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.  


Deconstructing Lenin

Statues of Lenin, while not yet on the endangered species list, are not as common in the former Soviet Union or Communist bloc as they once were. As the Soviet 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.

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           

However, Lenin still stands tall in what was once a distant outpost of the Soviet empire--the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. In the broad, fertile Fergana Valley, between two great mountain ranges, the Fergana and the Pamir Alay, Lenin looks out on a sprawling, multi-ethnic city still struggling to adjust to the post-Soviet world.

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Like Stalin, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin was his nom de plume) remains a controversial historical figure.  Indeed, the presence or absence of a Lenin statue tells us something about how ready a country or people is to shake off cultural and ideological links to the Soviet era.  In Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and the Caucasus, the break came quickly and decisively, and the Lenin statues fell almost as fast—in 1989 in Krakow, in 1990 in Bucharest, in 1991 in Tbilisi and Yerevan, and so on.  Yet in Russia, Belarus, eastern Ukraine and some Central Asian republics, Lenin statues still stand in many public squares and parks. 

            In 2012, Russian lawmakers proposed relocating Lenin monuments to museums or side streets, or selling them to collectors, ostensibly to reduce vandalism and maintenance costs.  But the debate in the parliament (Duma) revealed an ideological agenda.  One deputy claimed that the presence of Lenin statues in most Russian cities and towns meant the revolutionary leader still exercised a stranglehold on history, and that was unfair to other Russian historical figures. Didn’t Ivan the Terrible or Catherine the Great deserve equal historical billing?  Predictably, the Communist Party did not like the idea.  As one senior party member put it: “Lenin is the founding father of the Russian Federation. Same as George Washington in America.”   

                Kyrgyzstan, like other Central Asian republics, has a schizophrenic relationship with its Russian and Soviet past—a mix of resentment against military conquest and repression, political and economic control, and nostalgia for a time when everyone had housing, education, medical care and a job, even if pay was low, the lines at the shops were long, and there wasn’t much on the shelves once you got inside.  

                In 1984, to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), a new Lenin Square was built in the capital, Bishkek, along the main east-west street, Leninsky Prospekt.  Its focal point, in front of the new historical museum, was a statue of Lenin in one of his more dramatic poses, his right arm raised in the direction of the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountains to the south. 

                At independence, Leninsky Prospekt became Chuy Prospekt and Lenin Square Ala Too Square, but Lenin remained, his arm outstretched.  Locals jested that he was trying to direct traffic or hail a taxi on one of the city’s busiest streets. In August 2003, the authorities moved the statue to a more discreet location—a park on the other side of the historical museum.  To mark what the government described, in something of a historical stretch, as “2,200 years of Kyrgyz statehood,” it was replaced by a statue of Erkindik (Liberty)—a winged female figure on top of a globe, holding a tunduk, the circular frame that forms the top of the traditional Kyrgyz nomadic dwelling, the yurt. As the Lenin statue was dismantled, protestors filed a lawsuit and marched with “Hands Off Lenin!” banners.  Communist party leader and parliamentary deputy Absamat Masaliev claimed officials wanted to convert a bomb shelter under the statue into an underground retail complex.  “Who gave the small nation of Kyrgyzstan its statehood?  Lenin!” said another opponent. 

                The removal was supported by a coalition of NGOs.  “Lenin did not offer anything except violence and dictatorship,” its leader, Edil Baisalov, said.  He claimed that there were about 4,000 Lenin statues in towns and villages in Kyrgyzstan. “Isn’t that rather too many for a person who never even visited Kyrgyzstan, and didn’t say a word about our country anywhere in his works?  For Kyrgyzstan to still have so many monuments to Lenin is like Germany preserving statues of Hitler.  If we really want to build a democracy and a new civil society, we must tear such things down.” Other commentators were more cynical. “If the authorities don’t like Lenin any more, why don’t they just remove the statue’s head?” asked one parliamentary deputy. “That way, each new leader could simply screw a model of his head onto Lenin’s body. Just think of the money that could be saved.”  The government ended up spending more money.  In 2011, reportedly because some Kyrgyz believed that a woman holding a tunduk was a bad omen, Erkindik was supplanted by Manas, the national folk hero.

             Although some Kyrgyz nationalists in Osh would support the removal of the Lenin statue, the city has escaped a public spat on the issue, probably because it faces more pressing challenges—a stagnant economy, declining social services, a high crime rate, and periodic bloody conflicts between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the most recent in 2010 when more than 470 people were killed and 2,800 properties damaged.  However, the statue’s reprieve does not denote nostalgia for Soviet rule; it's simply (and Lenin would understand this) a matter of economics. The city does not have the money to tear down or move the statue, let alone put up something more politically correct in its place. Today, it’s a local landmark, a place where visitors pose for snapshots, kids ride skateboards and lovers scrawl their names. If Lenin stays, it will be for that best capitalist reason—because he's good for business.

                Lenin statues come in many varieties.  There’s Lenin with his head raised, looking to the skies or stars, Lenin the action figure rallying the masses, Lenin deep in thought, Lenin looking resolute.  There’s even a Lenin looking rather uneasy outside a taco joint in Seattle.  Kyrgyzstan’s two most prominent Lenins do look different.  Bishkek Lenin, with his right arm outstretched towards the mountains, is the dynamic leader, pointing towards some mystic, communist, egalitarian future.  Osh Lenin holds out his arms as if to greet people.  He seems kinder, gentler, more human.  Considering Osh’s troubled history, maybe the Lenin statue is a symbol worth keeping. 

Cursing the future

 A man waits in line outside a food shop in Moscow. Finally, he’s had enough and tells     his friend: “That’s it. I’m going over to the Kremlin to kill that Gorbachev.” Two hours later he comes back.  “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?”  “No,” he replies, “there was an even longer line over there.” 

          Through the 1990s, in cities, towns and villages throughout the former Soviet Union, industrial workers gathered in bars, restaurants, chaikhanas (tea houses) and bazaars to “curse the future.”  I credit the phrase to my friend Asqat Yerkimbay, describing growing up in the central Kazakhstan mining town of Zhezdy.  But I had heard a similar story from many other people.

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          For 75 years, industrial workers were folk heroes, lauded in speeches, newspapers, books, movies and wall posters for their efforts to make the Soviet Union a world power.  Although agricultural production was vital, Soviet industry seemed more glamorous, and definitely more photogenic.  Newsreels and propaganda films recorded the whirring machines of the factory assembly line, the intense heat of the steel furnace, the jagged face of the coal seam, the electricity pylons stretching into the distance.  Each product coming off the line, each steel ingot, ton of coal or megawatt of electricity represented the growing strength of the USSR, the fulfillment of the great socialist dream.  And the dream makers were Lenin’s proletariat—the engineers, coal miners, steelworkers, engine drivers.  Industrial jobs paid better than most professions, and often came with perks such as apartments and vacations to summer resorts in the Kyrgyz SSR. They also helped reinforce the status of women in society.  The Soviet Union never needed a Roza the Riveter because women were always in the industrial workforce.

           And then it all ended.  Despite Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (literally restructuring or rebuilding), most citizens had no idea of what was coming, or how it would change their lives forever.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the central planning system that had supported the economy collapsed too.  In every sector, production was determined by targets and quotas, which usually had little or no relationship to demand.  Factories, mines and collective farms had to meet targets, even if what they produced was not needed and piled up in rail cars or rotted in warehouses.  Managers were rewarded for exceeding targets, fired or demoted for falling short—a system that provided ample incentive for cooking the books on cotton or steel production. 

          In the factories of Central Asia, workers continued to show up, but the targets and subsidies from Moscow had ended and there were few new customers.  Some factories tried to adapt to the market economy, but most lacked the money to invest in new equipment and compete for quality and price with industries in other countries.  Compared with other Soviet republics, the industrial base of the Kyrgyz SSR was comparatively small because Moscow considered the region too remote to become a major industrial producer.  However, factories for agricultural processing, textiles and household goods employed thousands in the Chuy and Fergana Valleys.  By the mid-1990s, most had closed.  Almost all the canned goods, clothes, shoes, pots and pans on the bazaar were imported from China and other Asian countries.

           Kyrgyzstan struggled to adopt the reforms that donor countries and the International Monetary Fund said were needed to qualify for loans and aid and to build a market economy.  The government abandoned subsidies and price controls, and replaced the Russian ruble with a new currency, the som. The pace of reform caused massive economic dislocation; in one year, inflation ran close to 1,000 per cent, devastating people on pensions and fixed incomes. With international support, the government eventually stabilized the currency and brought inflation down to manageable levels, but economic recovery remained slow and poverty rates increased.

           Official reports tell the story of Kyrgyzstan’s economic collapse in sanitized, bureaucratic terms—the language of economists, policy-makers and development experts.  The calculations were at the macro level--cold measurements of Gross Domestic Product, consumer price indexes, output by economic sector, government debt, foreign direct investment, reforms of the financial services sector. In the mid-1990s, it’s questionable whether Kyrgyzstan even had a financial services sector to reform.  The som had been devalued, inflation remained high, and almost no one trusted the banks to keep their money safe.  With few deposits, banks had little money to lend and when they made loans, it was at ruinous 30 per cent interest rates.  If you wanted to start a new business, you asked your family to lend or give you the money.  Even the loan sharks at the bazaar charged less interest than the banks.  

           The economic statistics were sometimes based on questionable data.  One year the government, in an attempt to convince foreign donors and investors that the economy was picking up, declared that the unemployment rate had dropped below 10 per cent for the first time since independence.  Even government supporters were incredulous.  It turned out that in its sample the statistical agency had included every tout hawking cigarettes, pirated cassettes and homebrew on the streets as a “self-employed market vendor.”  The real rate was probably at least 40 per cent. 

            None of the reports and statistics told the human stories of dislocation, especially for industrial workers.  Their skills were not needed in the new economy, and there were few opportunities for retraining.  Some left for Russia, hoping to find jobs, but the situation in many Russians regions was as bad as in Central Asia.  A few started private businesses or worked as drivers.  Some just gave up.  It was not only the loss of income, devastating though that was.  It was the loss of purpose, dignity and respect.  They had been the breadwinners for their families; now they had no jobs and no prospects.  In some families, women became the main wage earners, but while they kept the family fed, their husbands sometimes felt the loss of status even more intensely. Back in the good old days, industrial workers could afford a bottle of vodka or cognac for a party or holiday celebration.  Now some turned to the bottle to try to forget their plight.  Official reports on the economy do not figure in the social costs of alcoholism, depression, broken marriages, domestic violence, and suicides.  It is not surprising that the engineers, miners and steelworkers were nostalgic for the Soviet Union.  They denounced Gorbachev the traitor, and cursed a future that seemed to offer them nothing.  




Soviet gerrymandering

When the Soviet cartographers sliced and diced Central Asia in the 1920s, someone must have said, “The Kyrgyz.  Aren’t they all nomads?  Let’s give them the mountains.”

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


             Before the Soviet era, there were no national borders between the peoples of the region, and identity was defined by religion, family, clan and place. The Soviets feared that such muddled loyalties could help Islamic, social or political movements gain popular support, as Pasha’s rebellion had shown.  Educated Central Asians and religious leaders still talked privately of a Greater Turkestan or a Central Asian caliphate.  The Soviets attempted to counter pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic tendencies by constructing nationalities, giving each a defined territory with national borders, along with a ready-made history, language, culture and ethnic profile.  Your loyalty was no longer to your tribe, village or faith, but to your nationality as a Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen or Uzbek and to its Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). 

                The Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs were created in 1924, the Tajik SSR in 1929.   It took the Russians longer to sort out the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, who share similar physical features, traditions and language.  Indeed, in the 19th century, they were all referred to as Kyrgyz.  As ethnographic research began to reveal differences, the mountain tribes became known as Kara-Kyrgyz (black Kyrgyz) to distinguish them from the steppe-dwelling Kazakhs, who were called simply Kyrgyz because “Kazakh” sounded too much like the name of another group, the Cossacks.  Although the Russians seemed confused, the Kazakhs knew perfectly well who they were, and that they were not Kyrgyz.  They were members of a tribe that was part of either the Great, Middle or Little Horde, each of which had its own khan.  In 1926, most of present-day Kyrgyzstan became the Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) and a full Kyrgyz SSR in 1936.  In the same year, the Kazakh SSR was formed.  And so, through the miracle of Soviet ethnic engineering, the Kara-Kyrgyz were no longer black but true Kyrgyz, while the people who had been called Kyrgyz for over a century turned out to be Kazakhs after all. 

                While promoting new national loyalties, the Soviets realized that too much nationalism could be dangerous.  In a parallel effort to solidify control, they shifted around ethnic groups to ensure that none was dominant in a specific area.  Thousands of Central Asians were moved to other parts of the Soviet Union.  Russian and Ukrainian farm and factory workers were settled in Central Asia, while Volga Germans, Chechens, Koreans and other ethnicities were deported to the region.   The policy of divide and rule, intended to suppress ethnic unrest and militant Islam, created artificial borders between ethically-mixed SSRs.  The medieval cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, historically major centers of Tajik culture and with large ethnic Tajik populations, ended up in the Uzbek SSR.  Osh was a classic case of ethnic gerrymandering.  As Central Asia scholar Madeleine Reeves points out, if the Soviets had drawn boundaries exclusively along national lines, the nomadic Kyrgyz would “end up with a Kyrgyz republic that had no cities of its own: a worrying prospect for a state preoccupied with thrusting ‘backward’ populations into Soviet modernity.”  Their solution was to make Osh, with its predominantly Uzbek population of traders and arable farmers, the republic’s southern city.

               Independence came suddenly to all Soviet republics. Unlike liberation struggles in Asia or Africa, there was no army emerging from the mountains or jungles to be cheered by flag-waving crowds, no government in exile, no heroes or martyrs to freedom.  Citizens of each SSR suddenly found themselves citizens of an independent country.

                Achieving independence is one thing; creating national identity is another.  At independence, ethnic Kazakhs were a minority (albeit the largest one) in Kazakhstan, making up about 41 per cent of the population.  At the same time, almost one quarter of Tajikistan’s population was ethnically Uzbek.  With the possible exception of Turkmenistan, all republics have a rich, but potentially volatile ethnic mix. The region, noted the New York Times, looked like "a medieval map" where power is defined by ethnicities and clans, not by borders. Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously referred to Central Asia as “the Eurasian Balkans.”



Lost in Stanland

On the eve of his first foreign trip as US Secretary of State in February 2013, John Kerry, in a speech at the University of Virginia, praised the staff of the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) for their work in the “most dangerous places on Earth.”

They fight corruption in Nigeria. They support the rule of law in Burma. They support democratic institutions in Kyrzakhstan and Georgia.

            Come again, Mr. Secretary? Kyrzakhstan? Aren’t you confusing volatile Kyrgyzstan, where popular protests overthrew two authoritarian leaders in less than five years, with its stable neighbor Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled almost unchallenged since independence in 1991?

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 republics of Central Asia

The republics of Central Asia

The State Department transcript of the speech helpfully clarified matters, replacing “Kyrzakhstan” with “Kyrgyzstan.” But not before reporters picked up on the gaffe. Kerry was teased for “creating a new country.” The flub was “all the more awkward,” said the British newspaper The Telegraph, “because Kyrgyzstan is a key ally in the US-led war in Afghanistan and a major recipient of US aid.”

            Russians poked fun in online forums. Among the comments: “I think we need to restore the USSR, so that the American Secretary does not confuse the names.” “Well, if the USA decided so . . . Let there be Kyrzakhstan.” “So what? Kyrzakhstan is a regular country. It’s to the east of Ukrarussia and south-east of Litonia. Not far from Uzkmenia. You should learn geography.” A cartoon depicted Kerry, cell phone to his ear, looking intently at a globe. “Where is that Kyrzakhstan? I’ve been trying to call there for three days.”           

            Of course, Kerry was not the first US official to be, as the Telegraph put it, “tongue-tied by post-Soviet geography.” “Stan-who?” President George W. Bush is reputed to have asked when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed him about Uzbekistan. In August 2008, he mixed up Russia and Georgia, which at that time were at war, when he warned against possible efforts to depose “Russia’s duly elected government.”

            The confusion is symptomatic of a more general geographical malaise, caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the proliferation of countries whose names end in -stan. Kerry is not the first and will not be the last public official to become lost in Stanland.

            So where is “Stanland?”

            The imprecise reference is to a vast swath of Asia, stretching from Turkey to the western border of China, populated by a bewildering assortment of ethnic groups that give their names to an equally bewildering collection of provinces, autonomous republics, and countries. Remembering them all—not to mention finding them on a map—is a challenge, even for people who are supposed to know these things, such as diplomats and international relations experts.

            It’s similar to the geographical confusion brought on by the end of European colonialism in Africa a half century ago. It wasn’t enough for the imperial powers to surrender their political and economic dominance. They also had to learn postcolonial geographical vocabulary. It’s not Upper Volta any more. It’s Burkina Faso, and its capital is—get ready to roll those vowels—Ouagadougou.

            We all construct mental maps of essential information, and our maps are shaped as much by culture and pragmatism as by physical features and political boundaries. Of course, we all know about other places, but they don’t appear in our mental maps, not even on the fringes, unless they seem relevant. Even though Afghanistan has been embroiled in conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979—or, to take a longer historical perspective, since the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839–42—it was not on most Americans’ mental maps before September 11, 2001.

            As long as Afghanistan and Pakistan were the only “stans” we had to remember, the map was reasonably manageable. Then Mikhail Gorbachev came along. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave us fourteen new countries (plus Russia) including the five “stans” of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. We can be grateful the Soviet Union did not break up any further, or we would have to deal with Bashkortostan, Dagestan, and Tatarstan (now Russian republics). Or that Armenia did not adopt its native name, Hayastan. Or that the Central Asian republics themselves did not splinter, with Karakalpakstan breaking away from Uzbekistan.

            If we struggle to remember the “stans,” is it more helpful to think about “Central Asia”? It depends. In terms of geopolitics, it’s a more elastic region, partly because it is (apart from the Caspian Sea) landlocked, so has no coastline for demarcation. Since September 11, Afghanistan has often been classified as Central Asia. The north of the country, bordering Uzbekistan, has a large ethnic Uzbek population; in the east, Tajiks are a significant minority. By religion, culture, and language, the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region have more in common with the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz than with the rest of China, and Uighur nationalists dream of reuniting with their neighbors in a Greater Turkestan region. The Caspian Sea clearly divides the Caucasus republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and the Russian republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, although some policy experts lump them together as “Central Asia and the Caucasus.” What about Mongolia? Ethnically, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are Mongols. Unlike other regions that can be neatly subdivided, Central Asia is amorphous, expanding and contracting as it is viewed through different political, social, economic, and cultural lenses.

            In Postcards from Stanland, I use the narrow political definition of Central Asia to refer to these five former Soviet republics--: Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Since 1995, I have faced the challenge of trying to explain the region to colleagues, students, and friends. After one trip to Kyrgyzstan, a colleague insisted I had been in Kurdistan (which does not yet exist, except in Northern Iraq and in the maps of Kurdish separatist movements).

            “No, K-oe-rg-oe-zstan,” I replied, trying to wrap my tongue around the challenging Russian vowel “ы” in the first and second syllables. I gave the ten-second profile. “Poor country, former Soviet Union, borders China, beautiful mountains and lakes, nomadic herders with sheep and horses, lots of meat in the diet, bad hotels, slow Internet, very hospitable people.”

            You would have thought the conflict in Afghanistan would have focused the attention of Westerners on the countries next door, but unfortunately it hasn’t. Just as medieval European maps tagged vast regions of Africa, Asia, and America as terra incognita, the five Central Asian republics are a geographical blank between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the west and China to the east. To many Westerners, my travels might as well have been on another planet. I had simply been in “Stanland.”


Winter Games

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

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

         When I arrived in Astana in mid-January, preparations for the games were in full swing. A total of twenty-seven countries sent teams, and the organizing committee had scoured foreign-language departments across the country for student interpreters. The committee’s headquarters, full of red track-suited volunteers, and the hotel where most of the athletes and officials were staying were just around the corner from my apartment. On my rare ventures along the snow-covered streets, I’d often see a busload of athletes heading out for the newly built stadiums on the left bank.

            Fortunately for the organizers, Kazakhstan topped the medal table, with thirty-two gold, twenty-one silver, and seventeen bronze; Japan, South Korea, and China were the other major medal winners. Ticket prices starting at $100 deterred me (and other Astana residents) from attending events, but they were on TV every night and in seemingly endless reruns through the summer. The only live event I saw was a sideshow in a cavernous exhibition hall where organizers were showing off traditional Kazakh culture to foreign visitors.  I missed the horsemanship exhibition, in which cowboys raced around a small circus ring, performing daring acrobatics. What I did see were three traditional yurts, probably better appointed and furnished than your average out-on-the-steppe variety, and nice handicrafts (leather goods, ornaments, and carpets).

A very well-appointed yurt.  My interpreter, Diana Akizhanova, is third from the right

A very well-appointed yurt.  My interpreter, Diana Akizhanova, is third from the right

Shirdaks and traditional Kazakh handicrafts

Shirdaks and traditional Kazakh handicrafts

The attempt to re-create the landscape was not as authentic, as I discovered when I leaned on a styrofoam rock and almost pushed over a small mountain. I drank shubat (camel’s milk) and ate traditional snacks (salty or sweet, designed to give that extra burst of energy when you’re rounding up the herd). And I listened to powerful singing from traditional musicians on a stage with a psychedelic light show going on behind. “What’s she singing about?” I asked my interpreter Diana Akizhanova, who had gamely accompanied me. “I’ve no idea. It’s in Yakut [a Siberian language],” she said. Fortunately, the next performer sang in Kazakh. “What’s she singing about?” I asked again. “Oh, about how to deal with life,” said Diana, not very helpfully. “How much do you know about traditional Kazakh culture?” I asked her later. “Not much,” she admitted. “I’m a city girl.”

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Snow days in Astana

          Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is renowned for its futuristic and eclectic (or ostentatious and jumbled, depending on one’s aesthetic) architecture.  It also has a more dubious distinction: it’s the second coldest capital city in the world.


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

           If you’re looking for steady, seasonal work, try snow removal in Astana.  In January and February, the city clears snow almost every day.  It’s an impressive operation.  In some North American cities, snow piles up alongside roads and sidewalks.  In Astana they literally remove it.  Workers break up the snow and ice with pickaxes, and shovel it into front loaders that dump it into trucks that haul it out of town.  I don’t know where they dump it, but if some farmer’s field is still under snow in May, we’ll have a clue. 

                Astana is, according to climate data, the second coldest capital city in the world, with Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia (another city where I’ve shivered in April) in first place. It attained this dubious status when it became the capital in 1997, knocking Ottawa out of second spot. Understandably, the government and the tourist agencies don’t talk much about temperatures in their promotional brochures.  They’d prefer foreigners to think that other Northern Hemisphere capitals, such as Moscow, Helsinki, Reykjavik and Pyongyang, are colder. 

                Of course, defining “coldest” raises methodological issues.  Are we looking at average temperatures across the year, average winter temperatures or just extreme conditions, when the temperature plunges to, say, minus 40 Celsius?  I vote (with my cold feet) for average winter temperatures.  Astana has an extreme continental climate with warm summers and long, cold, dry winters.  Temperatures of minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit) to minus 35 Celsius (minus 31 Fahrenheit) are common between mid-December and early March.  The city also holds the record for the lowest air temperature ever recorded in Kazakhstan (minus 51 Celsius). Typically, the River Ishim freezes over between the second week of November and the beginning of April.   It can feel even colder because of the wind chill.

                My Fulbright Fellowship began in mid-January and I was prepared.  My wife Stephanie had bought me a warm down coat, an alpaca wool hat, gloves with liners and two pairs of silk long johns.  Unfortunately, United Airlines stored my checked luggage at Dulles Airport for three days before handing it over to Lufthansa for delivery.  The long johns, of course, were in the luggage.  I ventured out the first morning wearing almost all the outer clothing I had, my legs yearning for those long johns.  As I stood shivering at the bus stop, my U.S. embassy liaison nonchalantly remarked that it was “not too cold today—only minus 30 Celsius.” 

                Some parts of Astana are definitely colder than others.  On the left bank among the high-rise apartments, government ministries, malls, parks and public squares, the wind blows hard off the steppe, funneling along the boulevards and buffeting the few pedestrians brave enough to be outside.  On the right bank in the older city, the buildings are closer together, providing shelter from the wind.  Maybe it is partly psychological, but it feels warmer—or, in Astana terms, not as bone-chillingly cold—there.   


           On the streets, walking can be hazardous to your health.  The snow may be only a few inches deep but it is hard-packed.  However, it’s safer walking on the snow than on the sidewalk, which is often a sheet of pure ice.  I moved slowly, looking for patches of snow that would give me a firmer footing.  The locals seemed to be equipped with all-weather feet, walking briskly, some of the women in fashionable high heels.  My complaints about the winter fall on deaf ears.   Alexander, a taxi driver, told me the winter had so far been mild.  He recalled that when he was growing up in a village in northern Kazakhstan, the snow reached almost to the roof (almost 10 feet high) of the family’s one-story home and they had to dig a passage through to the street.  He said they never got too cold, because they had an ample wood supply and because the deep snow around the house had an igloo effect. 

                Even after my long johns arrived and my legs were reasonably warm, I didn’t walk any further than I had to for risk of falling.  In almost three months, I left my apartment in the evening only three or four times to meet friends for dinner, and always took a taxi.  At weekends, I would walk 15-20 minutes along Valikhanova Street to the covered market, four blocks away.  Sometimes I stopped at a coffee shop that doubled as an English-language library with books and DVDs.  It also offered old newspapers and magazines donated by customers.  You could learn that “Republicans Win 2010 Midterm U.S. Elections” six months after the fact in case you missed the story.  I asked a British couple, Paul and Sarah, what they did for fun in Astana in winter.  There was a brief silence.  “Well, we often come here, have coffee, check out a DVD and go home and watch it,” said Sarah.  This was not encouraging news. 

                The government of Kazakhstan has spent lavishly to make its capital a city where people will want to live and work.  It has worked hard to brand Astana as a business destination, and as a host city for international conferences and sporting events.  The city has a modern airport, five-star hotels, new conference and exhibition halls, upscale shopping malls and the usual range of “international” cuisine—from sushi and tapas bars to the somewhat incongruous Irish pubs.  It’s now the sort of city that merits a glossy spread in an airline magazine, the writer gushing about his “24 Hours in Astana, Jewel of the Steppe,” the architecture, museums and nightlife.  But neither government policy nor business investment can change the climate.



From southern Kyrgyzstan to suburban Maryland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Year’s Postcard from Charleston, West Virginia

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A happy new year to all my readers! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy new year!




Long-lost Postcards from Stanland jottings discovered

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

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

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

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

Arriving in Almaty

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

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?

The Hotel Almaty--a business hotel?


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

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

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

The Soviet Union—another passing dynasty

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

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

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

Winter Games

Winter Games

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