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Almaty

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 www.davidhmould.com (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?

 

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 www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

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 www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

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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]!”

 

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 www.davidhmould.com (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.

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 www.davidhmould.com (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.

 

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 www.davidhmould.com (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.

BED AND BREAKFAST IN OSH

                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.)  

UPSCALE BEEF LANGUAGE

                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.  

 

Long-lost Postcards from Stanland jottings discovered

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  No, this “discovery” is not exactly in the same league as unearthing an ancient religious text or an unpublished Shakespeare sonnet.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

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

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

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

Arriving in Almaty

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

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?

 

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

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

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

The Soviet Union—another passing dynasty

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

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

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