Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cracking the Kremlin

For the second time I've failed to get under the skin of Moscow. There's certainly nothing Soviet about it--remove the Kremlin, the odd Stalinist skyscraper, and a few onion-domed churches, and you have Paris, or maybe Milan. The crowds and pace almost suggest New York, but the layout is completely different: this is essentially a four-storey city, with nary a right angle in sight, so that despite the mad throngs of cars at every major intersection, it's a scavenger-hunt of shady corners, leafy boulevards, meandering alleyways.

Cars are big; big, shiny ones: at times you could almost feel you're in Oakland county for all the SUVs and BMWs. You have to look pretty hard to find a Lada.

The women, of course, are beautiful (as are the men, I suppose, though there's a shortage of them, so they don't try very hard to preen), and they obviously put a lot of work into their appearances. I saw a woman on the metro who must have been 6'5" if she was an inch: this is a bit extreme, but tall is the norm. You can probably tell a lot about a place just by looking at people's shoes, but perhaps only a woman can appreciate the full nuances. Even I can see that shoes are chosen for almost any reason other than practicality: spike heels are common, and bandaged feet are almost as common. A woman in front of me on the metro escalator lost her shoe and almost caused a human domino catastrophe. I'd stand out for my sneakers if anyone slowed down enough to look.

Beer is everywhere, and so are beggars--but it's the respectable-looking businessmen, just as much as the grungy teenagers, who sit on the sidewalk at 9:15 am sipping Baltika. Yet pricey, self-consciously atmospheric bars and beer gardens are ubiquitous.

The food is excellent, but almost prohibitively expensive. I dropped just over $20 on a cappuccino and pastry the morning I arrived at one of the trendier cafes. This morning I "economized" at a more plain-jane place and got away with a similar breakfast for around $10. Local beer and foods are somewhat cheaper, but for the most part "imported" vs. "domestic" has become a meaningless distinction, and there's an almost goofy thirst for anything foreign. It really teases the imagination to think what things were like in the bad old days, a mere twenty or so years ago, when McDonald's was as fancy and exotic as it got.

The weather has been, by my standards, glorious: yesterday was "tea weather," but today was sunny and clear and cool--I was almost cold in a single layer. (This may not sound shocking to most, but the last time I was in Moscow, it was so hot I'd sweat through my shirt just negotiating the metro.)

I've spent my time mostly in museums (Pushkin, American and European annex, Private Collections, Gorky House, Tolstoy House), and of course I don't speak Russian, so perhaps it's my own fault, but I still feel I'm missing something important and fundamental about this city. On the one hand, where does all the money come from to keep men in custom-tailored suits and women in magazine-cover-worthy outfits? On the other hand, where are all the "real people" who can't begin to afford $10 cups of coffee, or even $0.75 metro rides? How can museum guards act like they're doing you a big favor to take your money, and metro attendants look right through you (Cold War), even as young women gab on cell phones oblivious to their surroundings and young men plaster unauthorized ads on the metro escalators (Careless Capitalism)?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More on Aralsk


With surprising ease, I contracted a driver and English-speaking guide to take me to see the Sea. The guide did speak good English, and he answered all my questions, but he volunteered almost nothing. The driver, a gaunt Arabic-looking dude in an embroidered skull-cap with skin lesions and a chronic hacking cough, who drove barefoot, basically treated me like cargo. (The entire Aral Sea region, hundreds of square miles in three countries, is a case-study in environmental health damage: rates of cancer, respiratory disease, reproductive problems, and other ailments soar.) At the end, when they dropped me at the train station, barely a farewell or word of thanks was passed, and neither made the slightest effort to help me into the station with my obviously difficult burden of luggage. To some extent this is just how things are done in the former USSR; to some extent perhaps the locals are too desperate to care; to some extent they just don't know what to do with tourists.

Nonetheless, I'm glad I went, though it's almost disappointing after all the infamous pictures. The ship cemetery has been decimated (eight hulks to four) by locals cutting up the remains for scrap metal--you can hardly blame them for exploiting such a tragic situation, but it's sad to lose what is essentially a monument to the absurdity of environmental manipulation. The former seabed, as far as we got (45 km from town) could almost be described as verdant, far from the desiccated salt pan I was expecting--this exists, but it's farther out. And the new fishing harbor proves that there is indeed water not all that far from town, albeit shallow and muddy and brackish. The "good" news is that if you didn't know where you were, you'd never guess all the destruction that's gone on. I traipsed around merrily taking pictures of the ship hulks for at least fifteen minutes before I noticed that the strange crunching sound underfoot was not brush but seashells.

I would like to have seen the dike, and the cliff where the former sea got deep, and the salt flats that have replaced it. Oh well: at least I saw something, in what was, logistically speaking, one of the wildest travel stunts I've ever pulled. The whole excursion, about 18 hours from arrival to departure on train, cost $200-400 (hotel, driver and guide, food, extra train ticket and conductor's "tip"), enough to survive for nearly a week in most places I go. How odd that one should pay such a high premium to visit what Sergei, the eagle-trainer in Almaty, described as "a kind of hell." I think this bespeaks a paradox of travel in general: the most popular spots are over-priced, but so, often, are the least popular, because they don't even have the infrastructure to support what few tourists they might receive.

Aralsk is in many ways the most bizarre, fascinating place I've visited on this entire trip, and I urge readers to get "google-y" on it. (Notice, when you do, how out of date many of the pictures are, depicting huge intact ships run aground in sand. There are only pieces of ships left now, and the ground is heavily vegetated.) For me getting there was the fulfillment of an almost lifelong quest, dating back to when I first heard of it in the late '80s in Al Gore's book (not the recent, famous one, An Inconvenient Truth; the old, forgotten one, Earth in the Balance, which I suspect I'm the only person ever to have read) and thought, Surely it isn't possible to destroy a sea! It seemed so far away and exotic, I all but dismissed it. But around the same time I read The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, in which he argues that the fundamental environmental crisis is not scientific or political or economic, but philosophical: humans simply can't fathom that things like the sky and the oceans are finite, and can be--and have been--significantly altered by their own activities. There are many who would pillory McKibben, and Gore, and any serious concern for the environment, but when you drive for an hour through the desert that used to be a seabed, their case seems pretty ironclad.

Visiting Aralsk also gained a particular significance for me because earlier in the trip I'd swum in the Amu-Darya, one of the two rivers diverted to drain the Aral Sea, and seen bales of cotton for sale on the street in Fergana, and eaten fish from smaller lakes that used to come from the Aral.

Saved by beer again!


This is a complicated story, and one that you may need to be a traveler to appreciate, so bear with me...

I've already said that the beauty of Russian/former-USSR trains is the stops, where women young and old descend to sell everything a weary traveler might want, from bliny to beer. The ugliness is Customs, which, due to the vicissitudes of Stalinist borders, we had to go through four times (count 'em!) on this train (Aralsk, Kazakhstan to Moscow, Russia). I'd carefully stockpiled some Kazakh tenge from Almaty to cover food and drinks en route, but, since I hadn't been to Russia yet, I had nothing in the way of roubles. As the last border stop drew on and on, I began to worry about my ability to feed myself, as we were forbidden to leave the train, and would soon be out of Kazakhstan. Finally, after the Customs officers had removed ceiling panels and unpacked bags and brought in dogs, and the Immigration folks had had their way with our passports, we were allowed, after nearly two hours, ten minutes of freedom on the platform.

Gleefully, I descended, pouncing on the first food--dumplings--I could find, hesitant to pay in Kazakh tenge now that we were in Russia, but the saleslady accepted my Kazakh note and gave change in roubles. I moved on to another seller with another note to purchase beer. Again, a successful transaction with change in roubles. Once more I tried for mineral water: success and Russian change once more. If I could just buy one more thing, I thought, I could get rid of all my Kazakh money and have enough roubles to last me till Moscow. So I went to yet another vendor and bought another beer. She was a bit put off by my large Kazakh bill, but she agreed, and, under the supervision of several young Kazakh men, issued me the "correct" change in roubles.

I never did see the moneychanger I'd been hoping for, but who cares? I now had more delectable dumplings than I could eat, more beer and mineral water than I could drink, and more roubles than I could spend, all without ever so much as touching an ATM card or trading currencies.

I had one Kazakh and one Russian beer, by the way: neither was great. But the dumplings were a gourmet experience--so fresh and hot they melted together in the plastic bag the lady dispensed them in. Just beef and onion and dough, but magic occurs with the labor of assembly.

Note on photo-verisimilitude: I'd tried the fish earlier--I felt I had to, since little old ladies push it on you at nearly every stop. In a nutshell: I'm glad I had beer to wash it down.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Whole lot of nothing (Aralsk)


Incredibly, they have Internet here--about the only thing they do have. The guy in the Internet cafe couldn't believe I was American; prob. he'd never seen one before. The guy who sold me my train ticket said it's the first one he'd ever issued. Suffice it to say this is not a hot spot. Rather, it's one of those places you go to for everything it lacks: most importantly, what used to be the world's largest lake(?), depending on how you count lakes, seas, continental rifts, area vs. volume, salt vs. fresh, etc. Now, thanks to Kruschev's ingenious scheme to make Kazakhstan a cotton superpower by diverting the Amu-Darya and Su-Darya, two gigantic rivers that drain the Pamirs (cousins of the Himalayas), it's one of the world's largest salt flats--laced with all sorts of toxic chemicals distilled out of the water and the secret Soviet weapons lab, and fertilizer for all that cotton.

So what's it like? I haven't been to where the photo was taken yet, so I'll describe the town itself: broken beer bottles pave the streets, camels roam like stray dogs, once-decorative wooden houses threaten collapse and newer ones are cobbled together from scrap metal, ill-clad children wander seemingly unsupervised. The air quality is a lot better than I expected, but then, there's been no wind yet. I'm finessing dinner because I can't really find anywhere to eat. (That's partly because a wedding has taken over the largest, perhaps only, restaurant.)

Keep your fingers crossed that I get out of here tomorrow. Since you're not allowed to buy a train ticket out of Aralsk in advance for some reason, and demand is way high, I've bought two separate tickets: one to get here, from Tashkent, that I just used; a second, from Almaty (Kaz) to Moscow that I intend to use a portion of (Aralsk to Moscow). I've had to contract someone in Almaty to pay the conductor there not to give away my berth between Almaty and here. Oh, the wonders of the post-Soviet world! I haven't heard that the scheme failed, so I'm cautiously optimistic. Aralsk is an interesting place to visit, but I'd hate to get stuck here.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Standing on the last leg


The 'stan tour officially ended this morning, so I'm on my own again. By my count (and geographically), that means the trip is 2/3 over, even though five out of six weeks are done. The three "legs" are as follows:
  1. Beijing to Almaty (Kazakhstan)--2 weeks, independent (train)
  2. Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to Tashkent (Uzbekistan) via Kashgar (China), Fergana Valley, Tajikistan, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva--3 weeks, with 7 Brits and Aussies, Brit/Aussie guide, drivers, support staff (zill, horse, minibus, taxi, jeep)
  3. Tashkent to Moscow (via Aralsk)--1 week, independent (train)
I'm off to the station as soon as I finish this, via the stunning Soviet-built metro. (Yes, the Soviets did a few things well, and subways are a shining example.) Wish me well as I resort to all kinds of finagling to ensure I get in and out of Aralsk (former Aral Sea port in Kazakhstan) on time--more on the machinations later.

More maps!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Big Picture


There have been a lot of requests for maps. I understand. I love maps; I paper my walls with them. Unfortunately, the actual map of where I've been for the last three weeks, from the tour company, is in a "corrupt or unrecognizable file format," so I'm having to cobble together some substitutes from our good friends at Google Image Search. There are some things the computer is surprisingly bad at, and maps are one.

A bit hard to read above, I know, but I like the way it spotlights the very area I've been concentrating on. The funny thing about my trip, as I was just discussing with the tour leader, is that I spent just over a week crossing all of China (Beijing to Urumqi, on to Almaty, Kazakhstan), a distance of more than 3000 miles; I'm now about to spend just under a week covering Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Moscow, a roughly similar distance; yet I've spent three solid weeks circling from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to Kashgar (China) to Fergana (Tajikistan) to Kiva (Uzbekistan) and finally here (Tashkent, Uzbekistan). A lot of points of interest in between, obviously, but overall an almost ludicrously short distance compared to what I did on my own.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Now with 75% more pictures! (Bukhara, Uzbekistan)

Lust and Gluttony in Exalted Spaces


Gastronomic detour: I've tried not to let this blog slip into a food extravaganza, but I can't resist this one posting about melons, which are everywhere here, and come in several varieties unavailable in the West. Hami, China is famous for its melons, but they exist in stellar form all along the Silk Road. There's a kind of albino cantaloupe that is impossibly sweet and lush, made all the moreso by the inhospitable desert. Today I stumbled on to a melon contest, where local farmers elbowed each other out of the way to be photographed with their prize fruits. The watermelons are actually smaller, more spherical here, but the "sweet melons" (everything other than watermelon is lumped together, even though at least four varieties exist, from green to orange), distend into enormous footballs.

Back to the main story: Capitalism has not been kind to Bukhara: old madrassas, mosques, and all other monuments are stuffed to the gills with souvenir shops. That's the bad news. The good: it's still enchanting--in fact, most of the souvenir shops themselves are pretty enchanting. More good: unlike Samarkand, where the dazzling Registan sits marooned in a sea of modern urbanity, the old town of Bukhara is preserved almost wholesale. It's a good place to wander, even in the oppressive heat.

Tonight we had dinner (including beer) in an old madrassa watching leggy Russian models give a fashion show. Taliban, eat your hearts out: here they understand the idea of Islam in moderation. Statue of Mulla Nasrudin in central park and ancient poetry manuscripts in museum also remind you that there's another side to Muslim culture, too often subverted or forgotten.

You could be forgiven for mistaking Bukhara for Granada or Codoba, say. Uzbekistan in general is much more "civilized" than the other 'stans--paved roads, A/C, English spoken, expenses higher (despite a chronic cash shortage, and the biggest note being about $0.60, so that every purchase resembles a drug trade). Things are much more "settled" than in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; the Russians have almost all left, and things have reverted to a version of the centuries-old farming and cottage industry culture, unlike the nomadism of the other countries (where the Soviet influence was in some ways quite welcome as a means of gaining infrastructure and expertise).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Back in the saddle


So much has happened since my last post,...

All Internet and international calls were blocked in Kashgar (China), the whole Xingjiang province, in fact, as a reaction to the July 5 troubles in Urumqi. So even though the hotel had wireless access, I couldn't post anything. In Kyrgyzstan we were off in the hills with the nomads. Let's start there:

We rode from the Tash Rabat caravanserai (yurt camp) up to a 3825-meter pass, in picture-perfect weather (oodles of sun but brisk)--it was like being inside an old Western, but in Technicolor. Managed a couple canters and one (semi-involuntary) full gallop--thrilling, but all I could think about was how to stay on; how nice it would be to ride well enough that I could think about other things, like the scenery rushing by, or the basic incredulity of moving at such a speed, being astride a living creature that can go so much faster than your own legs, nearly as fast as a car or train. I've never been, and never will be, a lover of horses as some are, but there are times, in the right landscape, under the right conditions, that it's an undeniably, and peerlessly, grand way to travel.

That was several days ago already; I'll fill in the gaps as time allows. For now let me just mention how different Uzbekistan is: a proud, ancient culture strongly influenced, but in no way overwhelmed, by the Soviets (as opposed to the mainly nomadic peoples of Kyrgyzstan). Massive mountains have yielded to a vast, verdant valley that might be mistaken for Provence, or Ohio. Bales of cotton for sale on the street corner. Little factories where ladies fish through boiling vats of silk cocoons. Flatbread decoratively punched like pressed tin ceilings. Hand-painted pottery in dizzyingly precise abstractions of blue, green, and off-white. Cold water, spiced lamb, clear soup...these are the highlights so far.

A free year's subscription to anyone who can name the violinist pictured in the last post. (Since I don't have a digital camera, all photos on this blog are "borrowed.")

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Beer for the ears

After "dining" last night on an assemblage of salads and sausage from the local bazaar, I stopped in at the German restaurant near the hotel for a pint or two. (It can be a struggle, in this climate, to drink beer fast enough to benefit from its coldness yet slow enough not to get tipsy or bloated, but these are the crosses we travelers must bear...)

In deference to drizzle, I sat inside, surrounded by that intoxicating smell of braised smoked pork, a quartet of Americans, a local couple with a baby, a lot of empty picnic tables, and...a little old man at an upright piano accompanying a tall, weary-looking blonde on a violin. The piano needed a tuning, and she, with music, seemed to be struggling at times to follow him, without, but it was wonderful: old, slightly schmaltzy stuff redolent of absinthe and cigarette-holders and long moustaches that leaned at moments towards Chopin, moments Gershwin--the kind of music that reminds you of the importance of acoustic instruments. Due to his individual skill and the general note-heavy nature of the piano, he played circles around her in a sense. But even with her slightly hesitant playing, the violin had that magical sound that made one note of hers carry more emotional weight than a dozen of his. You can have your synthesizers and mp3s and amplifiers: only trees and cat guts and horsehair, things that were once alive, can make that sound to raise the hairs on the back of your neck and make the breath catch in your throat.

No one but me seemed to pay them any mind. I clapped somewhat timidly after the second number, which the violinist acknowledged with an almost embarrassed nod. I applauded a few more times, and wished I knew enough Russian to go up and tell them what I'll try to say here:

Few things make me feel more blessed than stumbling onto good live music, as I've done typically once or twice per trip. Most musicians are so woefully underappreciated, I almost feel I've been sent, unbeknownst, on a mission to be the audience they deserve--or they've been sent to give me more pleasure than I deserve. Watermelon in the desert, a good cup of coffee on a cold morning, setting down your bags at the end of many transfers...none of these comforts is sweeter than live music.

Convenience at customs and solace through music--all in one day, and all thanks to beer.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cheapest beer ever

I crossed into Kyrgyzstan today--five hours in a minivan from Almaty to Bishkek, including stops on both sides of the border. Almaty was a hard place to leave: so comfortable, relaxed, spacious, leafy, and "luxurious" (if you count cold beer, real coffee, hearty Russian-style food, cool-ish weather, and walkability as "luxuries") after the thrilling, almost overwhelming frenzy of China.

We stopped at a cafe and gas station a couple hours into the bus ride; as I stood debating whether or not to squander the Kazakh money I'm saving for my return on a beer, a tall young guy insisted I sit down and have one on him. We chatted, and I marveled at the hospitality of Kazakhs--only yesterday I'd gotten a lift from a pair of college guys back into Almaty from the eagle farm up the mountain. "How nice to get a free beer," I thought.

But this turned out to be even more than a free beer, b/c the Kazakh border guard was very unhappy with the various stamps I had or hadn't secured, and was in no mood to let me through until who should come to my aid but Anvar, the guy who'd bought me the beer. This story seems to have various morals, all of them upending what we were told as children:
  1. talking to strangers is not only safe but imperative
  2. beer is not only nutritious, but excellent insurance
  3. fastidious paperwork will only get you so far
  4. pleasantries and good humor go a long way (maybe we did learn that as children, but who would have thought how far it goes with border guards?)