Poking Around in Central Asia: May 2015

Trip 3 - Part 1

Morgantown to Bishkek

by Craig Mains

Poking Around in Central Asia: May 2015
Trip 3 - Part 1
Morgantown to Bishkek

by Craig Mains

May 2015 - Bishkek

The third and final trip to Central Asia was a little different from the previous trips. CAREC had decided that instead of holding three separate training sessions for each of the Small Basin Councils that they would have one larger, centralized event in Bishkek and pay people to come from the various groups.

On our end, Sandra had convinced our director Jerry that we needed some reinforcement of knowledge and Jerry had agreed to allow some other "actual experts" to accompany us. This was fine with me since it made my job easier--there was less for me to research and present. I was just surprised that Jerry approved it because I didn't think there was enough money for it. There must have been more money left over at the end of the project than I realized.

The additional people accompanying us this time were:

Todd--who was, until recently, a professor of Wildlife Management at WVU. He was written into the original grant because he had studied raptors in Kazakhstan and done some work previously with CAREC. He had been something of a Central Asia advisor for us. He had recently left WVU and was now working for the USGS in Idaho. Todd spoke some Russian.

Louis--a professor of Soil Science at WVU. I recruited Louis because he had had done research and international consulting on controlling salinity in irrigated soils. I knew from my reading that this was a major problem in Central Asia (although it never came up once in conversations with the watershed groups or with CAREC). I knew Louis since his son and Corbin were in the same fifth grade class.

David--Sandra recruited David to present on negotiations that occur among water user organizations in the US. David lives in Oregon and had led negotiations in the Yakima River basin in Washington State and elsewhere that involved multiple competing water users including irrigation districts, municipal water systems, hydroelectric facilities, and Native American tribes.

Chuck--who worked for the Central Arizona Project and had been involved with international water negotiations between the US and Mexico regarding the Colorado River. Chuck brought along his wife Susan.

We didn't have enough money in the grant to pay any of our outside experts but we did pay for their transportation and expenses. So, they agreed to do it mainly to get a free trip to Central Asia. Todd was written into the grant but it was still mainly just transportation and expenses.

CAREC had decided to hold the sessions in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan because it was the least expensive and most central of the cities they considered. This made it easier for us but it also meant that we weren't going to get to travel around like we did on the previous two trips. Although the travel circuit we made during the first two trips was exhausting, I still enjoyed seeing different parts of Central Asia so I had some regrets that we would only be traveling between Almaty and Bishkek.

Chain-Wen and I had, however, agreed that she and Corbin would meet me in Bishkek after the work was over and we would go on a four or five-day tour of Kyrgyzstan. I left the camera with her and Corbin to take pictures on their trip over, so I have few pictures of the part of the trip from Almaty to Bishkek.

Saturday, May 9, 2015
Sandra, Louis, and I drove a one-way rental car from Morgantown to Pittsburgh in the afternoon. We would be taking Delta/KLM as Jerry and I had done on our first trip. Our first flight to Atlanta didn't leave until 6:00 pm.

Sunday, May 10, 2015
We had a layover in Amsterdam at the Schipol airport where we met up with Todd, David, Chuck, and Susan.

Monday, May 11, 2015
Almaty, Kazakhstan
As usual we arrived in Almaty very early in the morning, around 2:00 am. After clearing customs we arranged for taxis outside of the airport. Todd's Russian was good enough that it wasn't necessary to have someone from CAREC meet us at the airport. There were enough of us that we needed two taxis, which were from the same taxi company. The trip to the hotel was quick since the streets were empty at this hour. Also, the taxi drivers were buddies and raced each other the whole way to the hotel. They were probably going about 85 to 90 mph most of the time but would occasionally slow down abruptly. The city had traffic cameras installed along the way at locations the drivers were well aware of. They slowed as they approached them and then immediately sped up again. We had arranged with CAREC to give us a travel-recovery day in Almaty. So, after checking in--again at the Hotel Kazzhol--we got some sleep and then agreed to meet later for lunch. Todd had been in Almaty numerous times and suggested that we wander around on the Zhibek Zholy, a pedestrian street that was not far from the hotel. We found a restaurant where we could eat outside and watch people going by. I ordered laghman, one of the most common dishes of Central Asia. I don't think I had had it on either of the previous two trips but must have ended up eating it at least five or six times on this trip.

Photo by Craig Mains

Above is a picture from the web of the Zhibek Zholy, which translates as Silk Road. The Zhibek Zholy is a long avenue but only several blocks of it are pedestrian only. I always appreciate vehicle-free zones but, at least when I was there, there never seemed to be all that many people out and about to make it feel very vibrant. It seemed like about half the people who were present were employees of nearby stores and restaurants, who were handing out coupons, sales flyers, or otherwise trying to drum up some commerce. There was a stretch, shown here, where local artists displayed and sold their paintings. It wasn't that busy when we were there.

Photo by Craig Mains

Also from the web, this picture shows what laghman looks like, although everybody makes it a little differently. The foundation of the dish are the hand-pulled noodles, which are thick and have a chewy texture. The stew-like sauce almost always had some combination of tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, peppers, onions, and some sort of meat--beef, lamb, goat, or chicken. Anything else handy, such as green beans, may be included. Sometimes the dish is served over the noodles on a plate, as in the photo, and sometimes it is served more like a stew in a bowl. The dish is believed to have originated with the Uighurs, but is common across Central Asia.

In the evening we met up with Chuck and Susan (who had been off on their own), Tais from CAREC, and our translator Sergei, and took taxis to a sheshlyk (kabobs) place that Tais said was mainly a neighborhood restaurant. It was almost completely outdoors. The huge, fiery grill where the sheshlyks were cooked was next to the dining tables, which were similar to long picnic tables with benches instead of chairs. Different dining parties shared the same tables. There was yelling back and forth between the waiters and the cooks and there were little kids running around and between the tables. It was a very loud, convivial, chaotic atmosphere. The sheshlyks were very tasty.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Almaty to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Today was a travel day. Although the CAREC people preferred to fly because of the hassle of the border crossing, they agreed to travel by land. Todd and I had both told Anna that we preferred to go by land so we could see more of the countryside. I think she may have agreed reluctantly, although with the number of people traveling I'm sure it was cheaper than all of us flying. Besides the seven people who came from the US, there were also Anna, Tais, and Katya from CAREC, Sergei, and three or four people from one of the universities in Almaty. Conspicuously absent was Sasha. Anna said he had the flu but I wondered if he might still be in the CAREC doghouse after the last trip. CAREC hired a private, mini-bus for the trip that accommodated everyone. Bishkek is west and a little south of Almaty. By road they are about 120 miles apart. The highway we took went roughly east/west staying just north of the mountains to the south. Anna said it had been a relatively wet spring. The steppes were still green and covered with wild red poppies. The other thing that stood out was that in some places the highway was lined for miles with shrubby trees that were full of rook nests. It was handy having Todd along to serve as a bird expert.

Photo by Craig Mains

The rook is distinguished from its close relative the crow by its light-colored beak, which appears to be much longer than that of the crow. Although its beak actually is longer than a crow's, some of what looks like the beak is just light-colored skin.

Rook: range map

Map: WikiPedia

The range of the rook from western Europe and the British isles to eastern Asia and Japan.

Photo: Internet

Source: Internet

Todd said what was unusual about the roadside rookeries was the density and placement of the nests. Rooks prefer to build their nests in the tops of trees but because the roadside trees were so small many of the nests were lower than what was typical. Some were low enough that a person could probably look down into them. The trees were so scrubby and there were so many large nests in each tree that it was surprising the trees were able to support them. The trees had yet to leaf out so the nests were all easily visible. The rookery went on for miles and miles.

Photo by Anna

Photo: Anna

Eventually we intersected the north-south highway to Bishkek. The highway went through a low part of the mountain range and was not as scenic as I had anticipated.

In the above photo we are preparing to cross into Kyrgyzstan at the Korday border crossing, which is the busiest border crossing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. As before, everyone had to take all of their luggage from the bus and carry it across. After dealing with the border guards on the Kazakh side, we walked across a bridge over the Chu River to the Kyrgyz side. Once through on the Kyrgyz side we had to wait for the mini-bus.

We would be staying at a different hotel in Bishkek this time called the Bishkek Boutique Hotel. It was nice enough although I thought the staff at the Asia Mountains 2 hotel, where we had stayed the first two times, was friendlier and more casual. Anna said she preferred it too but they didn't have enough available rooms.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Today was the first day of presentations. I had the first slot and presented an overview of water withdrawal laws in the US for both surface water and groundwater, how the laws sometimes (often, really) were a disincentive for conserving water, and how things were changing, albeit very slowly and unevenly. In the afternoon CAREC had arranged a taxi to take me to another hotel where they had another series of training sessions going on concurrently. They had to schedule it at another hotel because the Boutique only had one room that could be used for a meeting--and even it wasn't really a meeting room. They had rearranged the dining room.

The other session had a totally different audience. Instead of people from the basin councils, it was a slightly smaller group of people from different universities, mainly from Almaty and Bishkek. There were also a few high school teachers. When CAREC first told us they were inviting additional people they asked us if there were any topics we wanted to present on and I proposed a presentation on using aquatic benthic macro-invertebrates as indicators of water quality. Anna agreed to it. It was a presentation that I had given multiple times for Master Naturalist classes so it required very little modification on my part.

It was a much more receptive group than any of the basin councils, where it had sometimes seemed like maybe only a handful of people were genuinely interested and the rest were there because they were getting a stipend or because they were curious what the foreigners looked like. In this case, almost everyone seemed interested and they had good questions because the concept of this type of biomonitoring was not well known in Central Asia. The only person who reacted negatively to the presentation was Ekaterina (or Katya), Anna's and Tais's supervisor, who was visibly squirmy about looking at a series of slides that had mostly insects on them. She really did not like bugs.

Coincidentally, the translater at this site was also named Sergei. So afterwards, when I was back at the other hotel and some of the others asked about who had translated for me I told them Sergei did, which got everyone confused because they knew Sergei had been translating at the Boutique Hotel all day.

Because we brought expert reinforcements with us I only had two presentations to give and one required practically no work on by part. Compared to having to research and prepare three presentations from scratch for the previous trip, it seemed almost too easy. And, I was done by the end of the first day.

Photo by Craig Mains

Photo: unknown The hotel, partly to transform the dining room into a meeting room, had moved tables out to the veranda of the hotel where we had our lunches and dinners. From left to right: Todd, Chuck, Susan, Rauf, Elena (barely visible), Sergei, me, Sandra, Louis, and Tais. David, Anna, and Katya were also present and one of them, probably Anna, took the picture. The weather was pleasant the entire time we were in Bishkek so it was a treat to be able to eat outside.

Thursday, May 14, 2015
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
There was not much to do since I had no presentations to give. I noticed that there were very few people from the Small Basin Councils that I recognized. Rauf and his friend Elena, the environmental reporter for Taraz, were there. Ali Khan and Kalympyr were, not surprisingly, the only people present connected to the Ugam basin group. Aladdin was present from the Kyrgyz side of the Isfara Basin Council. Other than that I didn't see that many people that I recognized.

Unfortunately, I was only able to have a conversation with Rauf, who speaks some English. Sergei was being kept busy translating all of the presentations and wasn't always available to translate between presentations. When he wasn't busy, I felt like he deserved a break. Sometimes Tais and Anna were around to translate but I didn't get to talk with Ali Khan, Kalympyr, and Aladdin as much as I would have liked.

Friday, May 15, 2015
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
The last day of training. The USAID auditor [1] who is known for being rather soft-spoken in person and then submitting scathingly critical reports made an appearance. I appreciated how she always seemed to show up after I'd already done my presentations so that I knew I was never a target of her critiques. She came in during Chuck's presentation and sat in the back next to me. Of the four experts we brought with us, Chuck was the only one I didn't particularly care for. He was a bit too full of himself. Chuck's wife Susan happened to be sitting next to me on the other side.

During the question and answer session, someone asked Chuck how the US was able to negotiate how much Colorado River water would be allotted to Mexico. Chuck replied something along the lines that they just told Mexico how much water they could have and since the US was the upstream country and the more powerful nation, Mexico had no choice but to accept it. I heard the auditor gasp. I'm sure Chuck was being honest but it wasn't the message we were trying to convey to the Small Basin Councils. The auditor made a couple barely audible critical remarks about some of Chuck's other comments. She seemed to be talking to herself. Although I could barely hear her comments Susan must have heard enough that she felt compelled to come to Chuck's defense with the auditor. Momentarily I thought there was going to be an argument, with me in the middle, but the auditor decided to just ignore Susan.

Todd gave a presentation on his research on raptors in northern Kazakhstan. During the question and answer period after Todd's talk, a woman, who was from one of the universities, began talking about the her work trying to reintroduce what she referred to as the Pamir Tiger to a wildlife preserve in southern Tajikistan. She said the project was in need of international expert advice and invited Todd to join the project. To my surprise, she then turned to me and invited me as well. I recognized her as being in attendance during the talk I gave on biological stream monitoring but was puzzled how that even remotely qualified me to have anything to do with tiger reintroduction. I talked to her briefly later but ultimately passed up on my big opportunity to help reintroduce tigers to Tajikistan. [2]

After lunch I slipped off on my own. Everyone would be leaving tomorrow to return to Almaty. Chain and Corbin would be joining me in Bishkek tomorrow for our tour and we would be staying at a different hotel--Asia Mountains. I realized that Asia Mountains [3] was within walking distance of the Boutique Hotel so I decided to take a walk over just to get familiar with the location.

The city of Bishkek is cut pretty neatly in half by a rail line and there are only a few main streets where there are underpasses to get to the other part of the city. All of the smaller streets dead end at the rail line and Asia Mountains was at the end of one of the dead ends, but on the other side of the rail line from the Boutique. So, it turned out to be considerably further on foot then it looked on the map, but still walkable. The travel agency that I had arranged our tour through was located in the basement of Asia Mountains so while I was there I stopped in and introduced myself to Jane, who is the young woman who I had been communicating with online for some time to set up our tour.

I exchanged emails with Chain and Corbin, which was not easy since wifi was spotty at the Boutique. They had made it into Almaty OK, although Corbin was a little shaken up by the tough negotiating Chain did with the cab driver at the airport. (I had emailed Chain how much it cost us to take a taxi from the airport to the Kazzhol and she was determined not to spend a single tenge more than that.) I had made arrangements for them to stay one day in Almaty to recover from the plane trip and to have a day on their own to see some of Almaty. I had them stay at the Kazzhol since I had a business card she could show a cabdriver and there was a place to exchange money nearby. They will fly to Bishkek tomorrow and meet me at Asia Mountains.

Saturday, May 16, 2015
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
I met with the others for breakfast. The hotel had reassembled the dining room. Sergei, Tais, Katya, and some of the other looked a little ragged. I found out that Sergei and some of the CAREC people stayed up late drinking at the table out front. Remarkably, I didn't hear them at all even though the table was right below my window, which I had open. Was it possible that I had gotten a good night's sleep for once?

For some reason, late last night, Sergei decided to shave his head. He definitely looked better with hair. I can only imagine how relieved Sergei was that this project was over. While bringing in experts made my job easier, it made his job harder. He had to translate everyone's written slides and then everyone's spoken presentations for three days in a row. It was a lot of work without a break. I wondered if shaving his head was a form of marking the end of an ordeal. After breakfast I said my goodbyes and everyone--Sandra, Sergei, Anna, Tais, Katya, the professors from Almaty, and the US experts--got into the minibus and were off to Almaty and I was off on foot to Asia Mountains. It felt weird that the project I'd been working on for more than a year was abruptly finished. I didn't, however, quite feel tempted to shave my head. It also felt odd being on my own in Central Asia. I had had very few waking moments on the previous trips where either someone from CAREC or Sergei was not present. As I walked I pondered whether any of the work I had done over the past year or so had made any difference. I doubted it.

On the way from the Boutique to Asia Mountains I tried to take a short cut and stumbled into an encampment of homeless alcoholics. Only two guys were there and they were both passed out. There was trash everywhere, mostly empties and discarded clothes and shoes, pieces of cardboard and plastic. I'd been around many homeless alcoholics when I was younger, hitchhiking around but I was unprepared for the stench I was met with at this place. It was a mixture of stale alky sweat, shit, piss, puke, and other unidentified putrefying organic matter. Some of the odor seemed to be emanating in waves from the two guys passed out on the ground although I could see they were still breathing. I decided to back track and take the long way around rather than step around them.

Chain and Corbin arrived in the late afternoon. We had talked about them taking a bus or hiring a driver to get from Almaty to Bishkek but in the end I felt it was safer having them fly so they wouldn't have to deal with the border crossing. I had Jane arrange to have a cab meet them at the airport in Bishkek. I had prepaid for it so there was no need for Chain to haggle with a driver. She was disappointed since she grew up haggling with cabbies and merchants in Taiwan and misses that in the US.

Photo by Craig Mains

Asia Mountains has a restaurant but there is no menu. There is a breakfast buffet and for lunch and dinner there is a limited choice of food--one main dish and a salad, take it or leave it. The main dinner dish today was manti, which is one of the other common dishes of Central Asia. They are somewhat similar to Chinese dumplings, only they are larger, are folded differently, and never include pork. The filling is usually some type of minced lamb, beef, or occasionally horse, with spices and sometimes chopped potatoes, pumpkin, or squash. Mantis may be steamed, boiled, or fried and topped with sour cream, butter, garlic sauce, fried onions, tomato source, or hot peppers. In various forms they are eaten from Turkey to China. No one knows for sure where they originated but some believe that they started with nomads in Central Asia and spread both east and west along the Silk Road. We each got about 10 mantis on our plates, not as big as those in the photo, but it was, along with the salad, a filling meal.



[1] I don't recall ever being properly introduced to the auditor and don't recall ever learning her name.

[2] What the woman referred to as the Pamir tiger was probably what was more commonly called the Caspian tiger. The Caspian tiger once ranged from eastern Turkey to western China, including areas of Central Asia. Its presence was documented as late as the 1970s in isolated areas but it was declared extinct in 2003. For decades it had been considered a separate subspecies of tiger but genetic testing on preserved samples indicated that it was not sufficiently different from the Siberian tiger to be considered a distinct subspecies. It was very likely that the tiger they hoped to reintroduce to Tajikistan was the Siberian tiger.

[3] Asia Mountains is a separate hotel from Asia Mountains 2 where Jerry and I stayed on the first trip and Sandra and I stayed on the second trip, although they are both under the same ownership. Asia Mountains was built in 2001 and Asia Mountains 2 was built in 2009. They both have about 20 guest rooms.

Note: Bishkek to Tokmok


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