Bishkek: everyone's favourite visa hotspot

After three nights in Arslanbob, I decided to head to Bishkek. The American tourist staying at my homestay was heading to Sary Chelek (which was highly recommended by a couple of Kyrgyz people I spoke with, but a bit off the beaten trail) and agreed to give me a ride down to Kochkor-Ata, from where I could catch a ride to Bishkek. I knew that the price of a ride from Osh to Bishkek was 1,000 som, so I figured that a ride from Kochkor-Ata—about two hours closer—should be cheaper. Despite that, I had been quoted the same 1,000 som price from both Arslanbob and Jalal-Abad, which didn't make much sense. When we arrived at Kochkor-Ata we parked a bit away from the taxi stand and the Kyrgyz driver went out and negotiated a price (the Russian guide couldn't go, since as a white guy he would likely get quoted a tourist price), and it turns out that the going price actually was 1,000 som, even though we were a lot closer.

After waiting an hour or so for the car to fill up (share taxis only leave when full, even if it means waiting for hours—or sometimes even days—and only cars and not minibuses do the run between Bishkek and Osh), we started on our way. I've heard that minibuses used to do this run, but I honestly can't (or don't want to) imagine them bombing down the twisty mountain roads. Kochkor-Ata is on the northern end of the Kyrgyzstan Ferghana valley, and about 65 km away in Tashkomur the road leaves the valley and starts cutting through mountain valleys to the north.

At first the road follows the Naryn river, and you soon reach a hydroelectric dam, behind which lays Toktogul reservoir. The road skirts the reservoir, and instead of following the Naryn river on the other end, it continues to circle around the north end of the reservoir and climbs another pass before emptying out into the wide, long Suusamyr valley. This valley, in its width and length, is very similar to the Alay valley at the southern end of the country, and through which I entered from China, with the important difference being that it is almost 1,000 meters lower, at about 2,200 meters, meaning it is greener and more hospitable for a longer time. Both valleys are gorgeous wide grasslands with mountains to the north and south, however, and had I been there in the height of summer it would have been nice to spend some time there.

Caravanistan has a nice feature giving you an idea of what you can see on this road (though some of the pictures are a bit out of sequence), as does this cyclist's blog.

Looking north in the Suusamyr valley.

View from a gas station along the M41 in the Suusamyr valley.

About halfway through the Suusamyr valley, however, the road turns to the north and you make a long climb up relatively gentle slopes until you come to the upper reaches of the mountains, where you find a 2.5-kilometer-long tunnel through the top of the range at the Too Ashuu pass. Coming out of the tunnel, the northern side is nothing like the southern side, as it's all craggy mountains and steep slopes, and the road switchbacks down into the canyon-like valleys before emptying out into a fertile and heavily populated valley that runs to Bishkek. And although the road here is straight and flat, it's just about the slowest part of the trip since it's not a proper highway but a road through populated areas where it basically acts as main street for each of the respective towns and villages it crosses.

We arrived in Bishkek and were dropped off near the Osh bazaar in the western part of the city, and I hopped a bus and made my way to the Sakura Guesthouse, a very popular hostel owned by a Japanese man but run by his Kyrgyz wife. I think all the guy did was drink beer with his friends at night, and make noise well after quiet hours started, but I suspect the concept and standards behind the hostel were his. What do I mean by this? Well, it had spotless toilets and showers with good water pressure and lots of hot water,  extremely clean rooms, and free wi-fi. Although it is hard to find, has a tiny kitchen, and a cramped outdoor common area, it seems to be the place where everyone in Bishkek goes (especially cyclists and those who are driving their own cars or motorbikes). Because it's popular and because people tend to stay in Bishkek for a while to collect visas and catch up on civilization, it's extremely busy and you often have people sleeping in the hallways or on the roof in the multi-story main building (which is quieter than the dorm room near the entrance and kitchen).

In doing some research while writing this entry, it appears that the owner has been involved in a highly questionable incident with a young, black-out drunk Japanese tourist, and I can't say that this seems highly out of character for him. If you are a female tourist, be careful around him and definitely do not drink with him.

Like so many others in Bishkek, I also needed to get some visas sorted out. The key ones were the Tajik and Iranian ones. Tajik visas are relatively straightforward to get, and Bishkek is a good place to get them. They can grant single-entry visas on the spot for $75, or in a week for $55, with a double-entry costing $10 more. You just need to visit their embassy and fill out a form. If you want it on the spot, they process it immediately. If you're willing to wait, they just put your application on a pile and retrieve it when you come back: there's no need to pay in advance or leave your passport. I took the one-week service, since I knew I would need to come back to Bishkek later, and double-entry, since I knew I might want to visit the Afghan Wakhan.

The Iranian visa is probably the most difficult visa of all the ones I needed—and this was before citizens of all English-speaking countries needed a tour guide to get a visa. The main stumbling block is that you need an invitation from a tourist agency in order to get a visa. In theory, you provide an itinerary to the tourist agency, they apply to the government, and the government either approves you or rejects you, and then the agency sends you a confirmation number that you present to an embassy to which the tour agency has said you'll apply for your visa. The problem is that there are a mall number of people are randomly rejected, and that a number of agencies have a reputation for giving rejected applicants false confirmation numbers, so it's important to select a decent agency. The second problem is that North American banking regulations are quite strict, and it is very difficult to actually pay for these visa invites, as most payments to anyone even remotely associated with Iran will be blocked. I had payments to multiple UK bank accounts blocked, and was only able to successfully make a payment by giving a Dutch traveler some cash and asking him to make the bank transfer for me from his bank. I went to the Iranian embassy in Bishkek, but they said they couldn't find my confirmation number, and suggested I come back later. Uh oh. I confirmed with my agency that they had sent my confirmation number to the Bishkek embassy, and then hoped it would be there when I came back to Bishkek.

Aside from going to embassies, I walked around Bishkek and took in the city. Bishkek used to be known as Pishpek, which is the name for the churn used to make kumys, which seems about as apt a name as any for a settlement in this dairy-mad, kumys-guzzling country.

Today, the city is a fairly nice, relaxed place. And while Osh is the second-biggest city in the country, it pales in comparison to Bishkek, which seems like a city in ways that Osh simply doesn't. A little shabby, and not well integrated into the global marketplace (meaning that Western brands are unavailable or expensive), but nevertheless much more cosmopolitan and glamorous in a decayed Soviet kind of way.

One thing you may notice is a gender imbalance. You see a lot more women in the streets than you do in Osh, and while this might make some sense given how conservative Uzbek society is and how modern Bishkek is, the reality is that Bishkek is a city dominated by women. Indeed, much of Kyrgyzstan is, and Tajikistan is even worse. I later spoke to a couple of French journalists helping establish a French-language newspaper in Bishkek who said that over 60% of the working-age population in Bishkek was female, since so many men go to work in Russia. When you go into poorer villages and talk to people, you see old men, children, and women. Talk to them (family is usually the second or third question that arises, after where you're from and how old you are) and they'll tell you about their son, brother, or husband who is in Russia, working hard to send money home. If they're lucky, they've seen him in the past year. In central Bishkek banks are most noticeable by their signs advertising remittance services. It's even worse than the Philippines (another country highly dependent on foreign remittances from overseas workers), and kind of like the reverse of the cluster of towers in Hong Kong that cater to Filipina domestic workers wanting to send money home.

photo 25
Your bar has a dress code? Well, all the classy bars in Bishkek have face control, too.

Soviet-style monumental architecture is often kind of interesting. This building was being turned into a casino.

This circle with crossed strakes is what the central aperture, or tunduk, of a Kyrgyz yurt looks like, and is the motif on the Kyrgyzstan flag. Here it appears on the Monument of Victory.

Typical Soviet statuary, this one to general Panfilov.

There is a light show by the fountains in downtown Bishkek. Here they have the souvenir photographers with digital cameras and printers you often see in low-income countries, as well as people selling cheap Chinese toys. One of the popular attractions for young males was a test of strength involving a thick pull-up bar that could freely-rotate. The object was to do a pull up and keep your position as long as possible—but since the bar could rotate, you couldn't use a natural pull-up grip.

When I had originally applied for my Kazakh visa, in Mongolia, I had originally thought that I would be entering Kazakhstan from China. Instead, I had come up through Kygyzstan. This was a bit of a problem because my visa was only good from August 22 to September 21, which meant I had been under some time pressure to make it to Kazakhstan before my visa ran out. I thus only spent one full day in Bishkek before going to Kazakhstan—this was probably a good idea given that visas mean one has to spend more time in Bishkek than one might otherwise like. (At least it's a better place to spin your wheels than Ulaanbaatar.)

Because the Sakura is such a popular place, I was able to hear about a new guesthouse that had just opened in Almaty—a godsend since the city is expensive and there aren't any other hostels there. I heard about it from this Indian-American guy who has been traveling continuously for years, making money by programming on projects that require no face time. He had been to something like 130 countries, and his goal was to visit more countries than Hillary Clinton's 180-something countries, if not to visit every UN-recognized country in the world. This seemed like a bit of a strange goal for me, especially since he was only spending 3 days in Kyrgyzstan before crossing it off and moving on to the next country. His advice on the new Apple Hostel in Almaty was very solid, however.


September 10, 2012, from Arslanbob to Bishkek: 1765 som
  • Share taxi to Bishkek: 1,000 som
  • Dorm at Sakura: 350 som
  • Snacks and drinks: 210 som
  • Dinner: 205 som
September 11, Bishkek: 1051 som
  • Dorm at Sakura: 350 som
  • Samsa and dumplings: 60
  • Drinks, fruit chocolate, toothbrush, vegetable peeler: 180
  • Fruit and snaks: 90 som
  • City bus: 16 som
  • Passport photo: 100 som
  • Sandwich and iced tea: 40 som
  • Dinner: 215 som

Saturday, 8 September 2012


The Marshrutka to Arslanbob drops you off in the town square, which is essentially a big gravel parking lot with a small statue in the middle. A short walk uphill along the river from the square is the CBT office, which should be your first stop.

CBT, or Community Based Tourism, is a Kyrgyzstan-wide tourist initiative that helps connect tourists with local homestays and tour guides. The basic idea is that the central CBT offices help train the homestay and service providers, while certifying their offerings (homestays are classified according to the amenities they offer) and providing centralized booking services. In return, they receive a commission of about 15%, with the remainder going to the local operators.

CBT was launched in 2000 by the Swiss NGO Helvetas, and my understanding is that they provided significant start-up funds, training, and infrastructure support. Unfortunately, CBT seems to have gone through some growing pains when Helvetas withdrew and turned over all operation to local Kygyzstanis. Some of the more popular homestays disliked paying a commission to the local CBT office, and withdrew. Some of the CBT booking offices started directing most or all tourists to favored homestays they might have connections with, meaning that only a select few providers actually benefited from the scheme. CBT offices throughout the country continue to offer varying levels of assistance, expertise, and availability, making it difficult to evaluate the CBT as a whole.

The CBT office in Arslanbob seems to be one of the best-run offices in the entire country, even if it does seem to support an unsustainably high number of homestays, at 18. They seem to provide fairly impartial allocation and travel advice/information, even trying to develop skiing in the area. They can also provide internet access through a cell-phone based modem, but this is pretty pricey.

Anyway, I opted for an English-speaking host, and homestay #13 was suggested to me. This was located a kilometer or so west of the square, near the access road leading up to the plateau that sits to the southwest of the village. The homestay was really quite nice, with all of the guest rooms located in a separate building with about three bedrooms and a common room that could collectively sleep about a dozen people. The houses feel quite Russian, with stucco walls, pastel colours, and lots of lace and floral prints.

As with most places outside of the major cities, there is no real plumbing and no sewer, which means long-drop outhouses. In practice, this typically entails a separate outbuilding with a cement floor with a narrow slot in it: a squat toilet. Even though it's an outhouse, you don't throw your used toilet paper down the hole, but in a bin next to the toilet (outside of Japan, it has been the norm to put used paper—which you've typically supplied yourself—in a bin and not down the toilet). Depending on how well the toilet and pit has been maintained, it might not even be that unpleasant an experience.

Even places with long-drop toilets typically have hot showers, as it really doesn't require much more than a hot water heater and gravity. They'll be placed in another area, sometimes even in places with dirt floors, and while gravity alone doesn't lead to very good water pressure, they get the job done... just be sure to wear your flip-flops.

The host of our homestay was a schoolteacher who had been mayor of the village in the past (one of his prouder achievements as mayor was to eliminate hard alcohol from Arslanbob), and he—like over 90% of the village—was Uzbek. It's a little surprising to find so many Uzbek (the population of Arslanbob seems to be almost 10,000) in the mountains, but there is a surprising amount of farming in the village. Like most Uzbek families, this one was large, as I believe he had something like seven children, and would have been happy with 10 (it's a nice round number, and why wouldn't you want 10?).

This stream runs in front of the homestay I stayed at. Even at the end of summer there was still abundant water flow from high-elevation snows and glaciers, and these streams (which run everywhere) are the source of water in Arslanbob, which otherwise has no central plumbing system and certainly no sewer: this was one of the only pipes I saw, as most water was sourced directly from streams.

Looking down the road up to the plateau. Everyone was coming down from a day working the fields up there, by ancient jeep, truck, donkey, and foot.

Apparently kids in Kyrgyzstan pose like soldiers at attention.

At ease.

Donkeys are a common form of transport, mainly for young kids and old men.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Ozgon and Jalal-Abad

After four nights and three days resting and recuperating in Osh (after arriving in the city on a cramped four-hour taxi ride I could barely straighten my knee and was seriously wondering if I would need medical attention), I decided to get things moving again and head to Jalal-Abad with a stop in Ozgen.

Although in Soviet times you could go straight across the valley from Osh to Jalal-Abad, the direct route now involves crossing into Uzbekistan before returning to Kyrgyzstan, so everyone now takes the route that skirts Uzbekistan and goes through Ozgon.

In CIS countries, the marshrutka ("fixed route") is a staple of public transport. In Central Asia they're basically old Mercedes minibuses that have maybe 15 seats that travel a fixed route and pick up and drop off people along the way. Inside cities they can be jammed with people standing anywhere they can, while on inter-city routes they leave when all seats are occupied (though they may pick up standing-room passengers between cities) and not before. Prices are also fixed, and foreigners don't generally need to haggle. Share taxis between cities operate on the same leave-when-full principle, though haggling for prices in these sedans and minivans is essential (not least because many of them are simply private citizens or families making a trip somewhere and hoping to defray fuel costs). An added complexity is that on fares often changes depending on whether there is more demand in one direction than the other and whether there is increased seasonal demand. Perhaps the most difficult thing for travelers is that the places where share taxis congregate and leave depends on where they're going, and can change quite rapidly in ways that guidebooks can't keep up with.

Anyway, the trip to Ozgon was my first experience with marshrutkas, and it was actually quite easy since it left from the central lot near the bazaar, was clearly signed to Jalal-Abad, and only involved a 20-minute wait until it was full. Were that it was always so easy.


Ozgon gets a surprisingly tepid write-up in Lonely Planet, which usually turns on the hype over every little thing that could even possibly be described as an attraction. There isn't a lot to see, with the only real attraction other than its bazaar being an Karakhanid-era complex containing an 11th century minaret and a 12-century tripartite mausoleum.

Despite being relatively modest in comparison to other Central-Asian sites, in the Kyrgyzstani context they must be some of the most important cultural artefacts that remain in the country, and they remain impressive in my mind for their warm, red, monochrome design and the sympathetic restoration they're been subject too. These aren't the over-the-top reconstructions you see in China or Uzbekistan, but a fairly straightforward mix of modern and surviving brickwork.

The minaret sits next to a parking lot and Russian-style civic buildings.

Ozgon itself is on a hill at the edge of the Ferghana valley.

The ornate brickwork of one of the mausoleum entrances.

The minaret and mausoleum.

Detail of the new and surviving brickwork.