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.

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

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.

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

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.

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 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.   

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

 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.” 

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 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. 

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,

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.

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


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. 

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

               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.

The komuz--a national symbol

The komuz is a traditional fretless string instrument used in Central Asian music.  In Kyrgyzstan, it’s a national symbol, played at every festival either as a lead instrument or as part of an ensemble and featured on the one som banknote. 

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It is often used to accompany recitations of the national epic poem, the Manas.  But it’s not only for formal occasions.  It’s also played in homes, in schools and by street musicians, like this one at the Osh bazaar in Bishkek.  The komuz is generally made from a single piece of wood (usually apricot or juniper) and three strings traditionally made out of gut, but today more often from fishing line.  It is generally played seated, held horizontally and strummed or plucked. Virtuosos can play the komuz in different positions--over the shoulder, between the knees and upside down. The komuz has many different tunings, and their names correspond with various styles of music.

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 $2.50 phone bill

Even for those with good language skills, getting things done in Kyrgyzstan in the mid-1990s was a challenge. A seemingly straightforward task, such as banking or paying a utility bill, often turned out to be a complex, time-consuming activity that required visiting several offices, filling out forms and slips of paper, and obtaining signatures and stamps. Sometimes, it involved waiting around for the only person authorized to conduct the transaction to return from lunch. A case in point was our phone bill.

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

            Living in the central district of the capital, Bishkek, our phone number began with the number 26. Stephanie and I were told we were fortunate to have that number. Bishkek’s Soviet-era telephone system was more reliable than most, but some exchanges in the city were notorious for dropped calls and crackly lines; by contrast, the 26 exchange usually worked. It’s all relative, because there was always noise on the line, occasionally interrupted by mysterious clicking sounds; it could have been the secret police checking on our dinner plans, but more likely it was simply the creaking and groaning of the arthritic switching system.

            Although claiming we had a working phone seemed a stretch, we still had to pay for it. The phone had already been cut off once because the bill hadn’t been paid, but the landlord took care of it. We had just received a recorded phone message and figured it was a reminder to pay the phone bill, so we brushed up on bill-paying phrases and headed off to the main post office. To pay the bill, you first need to know how much you owe, and that’s recorded on a printout on a table. We scanned through it but could not find our number; apparently, another customer had removed that page rather than make a note of the bill. The post office staff said they did not have another printout; they just took money and gave receipts, but had no records. We were directed to the building next door where the records were kept, but the office was closed for lunch. We came back later, went up to the window for our station (number 26), and had the clerk enter the amount. Then we went back to the post office to pay and get a receipt and the obligatory official stamps. We had spent almost two hours to pay a 41 som ($2.50) bill.



Recycling, Central Asia style

What Westerners today call recycling is to many people in the developing world simply a part of everyday life—what you must do to survive.  In Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s, people recycled because it saved money, and because there was often no alternative.

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

 Decanting cooking oil into soda bottles, Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Decanting cooking oil into soda bottles, Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

You couldn’t buy some items such as milk and cream at the bazaar or on the street unless you brought your own container. Beer, soda, and milk bottles were returned for a refund. Empty glass and plastic bottles, some retrieved from dumpsters, were resold on the bazaars. Tin cans were used as planters. Fast food such as samsa, piroshki, and roasted sunflower seeds came wrapped in scrap paper torn from a ledger or an old textbook. Once Stephanie and I were rewarded for our volunteer editing for the Kyrgyzstan Chronicle, the weekly English-language newspaper, with 30 kilos of onions. One of the newspaper’s advertisers was going through a liquidity crisis and had settled the bill with half a truckload of onions. We wondered how to store them. Our Russian teacher, Galina, said that Russian women keep old stockings around for such contingencies. Stephanie pulled out some old runny pantyhose; we filled them full of onions and hung them from a line on the balcony. Galina was impressed. “You’re a good Russian woman,” she told Stephanie.

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. You could usually get a local call through on the second or third attempt, but to call another city meant dialing a complex series of digits; making an international call required a trip to the city telephone exchange where you waited in line to book the call. The major challenge was finding the number. People who needed to make calls on a regular basis kept numbers in well-worn pocket organizers.  Osh, the second largest city in the country, did not have a telephone directory.

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

            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.  Ulitsa Pionerskaya (Pioneers’ Street) was renamed for the painter Gapar Aytiev, Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya (October 25th Street), marking the date of the Bolshevik Revolution, for the writer Kasym Bayalinov.  The main one-way south street, Ulitsa Lenina (Lenin Street) became Kurmanjan Dakta kuchasi, named for the “Queen of the South,” the tribal chief who ruled the region after her husband was murdered in a palace coup in Khokand in 1862. 

            Even for fervent Kyrgyz nationalists, the name changes were confusing, and many people continued to use the old Russian names long after they disappeared from the street signs.  Lenin was a particular source of confusion.  Even though he was usurped by the “Queen of the South” on the main one-way south street, he simply moved one block east to take over the main one-way north street, pushing aside his one-time Bolshevik comrade-in-arms Yakov Sverdlov as Ulitsa Sverdlova officially disappeared into street-sign history.

          The city buses and marshrutkas (private minibuses) plied both the old and new Lenin Streets but I did not know the city well enough to know where they would take me, so I took cabs for most trips.  In Central Asian cities, the taxi business is still the most visible part of the informal economy.  Although there are commercial taxi services, many drivers in private cars pick up passengers on the street.  There’s a brief negotiation over the fare, although experienced passengers know the going rate between most points.   

          Apart from the occasional Mercedes, Audi or BMW driven by a government official or crime boss, there were few vehicles in Osh in the mid-1990s that should have been on the road at all.  The problem wasn’t just the bare tires and noisy mufflers.  It was the streets, which had received little maintenance from a cash-strapped city government since independence.  Cold winters and sizzling hot summers had buckled the road surfaces and created huge potholes.  To avoid them, vehicles weaved and swerved, statistically increasing the chance of accidents.  The Soviet-era Moskvichs, Volgas and Ladas looked like casualties of a fender-bender war with dented doors and shattered windscreens, and a few were flamboyantly out of alignment.  There were few auto repair shops and parts were in short supply.  If you needed a radiator or distributor, you headed for the bazaar to scour the used parts laid out on tarpaulins and old blankets. A shortage of auto parts can spur innovation, and drivers routinely made repairs with scraps of metal and wire or a part salvaged from a different type of car.  Gasoline cost about the same as in the U.S. (making it expensive by local standards) but there was no quality control.  Because there were few gas stations, most drivers filled up at the roadside from roving tanker trucks called benavoz that sometimes dispensed a mechanically injurious blend of diesel and gasoline.

          On days when I had to visit several newspapers or TV stations, I hired a car and driver for about $30 a day. My regular driver Babur, a broad-shouldered, grinning Uzbek with a perfect set of gold teeth, fearlessly gunned his Volga through the rutted side streets, dodging pedestrians and farm animals, shouting (in English) "No problem!" It turned out that he was a police driver who took time off work because I paid more than the police did.  Whenever we got stuck behind other vehicles he put a flashing light on top of the car, and bellowed orders through a small speaker mounted on the hood.  The cars magically parted in front of us.


Kyrgyzstan's mountain barriers

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. 

 The Kyrgyz Ala Too range rises south of Bishkek

The Kyrgyz Ala Too range rises south of Bishkek

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 Kazakhstan; 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.     

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 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, Kazakhstan, 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. 

Central Asia Frequent Flier


    When the Soviet Union broke up, its national airline Aeroflot suffered the same fate.  From Baku to Bishkek, the governments of cash-strapped new republics seized the aircraft sitting on the tarmac, repainted them in the new national colors and hoped they could round up enough spare parts to keep them flying.  National airlines have since modernized their fleets, adding Boeings and Airbuses for long-haul flights, but Soviet-era planes are still the standard on most domestic and regional flights and travelers still struggle with bureaucracy at ticket offices and airports.  

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

    In the early years after independence, foreigners had to pay the “foreigner’s price” for tickets.  It was usually at least 50 per cent higher than the regular fare and often had to be paid in Western hard currency.  The only advantage, as far as I could tell, was that you entered the terminal through a separate “foreigners’ entrance,” waited (usually alone) in an area with an overpriced souvenir shop, had your passport inspected multiple times, and then were escorted to the plane by a uniformed official.  At least you could choose your seat and stow your hand luggage before the other passengers boarded.  Special treatment had nothing to do with being nice to foreigners.  It was a holdover from Soviet times, when foreigners were segregated for undisclosed security reasons.  

    In July 1998, I needed to fly from Osh to Bishkek.  The Kyrgyzstan Airlines ticket office was inconveniently located in a suburb, a 20-minute cab ride from downtown.  The agent told me she could not sell me a ticket.  “Only Gulmira is authorized to sell tickets to foreigners,” she announced, “and she is at the airport today.  You will have to come back tomorrow.”  I asked if I could buy a ticket at the airport.  “That is impossible,” said the agent.  “Tickets are only sold here.”  I went to the airport anyway and found Gulmira who sold me a ticket at the foreigner’s price with, um, a small commission.  It was cheaper than another trip to the ticket office.

    Foreigners’ prices and entrances have largely disappeared, but buying tickets can still be a travel adventure.  Although all international carriers and some national airlines offer online booking, most tickets are still bought from travel agents or airline offices.  In 2010, I needed a ticket from Astana to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.  The only direct flight was on “Air Company SCAT,” a Kazakhstan regional airline with a few international flights and a booking service to match its ill-chosen name.

    Although several travel agents displayed the SCAT sign in their windows, none could sell me a ticket.  It was unclear why: either SCAT did not issue electronic tickets or its computer system wasn’t working.  I ended up at the large central ticket agency on Prospekt Respublika to buy a paper ticket.  Several agents were serving customers and I joined the shortest line.  When my turn came, the agent said she could not help me.  “Only agents 1, 3 and 5 can sell SCAT tickets,” she informed me.  “But you’re number 5!” I protested.  “There’s a chair missing—I’m number 6,” she replied.  It was back to the line, until agent number 1 was available.  


    Customs and security officials at Central Asian airports have gained a reputation for trying to shake down weary travelers by inventing airport taxes, selling transit visas you don't need, and charging for excess baggage both on departure and arrival. Some travelers have had luggage impounded for weeks by customs officials demanding thousands of dollars in import duties or fines.  Other scams involve currency controls.  Because of capital flight, Central Asian countries imposed strict limits on the export of currency.  However, the official inquiry “How much money are you carrying?” can be the prelude to a search and an on-the-spot and undocumented fine.  

    Fortunately, most attempted shakedowns are minor, and often played like a game.  Arriving at Almaty for a flight to Europe, I was stopped by two policemen who inspected my passport.  One noticed that my OVIR registration stamp had expired two days earlier.  “That’s a $100 fine,” he declared with triumph.  I figured that fines in the Kazakhstan Civil Code were denominated in tenge, not dollars, so I asked him to show me the regulation.  As he skimmed through papers, failing to find the one that described my offense, I became impatient.  “Even if you’re right, I don’t have $100,” I said, not entirely truthfully.  The policemen looked crestfallen.  “How much money do you have?” the other asked.  “One thousand tenge [at that time, about $8],” I replied.  “That will do,” the first policeman said.  “Have a nice flight, and if anyone else in the airport asks, please don’t say this happened.”  I handed over the money, shook hands, accepted a shot of vodka and went on my way.  In a country where police do not earn a living wage and routinely stop drivers to extract small fines, it was an additional, and not unexpected, travel expense.  

      The secret to shakedowns is to apply (or invent) obscure regulations.  On another departure from Almaty, customs officials emptied the contents of my two suitcases, pulling out the three large Soviet-era school maps I had bought at a bookstore in Bishkek. “It is forbidden to export rare cultural artifacts, including historical maps,” declared the customs official.  I pointed out that maps like this hung on the walls of schoolrooms all over the Soviet Union.  They were neither rare, nor valuable.  “Show me the regulation on historic maps” I insisted.  I unfolded the map pinpointing the sites of labor unrest in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century.  “What am I going to do with it?  Invade the United States?” I asked rhetorically. That seemed to settle the issue.


      Soviet-era airports were not built to handle large numbers of arriving passengers, and certainly not passengers with passports.  There’s usually a long line at the one or two foreign citizens’ passport booths.  And the line can sometimes turn ugly.

     Until the late 1990s, Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was not on the business (and certainly not the tourist) itinerary.  A five year-long civil war meant that the airport was periodically "closed for fighting" (about as routine in Tajikistan as "closed for construction" anywhere else.)  With the return of peace, if not prosperity, the airport is open, if not exactly ready, for business.

    The arrivals hall, a ramshackle building separated by a few city blocks from the main airport terminal, has limited staff and a single baggage carousel.  When three flights (including mine) arrived within a half-hour period, the fragile infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed.  Only one passport booth for foreigners was open, and it took the officer at least five minutes to review and stamp each passport.   And there were many foreigners—most of the passengers on my flight from Almaty were Kazakhstan citizens.  Occasionally, a policeman climbed over the barrier, waded into the crowd and pushed some people around but it seemed to make no difference.  Apparently the only way to get ahead was to slip a few bills to a policeman who would go into the booth and have the officer process the passport (while the person at the booth waited).  

    The foreigners’ “line” became more unruly when a group of Tajiks, tired of waiting in their equally slow-moving nationals’ line, decided to join us (but at the front, not the back of the line).  People clambered over barriers and passed papers back and forth.  Meanwhile, baggage from all three flights was arriving on the single carousel.  All bags had to pass through a scanner; however, it was not connected to a computer, so no one actually inspected what was inside.  Two airport staff collected baggage tags, but did not match them to the bags you were carrying.  The trip had taken four hours—a two-hour flight and a two-hour ordeal in the arrivals hall.


Dungan mosque

The Dungan mosque in Karakol in northeastern Kyrgyzstan.  Dungan is a term used during the 19th century and the Soviet era to refer to Muslim people of Chinese origin. 

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Groups of Dungans arrived in Central Asia in several waves after uprisings against the Chinese empire and because of harsh economic conditions.  This mosque is a remarkable building constructed without nails in 1910.  In the Stalin era, many mosques were destroyed as the Soviet government sought to suppress Islam in the region. Maybe this one escaped the bureaucrats’ ire because it looks more like a Buddhist temple than a mosque.

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

My khrushchevka is better than your brezhnevka

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.  

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

  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.


The best fast food in Central Asia

Shashlyk—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. 

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The secret to the flavor is the marinade--usually lemon juice, diced onions and garlic, cilantro, ground coriander and salt—and the lump of mutton fat on the skewer.  Shashlyk is served with raw onions, sprinkled with paprika or cayenne pepper.  This is not your fancy kabob (although it’s in the same culinary family) with slices of pepper, eggplant or tomato.  It’s just meat, meat and more meat, giving you the protein you need to round up the herd.  The best shashlyk I’ve eaten has been at roadside stands like this one in the Fergana Valley of southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.  In Kazakhstan, you can also find beef shashlyk, but the mutton is best.  

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



Camping indoors in Central Asia

I don't deliberately stay in rundown Soviet-era hotels so I can write about them later. Sometimes, there's just no alternative.

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

                From the mid-1990s onward, my teaching, training and consulting work in Central Asia has taken me to places where the accommodation choices are, well, pretty limited.  If possible, I rent an apartment, if only for a couple of days.  But often, I have to take my chances at whatever establishment in town displays a gostinitsa (hotel) sign.  

                The municipally owned Hotel Molmol in Djalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan had probably been a decent enough place in Soviet times, when party bosses came to town to roll out the latest five-year plan, cook up inflated statistics on the cotton harvest, relax in the hot springs at the local spa, and dine in the hotel ballroom. There also used to be tourists—factory workers and their families who came to the spa and walked in the walnut groves. But few officials (and probably no tourists) had been there for almost a decade, and the place was in sorry shape.

                In July 1997, I paid the foreigner's price of $10 for a "luxury room" that consisted of a dormitory-style bed, a chest with broken drawers, and a few cockroaches. There was no running water. The staff-- cheekily described by Lonely Planet as "breathtakingly rude"—told me the electricity would go off at 10:00 p.m. By 8:30, I was sitting in the dark, feeling hungry. The hotel restaurant was closed—for renovations, or so they said. At breakfast the next morning, Buffet No. 37—the sign was a throwback to communist times, when all eating establishments were state-owned and numbered—offered cold piroshki and tea. 

                Most Soviet-era hotels reflect the ostentatious public architecture of the Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras with their high-rise apartment blocks, massive squares, and government buildings with colonnades and cavernous lobbies. The impressive facades often conceal dark and drab interiors, with poor heating and ventilation, dangerous wiring, and leaky pipes.

                The Soviets built their hotels large, and even small cities boasted establishments with several hundred rooms. Of course, the number of rooms bore no relation to the expected number of guests. In an economy based on artificial production quotas, not on demand for products and services, there was no place for market research.

                So there they stand today—large, and largely empty. Hotel occupancy rates may still be a state secret in some former Soviet republics, but my guess is that most government hotels in provincial centers don't fill more than 20 percent of rooms most of the time. And without guests, they don't have the money to modernize.

 Hotel Almaty, slightly refurbished since my first stay in 1995

Hotel Almaty, slightly refurbished since my first stay in 1995

In capital cities, Western-style hotels (with Western prices to match) have been built for business travelers and tourists. But in the provinces, the only hotel is usually the old government one.  This gives them a monopoly on accommodation, and the chance to charge exorbitant prices to desperate travelers. On a trip in 1999, I checked into the Hotel Ordabasy in Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan. There were two room rates--$25 and $100. What's the difference, I asked? Is the $100 room larger and more comfortable? No, said the clerk. The $100 rooms have hot water, at least in the evenings. I went for the budget option. Seventy-five dollars seemed just too much to pay for a shower.  My interpreter and I were the only customers for breakfast in the 200-seater restaurant, with its dark velvet drapes and chandeliers. All that was on offer was cold grichka (buckwheat). I found myself feeling almost nostalgic for Buffet No. 37.

                These hotels have one saving grace—the dezhurnayas, the floor ladies.  The dezhurnaya sits at a table opposite the stairs or elevator (if it’s working) and discreetly monitors the comings and goings of guests.  You hand in your room key to the dezhurnaya, not at the front desk.  Even in Soviet times, the dezhurnayas were not very busy, except when the hotel was full.  Today, they while away the hours reading magazines and watching TV.  But in hotels where room service is not an option, they keep things running, rustling up late-night cups of tea and retrieving linens, blankets and toilet supplies from secret stashes.  

                 On a later trip to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, I learned that conditions in other former Soviet satellite states were similar. I asked my friend Susan Roe who had traveled to the provinces to rate the hotels. "Pretty grim," she said. "Rather like camping indoors."

                I've learned three valuable lessons about camping indoors. If you're six feet (as I am) or taller, sleep at an angle because the beds are short. (They must all have been manufactured at the same Soviet factory from standard lengths.) Carry a few tools so you can fix the furniture and, if you're handy, the plumbing, too. And tip the dezhurnaya on the first day of your stay.


                My favorite place to stay in Central Asia did not have a gostinitsa sign outside.  It was a house in Osh owned by a Russian couple, Yuri and Nina.  In the Soviet era, Yuri had worked as an engineer.  When independence came—and with it unemployment—the couple saw a business opportunity.  Foreign consultants were frequently coming to Osh for anything from a few days to a few weeks and no one wanted to stay at the gloomy Hotel Intourist.  Why not open a bed-and-breakfast?

                The house was in a mostly Uzbek neighborhood about a 10-minute marshrutka ride from the center.  The street was the usual mix of single-story homes and small shops, with babushkas selling fruit from blankets on the sidewalk; a few hundred yards away was a small bazaar where used auto parts were sold.   Sheep and goats grazed on patches of grass, and chickens ran in and out of the back yards.  People sat out on the street in the evening, and children played.  It was a long way from the grim formality of the Hotel Intourist.

               Word soon got around the expat community and you had to book ahead to make sure you could get a room.  Word also spread about Nina’s skills in the kitchen.  Russian domashnaya kukhniya (home-cooking) at its very best—sumptuous pilomini, golopsi and borsch, pies and cakes, home-made jams and juices with fresh cherries picked from the tree in the yard and apricots and plums from the bazaar.  Yuri rigged up an emergency lighting system, powered by a car battery, so that when the power went out (as it did on several nights) we had light.  There were never more than three or four guests, and we often got together in the living room in the evening to talk and watch TV. Nina did everyone’s laundry.  Once she fixed the hem on my jacket (I didn't ask--she just grabbed it and started sewing.)  


                When Stephanie and I lived in Bishkek in 1996-97, most foreign visitors stayed at the Dostuk near Victory Square.  It was in a convenient central location, the phones and TVs worked (although the choice was limited to Kyrgyz and Russian-language stations and one Turkish satellite channel) and the two restaurants actually served what was on the menu.  The single elevator was standard Soviet issue—just large enough for two people and a couple of bags—but at least it worked.  I had little sympathy for visiting USAID contractors who complained about the short beds and the mutton stew served at breakfast.  This was luxury compared to most hotels in Central Asia.

                The Dostuk’s monopoly on foreign guests was soon challenged.  On the south side of the city on Prospekt Mira, Bishkek’s first international hotel was rising from the concrete rubble of the old city airport.  The 14-storey Ak-Keme Hotel, built by Turkish investors, soon eclipsed the Dostuk as the upscale option in town, offering conference facilities and, it was rumored, a French chef.

                Stephanie and I visited the hotel only once (for a fashion show) but I stayed there twice on later visits to Bishkek for conferences   By 2009, Bishkek also had a Hyatt downtown and an even more expensive boutique hotel, so the Ak-Keme had competition at the top end of the market.  It was comfortable, if not exactly well suited to business travelers.  All the flat surfaces in the room were about two feet from the floor, so there was nowhere to sit and work.  The business center charged $7 an hour for Internet service.   I could get a faster connection down the street at an Internet café for $1 an hour.  

                I’m not sure when the Turkish investors backed out, but the Ak-Keme was now officially a “Joint Kyrgyz-Malaysian Venture.” Because English is widely spoken in Malaysia, you’d expect the new foreign partner to have tidied up the English grammar and spelling on the room service menu.  The Ak-Keme’s varied from the mildly pretentious—“On green meadow” veal and “Romance” soup—to the simply careless—stewen rice and humburger.  And the laughable—domestics pie.  “Domestics” is a translation from the Russian domashniye which means home or home-made.  I guess the menu writer felt that taking the second meaning from the dictionary would be a classier option. Downstairs, the restaurant served “beef language” (in Russian, as in English, the word yazik, translated as “tongue,” can refer to either the body part or the language, but you need to think about what you’re describing).  Instructions for the hotel phone included a wordy, if mathematically precise, warning: “After telephone conversation it is necessary to press the button of interruption.  While the button of interruption is not pressed the telephone station doesn’t fix the end of the conversation.  After 53 seconds it will start to charge price.” 53 seconds.  The Soviets were always better at math than at English. 

                By 2009, Kyrgyzstan was at last seeing a steady stream of foreign tourists, and many stayed at the Ak Keme for a night on their way to and from the standard visit-Issyk Kul- mountain-lake-eat-in-a-traditional-Kyrgyz-yurt-see-traditional-dance-and-drink-kumys package tour.  I helped an Australian couple load their bags into the elevator—a hazardous task because the elevator doors stayed open for approximately 2.3 seconds before attempting to sever human limbs.  They had enjoyed the mountain scenery, but didn’t like the city.  “Bitofer rathole, mite,” said the man.  I told them I loved the city, despite the traffic and inconveniences. “It ain’t Sydney,” he replied, stating the obvious.