Cities of the Silk Roads: Uzbekistan #1

The BorderIMG_1004.jpg

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 7.38.29 pm.pngYes that’s Uzbekistan. But look more closely at this section of the border with the Kyrgyz Republic.Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 1.02.08 pm.png

It’s a crazy puzzle. 

Tajikistan, which is mostly the Pamir mountains, makes its claim round a corner to some of the Fergana Valley, manages to include the Kairakum Reservoir and take a skinny bite out of the end of a river valley. But what are those green floaty bits up to?

They are exclaves. You can’t see them all here but there are eight altogether: smallish parcels of land completely surrounded by another country. There is one Tajik and four Uzbek exclaves in Kyrgyzstan, a Tajik exclave in Uzbekistan, and a Kyrgyz exclave in Uzbekistan. Vorukh, where things have turned into shooting match about the route of new road, is another Tajik enclave in Kyrgyzstan. We had to drive right round the Uzbek bulge — all the bulges, large and small — to get to Osh (in Kyrgyzstan but on the border) where we could enter the country. 

Political, demographic and civil engineering are not always complementary.1200px-Central_Asia_Ethnic_en.svg.pngOchre for Uzbeks, red for Tajiks, brown for Kyrgyz. Sort that out. (No one lives where it’s white: mountains or desert.)

Stalin used to shift the borders of the Soviets on a whim, at times to keep them in order or to punish or reward the citizens or more usually his trusties, their bosses. But the breakup of the USSR has left behind a legacy of disputed borders and we were crossing at the site of one of the liveliest disputes.

In 2010 at Osh this became a shooting, burning, killing war between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz who had previously lived reasonably happily cheek by jowl. It doesn’t seem to have been a dispute over territory as it was in 1990 when 80,000 Uzbeks were displaced: just agitation, trouble-making. The effect? More than 2000 buildings destroyed and an uncertain number of lives lost but probably about 50. Errant Tajiks, deposed Kyrgyz leaders, Russian mavericks, even gypsies, were among those blamed along with more obvious targets.

The remnants of these eruptions — shell holes, half destroyed building, bundles of razor wire, serious fences — were all there to see as we crossed the 200m of no man’s land border.

The photo beginning this blog is one of my favourites from the trip, but it is deceptive. Other people in that line-up who had been waiting some hours to cross the border were audibly and visibly cross. When this began to sound like an eruption dozens of military border guards rushed out of their quarters to settle things down. It must be said that it seemed more like an angry game than a declaration of war. But it’s more uneasy than this smile would indicate. Walking that 200m in our tourist bubble was a strange experience.IMG_1001.jpg

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Unknown.jpegUzbekistan (‘ston’ locally where ‘o’ where we might expect ‘a’ is a common Uzbek linguistic formation, ‘Toshkent’ for example) is just getting over 25 years of rule by Islam Karimov (with Putin at left), an Uzbeki who was appointed as leader by the Russians in 1989 for the very purpose of quelling violent ethnic clashes. When the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan reluctantly approved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Karimov became president of the Republic of Uzbekistan where he sat till 16 months ago when he had a stroke and died.

A Soviet loyalist, he was also by nature an isolationist both from other countries and from the vagaries of contemporary life. Being everyone’s stern father doesn’t leave you much room to manoeuvre that way. It is only since the advent of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who believes in the economic value at least of tourism, that it has become relatively easy to visit the country.

We were grateful for that. There is a great deal to see in Uzbekistan.

Partly because of the remarkably fertile Fergana Valley, the area of the highest concentration of colour in the map above, 300km long and about 80 wide, along IMG_2705.JPGwith the slender strips of fertile green in the arid mountains (see at left for example, out the train window, Adijan to Tashkent), this region has hosted urban civilisations for a long time. Samarkand and Bukhara had been cities for centuries before Alexander the Macedonian conquered them in the 4th century BCE. It was here too that Chinese explorer Zhang Qian sequestered before returning home to make his report on the fertile aspects of Transoxiana, the land between the Amu Darya (in Ancient Greek ‘Oxus’) and Syr Darya, the huge rivers that used to feed the Aral Sea from the Pamirs and the Tian Shan.

When the Islamists conquered Iran this area became an important site for the maintenance of Persian culture. In 1219 Emperor Chinggis (Gengis Khan), founder of the Mongol Empire, invaded what is now western Uzbekistan. Then in 1369, Timur became the effective ruler and made Samarkand the capital of his future empire.

Amir (King, ‘Emir’, Emirates) Temur is also known as Tamburlaine (as in Marlowe’s play) or Tamerlane which is a derivation from Temur iLeng, or ‘Temur the Lame’. Of Mongol ancestry, he began his adult life as a sheep-rustler and bandit, and was injured in a skirmish which left him lame in his right leg and unable to raise his right arm. But our Uzbek guide Lochin wagged his finger at the use of ‘Tamerlane’ as being disrespectful of a great man, the heart and soul of Uzbek history and connected to a great many of the things that we saw and sites we visited.

Here he is at that very strange place Shahrisabz.IMG_1219.jpg‘The Scourge of God’ ended up with an empire that extended from the Mediterranean to India, famously built on blood and bone. Biographer Justin Marozzi suggests he was responsible for the slaughter of millions — ‘buried alive, cemented into walls, massacred on the battlefield, sliced in two at the waist, trampled to death by horses, beheaded, hanged’. The stories go that at Baghdad he had 90,000 of the inhabitants beheaded so that he could build towers with their skulls. At Sivas in Turkey, where he promised no bloodshed in return for surrender, he had 3,000 prisoners buried alive. His apologists pointed out that he had kept to the letter of the law (if not quite its spirit). Perhaps too symmetrical to be believed in entirety, an absence of the eccentric ribs and splotches that hint at truth-telling — but yes. Not entirely spotless.

He was however also responsible for an ambitious building program and a flowering of the arts and science. The evidence is there for that.

Noted astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg was his grandson. Beg (which wasn’t his actual name, ‘Ulugh Beg’ means something like ‘big boss’, ‘chief’) built the first ever madrassa (Islamic centre of learning of which there are now hundreds of thousands world-wide) which later became one element of the Registan of Samarkand.

Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara were vital and important commercial centres for another several hundred years until their influence and buoyancy dissipated via the combined impact of feuding Uzbek Khanates (kingdoms, three of them spread along the Silk Roads from the Kyrgyz border: Kokand, Bukhara and Kiva) and competition from the trade routes established by sea.

Uzbekistan is also famous for being the site of one of the most well defined ecological disasters of modern life. This one.images.jpegThe Aral Sea, 1973-2014. 40 years. Once a huge body of water abundant with life, it is now almost extinct with all sorts of knock-on consequences for those living in the region. Sandstorms for example. Appalling. So bad it is now a tourist ‘attraction’.20100404-aral-sea-muynak-port-unphoto-1400x500captn-1.jpg

What happened? Beginning in the 1960s plantings in the Fergana Valley which had supplied food for hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants for millennia were switched over 20 or so years at Moscow’s behest from food to cotton. This policy converted almost the entire agricultural economy of Uzbekistan to cotton production. It is now an embarrassment to mention the fact that in the national interest each year at harvest families were relocated, factories shut and schools closed to provide a workforce to pick the crop. There are still vestiges of this phenomenon in public decoration. One of Tashkent’s underground stations, I think Bobur, is decorated with wall panels of stylised cotton buds and hordes of pickers. We still saw cotton plantings but they were interspaced with a wide range of other crops. Sandalwood, for example, was quite widely in evidence. Cotton production has gone from 10m. tonnes (its peak, and the largest producer in the world) to 3m. tonnes last year.

Unknown.jpegBut the ecological issue was far more profound than the cultural one. The Aral Sea’s two main tributaries were the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Water from the Amu rarely flows into the Sea any more and from the Syr never. It has been diverted by irrigation plans and methods of the lowest imaginable quality. There is a high level of awareness of this issue but since the breakup of the Union of Soviets no money to do anything about it.

* * * * * *


It took us about an hour to get across the border, a haphazard affair, but seemingly with officials going out of their way to be both pleasant and helpful — to us anyway.

Our first destination was the bank to acquire piles of sum, 5970 to the AUD. We saw one man filling four cardboard cartons with stacks of high denomination notes and heading off with them on a hand truck. It was suggested he was going to buy a car.IMG_1023.jpgI had no plans to buy a car, but it was quite hard to work out how much money to change. This lump of 5000s I thought might last a week but I spent it in three days.

Things had changed. The country had a different feel. This could have been Kyrgyzstan.IMG_1009.jpg

But this probably couldn’t.IMG_1021.jpgJust to the left was a massive market with very large patriotic urgings on its walls. The building to the right and the tops of those on the left are probably government housing.IMG_1018.jpgLess Russian, more Persian. We were coming to some of the most wonderful examples of Muslim architecture and decorative art in the world. This panel above was perhaps 1/20th of the decoration on the ceiling of one of the deep verandas which were often present in older buildings. Almost always decorated richly enough to give you pause and to wonder how it had been done, and how it had been maintained.IMG_1013.jpgThis stone mural was the best feature of Andijan’s museum, a sad dark place with, inter alia, a large collection of representational paintings which were ugly, poorly crafted full of muddy colours and badly presented. We went there while we were waiting for our train to Tashkent. One day it may be full of wonders but it was a slightly punishing experience as we tried to be polite listening to a long dull explanation of each of the exhibits which was then translated. Hard work. I was also hungry and tired. We slid out of range. The hunger issue was resolved by eating in a cafeteria, a meal for which I had high hopesIMG_1024.jpgand which ended up doing me and my exhaust system in for several days. Tasted good though. 

We visited a super market and climbed aboard for the slightly eccentric train trip to Tashkent. ‘Eccentric’ in the sense of its complex changes in direction and speed, slooooooowwww then FAST, but also what we were looking at out the steamed-up windows. There’s a photo above. Arid hills creased with a sliver of green, snowy peaks over to the south — a mixed economy. At least some of those green slivers were mining towns, because unlike KR Uzbekistan has got a number of things in its ground that people want, not least oil and natural gas. There is some money here, possibly plenty, but culturally it still seemed to be struggling for confidence, settling its priorities and getting over Big Daddy. They leave a deep mark those men.


('Stone City', suggestive of indomitability)

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Hmmm. Good one. That map tells you absolutely nothing, doesn’t it. Tashkent is in the eastern end of Uzbekistan, one of four regions with, spreading west, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kiva being the other population centres.

2.5 million people, one of the big cities of Central Asia, damaged by an earthquake on 24 April 1966. ‘Massive destruction’ is the term used, with 85 percent of the city’s buildings destroyed including the majority of the old city and its landmark structures. But the brave citizens said no, we will not be daunted. Heroic style. Signified by, we were told, a much loved monument (which I note, says 26 April. I’ll leave it with you.)

The earthquake had several effects. One was to produce a monument to Soviet town planning and architecture. Wide boulevards, massive plantings, grandiose buildings and a staggering amount of white marble.IMG_1069 (1).jpgThis is just a small section of the central ‘park’ area named after Temur who has pride of place in the middle, with our fascinatingly sub-grand hotel in the photo below as a backdrop. The hotel was representative of vast aspirations which had not worn well, but it did have a very interesting and diverse clientele: a genuine gathering of nations. You’d stay there for that reason alone.

At night.IMG_2783 (1).jpgAnd, yes, the whole vast wall of the hotel becomes a screen. (I don’t know what impact this had on people whose rooms were on this side. We looked outwards to the back.) A lot about Tashkent, now, says modern, today, up to date — and also, look how modern, today and up to date we are. Down the street the shops were good and interesting, full of course with China’s produce, shopkeepers were friendly. The eateries at night looked great, packed with people having a good time.IMG_1058.jpg

Our first port of call was to …. how do I express this? one of the original copies of the first Koran. That might be right. It looked like it had been constructed out of some gelatinous substance (deerskin actually) and had BIG WRITING and you couldn’t take photos.

unknown1.jpegLet’s see if I can find one. Bingo.

I believe there are five of these in existence. One here and one (of which there are no photographs) in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, one in the British Museum I think. But it’s all shrouded in thick fog as such things tend to be. With hindsight I can appreciate why Lochin wanted us to see this early in his guidance. From some points of view it is a gigantic experience to have seen this. I hadn’t at the time been sufficiently enculturated.

The building housing this, many other versions of the Koran and other sacred and learned documents was the madrassa Muyi Mubarak, the ‘sacred hair (of Mohammed)’, a strand of which may or may not be included inside. It is in Khast Imam Square which provided our first view of the interior of a mosque, from my earthbound perspective a vision of vacancy, stillness.IMG_1037.jpgOutside it was another story. Islamic decoration. Incomparable. Simply breath-taking. Maths run wild! IMG_1038.jpgIMG_1057.jpg

Tourists don’t usually come to this square, a nondescript affair really. But they do go on the underground, a source of great civic pride: three lines, 40km, 29 stations, c. 180,000 daily rides and glorious decoration. (Melbourne’s underground: 12 km.; Geelong’s: 0)

And even if not so many other people do, they go to the market, Chorsu Market.IMG_1041.jpgIMG_1045.jpgThe market! Ah Lord. I customarily resist markets unless I want to buy something.

We needed coffee. No coffee shops so the horsemeat salesman organised his wife to provide us with two cups which cost us exactly nothing. Mmmm what sort do you think? Turkish? Uzbeki? Russian maybe? No. ‘Labros’, the local brand of instant. There she is getting the hot water out of the urn, and you’ve found our hiding place (where we were able to sit down).

Then to get into the spirit of things we thought we might buy some nuts and dried fruit. Looked good, the samples tasted good and the sparkly-eyed young man on the right was eager to sell us some.IMG_1046.jpgWhen you go, keep an eye out for him. He put modest amounts of things we didn’t especially want into ziplock bags and then, holding our money, suggested the price was 150,000 sum. 25 bucks! We hadn’t bought anything for $25! It’s what happens when you get over-excited about yourself, and forget that foreigners might be soft touches but they aren’t complete morons. The female foreigner instituted direct action, snatched the money out of his hands, returned the produce and no transaction was recorded. Markets. Plloooffff.

It went on. Flea market: hats, scarves, clothes, books, bits of remnant engineering. God it went on. Jacob bought a glass vodka dispenser in the shape of a fish. He may not have been able to do that elsewhere.

Hot, tired, hungry, lunch was at an establishment which was an interesting combination of a KFC and a high class cafeteria prodigiously swollen with staff.

And then the museum. My hunger had been replaced by treacherously loose bowels, and I wasn’t perfectly set up to enjoy civic landmarks. It could have been very good especially the third floor which provided a very sanguine and optimistic picture of Uzbekistan Today (as well as an unreconstructed paean to the late Mr Karimov). I learnt that of the 100 national Parliamentarians, constitutionally 15 must be from the environment movement. Not quite sure how that would work out in practice, but an excellent gesture at least. I learnt there was a good deal of angst about the fate of the Aral Sea. I learnt that there were major chemical and mineral industries in Uzbekistan and that this ‘impoverished’, second-and-a-half world country can sustain a substantial car manufacturing industry (GM Chevrolet, Daewoo, MAN trucks and SAZ buses) whereas Australia can’t.

We got back to our hotel to find members of another Intrepid tour who raved about several art galleries and design museums they had seen and incidentally that there was an opera house with a very full schedule of programs. Well! Let’s go baby! Opera in Tashkent, what a delectable prospect.

Tonight’s program: ‘The Demon’ by Anton Rubinstein, libretto based on a poem by Lermontov, sung in Russian. A deep expression of Russian Orthodox Christianity written by a Russian Jew on stage in a Muslim country. What could be more appropriate?

It is not often performed for reasons which may become apparent by reference to this summary of the libretto.

Demon sees and falls in love with the lovely Tamara who is awaiting her wedding to Prince Sinodal. Tamara is fascinated but frightened. [an old story] The Prince’s caravan, making its way along the Silk Roads for his wedding, is delayed by a landslide. Demon organises Tatar attack during which the Prince is mortally wounded.

Sinodal’s body is delivered to the wedding preparations. Tamara is overcome by grief, but to her horror, keeps hearing the supernatural voice of the Demon. She begs her father to let her enter a convent. Demon intends to enter same convent believing that his love for her has opened his spirit to goodness. [! Yeah sure.] An Angel tries in vain to stop him.

Tamara prays in her convent cell but is constantly troubled by thoughts of the Demon, who appears to her in her dreams. Demon now appears in reality, declares his love for her and begs her to love him in return. Tamara tries to resist her attraction to him but [of course, it’s the Bad Boy yarn] fails. Demon kisses her in triumph. The Angel suddenly appears and shows her the ghost of Prince Sinodal. In horror, Tamara struggles out of the Demon’s arms and falls dead. [And let that be a warning to all you young ….]

The Angel proclaims that Tamara has been redeemed by her suffering [phew], while Demon [hiss] is damned to eternal solitude. The Demon curses his fate. In the final apotheosis Tamara’s soul is carried to Heaven accompanied by angels as sung by a huge chorus of women standing round the arc of the third floor, a sublime finale.

Mmmm … how to interpret this? Should we call in Dr Freud? Or is the question of interpretation utterly superfluous? That might explain why the guy sitting next to me had a conversation on his mobile phone during the second act.

IMG_2777.jpgThe Opera House, half full that night, had recently been refurbished and was lovely. The cast was most capable, except for the chap whose magnificent mane played the Demon and whose family, friends and groupies comprised the front few rows. The chorus was magnificent and Tamara had a powerful and lilting soprano. A wonderful 60,000 sum worth ($A12.00). Tosca was going to be on the night we returned to Tashkent. What a feast that could have been.

We walked back to the hotel with ice creams through a dulcet night to find Croatia mashing Argentina 3-0.

We weren’t in Tashkent long enough. That’s my summation. It looked fabulous but was always just a smidgen out of reach because we were hostage to THE PROGRAM. The one where TP dominates all else. The one where you get monotonous lectures in heavily-accented English about not much. The one where when you get hungry or need a cup of tea you just have to shut up and wait because it’s not the next thing on the list. The one where you just have to assume ‘it will all turn out for the best’.

On reflection I realise that Lochin really wanted to show us his version of the absolute best of his country and it was a collection of very fine choices, and he really did give us a very great deal including a splendid and sensitive insight into the Uzbek practice of Islam. In fact I have written here: ‘so well prepared, knowledgable, quiveringly sensitive,  a perfect host, obviously powerful figure in the tourism community’ (as well as several times National Judo Champion of Uzbekistan), but. BUT. A standard pedagogical problem: you might have a purpose and a brilliant plan and resources, but you’ve got to be responsive to your class. That old ‘zone of proximal development’. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere.

I’d go back tomorrow. I should.

But let us keep MOVING FORWARDS … There is so much still to see!!

Cities of the Silk Roads: Kyrgyz Republic #2

v4ZwQyWHGNOdfxj_pX7gPIWE1R9lOKsw3Tw-mZJCfYg.jpgA defining aspect of the Kyrgyz Republic is its topography. Mountains. Bishkek is on a plain which extends into Kazakhstan and Osh is at the end of the Fergana Valley — but, yes, mountains. High mountains.

82547On the border with China at the far right of this map is Jengish Chokusu, ‘Victory Peak’, 7439m asl. It is very rarely climbed because of weather and access issues and the fact that the most common route involves a 14km trek along the top of the massif of which it is a part, above 7000m all the way. On the Chinese side (pictured at left) it is called Tomur, ‘Iron Peak’ in Uyghur. I think it has only been successfully climbed once from this side.

The big lake in the map above is Issyk Kul, ‘Warm Lake’, one of the largest bodies of inland water in the world. Despite being at an altitude of 1600m and in a zone of ferocious winters, it never freezes. It is, lightly, saline. It is also endorheic. While it has plenty of tributaries (118), it has no apparent outlet and appears to maintain the same level year round. Magic. With its average depth of 280m, it almost certainly feeds an undiscovered underground aquifer, but still. How does it maintain exactly that level? And how do you explain the remnants of two ancient cities which have recently been located on more shallow parts of its floor?

This area has been a crucial landmark on the Silk Roads and was something special for us to see.IMG_0736.jpg


We got to Balykchy at its eastern end. Karakol at its western end, by road 225 km away, is larger and the regional capital.

I want an excuse to put this photo in but I haven’t got one. Thomas, Swiss financier, Tony, Australian engineer and public administrator, and an unknown local who was interested in this collection of travellers.

You can get the train to Balykchy, one of many important Russian contributions to Kyrgyz public infrastructure.

We had already had some other local colour, high order local colour.IMG_0691.jpg


Whip in mouth, he is picking up the headless body of a goat weighing 30-40 kilograms so that he or one of his mates can carry it tucked under one leg (!) down one end of a paddock and throw it onto a circular rock cairn.

I was interested to see that all standard game procedures apply — man-on-man, zone defence, the chop out, pop one over the top of the defence to a spare loose man. Ulak tartish, a very popular Kyrgyz sport and a staple of the Nomadic Games. Highly photogenic, and er hem manly.

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We ate at this village in the Headman’s house. Artem is reaching for the right word for his translation during the q&a session. The Headman is wearing a Kyrgyz hat, which in the country were everywhere in evidence. ‘It is shaped like that to remind us of the mountains.’ The Burana Tower, a major Kyrgyz landmark, is featured in the picture behind them.

Hospitality has a fundamental place in Kyrgyz culture. It is a matter of great shame to seat a guest at an empty table. The food must be waiting. Et voila!

In the foreground are borsok, soft and light doughy things which have been deep fried and are very popular. Three excellent salads with ingredients straight out of the garden, hard-crusted and sturdy white bread, drinking yoghurt, something else — very just from the dairyish — perhaps a dressing to have with the salads, piles of biscuits (including Tim Tam look- and tastealikes), and small mountains of confectionary. The other yellow things are like soft crostoli which might have been dipped in condensed milk. Good, but you don’t need too many of them. A vegetable soup to come and then some sort of meat stew.

Elsewhere you might have the option of shashliks on a metal skewer: like clockwork, two pieces of lamb meat, one piece of lamb fat, two pieces of lamb meat. Plov. Naryn (thinly sliced meat with noodles in bone marrow broth). Or fruit. It was high summer, the height of the growing season and we were given the best of it.


This is just so unrelated but never mind. Near here, and possibly exactly here, was where the Bubonic Plague which killed one-third of the world’s human population is believed to have begun. The Burana Tower is all that is left of the Qarakhanid kingdom which once dominated this area and far more. It suffered a 100 percent wipeout. One theory is that the disease was carried by fleas in marmot furs which were traded along the length of the Silk Roads. The Plague (1340-1400) definitely did begin in Central Asia and travelled in both directions along the Roads.


We spent the night in a homestay on the fringes of Kochkor, among other things a trailhead for outdoor adventurers. Downtown looked like this.

(For those who have played the clip back and forth back and forth desperately trying to catch it, Myrna is discussing her brother’s interest in eccentric cars and motor bikes. Torquil, with similar interests, had found an old Lada. How do you double the value of a Lada? Fill the petrol tank. Boom Tish!)

Song Kul

The drive alone was worth the price of admission.IMG_0751.jpgThe Tokol Valley. 

We had been driving along the Kashgar-Bishkek four-lane highway constructed by the Chinese to make it easy to get stuff from Chong Qing and Chengdu into Central Asia, before we turned off here: if you like, from the best road in the KR to, in a very competitive field, one of the worst. Our initial destination was the 3600m pass at the end of this valley. A farm every kilometre or ten. It’s hard to tell when progress is so slow and such a battle was being waged against corrugations, potholes, mudslides and missing bits.IMG_0763.jpgA template for the farms. Small house and bigger barn, all mud brick, a woman hanging her washing out, sheep, goats, horses. A stream. You might note the open roof cavity. Ubiquitous in this very difficult climate. The ceiling would be made of mud brick or concrete and, however non-intuitive, this would be considered a system of insulation. The unaccustomed start shivering just looking at it.

Up and over the pass. 3600 metres. The cold was well established, but some people were too rugged to notice.IMG_0787.jpgAnd very strangely, just out of nowhere, came this horseman. Literally nowhere. We were a long way from even the sign of human habitation. A horseman. I accused our guide, Artem, of setting this up. ‘You right Keneshbek? What? Yeah well we’re here now. Now. Come on. Have you got the good horse? The good horse! Yeah just ride out, no need to look at us or anything. Just … ok. Great.’IMG_0779.jpgIt was a moment. A great photo as a result of the sheerest good fortune.

Then down, but not very far in terms of altitude, into the Song Kul (‘Last Lake’) basin. It’s the second biggest lake in the map beginning this blog, thick healthy summer pasture surrounded by very high but quite placid mountains.IMG_0803.jpgBelow: our accommodation, and perhaps more interestingly, our dining room and the kitchen as well. There wasn’t anything else.IMG_0832.jpg


Dinner: excellent bread, the absolutely ubiquitous tomato capsicum cucumber and white onion salad, lamb and vegetable soup, fish from the lake, biscuits, lollies, red and white Kyrgyz and Uzbek wine, cognac-infused tea or coffee. Complaints? None.

I went off with the walkers, although some animal lovers went for a ride. IMG_0820.jpgThat is what it looked like from up the hill. The yurts are the white dots by the lake at the horse’s rear. There are some petroglyphs on the rock I’m standing near. Couldn’t really … perhaps you needed to be more expert than me to get hold of their full significance.

IMG_0798.jpgThis is how you put up a yurt. Three of the distinctively Kyrgyz tunduks are visible, one at the top of the frame and two leaning on the covers at left. Erecting a yurt is one of the sports at the Nomadic Games. I think I remember Artem saying that the record is less than 10 minutes.

The journal: ‘I’m in a yurt. It’s 150m to the toilet and it’s raining. There’s a leak dripping right on to the end of my bed and creeping up towards me. Very nippy. Probably about minus 5 with a good wind chill factor. How is this going to go?…’IMG_0833.jpg

IMG_0837.jpg‘Sleeping in a yurt loomed as one of the challenges of the trip. Dormitory accomm, snoring, cold, 150m to the toilet etc etc. But it turned out just fine. It was cold. Formidably. We did have a number of people in the yurt. It was 150m to the toilet. Fresh snow is falling on the hill we climbed yesterday. When I wandered off for a pee it was absolutely silent, and still — no animal noise, dogs had been barking earlier — no wind either. The bedding weighed kilos and the [coal and very effective] stove went out, but it was snug. And I was happy.’

Kyzyl Oi

The snow in the night had rendered the next pass impassable, so it was a long and tedious drive back the way we had come, through Kochkor, five hours over the shocking roads rather than two. That might have been one of the reasons that getting to Kyzyl Oi was such pleasure, but there were others.


We staggered out of the minibuses to be greeted by a herd of children wanting to speak English with us. Unexpected. And being able to do so quite capably. Even more unexpected. Go the teachers of English at Kyzyl Oi.

It was a lot warmer: that was another thing. While a new challenge had emerged — old bitumen road with remnant tarmac like anti-tank traps and craterous pot holes in which goats could hide, razor sharp edges — we had still managed to come down about 2000m to this extremely warm welcome. IMG_0864.jpgThere isn’t much at Kyzyl Oi, just a remote village that wanted tourists, and not just for their money. IMG_2345.jpgThis was where we stayed. Just to the left out of frame an addition was being built to the very well outfitted ablution block (flush toilets and a sewerage system rather than two planks over a big hole). Myrna is with our hostess who brought a desire, an expectation and a capacity for conversation with breakfast. Her elder son was a dentist, another daughter a midwife. The younger daughter helped her with the hospitality. The kid on the right, a very sweet boy, is her youngest.IMG_0869.jpgI got the feeling that this was a town that wanted to be part of the contemporary world outside, where you developed yourself moving on if necessary, you had ambition. It is strange how this communicates itself so obviously. When I lived round there, Nullawil  — a tiny community, a few families really, near Birchip and Wycheproof — was just the same. A clutch of strong, interesting outward-looking people determined to maintain and cultivate those qualities.

As well a river roared past. This is the Kokomeren, major tributary of the Naryn, one of the Kyrgyz Republic’s big rivers. They fish in here. And make catches. How? It’s hurling past at, what, maybe 40km an hour?IMG_0880.jpgThe farmers of Kyzyl Oi take their stock over this bridge on a regular basis. There must be others but it is the only bridge I can remember for 80km. It has taken quite a whack to its concrete pile supports and the girders on this side have collapsed, but I’d hate to be the person trying to rebuild it. Just watching the water power past in a fury was entertainment in itself. We followed it up its gorge for about 60km and not for one second was it less than a noisy torrent until it spread out through the pastures of the Suusamyr basin. But first …


Worth waiting for! What a statue! Superb. A horse on manback rather than a man on horseback. Fantastic aesthetic and structural balance, well chosen and deft modelling. That’s the one in Bishkek outside the Sports Palace and over the road from the Arzu restaurant celebrating Кожомкул, Kojomkul — a real person who was born in 1889 and died in 1955.

IMG_0883.jpgSources agree that he lived in a village (above) in the Suusamyr basin now named Kojomkul after him, that he was kind and concerned about the common good, that he was unchallenged as a wrestler, and that he was big. Definitely big. How big? 230cms tall (7’6″), and weighing 165kg (350lbs). That big. One story has him lifting and carrying on his shoulders (maybe moving?) a stone weighing 750kg.

IMG_2374.JPGJust out of town there is this memorial, a rickety shelter over a mud yurt where a friend of his (or ‘a distinguished figure’, or from one source, his mother) was buried in 1924. He carried this stone weighing 160kg from the flood plain of the river several kilometres away. (I nearly got it. If I’d had proper shoes on …)

And the horse? Well, it is said that in his prime Kojomkul carried a horse on his shoulders 100 metres to commemorate and perhaps prove the legitimacy of the story of At-Bashi (Horse Head), a town not so far from here. In her blog Madeline Stoddart, an American Peace Corps worker in Kyrgyzstan, tells it like this.

A man, having sold his cattle, began returning to the North on horseback. Exhausted after crossing the Tian Shan mountains, he stopped at Jailoo, a summertime pasture, to rest and turned his horse free to graze under the stars. The man woke as the sun rose over the mountains, but the horse refused to return to him. He chased it down from the pasture, finally catching it in a valley. The horse stubbornly refused to let the man ride, so he hoisted the animal up on his shoulders to walk to a sheltered place for the night. Tired and hungry from the chase, the man killed his unfaithful horse and roasted the meat over a great fire. He ate heartily, then packed for his long journey North. At the edge of his camp, he left the horse’s head, calling the place At-Bashi – in Kyrgyz, horse head. The rest of the horse he carried on his back, eating every night until there was only enough meat scraps to boil for soup. This dish is called naryn, a boiled bone soup with finely cut meat, and where he left the bare carcass of his disloyal horse became the city of Naryn.

Under the Soviets Kojomkul became a chairman of his collective farm, while still competing in wrestling tournaments throughout Kyrgyzstan. A story common to all the sources suggests that he was known for distributing his winnings (goats and sheep mainly) amongst members of his community. He also spent a year in gaol for refusing to write letter condemning a chairman of the neighbouring commune. These are stories entirely appropriate to such an excellent statue.

Suusamyr and surrounds

A high plain, 2500m or so above sea level, surrounded by snowy peaks. We found coffee at the Gazprom service station over in the distance, but ate lunch here in a yurt.IMG_0892.jpgThese foals are tethered to the ground so the mares won’t stray and are easy to milk, because this is the starting point of kumis, fermented mare’s milk, for sale at road stalls for 50km along this busy road (Bishkek to Osh as well as bulk tourism on its southern entry). The owner of these horses showed us how he made it, fermented with a piece of yeasty bread, slightly smoked in some underground container and regularly paddled.

I don’t know how popular it is as a drink; maybe it’s the sort of thing you do when you’re on holiday. But it could be culturally important. After all a bishkek is the paddle used to churn the fermenting milk.

We’d come in from a quiet rural track up to the pastures. It got grubby with rubbish discarded from the additional traffic on the big road as well as high and cold. IMG_0895.jpgAlabel Ashuusu Pass where the sign said 3175m above sea level and Marty’s altimeter app said 3173m. I’m sure we could have got him up those last two metres.

It was a longish drive to Toktogul down the hill through collections of resort accommodation, food stops and roadside stalls — their purpose was clear, their nature more mysterious — to a fertile valley and a circumambulation of the rather splendid Lake Toktogul.



That night we stayed in this Soviet era accommodation designed for use by Youth League/ Young Pioneers groups.

Its evident decline was offset by this view, the lake and the swim we had in it.IMG_0905.jpgThe lake is dammed at one end for hydroelectricity production. Some of this is sold to Kazahkstan; some may go to Uzbekistan although it has plenty of energy resources of its own. The hydro plant was showing major signs of wear and limited upkeep, but you could get an idea of what, quite recently, had once been.

Tash Komur

‘Hard Coal’. That’s what the name says. A mining town in the middle of what looked like a paradise of minerals, it spread for some distance along the Naryn River here much modified for industrial purposes. Just out of town was this building.IMG_0950.jpgIt’s not a great photo. It’s from the van where I was holding my teeth apart to stop them from shattering. But for me it was history.

I say this is, was, a Russian administrative headquarters — mining? civil? possibly even military but probably not. It says order and stability, and four storeys says substantial, plenty of work gone on in there. The roof is enclosed. The symmetry and once good order of the windows suggest good quality industrial craftsmanship. The mural, that you can’t see, on its wall wants you to think positive if perhaps unaccustomed thoughts and suggests an identity that you might want to aspire and relate to. It’s not the work of nomadic horsemen or ulak tartish  players. And, unused, an anachronism, it is sliding at some pace into disrepair. The grave sites cement these impressions. (Kyrgyz cemeteries look like complex tiny towns with endless small buildings.)

What have the Romans ever done for us (I mused)? ‘Well there was the aqueduct … sanitation, yes …, irrigation, medicine, public baths … roads.’ ‘They brought peace.’ ‘Brought peace?!! Oh shuttup.’

In this case, just imagining, what was brought might have included, say, a big shoe factory, a car parts manufacturer, a huge food processing plant, industrial style tourism, the mining development, the hydro … some of which at least would have been set up for reasons of decentralisation and to give people ‘new style’ work regardless of where the markets said they should have been located. And when Big Brother (wearing his Motherhood costume) withdraws, what then? Who is to say who benefits from the effects of imperial oversight (and injections of hard cash)? Nothing is simple. 

There are two histories at work here, as elsewhere in the Republic: that of 1924-1991; and everything that came before. They don’t marry easily. But that doesn’t make the country any less interesting.


IMG_0939.jpgWe were on our way to Arkyt, scarcely visible at left from up the top of the hill, another remote-ish homestay at the end of an odd little run of Holidayland — yurts with fiber glass roofs, ‘log’ cabins, unemployed frames of rusty steel with flapping fabric, coffee shops but not as we know them. That sort of thing.

And this was The Worst Road Ever. Ever. The purpose of roads generally is to allow/ enable passage. This road had deliberately chosen to actively oppose any ingress. It had an invisible sign up saying: ‘Ye shall not pass. Irregardless. Anyone who ventures further is just so cactus that, mate, I can’t tell you. Fully gone.’ On this occasion that was us.

We didn’t need to go. At the other end was a lake in the middle of the mountainous ‘Yellow Bowl’ so called for its flora. But you didn’t need to take Kiwis or Swiss there. They’ve got better at home. And we’d seen the like. Quite often. And we’d been driving over shit roads for days now grump grump and our bedroom didn’t have a window grump grump grump grump grump.

At the lake, a further 90-minute drive from the village over a 40km cattle grid interspersed with inexpressible voids, three groups of people drew my attention.

The dancers. Twenty or so middle-aged mostly men but a couple of women dancing to an accordion very capably played I must say. They had eaten but weren’t I think drinking. Nonetheless, to my grumpy mind something indeterminately salacious was happening. I could be way wrong about this, way wrong, but it was a bit like lurching through a door and finding the makings of a swingers’ party. Grump grump grump.

The young men sitting on the ground under a tree. (The girls were taking selfies down by the water.) I went past them several times perhaps an hour apart and they hadn’t moved, doing nothing except smoking and looking like they were mortally offended by even passing company. The word ‘surly’ was coined for just such a situation. But surly with slightly menacing overtones.

The chaps staying in the dacha. Up the top there were a small number of places to stay. We walked past them, and their occupants were layed out on the wooden outdoor furniture dead drunk or close to at two o’clock in the afternoon. Fair enough. Their choice. They weren’t bothering anyone.

But I felt bothered. Like I’d had an encounter with a range of cardinal sins. I hadn’t. Just GRRRumpy. I’ve already said. I do beg your pardon. Sorry.

It was a delicious dinner.

IMG_0937.jpgJust by the way, this is what I mean by an open roof cavity. That building is finished. It will stay like that even when the temperature is minus 20. And they are our roadweary vans.

Either on the way there or on the way back we fell to talking about the Kyrgyz ‘cultural tradition’ of bride-kidnapping. Do, as Kyrgyz lore asserts, ‘all good marriages begin in tears?’ Is it worth talking about except as an interesting relic of times past?

A research study supported by a Kyrgyz non-government organisation recorded 24,000 cases of non-consensual bride-kidnapping in the two years 2015 and 2016. This number is inevitably coloured by the process of categorisation and could be lower. Or it could be higher.

Some other responsible estimations indicate that about one half of all Kyrgyz marriages stem from this practice. The same source suggests that two-thirds of these are non-consensual, often involving violence, cultural shame, and, in the very worst cases, rape. If the kidnapped woman has been kept in the house overnight it will be assumed that ‘the marriage’ has been consummated. The stigma associated with leaving a forced marriage, even before the marriage begins, is so great that many women stay out of fear, shame, or lack of an alternative.

Not all bride kidnapping is violent. ‘Ceremonial’ bride kidnapping is exactly that – a ceremony that commemorates a distinct if somewhat distant part of Kyrgyz culture, but where all parties are expressly involved and consenting. Mock bride theft is also consensual. It can be used to evade expensive dowry payments or parental disapproval. It is also sometimes used to speed up an engagement toward marriage or to hide pre-marital pregnancy.

One of the stories told in our conversation was of a bride in a taxi so distraught that the driver stopped and refused to be involved in the process any longer. The bride quickly straightened up, stopped crying and spoke severely to the driver. ‘Just do your job!’ Might be true, but it is an easy out. 3879975.jpgA screen shot from a Russian comedy, ‘Kidnapping, Caucasian style’ using the topic as a central theme to hang the jokes off. Real images of the process look rather more horrible.

The research referred to above suggests that genuine bride theft is a corruption of a consensual tradition and has been steadily increasing since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some believe that, after the generations of gender equality encouraged by the Soviet system, bride-kidnapping has become a tool to reassert the dominance of masculine identity in the Kyrgyz Republic, a country that has struggled with identity politics since long before the Soviets left in 1991. The judicial system often sides with the men in the very few cases that actually make it into the courts.

There are dozens of other countries where bride-kidnapping is to a greater or lesser degree an embedded practice. But without any fear of insensitive cultural intrusion, it does seem like something that could genuinely be left behind forever. Urgently.


IMG_0960.jpgStill eating? Come on. Everyone’s left.

This might have been at Suzak. We were working our way round the very complex eastern border with Uzbekistan on our way to Osh and the end of the tour. We stopped at this bakery/ restaurant, and this pic appears here to reflect again on the astonishing (and colourful) hospitality that was so often a feature of our time in the KR.

It is the owner’s private garden. There were too many of us for out the front. We would be easier to manage. The food was modest, plentiful and very well cooked. And exactly as requested. We had been driving through the end of the Fergana Valley, this remarkable hub of fecundity, and all along the road were piles of various types of delicious-looking melons. I asked if we could have some. Off someone went to the market and this was the result. Another feast.

IMG_0986.jpgThe rooftops of Osh (from Sulayman Mountain), where we didn’t spend nearly enough time. The thumbnail dip into it suggested a really interesting city with a great deal to entertain a traveller.


We got there late-ish, climbed the Mountain, the only World Heritage site in KR. It has a museum of some importance built into its side to celebrate the 3000th anniversary of Osh, unlike Bishkek an ancient city.

Sulayman Mountain, sometimes called the Stone Tower, reaches strikingly upwards out of the flatlands of the Valley. It is considered the mid-point of the Silk Roads. That was exciting.

It also contains a shrine that supposedly marks the Biblical King and Islamic prophet Solomon’s (Sulayman’s) grave. According to legend, women who ascend to the shrine on top and crawl though an opening across the holy rock will give birth to healthy children. Saw this. Didn’t do it.IMG_0984.jpgShe may have. It could have been a bit lost in translation but these are her five children. The perky chap in the red polo shirt who spoke good English and wanted to engage in conversation is 10. She is 25.

IMG_0982.jpgThe Mountain is surrounded by the graves of those who want to be buried as near as possible to a holy place. The same phenomenon is obvious in Jerusalem and probably anywhere there is a place with some religious significance.

We ate a celebratory final dinner too tired to do justice to such delicious cooking, a genuinely sumptuous meal. Next day we crossed into Uzbekistan or, as they would prefer, Uzbekiston, and THAT WAS AN EXPERIENCE …