Poking Around in Central Asia: July 2014

Trip 1 - Part 1

Morgantown to Almaty to Isfara to Batken, Dozing off in the Tunnel of Terror

by Craig Mains

July 2014: Central Asia
Morgantown to Almaty to Isfara to Batken, Dozing off in the Tunnel of Terror

by Craig Mains

In 2014 and 2015 I made three work-related visits to Central Asia. The group I was working with at the time, the National Environmental Services Center (NESC), had contracted with the Central Asia Regional Environmental Center (CAREC) to provide some training to three small transboundary watershed groups.

No one seems to know for sure how we ended up partnering with CAREC. We often had foreign visitors in the building where I worked, and I sometimes would sit in on discussions if I had the time. I remember one visit by people from Central Asia but none of them were with CAREC. Most likely, someone took a business card from the meeting back to Central Asia and it got passed on to someone in CAREC. But even the CAREC people don't remember how they decided to contact NESC.

CAREC had recently been awarded a US Agency for International Development (USAID) grant to improve conditions in watersheds in Central Asia that cross international boundaries. All the Central Asia countries that CAREC works with are former Soviet Republics. During the Soviet era there was little conflict over water because decisions were made in Moscow. It is only with the breakup of the USSR that the newly independent Central Asia countries had to figure out how to share water that crosses what were now national boundaries. As part of their USAID grant, CAREC was required to have a US partner and they, for some reason, selected NESC.

It didn't seem like the best choice to me. After skyping with CAREC staff it became clear that their biggest issues centered on international water treaties and irrigation---two areas where NESC staff had zero experience. We probably should have referred them to some other US organization that would have been able to better help them. But that wasn't my decision to make.

At the time, NESC got most of its funding from the USEPA and the USDA to help small communities with drinking water and wastewater treatment issues. The funding had been dwindling over the years and there had been multiple staff reductions until we were down to a staff of just eight. There was pressure to bring in some additional sources of funding, so NESC agreed to partner with CAREC.

Photo by Craig Mains

As part of the grant, a delegation of people from CAREC and from some of the small water basin councils in Central Asia made a visit to the US. We hosted them in DC where they got to visit USEPA, USGS, and a few other federal agencies. They also got to visit an urban farm in the DC area and a model farm in the Shenandoah Valley. At their request we also took them to a giant mall for a shopping expedition. They didn't visit NESC's home office in Morgantown so they didn't know that NESC was just a small group of oddball misfits.

In July, it was NESC's turn to visit Central Asia. I would be traveling with my supervisor and NESC's director, Jerry. The purpose of our visit was to get a better sense of what kinds of training people in the different watershed groups needed.

Monday, July 14th, 2014
Morgantown to Amsterdam, Netherlands

Jerry and I left from Morgantown shortly after lunch. Our flight from Pittsburgh was scheduled to leave in the late afternoon but we left Morgantown early to leave plenty of time to clear security. From Pittsburgh we flew to Atlanta where we had a short layover. From Atlanta, we flew to Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014
Still in Amsterdam

Our flight from Amsterdam to Almaty, Kazakhstan was scheduled to depart around 3:00 pm. We went through rather extensive security checks and were waiting at the gate, but the flight kept being delayed. After about three hours of announcements of delays we were informed that the flight was being delayed for 24 hours. This was distressing to both Jerry and me because we knew that our CAREC partners in Central Asia had constructed a complicated travel circuit that would now have to be totally reconstructed---if that was even possible.

The reason we were given for the postponement was that the public address system between the pilots' cabin and the passenger cabin was not working and the plane could not take off unless it was functional. We heard unofficially that KLM, our airline from Amsterdam to Almaty, was short staffed when it came to repair personnel because most of the population of the Netherlands went on vacation in July. Damn Europeans and their generous vacations.

A lot of waiting in line for hotel vouchers and customs clearance followed. KLM arranged a shuttle bus for us that took us to a hotel "near" the airport. Schiphol Airport is huge, so although we could still see the airport, it seemed like a 10 or 12-mile bus ride to the hotel. The hotel was an Ibis hotel, a chain of economy hotels in Europe and Asia. The staff seemed to be accustomed to dealing with busloads of stranded airline passengers. We had meal vouchers for dinner and breakfast the next day. The rooms were spartan, but pleasant.

Photo by Craig Mains

Scene outside Schiphol Airport, waiting for the shuttle bus to the Ibis.

Photo by Craig Mains

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Amsterdam to Almaty, Kazakhstan

Our flight went off without a hitch this time. I was fortunate to have a window seat since I enjoy having the opportunity to view the earth from above. I took this photo of an island and wondered where it was. After following our approximate flight route on Google Earth, I later determined that it is the island of Bornholm, Denmark in the Baltic Sea.

The darker areas of the island are forests. The larger forest is a preserve called the Almindingen, which, at 9400 acres, is the third largest forest in Denmark. The shapes and locations of the forests helped me verify that it was Bornholm. About 42,000 people live on the island and the inhabitants have their own dialect of Danish. Bornholm gets a lot of tourists in the summer from the Danish mainland because it is a bit sunnier than the rest of Denmark. The island is about 227 square miles in area, with about 98 miles of coastline. It looked so fragile from the air.

Photo by Craig Mains

Thursday, July 17th
Almaty, Kazakhstan to Khujand, Tajikistan

After the 24-hour flight delay, Jerry and I landed in Almaty at 1:45 am. Tais, one of our contacts from CAREC met us at the airport and, after going through baggage claims and customs, took us by taxi to the Favorite Hotel. It was only a few blocks from the airport. The original plan was that we would catch a flight to Dushanbe, Tajikistan later that morning. However, the delay in Amsterdam messed that up because there was no morning flight to Dushanbe today, only an afternoon flight. So, we ended up being set back 36 hours rather than 24 hours.

Tais apologized for the hotel, saying, "It is maybe not so nice, but we were at first thinking you would be here not so long." The delay meant we would have a slightly longer stay at the Favorite. I rather liked the hotel. It had at one time probably aspired to be a higher tier hotel but was now struggling. It had a certain quirky charm. The above photo is the hallway our rooms were on. Each of the hallway chandeliers had only one bulb that was lit. It seemed the others had been unscrewed to save on lighting costs, which gave it a bit of a spooky aura at night. We were, I think, the only people staying on our floor.

Before leaving, Tais bought Jerry and me a couple of Kazakh beers from the hotel cooler. She didn't stick around to share them with us--it was probably 3:00 am by then. Because of the differences in times zones though it didn't feel late. I was physically tired but not sleepy. Tais requested that we not walk around at night in the neighborhood around the hotel. She said it would be OK during the day. We took our beers to the table outside the front door of the hotel. The beers, the temperature, and the night air were very pleasant.

Photo by Craig Mains

After enjoying our beers, we decided we should at least try to get some sleep. I felt like I had no sooner laid down than it was getting light. Above is the view from my room at the Favorite. Two magpies were making a racket in the tree right outside my room---they had been scavenging in the dumpster. I had the unscreened window open and one of them perched on the window frame. I was afraid it might come inside so I closed the window. Somewhere nearby a rooster was crowing.

Later I met Jerry for the hotel's free breakfast: oatmeal porridge, two fried eggs, some coarse bread, and tea. The oatmeal was already sweetened and buttered, and the eggs were already heavily salted. This was apparently the only breakfast option.

Photo by Craig Mains

After breakfast, Jerry and I went for a short walk around the neighborhood in the vicinity of the hotel. Above is a playground near the hotel. Empty bottles and cigarette butts indicated that it may have been visited more by adults than children. The photo gives an idea of the woodsy nature of the city, however.

Photo by Craig Mains

This photo shows the small park across the street from the hotel. Everywhere in Central Asia tree trunks are pointed white up to about four or five feet. This is not just along city streets but often along highways as well. I asked some of the CAREC people what the purpose was and no one seemed to know for sure although they all had their opinions, none of which matched. Here are some of the reasons they gave:

Photo by Craig Mains

I was curious about this building, which didn't appear to be currently in use. I thought it may have been used to stable horses at one time. I later showed the photo to Sergei, our translator, and he said he thought it might be a storage space for a nearby apartment building.

Photo by Craig Mains

Shown above is one of the roadside ditches for dealing with urban stormwater runoff in Almaty. There are occasional diversions into trenches that run parallel to the streets. The runoff is stored in the trench and is gradually absorbed into the ground through the rectangular openings on the sides of the trench. Almaty gets about 23 inches of rain per year.

I later learned that these trenches are called aryks and are also connected to a larger system of canals throughout the city. Water can be diverted to them to keep the trees that line the streets watered during dry times of the year.

In some places the aryks are closer to the curb than the one shown here. On streets with curbside parking a passenger getting out of a car on that side would need to be careful they didn't accidentally fall in. They would probably be considered a liability hazard in the US.

Photo by Craig Mains

Our partners from CAREC, Anna, Alexandr (or Sasha), and Sergei showed up around 3:00 pm and we were off to the airport for a flight from Almaty to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Our plane was probably about half full, so I had no problem moving to a window seat.

Photo by Craig Mains

The outskirts of Almaty from the air. Almaty is mostly flat but there are big mountains nearby. Because of its location at the foot of the mountains, Almaty is subject to air inversions with trapped smog. We noticed that it was hard to get a clear view of the mountains but the air did not seem noticeably bad for the short time we were there.

Photo by Craig Mains

A view of a mountain glacier from the airplane window. I'm not sure of our flight route so there is no way to know if this was over Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, most likely Kyrgyzstan. Both countries are very mountainous and glaciated in the highest elevations. Kyrgyzstan has 6,500 distinct glaciers. Tajikistan claims to have the longest glacier in the world outside of a polar region. The Fedchenko glacier is 70 kilometers (about 43.5 mi) long, about two kilometers wide, and up to one kilometer deep--this for a country that isn't that much further north than West Virginia.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have peaks that are more than 24,000 feet in elevation--so, about 4000 feet higher than Denali and 4000 feet lower than Mt. Everest. The mountains capture what moisture is in the air and the people who live at the lower elevations rely on meltwater from snowpack and glaciers for water. The high mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been referred to as the "water towers of Central Asia." As with glaciers everywhere else in the world, they are shrinking and people are concerned about what that means for the future of the region. As the glaciers melt, ice dams sometimes form with meltwater pooled behind them. This creates a risk of catastrophic downstream flooding if the ice dams suddenly collapse.

Map source: University of Texas Libraries

Map source: University of Texas Libraries

The boundaries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are complex, especially in the area around the Fergana Valley where it resembles a geographical vortex. In addition to the complicated boundaries, there are enclaves (or exclaves, depending on your perspective) of ethnic settlements officially belonging to one country that are totally within the boundaries of one of the other countries.

After landing in Dushanbe, the revised plan was to drive to Khujand to spend the night. Khujand, the second largest city in Tajikistan, is in the northern extension of the country. That meant we would need to drive over the east-west running Zeravshan (or Zerafshon) and Turkestan Mountain Ranges.

Note that even though this is a recent map it portrays the Aral Sea showing its near historical full size. The Aral Sea hasn't been that large since the 1980s.

Our travel would be mostly within a triangle formed by the cities of Almaty, Dushanbe, and Shymkent.

Photo by Craig Mains

Shown are three of the CAREC people, after a rough landing in Dushanbe. Alexandr or Sasha is on the left. Anna is in the middle and Husniddin (pronounced Hooz nih deen') is on the right. Sasha and Anna are ethnic Russians who have spent their entire lives in Kazakhstan and are Kazakh citizens. Husniddin is a Tajik. He works out of CAREC’s regional office in Dushanbe rather than the main office that Anna and Sasha work from in Almaty.

The original plan would have had us spending the night in Dusanbe and meeting with Husniddin about what he thought the training needs were for the Isfara River basin in Tajikistan. Because of the need to get back on schedule we were only able to meet very briefly with him. Husniddin was one of the CAREC people who came to the US in April, so I already knew him. He had an odd sense of humor that I appreciated so I was sorry we didn't have more time to spend with him.

Husniddin had arranged to get us a good driver to take us over the mountains to Khujand. This was important since it was a somewhat dangerous road, although less so in the summer.

This photo was taken after we had already pushed our way through a crowd of people outside the airport. In addition to people waiting for other passengers there were lots of freelance taxi drivers assertively looking for fares and kids begging, some persistently.

Photo by Craig Mains

Heading north in Dushanbe. I think we're on Rudaki Avenue. Dushanbe is the capital and largest city in Tajikistan, with a population of about 780,000 people. As recently as the 1920s there were only a few thousand people living in Dushanbe. Around that time Lenin assigned a young Stalin to redraw borders in Central Asia along ethnic lines, an almost impossible task because of the way the different ethnic settlements were intermixed. In 1929 Tajikistan was partitioned from Uzbekistan and became a full-fledged soviet republic, with Dushanbe as the capital.

The city started growing then, beginning with a large influx of ethnic Tajiks, who, until then, were living in cities that were to continue to be part of Uzbekistan. Prior to that, Dushanbe was a much smaller regional market town. Dushanbe is the Tajik word for "Monday." It was named for a big market or bazaar that was held there every Monday.

Our driver was playing a CD of some live performances by a traditional Tajik singer, Nigina Amonqulova. Her music I think could be described as Tajik folk/pop. It was perfect music for the trip across the mountains.

Photo by Craig Mains

On the road heading north toward the mountains on the M-34 highway outside of Dushanbe. Unfortunately, we weren't able to spend much time in Dushanbe. It looked to be a very vibrant city--people were out everywhere.

This picture makes the roads look much smoother, wider, and emptier than they typically were. In general, it seemed that the main roads were usually about 2 1/2 lanes wide with the 1/2 lane equivalent in the middle used for passing in both directions. A single horn beep was used frequently to let the person ahead know that you were going to pass. That might result in that person moving over to the right a little, or not. The scariest times were when the driver would pull out to pass and I would notice that someone had also pulled out to pass coming in the opposite direction toward us, with both drivers using the same middle lane. It was usually best not to watch. As I mentioned, we were fortunate to have a good driver for this trip over the mountains and he had probably the best vehicle I was in during the entire trip--a fairly new Toyota 4x4. We had to strap almost all the luggage onto the roof to accommodate the five of us---me, Jerry, Anna, Sasha, and our translator Sergei.

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Photo Source: Wikipedia

One of the biggest consequences of the flight delay from Amsterdam was that instead of traveling over the mountains during the day, we had to travel at night to get back on schedule. By the time we cleared customs at the Dushanbe airport, got our visas, and loaded the truck it was already early evening. After stopping to exchange some money and later for dinner at a roadside place for grilled shish kabobs (or what the CAREC people called sheshlyk), it was dark. The picture provides some idea of the scenery that we missed seeing. Because the road was totally unlit, you could only occasionally sense the presence of huge mountains looming around you or a precipitous drop-off to the side. On the plus side, our driver told us we were spared seeing the remains of crashed vehicles that had gone off the edge of the road and into the chasm.

The other consequence of traveling at night was that because large trucks are not permitted to drive during the day, we were on the road with a lot of them. So, we were slowed down considerably and everywhere was the strong odor of truck exhaust and hot brakes. Because it's a toll road it is considered to be in good condition compared to most other mountain roads in the region.

Photo by Craig Mains

However, near the summit of the Zeravshan range there is a five-kilometer tunnel called the Anzob Tunnel, but sometimes known as the Tunnel of Terror or the Tunnel of Death. Prior to its construction one could not drive between Dushanbe and Khujand (Tajikistan's two largest cities) without going through Uzbekistan. This became a major inconvenience after the fission of the Soviet Union. The tunnel was constructed by an Iranian company but there was some disagreement among the CAREC people about whether construction was complete when it opened in 2006. Regardless, it was clearly falling apart. There was a lot of water leaking into the tunnel, which had severely damaged the walls, ceiling and road surface. In some places the water seemed to be coming up through the roadbed. There was rebar showing everywhere, in the walls and the ceiling where chunks of concrete had fallen off.

While two tunnels had been built, only one two-lane tunnel was open, which meant there was two-way traffic in the tunnel. In several areas traffic was limited to one lane. The closed lane in those areas was cordoned off, presumably because the ceiling was deemed especially unsafe, although it looked unsafe everywhere. The cordoned off area then appeared to become the repository for chunks of concrete sloughed off from other areas of the tunnel. The ventilation was loud but ineffective. There were numerous potholes that were too deep to drive through that required using the on-coming traffic lane. In summary: bone-jarringly bumpy; loud; full of noxious exhaust fumes; poorly lit; in those sections where the roadway was not flooded, it was dusty; the ever-present risk that a boulder-sized chunk of cement could fall from the ceiling onto your vehicle; and large trucks veering into your path to avoid potentially axle-breaking potholes---all with a soundtrack by Nigina Amonqulova.

I made several attempts to get a photo of the tunnel but it was so bumpy that I had no luck. By this point I was so jet-lagged and sleep-deprived that the passage through the tunnel seemed like some weird fever dream. I kept nodding off in the back seat only to be jolted awake by the next hole. The photo above somehow seems fitting of the whole experience.

Photo source: World Nomads, Six Mad Kiwis

Photo source: World Nomads, Six Mad Kiwis

I found some photos on the internet that give a bit more of an idea of the conditions inside the tunnel at the time. The lighting was nowhere near as good as it is in this photo. The debris piled along the right side looks typical though.

I can't imagine biking through the tunnel as these guys did. One would be exposed to the fumes for a long period of time and probably breathing more deeply because of the exertion. Despite being called the Tunnel of Death by some, there does not appear to be any documented deaths of motorists dying in the tunnel from concrete falling from the ceiling or walls onto vehicles. The only deaths were to maintenance workers who were overcome by exhaust fumes.

Photo Source: Angus McIntyre

Photo Source: Angus McIntyre

This gives a better approximation of the lighting. It wasn't that there wasn't any, just that what lighting existed was inadequate. There was not this much water during our passage except in a few isolated places. [1]

After exiting the tunnel there was then a long descent to the floor of the chasm between the two mountain ranges and then back up again to cross the Turkestan Range. There was also a five-kilometer tunnel at the summit of the Turkestan range. However, this tunnel was in wonderful condition, well-ventilated, and adequately lighted. And, there were two tunnels, one in each direction so there was no oncoming traffic. We zipped right through it in a fraction of the time it took to get through the Anzob Tunnel. The second tunnel was constructed by the Chinese and there was some discussion in the car about how the conditions of the two tunnels reflected the relative competence of the Chinese and Iranians. This is of no small importance as Iran, China, Russia, and the US (to a much lesser extent) compete for influence in Central Asia.

We arrived in Khujand around 2:30 am, checked into the hotel and went straight to bed. It probably took about 45 minutes to check in though. Checking into hotels in Central Asia involves everyone handing over their passports and then waiting around while the hotel staff fills out paperwork. The paperwork is presumably turned over to the government so they can keep track of who is traveling around where in the country. This was likely another leftover from the Soviet era.

Compared to the Favorite Hotel, my room in the Grand Khujand Hotel was luxurious. Rarely has a bed looked so inviting. Unfortunately, I had to be up again in less than four hours.

Photo by Craig Mains

Friday, July 18, 2014
Khujand to Isfara, Tajikistan and on to Batken, Kyrgyzstan

Here is our traveling party assembled after breakfast in front of the hotel. Jerry is on the left in the grey jacket; Anna with her back to the camera; Sergei in the back, partly obscured; and Sasha in the hat. The other person is our local expert, Mr. Abdulatifi Homidi. He would travel with us to the city of Isfara and provide some information on the local conditions.

Another casualty of the flight delay was that there was not time to see any of Khujand, which was unfortunate because Khujand looked very interesting. The original plan would have given us some free time in Khujand, Unlike Dushanbe, Khujand is one of the oldest cities in Asia, dating back at least 2500 years under various names. It was the furthest east that Alexander the Great penetrated into Asia and was at one time an outpost of Greek culture. There is a legend, that Alexander married a local princess from Khujand to cement a regional alliance. Khujand was a major hub on the Silk Road. It is the second largest city in Tajikistan and the capital of the Sughd province, the northernmost province of Tajikistan. The current population is about 725,000 people.

Photo by Craig Mains

Leaving Khujand on our way to Isfara. We were heading east in the Fergana Valley, which is in some ways considered to be the core of Central Asia. The Fergana Valley is an oval-shaped plain almost completely surrounded by mountains.

The Syr Darya, a tributary to the Aral Sea, is formed in the valley by the confluence of the Naryn and Kara-Darya Rivers. The Fergana Valley is a very fertile agricultural area that has been cultivated for thousands of years. A dense network of irrigation canals covers the valley.

It is one of the most densely populated areas in Central Asia with a density of 500 to 600 people per square miles compared to an average population density of 40.8 people per square miles elsewhere in Central Asia. It is also one of the fastest growing areas in Central Asia.

Map Source: Environment and Security: Turning Risks into Cooperation in Centrl Asia.UN Development Program/UN Environment Program. 2005.

Map Source: Environment and Security: Turning Risks into Cooperation in Centrl Asia.
UN Development Program/UN Environment Program. 2005.

Above is a more detailed map of the Fergana Valley area. We headed east from Khujand along the south shore of the Kairakkum Reservoir and then headed southeast toward the city of Isfara. After meeting the Tajik delegation of the Isfara Small Basin Council we would, later in the day, cross the border to the city of Batken to meet with the corresponding Kyrgyz delegation.

The map shows how complicated the international borders are in this area. It also shows the three larger enclaves in Kyrgyzstan. There are several official enclaves in Central Asia but the three shown are the largest. From left to right they are Vorukh, which belong to Tajikistan; Sokh, which belongs to Uzbekistan but is populated almost entirely by ethnic Tajiks; and Shakhimardan, which belongs to Uzbekistan. Shakhimardan was formerly a resort area for communist party bigwigs during the Soviet era. It is now nominally a mountain resort area for Uzbeks and Kyrgyz but is, according to our CAREC friends, difficult and expensive to get into so it isn't visited very often.

This general area has been referred to as an "incubator of conflict." One of the reasons is because the Soviet drew some of the borders between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan twice, once in the 1920s and once in the 1950s. However, neither of the borders were ever ratified. This didn't have much of an effect until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Now, however, each country tends to claim the borders from whichever era is the most generous to them. This has created multiple disputed zones, including in the Isfara/Batken area. Both the land and the water are sources of conflict.

Photo by Craig Mains

Heading south toward the city of Isfara. Whenever we weren't along a stream or a canal the land was quite dry looking. Jerry and I were riding with Mr. Homidi, who filled us in on some of the conditions in the area. The water problems are many. No surface water from the Isfara River has reached the Syr Darya since some time in the 1940s when the Big Fergana Canal was built. Except in odd circumstances, it is totally diverted and used up before it reaches the Syr Darya.

He also told us that much of the infrastructure has severely deteriorated since the Soviet breakup. This included many of the irrigation canals and the drinking water system that serves the Khujand region. He also told us about a fruit processing plant that now sits idle. During the Soviet era much of the produce of the Fergana Valley was processed into jam or other products that were then shipped to other parts of the Soviet Union. After the breakup, many of the ethnic Russians who managed the plant left the region. When machinery broke down, no one knew how to fix it. Now, Mr. Homidi thinks the plant is too antiquated to even try to save. However, he thinks that being able to export some of the food grown in the region is important to address the poverty. The two biggest contributors to the GNP of Tajikistan he said were Tajiks working abroad, mostly in Russia, who mail money home (more than one half of the national GDP) and drug running from Afghanistan to Russia. Border guards are paid so little that they are easily bribed. The Khujand region is more well off than other parts of Tajikistan because of the fertility of the Fergana Valley but there are still many problems.

Photo by Craig Mains

Map source: Environment and Security: Transforming Risks in Cooperation in Central Asia.
UN Development Program/UN Environment Program. 2005.

The conflict over water in the region has been described as a problem of distribution and management, not a problem of scarcity. By World Health Organization standards there is enough water to go around in Central Asia on a per person basis. The unequal distribution has to do with where the water is generated and where it is used. Most of the water is generated as meltwater from mountain glaciers and snowpack in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The water is mostly used for irrigation in the downstream countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan (to a lesser extent). The blue bars on the map above show where the water is generated, and the red bars show where the water is used for the five countries of Central Asia.

In the Soviet era, the water allocation decisions were made in Moscow. After the breakup, presumably to avoid increasing tension between the new nations, the presidents of the five countries agreed to maintain the existing allocations from the Soviet era. Although there have been some minor bilateral modifications in specific basins, there has been no major renegotiation of water withdrawals.

Another issue has to do with timing of water usage, Mr. Homidi told us. [2] Besides irrigation, the water is also used for hydroelectric power generation. Kyrgyzstan has little in the way of fossil fuel resources and depends on hydro to generate electricity. When the demand for electricity for heating increases in the winter, water is released in Kyrgyzstan for power generation. However, this means releasing water at a time of year when it isn't needed downstream for irrigation. This sometimes causes flooding and waterlogged soils leading to salinity problems--just one more source of potential conflict.

Photo by Craig Mains

Map source: Encyclopedia Britannica

The shrinkage of the Aral Sea. This is considered to be one of the biggest environmental disasters in world history (so far). This is not just because of the loss of the considerable resources of the sea itself, which supported a thriving fishery, but also because once the lakebed was exposed an estimated 40 million tons of accumulated salts and contaminants were blown by the wind and destroyed more than 23,000 square miles of farmland in the region. The disappearance of the Aral Sea also negatively changed the climate of the area, making it hotter and drier. This is now one of the poorest regions in Central Asia and is referred to as the Aral Desert.

Since 2005, there has been some recovery of water in the remnant of the lake now called the North Aral Sea, which is fed by the Syr Darya. The South Aral Sea, fed by the Amu Darya, continues to shrink, however.

We would not be traveling anywhere near the Aral Seas but two of the three small basins we would be working with were historically tributaries to the Aral Sea.

Photo by Craig Mains

Shown above are some of the attendees of the Tajik part of the Isfara River Small Basin Council meetings. They were almost all older men. I don't think there was anyone younger than 40, so all of them grew up under the Soviet system of government. About 20 people eventually showed up, including a few women. None of the women spoke---I think they were just curious to see what Americans looked like.

In general, they had a rather difficult time with the concept that we were primarily interested in trying to determine what type of training they needed. More than once Sergei told us that someone would say something like, "We don't need any training; we need someone to come in here and remove the sediment from our irrigation canals." Or "What we really need is a backhoe. Bring us a backhoe instead of training." Anna and Sasha explained that the grant only funded training but it didn't seem to make much difference.

There were also some complaints about the upstream Kyrgyz, particularly with regard to the Tortgul reservoir that was built 12 to 15 years ago. "Why do they need a reservoir? There aren't that many people living in that area. It's unnecessary and they aren't even growing anything there."

Photo by Craig Mains

Photo: Anna [3]

This photo was taken after the meeting with the Tajik small basin council for the Isfara River in front of the building where the meeting was held. From the left: me, Rustam, Jerry, and Sergei. Rustam (pronounced roo stom') was our local host. He is the director of the Isfara Water Users Association, which includes management of the canal works that splits the Isfara River into smaller and smaller canals. Rustam invited us to lunch at the WUA office building, which was just south of the city of Isfara.

Photo by Craig Mains

A flat bread bakery somewhere in Isfara city that we passed on the way to lunch. No meal is ever served in Tajikistan without flat bread or nan, which is baked in a tandyr over. I always thought of naan as being an Indian bread, but I was told at lunch that the Tajiks developed tandyr ovens, which then spread to India. Their nan is not the same as the naan served in Indian restaurants in the US.

Photo by Craig Mains

Somewhere in the city of Isfara on the way to lunch. Because homes have an exterior wall that surrounds the entire perimeter of the property, some streets were bordered by what seemed like one long continuous wall on both sides. I occasionally got a glimpse inside the walls where there was a courtyard, often with flower and fruit trees.

Photo by Craig Mains

Part one of our lunch on the porch of the Isfara Water Users Association office building. Besides the bottled drinks, the only food on the table that wasn't grown or made locally were the bananas. The Fergana Valley is well known for the white melon as well as for grapes, almonds, pistachios, nectarines, and apricots. Tea is served with every meal---green tea in the summer and black tea in the winter.

Photo by Craig Mains

Part two of our lunch, a Central Asian dish known as plov. After snacking on fruit, nuts, and salad, they brought out the plov. It seems like every Central Asia country claims plov as one of their national dishes so there is some competition to provide the best plov for visitors. In Tajikistan, plov is traditionally made by men in a large wok-like pan over an open fire. It was delicious. In the old days, and maybe somewhere still, it was eaten with your fingers and it was said that you hadn't fully enjoyed the meal unless some of the oil was running down your arm.

Photo by Craig Mains

The Isfara River looking upstream. Just to the right of this picture are the headworks of the diversion structure that splits part of the river off into a large canal. There are additional smaller diversion structures further downstream. The headworks create an impoundment making the Isfara River look bigger here than it would otherwise. It’s not a large river.

Photo by Craig Mains

A view of the headworks from the upstream side. A series of adjustable gates control the flow to both the main channel of the river and a canal that diverts water to the right.

Photo by Craig Mains

The dry hills and rock outcrops near the area where we had lunch. The valley felt like one elongated oasis.

Photo by Craig Mains

After lunch we headed off to Batken City in Kyrgyzstan so our time in Tajikistan was very brief---not even 24 hours. Everywhere we went there were people selling produce alongside the roads. The yellow melons are the ones with the white insides that the Fergana Valley is known for. There seemed to be such an abundance of fruit that it didn’t seem possible that any farmer could hope to get a decent price for their produce as long as most of it was only being sold locally.

Photo by Craig Mains

A view of the road ahead to Batken, but still in Tajikistan. There are apricot orchards on the right.

Photo by Craig Mains

The border crossing from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan. At every border crossing all luggage was required to be removed and searched. Once the luggage/cargo was searched they had to be physically carried across the border. The vehicle, if it were continuing across the border, would be intensively searched separately. Because of the inconvenience, most people preferred to not drive across the border, unless absolutely necessary. CAREC arranged for Rustam to drop us off at the Tajik border control office and for someone from the Kyrgyz part of the Isfara Small Basin Council to pick us up on the other side. This photo shows Rustam toting our bags, which had already been scanned. Our Kyrgyz hosts are waiting in the right of the photo just beyond the gate.

I tried to time this picture during a moment when the border guard on the left was looking away because of tensions around this particular border. However, right when I snapped the picture he turned toward me. I could see he was irked but thankfully not enough to make an issue of it.

Photo by Craig Mains

The Tajik side of the border crossing featured this shady little duck pond.

Photo by Craig Mains

The Kyrgyz side of the border crossing. The facilities were at least a few miles apart. This likely reflects the disagreement over the exact location of the border in this area.

Photo by Craig Mains

A roadside statue of Manas, the legendary superhero of Kyrgyzstan. More than 1000 years ago, he, along with 40 warriors, is credited with unifying the Kyrgyz tribes and establishing a Kyrgyz homeland.

Manas is the subject of what some claim to be the world's longest epic poem, containing an estimated 500,000 lines of verse, making it roughly 30 times the length of the Odyssey. Because the Kyrgyz were nomadic, it was passed from generation to generation in oral form. The people who memorize and recite the poem are referred to as Manaschis. People started transcribing the epic in the mid-nineteenth century but the oral tradition continues, with ethnic festivals dedicated to the recitation.

The Epic of Manas has three main parts that describe the feats of bravery of Manas; his son Semetai; and his grandson, Seitek. Historians consider the epic to be a mixture of fanciful legends and some actual historical events that have been exaggerated or dramatized. However, some of the events that are considered historical happened hundreds of years apart, so Semetai and Seitek are son and grandson to Manas only in a figurative sense.

Photo by Craig Mains

Welcome to Batken. Batken is the name of the westernmost oblast of Kyrgyzstan as well as the largest city in the oblast. An oblast is a regional administrative unit inherited from the Soviet system. Kyrgyzstan has seven oblasts and two cities that are large enough to be their own administrative units (Bishkek and Osh).

Batken is the poorest oblast in Kyrgyzstan. The population of the oblast is about 380,000 and the population of the city of Batken is about 13,000. About 80 percent of the population of the oblast are considered to be under the poverty level.

Photo by Craig Mains

A view of downtown Batken in the vicinity of the market. We ended the day at a guesthouse on the edge of the city.

October 2014, Craig Mains



[1] In June 2015, the Anzob Tunnel was closed in order to make repairs to address water leakage, ventilation, lighting, and the road surface. Although it seems hard to believe that all the many tunnel problems could be adequately addressed in just four months, the improved tunnel was reopened in September 2015. At that time, only one tunnel was still in use and there was still two-way traffic in the tunnel.

[2] I found our conversations with Mr. Homidi to be very informative. We soon learned that not everyone in Central Asia was as forthcoming about the problems the region faces. Unfortunately, Mr. Homidi passed away unexpectedly between the first visit in July 2014 and the second visit in October. He was 62 years old.

[3] I've used a number of photos that Jerry took or, in this case, someone else took using Jerry's camera. Jerry had the date stamp activated and all of them say 2013. However, the photos were indeed all taken in 2014. Some of the days and times are off as well because of time zone differences between the US and Central Asia. Unless the photos are otherwise noted, they were taken by me. Many of them were taken out of a car window speeding along on a bumpy road, which accounts for some of the poor quality.


Fedchenko Glacier
Nigina Amonqulova
Anzob Tunnel
Fergana Valley
Epic of Manas

Next: Batken to Bishkek to Chaldovar to Merke


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