The New Great Game

If you want to leave Kazakhstan, learn English. If you want to stay, learn Chinese.          

          What started as a joke in business and government circles in Astana and Almaty has taken on a serious tone as China’s economic, military, and political clout in Central Asia has increased. In the nineteenth century, China watched from the sidelines as Russian and British explorers, envoys, and spies wandered around its western provinces and Tibet, mapping trade routes, building alliances with local leaders, and hatching plots. The Chinese empire, weakened by internal discord and rebellion, could not play in the so-called Great Game. By the end of the twentieth century, the roles were, if not reversed, at least re-balanced, with China vying with Russia and the United States in a new Great Game. Hungry for oil, gas, and natural resources, China has invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s energy sector. It built the pipeline to carry oil from the Caspian Sea east to Xinjiang, and is financing construction of a gas pipeline and a 1,700-mile stretch of highway to connect China with Europe. Russia, Europe, and the United States support pipelines running west to the Black Sea and Turkey. For now, there’s plenty of oil to flow both ways, but the supply will not last forever. Analysts worry about population pressures: if its cities cannot accommodate more people, will China look west to the sparsely populated steppe?

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


             The end of the Soviet Union briefly revived the dream of the Uighurs of Xinjiang of uniting with their fellow Muslims in a Greater Turkestan or caliphate. China leaned heavily on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to restrict Uighur political activity and settled the border disputes that had plagued Chinese-Soviet relations. China has reduced the demographic power of the Uighurs by resettling Han Chinese in Xinjiang. With oil from Kazakhstan and gas from Turkmenistan, China no longer has to rely on sea routes that can be disrupted by the United States. China brought the Central Asian republics into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and exploited new export markets.

            Russia has long-standing economic ties with Kazakhstan. It’s also the economic magnet for thousands of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two poorest countries in the region. Remittances from migrant workers in Russia account for about 29 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and 47 percent of Tajikistan’s. Russia provides aid and loans and maintains military bases in both countries. With the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and the handover of the Manas air base in Bishkek, the United States no longer has a significant military presence in Central Asia, but its economic interests, particularly in Kazakhstan’s oil, gas, and mining sectors and in banking, make it the other major player. Iran and Turkey are also in the game, although only Turkey has so far invested heavily in the Central Asian economies and sought influence through education and social programs.

            What happens in Central Asia as China, Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran—and possibly India, making a late entry to the game—compete will affect the world balance of economic and political power. As the journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of two books on Central Asia, remarks: “One of the great dangers for the U.S. and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there.”


Ode to the Antonov-24

         I’ll hear no grumbles about bumpy flights on twin-prop planes from regional airports in the U.S., (such as Charleston’s Yeager).  No sighs about the robotic sign-off from the cabin steward, “Thank you for choosing United” (as if you had a choice).  No, you have no grounds for complaint because you don’t know how terrifying such flights can be.  You have not had the Antonov-24 experience.  

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

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          The Antonov-24, a Soviet 44-seater turboprop which made its debut in 1959, was designed to take off and land on rough air strips in remote locations; over 800 of the aircraft manufactured are still in service, mostly in the former Soviet Union and Africa.  Most look as if they have had a tough life and are ready to go into assisted living in a nice warm hangar.  Despite cosmetic surgery on the wings and fuselage, the dents are visible.  When you board, you just hope that the ground crew tighten up the bolts and kick the tires before take-off.  

           The interior décor is standard Soviet, circa 1970—fluorescent lights, faded curtains and worn carpet runners that look as if they were salvaged from the remnant section.  The seats have only two positions—slightly reclined (when occupied) and fully forward.  When the plane lands the backs of all seats without passengers crash forward.  The overhead luggage bins are like those on trains and long-distance buses—shallow with no doors.  The standard warning about opening the bins carefully “because luggage may have shifted during flight” is irrelevant.  If the plane banks abruptly, all of the luggage on one side will fall out anyway.  

            My first flight in 2009 was from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to Almaty in Kazakhstan, over the most spectacular mountain scenery of Central Asia—the towering Pamirs and the Tien Shan mountains, which occupy over 90 per cent of the land area of Kyrgyzstan.  Flying at about 20,000 feet on a clear day, you seem to skim the tops of the snow-capped peaks.  The Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia describes the approach to Dushanbe as through—that’s through, not over—the Pamirs.  

             We circled three times over Dushanbe so that the pilot could gain enough altitude—and maybe enough courage—to take on the Pamirs.  And then we were over them—just a few thousand feet above snowy peaks, glaciers shining bright in the morning sun, and deep in the valleys, winding dirt roads and scattered dwellings.  We crossed the mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan and then turned northeast, parallel to the Zailiysky Ala Too range, for the rest of the trip.  It took almost twice as long as the outbound trip, but it was the most spectacular flight I’ve ever experienced.  You don’t get views like this from a modern jet at 30,000 feet.  At the time it made me almost hope they’d keep the Antonov-24 in service.

           My view started to change on my second experience in 2011—a night flight from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to Aktau, Kazakhstan’s main port on the Caspian Sea and the center of its (at that time) booming oil industry.  

          The flight was on a regional Kazakhstan airline with a disconcerting name—SCAT (probably branded in a vodka-soaked brainstorming session).  The digital age had not yet arrived at SCAT; in Tbilisi, the single agent was laboriously writing down passenger names in a ledger and seat numbers on boarding cards.  SCAT did not merit prime gate space.  We boarded a bus that drove to the far end of the airport, and then tramped through the snow to the plane.  One of the ground crew steadied the slippery, rickety steps (they looked like the aluminum steps you find in swimming pools) as we struggled on board.  

         There were some standard announcements over tiny speakers, almost completely drowned out by the noise of the engines.  All I caught was “Uvazhayemy passazheri …Spasibo za vinimaniye” (“Dear passengers …thank you for your attention.”)  Attention to what?  Well, the only thing to look at during the two-hour flight (even though it left at 1:00 a.m., the fluorescent lights were on for the whole trip) were those carpet runners and the occasional swinging seat back.  I was thinking about life vests.  This plane was crossing the Caucasus Mountains and then the Caspian Sea.  I was wondering what the flight attendant had said about the emergency exits and the “unlikely event of a water landing.” The Antonov-24 could fly, but could it float?


Space junk

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. 

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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.

Mir space station mock-up at Karaganda EcoMuseum

Mir space station mock-up at Karaganda EcoMuseum

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.

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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.

Karaganda EcoMusuem director Dmitry Kalmykov

Karaganda EcoMusuem director Dmitry Kalmykov

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.

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.”


This is not English

          “Those are English words—but this is not English.” The phrase, which I dutifully attribute to my wife, Stephanie Hysmith, seemed apt when I opened a book presented to me by Eurasian National University (ENU) in Kazakhstan's capital Astana on my first visit. It was a hefty tome titled Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Eurasian Education Space, published to mark the country’s advances and investments in higher education in the post-Soviet era and a higher education conference at ENU.

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

           The introduction claims that Kazakhstan’s trilingual policy in higher education (teaching in Kazakh, Russian, and English) has helped the country advance economically and promoted peace. There’s some truth to that. However, if this book is any guide, the English part of trilingualism has still some way to go. Let’s start with the title. Russian speakers often translate prostranstvo as space, but in this context it sounds silly; “sphere” is better. Not as silly, however, as the captions to the photos, most of which featured conference speakers, signing ceremonies, and group shots of participants. There are the “orderly rows of professors of natural sciences faculty,” some of whom look as if they are quietly snoozing. A picture of four unidentified delegates is bizarrely captioned “In the cycle of supporters of the Eurasian integration.” The group shot of university rectors is modestly titled “The memorable photograph.” Then there’s “The Eurasian vector of intercultural dialogue” (the ENU rector with delegates in national dress at the Palace of Peace and Accord). I don’t know about the after-conference parties, but the daily activities apparently got pretty lively. A picture of a mildly enthusiastic standing ovation is titled “The wild audience applauds.” And then there are “the wild discussions behind the scenes of the forum.” I can imagine the conversation. “You know, Erlan, I’m just crazy about this Eurasian integration idea.” “Me too. Another cup of tea?”

            Of course, it’s all too easy to poke fun. This was a significant conference, and the participants discussed serious issues. But if you’re going to avoid the Borat make-benefit-glorious-nation-of-Kazakhstan tag and present the country (and university) as players on the world stage, the least you can do is hire a good English copy editor. This was a costly publication, with high-quality printing and glossy color photos, but the budget apparently did not include a close review of the text, which was probably translated word for word, the editor sometimes opting for the second or third dictionary meaning.

            Unfortunately, literal translations are all too common in official communications. My friend Irina Velska, who has excellent English, told me that she once offered to correct the numerous errors in a coffee-table history book produced in her home city of Karaganda. Her offer was refused. The book, she was told, was translated by a “leading professor of English language and literature.” Who was she to think she could improve the text?


University Dreamland

Most universities in Central Asia I’ve visited since the mid-1990s are in some state of disrepair—from the curriculum and academic management to the facilities and classrooms. But there’s one where no expense has been spared—Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. 

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         

I’d read about the heavy investment in construction and the contracts with leading universities in the United States, the UK, and Asia, but nothing prepared me for the view from the entrance portico. A long, wide mall, with fountains, palm trees, and carefully manicured shrubs, all enclosed under a huge atrium (palm trees don’t do too well in an Astana winter). Lining the atrium are five-story blocks, each reserved for one of the international partners. When one researcher showed pictures of the university’s interior to focus groups in Almaty, most participants thought it was a shopping mall.

Photo by Natalie Koch

Photo by Natalie Koch

Why did Kazakhstan spend millions on Nazarbayev University when facilities and conditions at other universities are lacking, when teachers have to take two or three jobs to make ends meet, when there’s no paper for the printer in the dean’s office and sometimes no chalk for the chalkboard? It’s about creating world-class education, of course, to provide the workforce for business and government. But it’s also about Kazakhstan’s image on the world stage.

            Location is everything, and Nazarbayev University is the first complex you pass when you drive in on the airport road. I approached the university from the other direction on the Number 10 bus. Workers were planting flats of flowers in the newly cultivated beds. Vehicles rolled up for the start of the workday, disgorging well-dressed administrators. A luxury bus arrived with what I assumed (by their more casual dress, balding heads, and laptops) were foreign faculty, bused in from apartment complexes in the new city.

            Will the investment succeed? Of course it will. The university has the president’s name on it, so anything short of success is unthinkable.  But how well Nazarbayev University creates the “international education on the steppe” experience remains to be seen. Although instruction is in English, most students are from Kazakhstan so they are not exposed to students from other countries and cultures. And the moment they leave the classroom and get on the bus back into the city they’ll be speaking Kazakh and Russian again. Graduates will certainly have a competitive edge in the job market, but creating an elite group at the expense of improving general standards in higher education leaves other talented students, especially in the regions, at a disadvantage.


The President's Dream City--Ak Orda

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The left bank of the River Ishim in Astana is bisected by a broad pedestrian mall. At one end, close to the Pyramid of Peace and Accord, is the presidential palace—the Ak Orda (White House), its blue-and-gold dome topped with a golden spire.

There’s more gold inside in the majestic halls used for state and ceremonial events, including the pessimistically named Hall of Extended Negotiations. Twenty-one types of marble were used for the floor patterns. According to the palace website, “Metaphorically, it reflects a steppe civilization in the mirror of the European culture, a synthesis of arts of the planet’s largest continent—Eurasia.” I have no idea what that means, but it’s typical of the lyrical descriptions of most of Astana’s new buildings. 

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


The President's Dream City--Khan Shatyr

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Astana’s monument to consumerism, Khan Shatyr, stands at the opposite end of the pedestrian mall from the Ak Orda (White House) and Palace of Peace and Accord.  Like the Palace, it was designed by the British architect Sir Norman Foster. 

Khan Shatyr has been described as “the largest tent in the world” but to compare it to something you can buy from an upscale outfitter or even to a large marquee is a gross understatement. 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. It leans sideways, as if blown by the wind from the steppe. Khan Shatyr is constructed from three translucent layers of a fabric called ethylene tetrafluoroethylene suspended on a network of cables strung from a central spire. The transparent material allows sunlight through, which, in conjunction with air heating and cooling systems, is designed to maintain an internal temperature of 15–30 Celsius (59–86 Fahrenheit) in the main space and 19–24 Celsius (66–75 Fahrenheit) in the retail units.

Khan Shatyr roughly translates as the tent of the khan, or king, but it’s all about business and entertainment, not politics. 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. If Dubai can have its indoor ski slope, then Astana deserves its tropical beach.

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 and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube




The President's Dream City--Nur Astana Mosque

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The Nur Astana mosque in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, on the left bank of the River Ishim is the largest in Central Asia, with room for five thousand worshippers inside and another two thousand outside (presumably only in summer).

The glass, concrete and granite structure is 40 meters (131 feet) high, symbolizing the age of the Prophet Muhammad when he received the revelations; the minarets are 63 meters (207 feet) high, the age of Muhammad when he died. Unlike other left-bank buildings, the government did not pay for construction. The mosque was a gift from the Emir of Qatar.

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



The President's Dream City--Bayterek

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The most popular destination in Kazakhstan’s capital, 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 represents a poplar tree holding a golden egg, a central symbol in Turkic mythology—the tree of life. Samruk, the magical bird of happiness, is said to have laid its egg in the branches of a poplar tree. Not coincidentally, Samruk is also the name given to Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth corporation which owns the government oil, gas, and mining companies, the railroad system, postal services, the national airline, and financial groups. In Astana, Samruk literally laid a golden egg.

The observation deck is 97 meters (318 feet) above ground level, corresponding to 1997, the year Astana became the capital. One level offers 360-degree views of Astana and beyond, with a three-dimensional model of how the city will look in the future. The second and higher level features a wooden sculpture of a globe and a gilded print of Preseident Nursultan Nazarbayev’s right hand. 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.

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

Planet Astana

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.

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

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.


Lenin's commercial arm

There definitely aren’t as many Lenin statues around as there were 25 years ago.  As the communist political and economic system fell apart, reformers made sure that its founder took a symbolic fall too. In central squares from Tallinn to Tbilisi, crowds cheered as statues of Lenin were unceremoniously pulled down and bulldozed. 

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So this is a rarity—a new Lenin statue.  And Lenin appears to be in his most famous pose, right arm raised, gazing in the distance toward some socialist utopia.  Except that he’s not.  At this mountain resort near Almaty, Kazakhstan, Lenin is on commercial duty, pointing the way to the Russian restaurant.  He's flanked by my colleague Galiya Ibrayeva from Kazakh National University and her daughter, sporting her University of Montana sweat shirt.  It’s really the same as those Che Guevara t-shirts.  Revolutionary icons recycled to raise profit margins.

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

Kyrgyz all-weather head gear

The kalpak is the traditional high-crowned cap worn by men in Kyrgyzstan.  It’s made of felt, sometimes with a black velvet lining. 

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Out on the range, when you’re herding sheep and horses, it’s the perfect all-weather headgear, designed to keep the head warm in winter and provide shade from the sun during summer; when it’s raining, you turn down the brim.  But it’s not only for herders.  It’s a common sight in the cities, worn with jeans and T-shirt or a business suit.  It can be folded flat for carrying when not being worn.  I photographed this boy in Karakol in 1996.

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Take this plane to Pyongyang! Please?

Perhaps it was foolish of me to buy six ornamental Uzbek knives as gifts on the Osh bazaar.  But the price—even the foreigner’s price—of $4-5 was right for a traditional knife with a bone or glass-beaded handle, fashioned on a blacksmith’s forge, and a sheath. I wrapped them in socks and packed them in the bag I was checking, along with other sharp objects—a pair of scissors and a corkscrew. Surely, there would not be a problem at customs at Almaty airport.

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Of course, there was. I was ordered to open the bulky suitcase where I had packed my gifts, and tied up with rope.  One official paged through three computer catalogs to make sure that IBM was not peddling porno. Another carelessly unwrapped small ceramic figures I’d bought at the student art store in Osh (for about $2 each), suspecting I was smuggling archaeological artifacts.  I was asked to produce an export license for a small oil painting of a moonlit Issyk Kul lake—a gift from a colleague at the US embassy. At a bookstore in Bishkek, I had bought three Soviet-era laminated schoolroom maps, including one of the US, which highlighted the locations of major episodes of labor action and revolution—Haymarket, Homestead, the 1913 Colorado miners’ strike. “It is forbidden to export historical maps,” one officer announced.  I doubted that even a post-Soviet bureaucracy that liked to invent lots of regulations had one that specifically applied to school maps.  “Show me the rule,” I demanded.  I unfolded the US map. “What do you think I’m going to do? Invade the United States?”  That appeared to settle the issue. I thought later that confiscating old maps was hardly the message newly democratic Kazakhstan wanted to send to the rest of the world. Someone in authority eventually decided that old Soviet maps, ceramic rabbits and amateur oil paintings did not endanger the body politic. I was allowed to repack my bag. The knives were not returned. 

With the end of the Cold War and the rise of new democratic regimes in Asia and Africa, the list of potential destinations for would-be plane hijackers armed with Uzbek ornamental knives had been shrinking.  The plane would not have enough fuel to reach Havana.  There were still a few options in Africa—Mogadishu (assuming the airport was not under attack) or Kinshasa in the Not-So-Democratic Republic of Congo where the fabulously corrupt and autocratic Mobutu Sese Soko was still in charge.  But from where I was in Asia, the only thing I could have said was, “Take this plane to Pyongyang. Please?” To which the pilot would probably have replied: “Are you sure you don’t want to fly to Bangkok or Jakarta instead?  It’s a lot warmer there, and I can recommend some good restaurants.” I kept protesting my good intentions, but pointed out that if I had really wanted to hijack the Lufthansa jet, I needed only two knives, not half a dozen.

Eventually a young plain clothes officer who spoke English took possession of the knives, examined my passport and said he would see me after check-in.  He met me in the departure lounge, and invited me upstairs to a back room where we drank tea. He introduced me to two girlfriends who giggled a lot. He said he had been in Los Angeles for a month. What did I think of Southern California?  How did I like Central Asia?  My flight was now boarding, and I fidgeted, not wanting to alarm him but worrying about missing the flight.

He gave me his email address, and asked me to write. Perhaps I could get visas for his girlfriends?  He smiled and returned the knives. “Safe travels,” he said.  I ran for the plane, clutching the knives.  At Frankfurt, a customs officer put them in a sealed box, and checked them.



Baggage wars

“It’s faster than the Yak-40.” A fellow passenger at Bishkek’s Manas Airport pointed out of the departure lounge window towards the Kyrgyzstan Airlines aircraft on the tarmac, the first flight of the day to Osh.  It was a Tupolev TU-134, which since the mid-1960s had been the standard short haul jet airliner in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.  It looked a little worn around the wingtips and tail, but I assumed it had been seeing its mechanic for regular check-ups.  I hadn’t yet flown in the smaller Yak-40, the other plane on the main domestic route in Kyrgyzstan, but we passed a couple as we walked across the tarmac. The Yaks, with a light coat of snow on the wings and icicles hanging from the wheel housings, looked as if they would be happier sitting in a nice warm hangar than flying anywhere.

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I don’t know where the airport baggage handlers were on that cold December morning, but the passengers had to carry their luggage to the plane, where one of the ground crew hoisted bags into the hold.  There was a lot of jostling for position. Several passengers had been on shopping trips to Moscow, Delhi and Bangkok to restock inventory for their shops or bazaar stalls, packing it in sheets or blankets secured by rope, or in cheap, plastic zipper bags that looked as if they would burst open at any moment.  Nothing was weighed.  Several passengers (myself included) were not aggressive enough and were left standing on the tarmac holding our bags. The crew member closed the hold, looked towards us, shrugged and shook his head, lit up a cigarette and sauntered back towards the terminal.

We walked up the steps to the aircraft carrying our bags.  All the overhead compartments were full.  My bag was small enough to fit in a bin behind the cockpit, but larger bags were stowed in the aisle. We took off 30 minutes late, and were soon over the snow-capped mountains of the Kyrgyz Ala Too.  We crossed two more high ranges before descending into Osh and the Fergana Valley an hour later.  I had not followed what appeared to be the brief safety announcement in Russian, so I rifled through the seat pocket, eventually finding an English-language booklet.  It did not reassure me. “To escape through emergency hatch. Pull handle. Open hatch cover. Throw out rope free end into hatch.” I had no idea where the hatch was, and even if I did I didn’t think I could clamber over the mountain of luggage to reach it.  And then I would have to find the “rope free end.”

The “foreigner’s price” for a one-way flight from Bishkek to Osh was about $80.  Locals paid about $25. In theory, the “foreigner’s price” included perks. You got to wait in a separate terminal with an overpriced souvenir shop, and were escorted to the plane by an official.  It was a legacy of Soviet times, when all foreigners were kept under surveillance and shepherded around in groups by Intourist, the official government travel agency.  Somehow, Intourist survived the fall of the Soviet Union, and was still inconveniencing travelers in Kyrgyzstan in the mid-1990s. On the return trip to Bishkek three weeks later, the staff at Osh airport solemnly weighed my bags, charged me $14 for overweight, and told me that I could collect them from Intourist in Bishkek.  “That means you’ll get them an hour later than everyone else,” a passenger told me. At Manas Airport, I lingered by the conveyor where other passengers were picking up their bags.  Several of the rubber flaps that divided baggage claim from the loading area were missing. I peered through and saw my bags about to be loaded onto a hand cart to be consigned to the Intourist bureaucracy. “Moy bagaj,” I shouted, and held out a five-dollar bill. A hand came through the flaps and took the bill. The conveyor belt re-started and my bags came through.

Slow bus to Almaty airport

At the Hotel Dostuk in Bishkek, I paid the $60 foreigner’s price for a ticket on the 10:00 p.m. bus to Almaty airport, 150 miles across the border in Kazakhstan. I didn’t realize I was also a travel pioneer—this was the inaugural run for the airport service.  The bus was brand new, and the driver was still apparently learning the controls because we spent several minutes parked outside the hotel while he tested the lights. The company evidently needed help in the marketing department, because I was the only passenger on a 48-seat bus.  In addition to the driver, there was a hostess who served champagne and soft drinks from a cooler.  We set off into the night, the driver trying to protect his vehicle by dodging the potholes and driving slowly over the speed bumps.

I knew we were in trouble when, on the outskirts of Almaty, the bus circled a roundabout twice before the driver tentatively selected an exit. We drove for another 45 minutes through darkened streets.  At intersections, the driver slowed down and had hushed conversations with the hostess.  Soon, the conversations became more animated.  It was clear we were lost.  There weren’t many people on the streets at 2:00 a.m. but eventually the driver found someone who gave him directions. When we reached the airport, more than an hour late, the driver was uncertain about maneuvering into a parking space.  The hostess and I got out to watch the sides of the bus, shouting instructions.  “Chu chu na lieva [a little to the left].  "Dostatochno [enough]!”


This is how Russians live?

          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.   

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Miles and miles of Kazakh steppe

Miles and miles of Kazakh steppe

             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. 

             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.  




Another passing dynasty?

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.” 

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We tramped across the tarmac. Snow was in the air, and I was regretting having packed my woolly 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.

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 archaeological 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.

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. 

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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. 

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

Team lining up for  Ulak Tartyshy

Team lining up for Ulak Tartyshy

          In October 1996, Stephanie and I were in the crowd for what I guess was the Fergana Valley regional championships. Ulak Tartyshy was one of the highlights of the two-day Osh Harvest Festival, held at the hippodrome outside Kyrgyzstan’s second city.  Like other harvest festivals, it marked the end of the season when herding families packed up their yurts and came down from the summer pastures in the mountains to their villages for the winter. The passing of the season was celebrated with traditional sports—wrestling, falconry, horse races, and horseback games. Even though Soviet bureaucrats preferred structured, mainstream sports in showpiece public arenas, they allowed the traditional games to go on, perhaps reckoning that they were a safer outlet for cultural expression than Islam. The herders dutifully claimed to be competing for the honor of their collective farm, but everyone knew that it was all about individual strength and horsemanship.

            In a game called Oodarysh, wrestlers on horseback tried to throw the opponent from his horse; there was a referee, who periodically separated human and horseflesh for infractions, but the rules were never entirely clear. In Kyz Kuumai, male and female riders chase each other around the track; if the man catches the woman, she has to kiss him; if the woman catches the man, she horse-whips him. There was no scoreboard but, as far as we could tell, there was more horse-whipping than kissing going on.

            In Ulak Tartyshy, two teams struggle for possession of an animal carcass, try to pick it up, and race with it toward the opposition’s line for a touchdown. In the minor-league version, a headless, legless sheep or goat is the ball, but this was the big league, so they used a 250-pound calf. Picking up 250 pounds is tough at the best of times, but when you’re on horseback with other riders jostling, punching, and whipping you, it’s a real challenge.

Possession on the 10-yard line, but still no touchdown

Possession on the 10-yard line, but still no touchdown

            For most of the game, all we could see was a tight knot of riders; they would reach down to try to pick up the calf and get pushed or kicked out of the way. One team, sporting what looked like Soviet World War II aviator headgear, clearly had the edge (with the help of some sideline coaching), and made two touchdowns. This dangerous game was played with true passion, with the crowd cheering each block, tackle, and fumble. The Kyrgyz are justly famous for their horsemanship, and we were happy we had made the long trip from Bishkek to see the traditional games.



The Kyrgyz shyrdak (in Kazakh, syrmak) is a brightly-colored thick felt rug with intricate patterns and motifs, representing the nomadic traditions.  

Shyrdaks for sale at Osh Bazaar, Bishkek, 1997

Shyrdaks for sale at Osh Bazaar, Bishkek, 1997

For herding families, shyrdaks were used to cover the sleeping and living areas and walls of the yurt, the traditional tent-like dwelling, providing insulation from sub-zero ground and air temperatures.  It can take the wool from five sheep to make one large shyrdak and the process of cleaning, drying, dyeing, rolling, cutting and stitching the pressed wool is slow and labor-intensive. These days, most shyrdaks are sold to city dwellers and foreign tourists for their homes.

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On the Osh bazaar

Soviet-era joke: A man walks into a shop and asks, “Don’t you have any fish?” The shop assistant replies, “You’ve got it wrong.  This is a butcher’s—we don’t have any meat. They don’t have any fish in the fish shop across the street!”

                In the Soviet era, all shops—from the Tsum central department store to the small corner store—were state-owned and operated and numbered, with fixed prices and limited selection. Shoppers complained of long lines and surly customer service.  In some areas, seasonal shortages of basic foodstuffs—bread, meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables—were common. 

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               An underground retail sector existed alongside the state-run shops.  Prices were higher, but the quality was better and some items were simply not sold in state-run stores; for Levis or Marlboros, you needed to talk to the guy in the leather jacket who hung around behind the Palace of Culture.  In agricultural regions such as Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley, some city dwellers had dachas where they grew apples, apricots, peaches and cherries, and raised vegetables; they canned for the winter months, and sold surplus to neighbors and friends.  The police periodically cracked down on the underground economy, especially when it involved large shipments of alcohol, cigarettes or consumer electronics.  But it was not worth the effort to stop a babushka selling tomatoes or strawberry jam to her neighbors in the apartment block, or even to stop the production and sale of moonshine called samogon (translated literally as “self-run”), the homemade distilled alcoholic concoction, usually made from sugar, beets, potatoes, bread or fruit. 

                In many ways, the state shops were a Potemkin Village—impressive facades, with empty shelves inside.  And so the Soviets quietly allowed business in the informal economy to keep running, especially on the bazaars.  In Osh, 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.  Today, it is open seven days a week, and thronged on Friday and Sunday, the traditional market days.

Buyer beware. The consumer electronics aisle at the bazaar in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, summer 1996. You'd better read the labels carefully. It's not a Panasonic, it's a Panascanic. And there's no 30-day return on those Daewoo TVs.

Buyer beware. The consumer electronics aisle at the bazaar in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, summer 1996. You'd better read the labels carefully. It's not a Panasonic, it's a Panascanic. And there's no 30-day return on those Daewoo TVs.

It is still primarily an agricultural market, with slaughterhouses and warehouses.  One section is piled high with bales of hay; in another, live chickens are sold, in another, raw cotton and wool; nearby, blacksmiths forge horseshoes, nails, stovepipes, kazans and traditional Uzbek ornamental knives. In the summer, the market bulges with fresh produce--peaches, apricots, oranges, cherries, grapes, melons and vegetables. Even in winter, apples, pears, figs, pomegranates, potatoes, onions, and carrots are abundant, and dried apricots, raisins, pistachios, almonds and walnuts are sold year round. Uzgen rice—the main ingredient of the Uzbek national dish plov, a lamb pilaf with carrots, onions and hot peppers—is sold from open bags.  Lipioshski (flat bread) is baked in tandoori ovens. Butter comes by the slab, sugar in huge yellow crystalline lumps. Shashlyk (marinated mutton or beef kebabs, served with vinegary onions), laghman (a Uighur spicy noodle and vegetable soup), manti (dumplings stuffed with diced lamb and onion), and samsa (pastry filled with spicy meat or vegetables) are sold from stalls.