From southern Kyrgyzstan to suburban Maryland

            On Christmas Eve 1995, my wife, Stephanie, picked me up at Washington’s Dulles airport. I had been traveling for almost two days and was exhausted.  After almost a month in Central Asia, I looked forward to returning to the United States. Instead I experienced, for the first time in my life, reverse culture shock.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

              We drove past brightly lit suburban malls, crowded with shoppers buying last-minute presents and stocking up on holiday food and alcohol. Billboards and neon signs were already advertising the post-holiday sales.

                One of the blessings—but also one of the curses—of international air travel is that in the space of a few hours (or, in my case, about forty hours) you are transported from one world to another. The place you leave and the place where you arrive differ not only in the predictable ways—the skin color and features of the people, the landscape, architecture, language, food, and money. More fundamentally, the everyday concerns of people are usually completely different.

                In the malls, people were making standard American consumer choices. “What should I buy for your mother? She’s so difficult!” “Which video game do the children want?” “How large a turkey? “Will anyone notice if we serve boxed Chardonnay?”

                It was a stark contrast to the world I had just left. In suburban Maryland, the shops were open, and open late. In Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, where I’d spent most of the past month, almost all the shops were closed, and had been closed for several years; what was left of the retail economy had moved to the bazaar and street corners.

                In suburban Maryland, lights blazed from malls, streetlamps, and Christmas house and lawn displays. In Osh, the lights were off for at least several hours each day. No one was sure why there were power outages in a country with enough hydroelectric capacity to be a net exporter, but the usual culprits were named—corrupt government ministers, incompetent local officials, the mafia, the International Monetary Fund, or some cabal of all of the above.

                In suburban Maryland, the restaurants were crowded; in Osh, the few restaurants that were still open had only the occasional customer and most of the items on the menu were not available.

                In suburban Maryland, people were spending their Christmas bonuses and maxing out their credit cards. In Osh, teachers, civil service workers, and others who had not been paid for months were wondering when (or if) they would ever get a paycheck again.

                In suburban Maryland, people were buying gifts for the holidays. In Osh, some people were selling all they had to buy food; in subzero temperatures, they squatted on the broken concrete sidewalks, their possessions—kitchen utensils, auto parts, school textbooks, old clothes, Soviet memorabilia—spread out on blankets. I don’t know who was buying because most passersby were just as poor as the sellers.

                In suburban Maryland and throughout the United States, people were looking forward to the new year with hope. In Osh and throughout Central Asia, people were simply hoping that 1996 would not be as bad as 1995.

                I had written e-mails about what I had seen to family and friends from Osh University on the only computer I found with a dial-up connection. Each took almost 30 minutes and a lot of electronic whirring to send. I described the city and the struggles its people faced, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

                After years of media coverage of famine and conflict, the problems of the developing world can seem relentlessly wearying. Poverty, suffering, and conflict are comfortably encapsulated in five-paragraph or ninety-second narrative chunks, with the requisite quotes or sound bites. You could not understand southern Kyrgyzstan in 1995 from the occasional media coverage or even from my photos and stories. You simply had to be there.

                I was there, and then I left. That was perhaps what disturbed me most. I had the freedom to travel, to move between the worlds of southern Kyrgyzstan and suburban Maryland. Most people in Central Asia were simply stuck, trying to survive. That Christmas Eve made me see my own world, career, and life in a new way.

                 My first experience working in a developing country made a deep impression.  Over the next 20 years, I returned frequently to Central Asia—to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—for teaching and research.  As I traveled and met people, I knew that what I was seeing, and learning would change, so I kept a journal and sent more e-mail letters home.  There’s big picture stuff—about politics and media—but mostly I wrote about the everyday challenges of living, shopping, travel, working, and trying to keep warm, about speaking bad Russian or figuring out how to pay a utility bill.

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              These experiences and my research on media, politics and society were the inspiration for Postcards from Stanland.  Over the next six months, I’ll be sending out weekly essays, some adapted from the book and some that did not make it into the book, on a wide range of topics. We’ll climb high into the Tian Shan Mountains, follow the Silk Road to ancient cities, and cross the vast steppe to the forests of Siberia, rust-belt industrial cities, the Polygon nuclear testing zone, and the oilfields of the Caspian Sea.  The region has a rich ethnic mix—descendants of the great Mongol clans, Russian farmers and factory workers, the victims of Stalin’s deportations.  We’ll meet teachers, students, politicians, entrepreneurs, philosophers, environmentalists, journalists, bloggers, cab-drivers, market sellers, hotel floor ladies, and others, to learn about their history, culture and struggles to survive in the post-Soviet era.  Thanks for joining me on the journey through Stanland.

A New Year’s Postcard from Charleston, West Virginia

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A happy new year to all my readers! 

I’ve waited a long time to write that line, but with 700-plus names on my e-mail essay list and others reading my blogs on Facebook, I can now claim to have a modest readership, maybe even the odd fan. Thanks to all of you who have read my stuff, bought a copy of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia and had me sign it, sent me comments and corrections, or all of the above. It’s a good feeling to know that something I love doing helps people understand a little more about the wonderful, crazy world in which we live, and even makes them laugh about it.

As a writer, 2017 was a productive year.  I say productive, rather than profitable, because I still haven’t figured out how to make a living from writing.  I earn a few hundred dollars here and there—for a published feature, or a university or library lecture—and, twice a year, a few hundred more in royalties from the Ohio University Press.  I’m fortunate that international development and government agencies pay for me to travel to fascinating places such as Antananarivo, Blantyre, Dhaka, Hyderabad and Tezpur to work for them.  Of course, writing travel blogs is not on their lists of “deliverables,” but I relish the opportunity the trips provide for writing. Without the support of UNICEF, I would never have taken a two-day road trip on Route Nationale 7 to southern Madagascar, or hung out at Sujoy Vai’s Route 6 restaurant cum coffee house cum smoothie bar in Rajshahi in western Bangladesh.

A couple of non-travel pieces got some play this year.  A feature for History News Network that linked current controversies over statues of Confederate generals to historical schizophrenia over Lenin statues in the former Soviet Union, “Down with Stonewall Jackson! He’s just like Lenin,” stirred up a small hornet’s nest over the Civil War and historical memory.  It was republished in Transitions Online, which covers politics, economy and culture in the former Soviet Union, as “Lessons from Lenin.” My British boarding school memoir was published in a literary magazine, Broad Street, as “School of Hope and Glory: Britain’s Imperial Mission and How One Public School Lad Failed It,”  People connected with it in different ways.  Some of them wanted to hug me.

Most of my writing energy this year was devoted to my second book on travel, history and culture—Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys, the sequel to Postcards from Stanland.  As I write in the introduction: “This book has a broader geographical sweep … describing a circuitous arc around the Indian Ocean with insights into the history, geography, politics, economy, climate and belief systems of five countries where I’ve traveled and worked over the last decade. From Madagascar, I head across the Mozambique Channel and up the Zambezi River to Malawi, a country linked to the Indian Ocean by exploration, slavery and trade. Then I leap across the Arabian Sea to the Indian sub-continent. India defies generalizations because of its social, ethnic and religious diversity. My narrative begins in the capital Delhi, then broadens out in space and time, exploring the colonial legacy, the partition of British India, and the country’s demographic, economic and environmental challenges. From the north, I move to the ancient kingdom of Hyderabad, and finally to the under-developed “chicken-neck,” India’s Appalachia, the northeastern states of Assam and Meghalaya. Then I follow the Brahmaputra River south to Bangladesh, a country defined by its bitter struggle for independence. From the chaotic traffic and garment factories of Dhaka, I travel to the rice bowl and commercial centers of western Bangladesh, to the tea gardens of the northeast and to the delta region—the front line for climate change. My journey ends in Indonesia—at Banda Aceh, ground zero for the 2004 tsunami, the noise and traffic of the capital, Jakarta, ancient Yogyakarta, and the beaches and back country of Bali.”

Phew!  Quite a journey.  I’ve previewed a few stories in essays and blogs, but there’s much more for you to read.  We expect the book to be published in early to mid-2019.

I want to thank several people who have helped me on my writing journey.  The staff of the Ohio University Press, particularly Gill Berchowitz, Nancy Basmaijan, Jeff Kallet and Samara Rafert. My social media guru, Marilyn Wrenn.  The writer Cat Pleska—I started writing the boarding school piece in her memoir writing class and she encouraged me to keep going.  The wonderful members of my writing group, Fran Simone and Kathy Manley.  And, of course, my wife Stephanie Hysmith, who has always supported me in my writing.

In 2018 I’ll be back to Bangladesh on a new contract for UNICEF.  More postcards to come!

Happy new year!




Long-lost Postcards from Stanland jottings discovered

All right, all right. I’ll confess to taking literary license in that subject line (but I had fun doing so).  No, this “discovery” is not exactly in the same league as unearthing an ancient religious text or an unpublished Shakespeare sonnet.  And to say that the jottings were “lost” implies that I had been looking for them, which I hadn’t.  Perhaps “long-forgotten” would be more appropriate. Nevertheless, I felt a frisson of excitement when, on unloading the contents of a file drawer in my office (a chore I’ve successfully avoided for many years), I found a manila folder that had fallen under the stack. It was labelled “Kyrgyzstan 1995,” so it evidently had something to do with my first trip to Central Asia. I expected to find hotel receipts, or perhaps a copy of my project report. Instead, I found handwritten notes I’d taken during the adventure. 

Some of my impressions were familiar, and are recounted in my book, Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016).  If you haven’t read it, there’s still time to order from Amazon or another online bookseller before the holidays!  Great reading for those long winter nights.  Other notes recorded places and episodes I had forgotten, so I decided to write about them in a new two-part travelogue.

If you read Postcards from Stanland, you will know the December 1995 trip was the event that changed the way that I look at the world and my place in it.  I had been hired by the United States Information Service and UNESCO to establish a training and resource center for journalists in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. It’s the second largest city in the country and was the scene of inter-ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks before independence in 1990.

When I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, almost exactly four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was in deep trouble.  Factories and collective farms had closed, inflation was rampant, pensions were almost worthless, and many teachers, doctors and government workers had not been paid for months.  There were power cuts every day.  Most shops were closed, with all commerce moving to the bazaars.  Out on the sidewalks, people spread out household goods on blankets, selling what they could to buy food.  It made a deep impression on me, and over the next 20 years I returned to Central Asia frequently for teaching, training and research.  Here are a few scenes from that first trip.

Arriving in Almaty

In 1995, there were no direct flights from European airports to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, so I flew on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Kazakhstan’s capital Almaty, 150 miles by road from Bishkek.  As we walked down the steps from the plane, another passenger surveyed the dimly-lit terminal building. “Just like Sofia,” he said. “All these Soviet-era airports were built the same.”  We tramped across the tarmac. Snow was in the air, and I was regretting having packed my wooly hat and gloves in my checked bag. At the entrance we passed a line of uniformed cops, their peaked caps seeming to sit unnaturally high on their heads.  They eyed us suspiciously without speaking. The interior décor of the terminal was, if anything, more depressing than the outside—hard, wooden benches and walls lined with faded plastic panels broken by occasional examples of Soviet realism, an oil painting or bas relief of heroic peasants or factory workers gazing towards some misty socialist nirvana, with a uniformed commissar looking on approvingly. My driver from the US embassy in Bishkek was waiting, holding a “Professor David” sign. His name was German (in Russian, some “h” sounds become a “g,” so we would translate his name as Herman). It was too late to make the drive to Bishkek that night.  We would stay overnight at the Hotel Almaty, at that time the only “business hotel” in the city where foreigners were allowed to stay.

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?


At 11:00 p.m., the lobby of the Hotel Almaty—a massive structure, with all the trappings of ostentatious Soviet public architecture—was deserted.  There was no one at the reception desk. German banged on the counter and shouted.  After a few minutes, a clerk dressed in his robe emerged from a back room, yawning. German helped me complete the registration form. In Soviet hotels, the reception desk does not hand out room keys.  These are the jealously-guarded property of the dezhurnaya, the “floor lady” who serves as the queen of her one-floor domain, handing out and receiving keys, fetching blankets and pillows and, if you’re lucky, rustling up tea.  Olga was snoring in front of her TV when German and I emerged from the tiny elevator on the 8th floor. I handed her the ticket from reception and she found the key in her desk drawer.  “It’s the only key,” she warned. “Don’t lock yourself out of the room.”

Because it was the only “business hotel” in town, the Hotel Almaty could charge ridiculously high prices and get away with it—$90 a night for a small room with a hard bed, rickety furniture, noisy plumbing and AC outlets loosely attached to the wall by electrical tape.  (Over the next few years, more hotels opened in the city, and when I next stayed at the Hotel Almaty in 2001, I paid $40 for the same type of room).  I flicked through the 50-plus channels on the TV remote, but only two had signals.  The image and sound on the old Russian movie were breaking up, and the other channel offered color bars, so I gave up on TV watching.  A switch on the wall activated the wired radio system, which offered muzak versions of American country classics, including some Hank Williams favorites.  There were two phones. One was a rotary dial, presumably for local calls. The second, the white “international satellite line” came with a “buyer beware” warning on a card. “After the 35 seconds, irrespective of the fact that whether you have succeeded in getting through or not, the computer starts counting the elapsed time, which you will have to pay for. Which means that after the 35 seconds it will not matter whether you have talked to your opponent or not, you will have to pay as it for conversation.” You were instructed to pay in cash within one hour of the call. I didn’t relish the thought of rousing the clerk or dezhurnaya again that night, so resolved to call Stephanie in the morning.

I woke up early as the sun streamed through the windows.  I walked out onto the balcony and was rewarded with a panorama of the snow-covered Tien Shan Mountains, shimmering in the morning light. Not worth $90, but still a spectacular view.  I called Stephanie, paid at the front desk, and joined German for breakfast. Hank Williams was still on the radio.  Surreal.

The Soviet Union—another passing dynasty

The rickety furniture and electrical system in my room at the Hotel Dostuk in Bishkek was apparently inspired by the vision of the Almaty Hotel’s interior designer.  The bed was too short for my six-foot frame.  There was a closet, but no drawers for clothes.  The light switches hung from the walls at odd angles.  At least the TV worked.  It offered CNN International and BBC World Service, along with entertainment channels in Russian and Turkish, TNT, and MTV.  The Indian music video channel featured high-energy, choreographed Bollywood dance scenes, the men dressed in white suits and the women in brightly-colored attire sweeping their long dark locks in front of the camera.  At 9:00 p.m., Kyrgyz public television was offering what appeared to be a lecture on macro-economics, complete with equations and graphs for short-run marginal cost curves. Riveting television.

I spent Saturday at briefings at the United States Information Service. On Sunday, the day before I flew to Osh to begin my project, the embassy public affairs officer, Bruce McGowan, took me for a day out to the foothills of the Tien Shan to see some archeological sites, with Bakhit, a Kyrgyz historian, as our guide.  Soviet archaeologists began excavations in the 1930s, removing their prize discoveries to museums in Moscow and Leningrad; since independence, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to get its history back, with little success.  The archaeological digs have stopped because the government has no money for excavations or restoration, and most sites are unfenced, with sheep grazing on them.  The most-visited site, 50 miles from Bishkek, is the Burana Tower, the 11th century monument on the site of Balasagun, one of the capitals of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty that ruled a large region of Central Asia for almost 200 years from the early 10th century until they were overthrown by another Turkic dynasty, the Seljuks.  Archaeologists excavated the citadel of Balasagun and restored the Burana Tower in the 1970s.  At another site, sculpted stones mark the burial places of those who fought in the dynastic wars; by nomadic tradition, a warrior was buried with his horse.

We ended our trip with tea at the Issyk Ata (Warm Father) resort, where hot springs from the mountains are piped to baths. In the Soviet era, factory workers and their families came to these resorts, called sanatoria, for their annual break, to enjoy the clean air, walk the mountain trails, play sports, and relax their tired joints in the steam baths.  Since independence, the only tourists have been local. Many buildings have fallen into disrepair, with stucco peeling and sagging wooden porches.  The lobby of the main lodge features a brass replica of the Kremlin and a sign boasting that “The Collective of the Resort will struggle to uphold the highest quality standards.” It will be an uphill struggle without new investment and an improved economy. Apart from the staff and a few village boys who were sledding in the snow, we were the only people at Issyk Ata on a Sunday afternoon. Near the lodge, an image of Buddha etched on a large rock had been almost obscured by graffiti of the “Sasha loves Irina” variety.  In the driveway, a small statue of Lenin in one of his standard poses, his right arm outstretched, looked out over the resort, a scene of post-Soviet decay.  Like other dynasties that had ruled this region, the Soviets had come, and they had gone.  In the large scheme of historical time, they were really passing through.  The Qarakhanids ruled more than twice as long.

Winter Games

Winter Games

 If you can’t change the weather, make it an asset. That’s what Kazakhstan did in its successful bid for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, although its offer to spend millions of dollars may have been more persuasive than the average daytime temperatures. It’s estimated that the government spent over $1.4 billion building new stadiums or renovating existing ones in Astana and Almaty, upgrading Astana’s airport and improving roads and transportation.


Shashlik—the best fast food in Central Asia (as long as you’re not vegetarian).  Lumps of lamb or mutton on metal skewers or sharp sticks are marinated and barbecued on charcoal grills until they are crisp on the outside but still juicy inside.   The best shashlik I’ve eaten has been at roadside stands like this one in the Fergana Valley of southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.  

On the Osh bazaar

On the Osh bazaar


In Osh, the capital of southern Kyrgyzstan, the massive Jayma bazaar which sprawls along the western bank of the Ak-Burra river, winding up dozens of side streets and alleys, had been one of the great markets on the Silk Road since medieval times. 


Mountain barriers

The Kyrgyz Ala Too range rises south of Bishkek

The Kyrgyz Ala Too range rises south of Bishkek

               From the so-called Pamir Knot in Tajikistan, the great mountain ranges of Asia extend in all directions—the Himalayas and the Karakoram to the southeast, the Hindu Kush to the southwest, the Kunlun to the east, and the Tian Shan to the northeast.  In Kyrgyzstan, the Central Tian Shan range forms a natural border with China’s Xinjiang Province, rising to Pik Pobedy (Victory), at 24,111 feet the second-highest point in the former Soviet Union.  South of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Ala Too range runs east-west to the deep mountain lake of Issyk-Kul; the Kungey Ala Too range north of the lake forms the border with Kazakhhstan; the Fergana range straddles the middle of the country; the Pamir Alay range dominates the south. More than 90 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s land area—the size of Austria and Hungary combined, or the U.S. state of Montana—consists of mountains, with 40 per cent over 3,000 feet.        

                The mountains are both a blessing and a curse.  Their natural beauty offers potential for tourism, but “Switzerland of Asia” campaigns have so far failed to contribute significantly to the economy, mainly because of the remoteness of the country and poor roads and tourist facilities.  It’s great trekking terrain, but the so-called resorts—most of them former summer camps for Soviet industrial workers—are short on both modern facilities and après-ski ambience. There are mineral deposits, many of them unexploited because of the cost and difficulty of mining in remote regions.  Hydro-electric plants have the potential provide all the country’s electricity supply, and some for export.  However, as the glaciers continue to recede, scientists worry about the sustainability of the country’s water resources.  For centuries, the mountains have provided summer pastures for herds of sheep, goats and horses, but most of the land cannot be cultivated. 

On the road from Bishkek to Osh

On the road from Bishkek to Osh

                Few roads cross the mountains, and they are often blocked by avalanches and mudslides; cash-strapped local authorities struggle to maintain or improve them.  Building new roads to improve commerce and boost the economy in rural areas means moving massive quantities of earth and rock and constructing bridges and tunnels—a major investment that usually requires help from foreign donors.  It is difficult and expensive to transport goods, deliver the mail, or provide medical services; in winter, a trip to the town market or the hospital may be impossible. At higher elevations, the first snows come in October; some settlements are cut off from November to May. 

                The mountains are as much a cultural and political as a physical barrier.  The major concentrations of population are in two large valleys—the Chuy in the north, with the capital Bishkek, and the Fergana in the south, with Osh and Djalalabad, the second and third largest cities.  About half the country’s population of 5.3 million live in the south.   The Ala-Too and Fergana ranges separate the valleys, splitting the country and its major urban centers into two distinct regions.  In Kyrgyz society, where identity and loyalty are still defined by family, clan, and village, the government in Bishkek can seem very distant.  The north is more industrialized and secular, oriented to Kyrgyzstan’s larger and more prosperous Central Asian neighbor, Kazakhhstan, and to Russia and the West.  The south is more agricultural, conservative and Islamic, looking to Uzbekistan and further west to Iran. Some northerners fear separatism, Islamic fundamentalism and the influence of Uzbekistan in the south; some southerners believe the government in Bishkek exploits their region, while short-changing it on tax revenue and social services.  Polls show that most people in Kyrgyzstan consider the differences between the north and south to be the major challenge to national unity. 

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,


Getting around Osh

 In the mid-1990s, it wasn’t easy communicating or getting around the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan.  The telephone switching system was antiquated and overloaded. There was also no city map--or at least no one I asked could remember ever having seen one.  Even if it had existed, it would have likely featured Soviet-era street names which were fast disappearing as the city authorities dug into history and changed them to the politically correct names of Kyrgyz leaders and literary figures. 

The Dubai of the Steppe

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

Excerpt from Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University (Swallow) Press in March 2016

            For many visitors, the capital of Kazakhstan is an astonishing sight—unlike any other city they’ve seen. My first impressions—from the air and then from the airport highway—evoked otherworldly metaphors. Strange shapes rose out of the steppe—spires, domes, globes, ovals, and pyramids in gold, silver, blue, and turquoise. The taxi passed the gleaming facade of Nazarbayev University, then sports stadiums and arenas built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, with their massive, curved metal and concrete spans. Then triumphal arches, monumental public buildings, upscale apartment blocks, the huge Nur Astana mosque, shopping malls, and manicured parks, most of which on a chilly Saturday afternoon in September were almost deserted.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

            Whatever you think about futuristic architecture (or what it cost to build it, and whether the money could have been better invested in Kazakhstan’s social needs), Astana is unlike any other capital city in Central Asia. Almaty (the former capital) and Tashkent look like other Soviet-era cities with their colonnaded public buildings and monotonous apartment blocks. Bishkek and Dushanbe have similar architecture, but are rougher around the edges. Astana looks more like Dubai. It is growing fast, but even by the latest (2012) population estimate of 775,000, it is still less than half the size of Almaty or Tashkent (each of which has about two million inhabitants). However, the futuristic architecture makes Astana look and feel bigger. Which is exactly what its chief conceptual architect, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, intended.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

        Like other capital cities throughout human history, Astana is designed to impress visitors. Just as medieval travelers returned home with tales of the fabulous cities of the East, modern travelers to Astana are treated to a visual spectacle. Astana is a twenty-first-century version of Karakorum, the thirteenth-century capital city of the Mongol Empire.  Contemporary visitors to Karakorum were suitably awed, perhaps because they thought the Mongols were too busy rampaging and pillaging their way across Asia and Eastern Europe to actually build anything more than siege fortifications and campfires.

            In 1253, the Flemish Franciscan William of Rubruck, who had accompanied the French king Louis IX on the Seventh Crusade, set out from Constantinople for Karakorum. Louis had given the monk the medieval version of mission impossible—convert the Mongols to Christianity. Whether or not William knew the futility of his assignment, he set out to record his party’s journey in detail, producing one of the great travel narratives of the age, comparable to that of Marco Polo.

            After traveling for almost seven thousand miles William and his companions entered a wealthy, bustling city at the heart of a major trading network, with markets, temples, and a cosmopolitan population, including Christians. The Great Khan even staged a debate at court among adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. William’s detailed account of the journey and the six-month stay at Karakorum, and the reports of other missionaries and merchants, helped to counter popular views of the Mongols as a murderous horde.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

           Like Karakorum, Astana is the concrete symbol of a modern and business-friendly Kazakhstan, an emerging economic and cultural power at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. In his writings and public speeches, Nazarbayev positions Kazakhstan within Eurasia, arguing that the nation embodies the best of the West and the East in its economy, education, religion, civil society, and values. The Eurasian motif is visible in the signature architecture of Astana, where elements of Western and Eastern design are combined. Astana hosts Eurasian conferences and events; businesses claim to reach the Eurasian market; Eurasian National University is the largest institution of higher education in the capital.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

            For Nazarbayev, Astana was never the otherworldly, utopian fantasy that its critics have claimed.  Astana is a combination of Karakorum and Dubai, the center of a new Mongol empire built, not on military conquest, but on oil and gas revenues, authoritarian government, investments in technology and education, and soft diplomacy with the West, Russia, and China. In a commentary to mark Astana Day, the city’s fifteenth anniversary, on July 6, 2013, Nazarbayev wrote: “The fate of Astana is the fate of all Kazakhstanis who have boldly crossed the threshold between two centuries. This is the fate of independent Kazakhstan, which has walked the great path from the obscure fringe of a fallen superpower known to few in the world to a dynamic modern state which the international community knows and respects.” Astana Day was also (not coincidentally) Nazarbayev’s seventy-third birthday. For the crowds who attended the birthday celebrations and the millions who watched the spectacle on TV, the association between city, country, and president was more than metaphorical. Astana was Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev had created Astana. Ergo, Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,


Tagged: KazakhstanAstanacapitalarchitectureimageKarakorum

Wrestlemania on Horseback

Wrestlemania on Horseback

What do you get when you put together two teams of Kyrgyz cowboys, a 250-pound headless calf, and a wildly cheering crowd?  It’s the traditional horseback game of Ulak Tartyshy, popular throughout Central Asia.  I’ll describe it as a cross between rugby and a no-holes-barred polo game, although I’m sure this description does not do it justice. 

My khrushchevka is better than your brezhnevka

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University (Swallow) Press in March 2016


For rent: Two-bedroom, second-floor khrushchevka in city center, close to Silkway City mall, market and bus routes. European-style kitchen and bathroom.  Large balcony for storage.

            This is not a real ad, of course, but it accurately describes an apartment I rented for a month in Almaty in 1999, on a leafy street called Vinogradov. The key words (apart from the location) are “European,” which denotes that the Soviet-era appliances and counter tops have been replaced and that the water pipes do not leak, and khrushchevka, which indicates where the apartment ranks in Soviet real-estate hierarchy.  

Khrushchevka block on Vinogradov, Almaty city center

Khrushchevka block on Vinogradov, Almaty city center

            The most solid (and now expensive) apartments are from the Stalin era, earning them the name stalinkas.  They were built on site from bricks or blocks, and sometimes even boasted neoclassical details.  After World War II, faced with a severe housing shortage, the Soviet government encouraged technologies to provide low-cost, easy-to-assemble housing.  The prefabricated concrete panels of the khrushchevkas, named for the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, were mass produced and shipped by truck. Elevators were considered too costly and time consuming to build so almost all khrushchevkas had five stories—the maximum height of a building without an elevator under Soviet health and safety standards.

            The blocks of khrushchevkas that line the streets of many cities throughout the former Soviet Union may look drab on the outside, but I’ve rented or stayed in enough to know that they are usually warm and comfortable (if basic) inside.  I’ll take a khrushchevka over the more shabbily constructed brezhnevka any day.  But they do all look the same. 

Irony of Fate, popular Soviet romantic comedy released in 1975 and in constant re-runs

Irony of Fate, popular Soviet romantic comedy released in 1975 and in constant re-runs

          The one-size-fits-all architecture was satirized in the 1975 Soviet romantic comedy Irony of Fate.  After a New Year’s Eve celebration in Moscow, Zhenya is supposed to go home to celebrate with his fiancée while his friend Pavlik flies home to Leningrad.  But everyone is drunk, and Zhenya’s friends put him on the plane instead.  He wakes up in Leningrad airport, believing he is still in Moscow. Still drunk, he stumbles into a taxi and gives the driver his street and apartment block address.  He arrives at a block of khrushchevkas that looks exactly like his block in Moscow and staggers upstairs to the apartment with the same number.  Not surprisingly, his key fits the lock.   Inside, even the furniture is nearly identical to that in his apartment. Later, the real tenant, Nadya, arrives home to find a strange man sleeping in her bed.  To make matters worse, Nadya’s fiancé arrives before Nadya can convince Zhenya to leave.  Zhenya tries to return to Moscow, but because there are no flights he keeps on returning to Nadya’s apartment. They end up spending New Year’s Day together, their hostility softening into mutual affection.  When Zhenya eventually leaves, Nadya decides to follow her heart and fly to Moscow.  She has no trouble finding Zhenya because they have exactly the same address.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,


It's a bird, it's a plane. No, it's only space junk.

Excerpt from Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia published by the Ohio University Press (2016)

Mir space station mock-up at Karaganda EcoMuseum

Mir space station mock-up at Karaganda EcoMuseum

Just off the main drag in Karaganda, a coal mining and industrial city in northern Kazakhstan, the EcoMuseum is housed on the first floor of a local government administration building. You have to know where you’re going because there’s no sign on the street, and only a small one on the door. 

The museum features an eclectic mix of artifacts and interpretive exhibits from central and northeastern Kazakhstan, a region exceptionally rich with environmental problems. There are exhibits on mining, manufacturing, pollution, water resources, and energy conservation. The museum is also in the eco-tourism business, offering guided tours of Central Kazakhstan’s mountain and desert regions and Lake Balkhash, the largest lake in Central Asia.  Its signature “Back in the USSR” tour takes visitors back in time to the region’s prison labor camps, the Semipalitinsk nuclear test site, where the Soviets conducted above and below-ground nuclear tests for 40 years, and the village of Aksu, whose claim to fame is its alley of Soviet monuments with busts and statues of Lenin.    

The museum’s flashiest exhibit—and the one most popular with school groups—is the space center, with its mock-up of the Mir space station control room.  It’s like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise or a scene from Dr. Strangelove with banks of monitors, flashing lights, control levers and dials and a throbbing, techno sound track.

On both sides of the space station, the museum floor looks like a junk yard with misshapen chunks of metal, some partly burned, with barely distinguishable Cyrillic markings.  Most of the items were salvaged from the Soviet military base at Lake Balkash in the south of Karaganda oblast.  When the Soviet Army left its bases in Kazakhstan, it abandoned tons of military hardware—trucks, artillery, mortars, ammunition, communications equipment, as well as huts and furniture.  Economic times were hard, and local people moved in to salvage and sell what they could.  Most of the metal went for scrap, but some ended up at the EcoMuseum.

Credit for the collection goes to EcoMuseum director Dmitry Kalmykov, a trained scientist.  As a child growing up in Ukraine, he loved to collect scrap metal and bring it home.  “When I moved to Karaganda and discovered there was all this stuff from the military and the nuclear test site, it reawakened my childhood interest,” he said.  Dmitry started picking up metal debris during a 1992 scientific investigation at the Semipalitinsk nuclear test site and hasn’t stopped since.

The gems of the collection are parts of rockets launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, 550 miles away in the semi-desert of southwestern Kazakhstan.  For the Soviet Union, the remote location—far away from population centers and, presumably, the long lenses of U.S. spy planes—was ideal for its military space program.  From the first human space mission in 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s brief jaunt stunned the U.S. into kick-starting its own manned space program, Baikonur has been the launch site for all Soviet and Russian crewed space missions and for rockets carrying satellites.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s space program faced a difficult problem—its launch site was now in a foreign country.  Although Russia claimed that it should still control the cosmodrome, the military installations and forces guarding them, Kazakhstan insisted that Russia not only agree to joint control but start paying rent on the place.  In 1994, Kazakhstan agreed to lease the complex to Russia for about $120 million a year. 

Baikonur is a commercial success—the preferred launch site for most countries and private companies that want to get stuff (mostly communication satellites) into space.  More than 35,000 people work there.  It’s the no-frills discount store of space launch sites, easily beating the European and Asian competition for price.  Most launches use the cheap and well tested Proton rocket, the workhorse of the Soviet space program since its first launch in 1965 and one of the most successful heavy boosters in the history of spaceflight.

The people of central and northeastern Kazakhstan don’t see much from Kazakhstan’s $120 million-a-year rocket revenue.  But they sometimes see the rockets—or parts of them—out on the steppe.  Rockets are launched in a northeasterly direction from Baikonur, with the first stage burning off over an area that can range from 10 to 90 km wide, depending on the size of the rocket and its payload.  A large region of the steppe from Zhezkazgan in the south to Pavlodar in the north is within the ellipse of the rocket flight path. 

What doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere falls to earth—usually on the uninhabited steppe but sometimes near populated areas.  In 1999, a rocket carrying a communications satellite blew up soon after lift-off, scattering debris and fuel over a wide area.  A large section of rocket fell into the backyard of a house in a village near Karkaralinsk.  “This is dangerous material,” said Dmitry. “The nose of the first stage has an engine with rocket fuel.  It’s like a bomb and the fuel is highly toxic.”

After the 1999 crash, Kazakhstan briefly banned launches, demanding that Russia conduct an investigation and offer compensation.  The row delayed a scheduled supply flight carrying food, water and the navigational equipment to the beleaguered Mir space station.

Karaganda EcoMusuem director Dmitry Kalmykov

Karaganda EcoMusuem director Dmitry Kalmykov

Dmitry worries about the authorities’ lack of preparedness and emergency plans.  He pulls out a map of the rocket ellipse.  “The akimat [local government] doesn’t have such a map.  If you ask the authorities where the danger area is, they don’t know.  Maybe it’s here, maybe it’s there.  We need to inform the people of the dangers.  If you’re informed, you’re aware.  Information is protection.”

Dmitry says the annual rent paid by Russia is supposed to cover the cost of safety measures—equipment and training for emergency personnel, medical staff and disposal teams, as well as safety precautions for the general population.   In 2001, a parliamentary committee held hearings on safety at Baikonur, and issued a report with about 30 recommendations.  These included low-cost technical fixes, such as installing radio beacons on rockets so that they can be more easily located in the vast steppe.  If radio beacons were used, says Dmitry, it would not have taken three days in 2006 to locate a rocket that spun out of control and crashed soon after lift-off, causing widespread ecological damage.

Despite the dangers, rural residents have resourcefully recycled the space junk that has dropped from the sky.  Rocket bodies have been turned into garages, animal sheds and outhouses, metal panels used for fencing for livestock, and smaller sections sold for scrap. Dmitry shows me albums of photos taken on tours of the steppe. Half a section of an aluminum rocket body makes a pretty good Quonset hut.  There’s an old Moskvich, parked in a garage built from mud bricks, with a rocket body for the roof.  Livestock standing on top of a rocket buried in the sand.  A herder dozing, his back resting against the nose of a rocket. A summer kitchen, with shelves stacked with canned goods and a cook stove. 

A rocket body makes a pretty good summer kitchen

A rocket body makes a pretty good summer kitchen


I asked Dmitry which government agency was responsible for safety.  “That’s a prohibited question because nobody knows.  The space agency says the space industry is responsible.  The industry says the local akimat is responsible.  The akimat says it’s the Ministry for Emergency Situations.  The ministry says it’s responsible after an explosion or accident, but not before.  In Kazakhstan, no one takes responsibility.”

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,


The President's Dream City--Khan Shatyr

Astana’s monument to consumerism, Khan Shatyr was designed by the British architect Sir Norman Foster.  The needle-tipped structure, 500 feet tall and with a floor area the size of ten football stadiums, is designed to evoke the traditional nomadic dwelling, the yurt. Underneath the tent is a huge shopping mall with squares and cobbled streets, movie theaters, a botanical garden, boating river, mini-golf, roller coaster, water park, and indoor beach resort, with sand, palm trees, and tropical plants shipped in from the Maldives. 

The President's Dream City--Bayterek

The most popular destination in Astana for domestic and foreign tourists is Bayterek, the monument and observation tower in the new city on the left bank of the River Ishim.  Bayterek has an almost shrine-like quality. It is easy to see that, after Nazarbayev’s death, it will likely become a place of pilgrimage, where citizens, cursing the latest set of scoundrels ruling the country, will solemnly place a hand in that of the Great Leader and ask him to return from the grave to restore national pride.

The President's Dream City--The Palace of Peace and Accord

The pyramid-like Palace of Peace and Accord, in the new city on the left bank of the River Ishim, was constructed (with an eye-popping price tag of $58 million) to host the triennial Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The pyramid is one of two signature designs in Astana by the British architect Sir Norman Foster. 

This is how Russians live?

Astana railroad station

Astana railroad station

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia is published by the Ohio University (Swallow) Press (2016)

                As the train pulled out of Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, Valery opened the first bottle of cognac and was figuring out how much alcohol our compartment would need for the 15-hour overnight trip.  It was only 4:30 p.m. and, with several hours of daylight left, I wanted to look out of the window, not drink.  But to be sociable, I agreed to a couple of shots.   

                Half an hour later, I escaped to the corridor for an hour before returning to the compartment.  Valery and his friend Igor were already almost through bottle number two, and had bought a bottle of vodka from the drinks trolley.  The restaurant car served vodka and cognac by the glass, but for those who want to drink in compartments, a vendor plies the corridors. 

                Sensibly, Valery and Igor were also eating—dark bread, cheese, sausage, piroshky and strong Russian mustard.  Valery slapped mustard on a slice of bread and cheese and passed it to me.  I felt as if my head was going to explode.  “Good for your health—you won’t get a cold,” Valery laughed as I gasped and turned red.  “Here, have more vodka.” 

                As the evening wore on and the alcohol took its toll, the conversation became more animated and difficult to follow.  Valery and Igor were on their way to Kostanai oblast in northern Kazakhstan for a hunting and fishing trip.  I must have skipped the chapter on winter outdoor sports in the Russian textbook because most of the vocabulary was new to me.  There was a lot of extending of arms and simulated “boom boom” gunshot noises as virtual ducks fell to earth. 

                Valery, who said he loved all sports and was wearing a David Beckham T-shirt, wanted to know why I had never served in the military.  He was reluctant to accept my explanation that there was no military service requirement in the U.K. and that I had arrived in the U.S. too late to be drafted for Vietnam.  Military service was compulsory in the Soviet Union, and Valery served in Afghanistan.  “A useless war,” he admitted, yet he still seemed to resent those who, in his opinion, had not served in the military.  My argument that there are other ways to serve one’s country did not impress him.

                By 10 p.m., everyone had settled down for the night.  Then the snoring started.  It didn’t bother me while we were moving because it was drowned out by the sound of the train, but it woke me when we stopped at stations, as we did four or five times after midnight.  At 3 a.m. at an isolated town on the frozen steppe, there’s no traffic and no people.  Only snoring. 

Miles and miles of the Kazakh steppe ...

Miles and miles of the Kazakh steppe ...

                At 6 a.m., the attendants knocked on the doors to tell passengers we’d be arriving in Kostanai in an hour.  Valery swung down from the top bunk, opened a bottle of beer and offered me another.  I politely refused.  He smiled.  “Now you know kak russkiye zhivut (how Russians live),” he said, with a smile.  I wanted to say I hoped not all Russians lived that way, but recognized the sincerity of the hospitality.  It was another warm memory of a cold winter.  

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore.  Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube,