I arrived in Bishkek the capital of Kyrgyzstan after passing through Istanbul. Once more I am in an obscure Central Asia country with my old pals Kevin and Will. This time we were joined by two other friends Rich and Craig and we teamed up again with Young Pioneer Tours, a company whose motto is “We go places your mother would not approve of.” They take people to N. Korea, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria. You know, the fun zones. They go to less shooty and bomby places as well.
When I told people I was traveling to the region they said, “Be safe!” Hummm. Well here in the ol’ USA one isn’t completely safe in schools, churches, Walmarts and Arizona. Where we went folks don’t carry guns, even the police.
In Bishkek we went to their independence day celebration. They have a new leader and he downplayed the military pomp you see in Russia or China (this tiny country is crammed between these two superpowers) and the celebration basically had actual cheerleaders with pompoms and kids on roller skates. The president was on hand and he gave a rousing speech to the sparse crowd. This most important event of the year, in the capital’s main square, attracted far fewer people than the Redwood City 4th of July parade. I was standing next to a very drunk patriot who was delighted when I put my hand over my heart and lip synced the national anthem and he pledged undying loyalty to me, his country, vodka and my progeny down through the generations.
Things lit up at night with pop stars on stage and a vast carnival with games of chance, rides and junk food. The cotton candy was a standout because the wasps loved it as much as the kids and were very much alive and wriggling in their sugar windings so the little kids were advised eat around the stingy parts.
We did witness one fierce battle though. This consisted of two teams of ten players each, Kyrgiz and Kazak, rapping trash talk at each other while playing balalaikas and wearing traditional old timey outfits. It took place in the national opera house and the speeches by the promoters and the musicians battling in pairs went on into deep time and they are probably still kicking it. There was Olympic style 1-10 judging with the local teams all getting 10s and the Kazaks getting 9s. Fix! Fix!
The crowd went wild with every good natured insult tossed back and forth but we were told that if you jab the opponent’s president a little too sharply that you can be in big trouble, like prison big or even get stood up against a bullet pocked wall, big. The idea is to take it right to the edge so essentially it’s a game of musical chicken.
Soon we were off to the hinterlands which is most of the country. There are mountains up to 24,400 feet and one of our nights was spent at the foot of a glacier in a weather station hut. It was accessible over a boulder strewn road so we traded our van for a Russian all terrain rock hopper. This country was one of the fifteen Soviet satellites and there are still a good many Russians in country and the people are bilingual speaking Russian and Kyrgiz.
Our camp was a long way from civilization and one in our party (he must not be named) decided to help out and cut firewood so we wouldn’t freeze to the floor. The axe handle was a fragile bit of home craft. The unnamed party snapped the handle off with the first whack and our hosts looked at him sadly as this was the only axe on the mountain even if it was a bit flimsy.
The people are mostly of Mongolian descent and many are the offspring of Genghis Khan. In fact, DNA studies indicate a line back to him which is about 8% of those in his conquered regions. Our driver was one of them and referred to himself as a Mongoloid. We helped him with the translation but he was clearly confused.
One day we joined a goat polo team. This is where you decapitate a goat and rush back and forth with the goat body which you have scooped off the ground and charge down the course trying to toss it in a pit. I couldn’t get it off the ground and was in real peril just being on the horse. The winning team eats the goat.
The next day we toured a collapsed uranium processing plant and strip mine. I told you we know where the fun is. We were advised not to pick up any rocks and we couldn’t have even have gone there if it was windy. The local town has astronomical levels of TB and cancer. All this so the Russians could make bombs they promised not to use. Makes goat polo look relatively civilized, no?
After decontamination we camped in a yurt village many of which are found along a vast lake that was once a Soviet summer resort area. Most of the camps have fallen into decay but ours was vibrant with a good restaurant and about 25 tents. It was slotted between an abandoned heavy water plant (used for H bomb making) and an actual Communist Young Pioneer summer camp, also defunct.
In the morning we went rabbit hunting with golden eagles. They told us that these birds could take down full grown wolf. This I doubted until I saw video of just that. It seems they land on a wolf’s shoulders and dig in with their talons and hold on until the wolf turns his head and then they go for the throat. My bird seemed nice enough though he was hooded when I held him. Great airplane service animal, no?
The highlight for many of us was an old Russian health sanatorium. This wasn’t for crazy people but you would have to be crazy to get treated there. It was essentially a hospital for very poor people who came for off-label quack procedures which include electrical stimulation and my favorite: the radon bath. Some Russians still believe that soaking in radiation infused murky water is good for you. This place was open for business and Kevin tried some sort of electrical procedure which involved mild shocks through a muddy towel wrapped around a 110 volt metal hoop. We will miss him…
The place was straight out of a horror movie with broken windows, exhausted carpeting, spring popping chairs and a façade drooping like the spooky matrons shuffling by in their grubby tunics lusting to harvest a kidney or two from our group as the florescent lights sizzled overhead. These treatment dungeons might have resembled some of Dante’s nine circles of hell but right outside were flower strewn meadows with ponies frolicking and a troop of mountain goats skipping across the rocky escarpment.
Kyrgyzstan is also home to the World Nomadic Games These games include third worldly type folks from dozens of countries including archers, falconers, horse wrestlers, bone tossers and even cowboys from Wyoming who came to rope and ride.
From Kyrgyzstan we flew or did we drive? I forget, as over the 12 day trip we had at least 10 drivers and 20+ guides and translators (some just for a museum and some for two days). We crossed borders on foot, took trains, planes, vans and six-wheel drive road monsters and I was truly amazed that everyone was where they said they would be at the exact time planned. Every hotel, tent and hut owner was expecting us. I found this remarkable but we have learned that YPT is tight. We moved like the wind. Some car rides were 10 hours and at some point we found ourselves crossing into Kazakhstan on foot with a big crowd who were toting mattresses, oranges and stereos. We tried to fill out the entry papers which demanded a good command of Kazak or Russian so we simply filled in random words and slipped into Kazakhstan where, once again, a driver was waiting.
The principle city of Almaty is modern and beautifully laid against towering snow topped peaks. They have world class ice skaters there because the high altitude and plenty of lakes make that their national sport. Kazakhstan was the last republic to leave the USSR. Even after Russia opted out they tried to keep the Communist flame alive a little longer. They have had a president, Nor-Sultan since 1991 who has brought prosperity to the country and with good grace he stepped down this year for a new leader so he could focus on his presidential library. Dictatorship? Yes, but the place runs pretty well. There are a few who have objected to the lack of democracy and they are quickly and rather gently pushed aside.
One protester made international news this year when he showed up at government house with a blank sign and just stood there. He was detained for a while but quietly let go. I asked our guide what would happen to me if I showed up with just stick that might hold a sign and he thought it would probably get me arrested.
Rather than a night in the clink we decided it would more fun to crash a wedding which was to take place in a few hours. The bride and groom showed up in a brand new Rolls Royce limo and we joined the family and were swept into the hall and put up front in our dusty travel cloths. We had asked permission to attend earlier in the day and were instructed to bring a gift. In the marketplace we asked advice on what to give and were told that an elaborate gift envelop with $20 was appropriate.
When we got there we discovered they wanted me to give a speech and present the couple with the gift so I quickly stuffed in another 20 and, with a translator, I explained that Kevin and I are professional wedding crashers and we that like go to stranger’s weddings because that is where the joy is. This is true but I’m not sure if they know the movie reference. They were pretty happy to have us and made us pose for the photos with the family.
Later we went to the public market where we discovered that about 5% of the citizens are from North Korea. They came in Soviet times and speak Kazak, Russian and Korean. We also found a large section devoted to cuts of horsemeat. Pretty startling but hey, when in Rome…PIX
Of particular interest was the national art museum. I didn’t expect much but we toured room after room of world class historic and contemporary paintings and sculpture. It was one of the best collections I have even seen.
Almaty is an ancient city which was and still is the center of the Silk Road. It is the Central Asian commercial hub. We went to the main shopping center which is a bit more modern now. The complex with the adjacent warehouses covered mile after mile.
Kazakhstan is roughly the size of Europe but has a smaller population than Florida. They are bordered by Russia, Uzbekistan, China and Mongolia. 20% of the 19 million are ethnic Russians but there are also Uyghurs, Tartars, Chechens, Dugans, Karakalpaks, Karluks, Wusuns and a few Poles and Germans. Plus, about 20 other peoples we had never heard of.
The Kazaks also have a wonderful custom of shaking hands even when normally you are reaching for a tire iron to pound some sense into the guy who just hit your car. We saw at least three traffic accidents and the drivers approached each other and shook even as they were yelling that it was the other guy’s fault. We saw two instances where the police stopped cars and the officers shook the offender hand. We sure don’t do this in America.
We were with so many different guides and drivers it was fun to experience how they see things. We had one long ride where the driver went exactly at the 45 mph speed limit for hundreds of miles or kilometers, as they quaintly say. I was in the back of this particular van which had the windows blacked out. Often they use a film to cut the sunlight but this was solid black. So for hours I listened to podcasts and wondered why he didn’t drive a bit faster. Poor Kevin, he was upfront and saw that the driver was video chatting on his phone the entire way and was barely looking at the road. At one point I saw a baby carriage being whisked away from the front our van with micrometers to spare. I hope that baby had Blue Cross. Speaking of babies, they have a baby ritual of binding the babies for the first 40 days to a board with holes in the back for elimination and believe me they are 100% tied down the entire time. This is a remnant from when they were nomads just two generations ago.
The marriage customs are a bit different than here in the USA. There is widespread bride kidnapping practice. Most is consensual like the Rolls Royce couple but thousands of women are really kidnapped against their will every year. We had one driver who told us that he had kidnapped his wife. Once you take them they are unreturnable.
Finishing with Almaty, and realizing I wasn’t going to stay to get arrested, we took an overnight train to Baikonur our primary destination. Baikonur is the only place on earth currently launching humans into space. This is a Russian city in Kazakhstan that the Russians “rent’ from the Kazaks. It is entirety Russian. They use the ruble and unlike the charming modern cities we encountered it is 1950s Communist all the way. Our hotel was a decrepit dump with a desk clerk who eyeballed us with mild contempt. Our rooms featured rusted fixtures and jumbled furniture. The Russian toilet paper is a continuous roll of gritty wrapping paper and the beds featured a thin fabric stretched over what I think was damp newspaper. We spent two glorious nights there. I love the dismissive way the Russians live life. The food for breakfast was straight out of the Gulag. When you have been to some of the world’s great restaurants it’s a treat to see it taken down to such a basic level.
Then we got a fresh guide, a new driver and a Russian fixer and went to the active rocket launch facility. We went through at least five checkpoints with the mirror under the car, passports and we filled out hilarious forms where we promised to not wear smelly cloths and not be drunk. A Russian telling an American not to be drunk?
First we went to a satellite tracking station. These vast dishes were long out of service. Then we went to the they main missile launch site where they were preparing for the 520th launch from the very same pad that Yuri Gagarin went from. It was composed of cracked concrete and a tepid monument to the launch of Sputnik. The rocket base has a pretty nice museum and we went also through the house where Yuri stayed before the launch. I noticed in this tiny unused house a curious wax seal on a closet door. It was a security seal and, if broken, you could tell someone opened the door. You didn’t know when, who or why but you knew a rule had been broken. We saw wax seal casting setups and a person to make new seals at the entrances to all the major building even those long abandoned. Hey, rules are rules!
After all this security they were pretty lose, showing us around in actual control rooms and here’s a strange thing: the guards who were patrolling in pairs (so one can watch the other) carried no guns, only night sticks so if we got out of hand by opening the wrong closet they could beat us with sticks.
I have long been a fan of the Russian spaceship programs that didn’t work. The Russians tried hard to land man on the moon but constant explosions of the launch vehicles put the kibosh on this effort. My favorite is the Energia-Buran. In the 1980s the built an exact copy of our space shuttle. The lifter was the Energia and the ship was the Buran. They built five of them. One was launched and made two unmanned revolutions and on landing they pulled the plug on the program as the air was going out of the USSR and sold the ship to an amusement park in Moscow. I’ve been on it and it is the most expensive amusement park attraction of all time, maybe five billion. One of the others is in Germany at a museum and I’ve been on that one too.
We all went aboard the third Buran on display at Baikonur. So where are the other two? One is in the Ukraine somewhere and I had heard that years ago the fifth one was crushed when a roof collapsed and as were we driving though the compound I saw a large hanger with the roof fallen in. I asked the guide, who was a with of the facility, if number five was under the pile and she said—yes. Yes? Really? You’re telling me that? Hummm, it was amazing that they were willing to tour us around telling us about their failures in the same tone of voice as their successes which presently consists of one very tired launch site.
One of our favorite places was the control room for the Energia-Buran. It was a cold war relic from the early 80s. We had expected a dust covered pile of old computers but were stunned to find that they had turned on all the gear for us which consisted of a room full of control panels with countless switches and lights all beeping and flashing. It did not look real, really more a movie set than not but it was real enough. The only person occupying the facility seemed to be the guard at the front door ready to timestamp a wax seal as we left.
Outside a skinny dog came by with a litter of pups hoping for a handout. Turns out chocolate kills dogs. Who knew? It really does but, in fact, we had eaten all the chocolate so we left them to do the best they could. And that’s like the Russians who are doing the best they can. Even if their rockets and facilities look like a bad dream they are the only ones who can send people to the space station and they are rightly proud of this.
I consider the $100+ billion spent on the space station to be largely a waste of money (don’t think Velcro, we already had that) except for one thing. The Russians and citizens from 16 other counties are working together on a project. This is priceless. So in spite of laughable hotel towels, caved in buildings and lax security the Russians really bring it when sending rockets to space. I asked Elon the other day if he had been to Baikonur and he said he had not as he thought he might not be welcome. I offered to put in a good word for him.
One final endless car ride brought us to the new capital city build over the last 10 years. It had been called Astana but when the dear leader retired earlier this year the new leader renamed it Nur-Sultan after him…fix! fix! Who does this? Oh we did—Washington D.C. This city of 800,000 is their crown jewel and is hyper modern with crazy buildings that look like they have landed from another planet. A famous English architect Norman Foster had done several but some are comically useless. One is a glass pyramid with the last few floors having no walls—all glass. This in a city where it can get 40 below and 120 above so with no walls to run ducts you can’t heat or cool the meeting room at the top because there is nowhere to put air ducts. (Nur-Sultan is the second coldest capital city in the world after that of Mongolia) The round table in the middle of the meeting room is about 30 feet across and is where the top government officials would meet if they bring shorts and heavy fur coats. And it isn’t really a table but has a Game-of-Thrones like hole in the middle where a table would be and a 200 foot drop to the marble floor below(See video on website)
Another building took the shape of a 20 story overripe peach which had splatted on the pavement and featured a shopping center and an amusement park including a beach and wave machine at the top. The entire building had one small elevator labeled handicap only. Everyone else had to use the escalators manipulatively laid out at opposite ends of the complex.
There were ironic performance theaters and government centers including the gleaming presidential library where Nur-Sultan hangs out amid his collection of fabulous graduation gowns from the two dozen honorary doctorate ceremonies and his many medals and crowns. Also there is a vast shelf of the 40 books he claims to have written.
What do I think of this guy? What’s not to love? Genial dictator who dresses is velvet robes and names the major paces after himself. He’s my kind of guy. So this brings us to Borat who famously mocked the Kazaks for being beyond ridiculous. Reviews are mixed. Some folks were horrified that we mentioned his name and one tour guide (an American) said those on his tours are forbidden to mention Trump or Borat. Another guide said he really put Kazakhstan on the map and she wanted him to come and perform as they have a good sense of humor (well, she was Russian).
So what’s next? I have my eye on western China and Siberia. I’ll keep you posted.