Poking Around in Central Asia: May 2015

Trip 3 - Part 5

Tamga to Bishkek to Almaty to Morgantown

by Craig Mains

Poking Around in Central Asia: May 2015
Trip 3 - Part 5
Tamga to Bishkek to Almaty to Morgantown

by Craig Mains


Photo by Craig Mains

Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Tamga to Bishkek
We were heading back to Bishkek today. However, since it wasn't that long of a drive back, Ramil had one more hike planned for us first.

This was the view from the veranda on top of the guesthouse's dining hall. It looked like a place where people would hang out and socialize when it was busier. At the moment though, it was mainly serving as a place to air-dry laundry. The owner suggested that there was a good view of the mountains from there so I went up and looked around.


Photo by Craig Mains

Another view from the veranda, showing part of the backyard garden and orchard.


Photo by Craig Mains

Ramil was taking us to a place called Tamga Tash, which is a large rock inscribed with Tibetan lettering. The rock is sacred to some Buddhists who have been making pilgrimages to the rock for centuries.

One of the things I liked about the hike was that we didn't have to drive to a trailhead. We just grabbed some water bottles and snacks and walked out the door. This is Ozyornaya Street, which is the street our guesthouse was on.


Photo by Craig Mains

Another street in the town of Tamga. According to Ramil, the town gets its name from the rock. Tamga translates as a "seal" or a "symbol." It's almost like a logo for a clan or tribe. Many of the nomadic tribes in the areas used to create stone tamgas that were sort of territorial markers. The might use the same mark to brand livestock. Tash translates as "rock." So, Tamga Tash would translate to something like "clan marker rock."

However, because the rock is more of a religious artifact than a clan marker it is not a true tamga. The local people may have mistakenly misinterpreted it as a tamga, probably many years after all the Buddhists had been run out of the region. The name stuck however.


Photo by Craig Mains

Tamga is the site of another Soviet-era sanatarium or spa, which is just beyond the blue gates at the end of the street. This particular spa is well known as the place where cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went in 1961 to relax and recover after becoming the first man in outer space and the first man to orbit the earth.

This spa was also well known for ooze-therapy. There is an area nearby that has excellent mud for mud baths according to Ramil, referred to as the ooze-field. Like many of the former state-run sanitaria, this one seems under-utilized, although maybe it was just too early in the season.

Notice the concrete fence to the left.


Photo by Craig Mains

Someone had gone to great effort to paint cartoon characters, now somewhat faded, on every panel of every piece of the fence.


Photo by Craig Mains

I don't know if these were Russian or Kyrgyz cartoon characters or just the creation of the painter. Every now and then I saw a character I recognized, but most I did not. There were probably close to a hundred of these.


Photo by Craig Mains

A view of the mountains above the cartoon fence. Precast concrete fences are everywhere in Central Asia (and presumably the rest of the former Soviet Union). One of the CAREC people told me once that there are about a dozen different types or patterns of mass-produced fences.


Photo by Craig Mains

This may have been the biggest tree I saw in Central Asia--at least in terms of circumference. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of a road with one lane on each side. You could see some scarring where a tall truck had probably hit it. A stream ran alongside the road on the left side so the tree likely had a reliable source of subsurface water.


Photo by Craig Mains

Many of the villages had public wells with hand pumps. This one, not far from the big tree in the previous photo, is broken but we would occasionally see people in villages filling containers from similar pumps that looked to be of the same vintage.


Photo by Craig Mains

Further down the road towards Tamga Tash. It looked like a grandmother with her granddaughter.


Photo by Craig Mains

This is right on the edge of the town of Tamga before we got into the more rural area. There had been a flood at some point that had caused a lot of erosion in this area.


Photo by Craig Mains

A zoom-in view of some of the bigger peaks.


Photo by Craig Mains

I noticed that farmers often weave tree branches into their wire fences to discourage their animals from squeezing between the strands.


Photo by Craig Mains

We took our socks and shoes off to wade this stream. It didn't look too cold since it was shallow and unshaded. It was, however, very cold. It was no doubt being fed from snow melt upstream somewhere.


Photo by Craig Mains

This is the rock. The carved letters are dated to somewhere between the 15th and 17th centuries. They are the Tibetan words, "Om Mani Padme Hum." They are said to translate as "the jewel in the lotus." More importantly though, the phrase is used as a mantra to help the person who chants it to dispel pride, jealousy, attachment, ignorance, greed, and anger.

Ramil said many Buddhists from Nepal and elsewhere journey to visit this site. They attach prayer cloths to the bushes near the rock. Usually when he has brought people to the rock there have been some monks present--but not this time.


Photo by Craig Mains

A closer view of the rock. Besides the lettering there is also a carving of a lotus on the upper left of the stone. It is in the shade and not very distinct.


Photo by Craig Mains

A side view of the rock, which is very cleanly split in two. The local people say that it was cleaved by national super-hero Manas.


Photo by Craig Mains

Corbin and me at Tamga Tash. I estimate it was about a three-and-one-half to four-mile walk from the guesthouse to the rock. There are actually two more rocks with Buddhist carvings further up the valley, one of which dates from the 9th century. Monks who make the pilgrimage are expected to visit all three and to maintain a conscious attitude throughout.


Photo by Craig Mains

Ramil and Chain consulting Ramil's wildflower guide before heading back down the valley.


Photo by Craig Mains

A view down the valley on our way back to Tamga.


Photo by Craig Mains

There were scattered small farms throughout the valley. I didn't see any planted crops other than some fruit trees. It looked like people mainly grazed sheep and goats. In some places it looked overgrazed and the fruit trees had no branches that were lower than a standing goat could reach.


Photo by Craig Mains

Another view of the stream that ran down the valley. On the way back we found a way to get across without needing to wade.


Photo by Craig Mains

Closer to Tamga with Issyk Kul in the background. A bit of the village is visible.


Photo by Craig Mains

Ramil and Corbin seemed to get along well. I was poking around taking pictures but Corbin kept pace with Ramil. They would occasionally stop to let Chain and me catch up.


Photo by Craig Mains

More scenery in the lower valley as we approached the village.


Photo by Craig Mains

I liked how some of the farmers used whatever material was handy to make their fences and gates.


Photo by Craig Mains

Almost back to Tamga.


Photo by Craig Mains

While we were walking by this place a farmer came out and called for his animals--at least I assume that is what he was doing. It was incredibly loud--it probably carried clear to the village. Ramil said that only a Kyrgyz can yell that loud. Chain asked Ramil if he could yell like that and he said no, he could only yell about 25 percent of that volume because he was only one-quarter Kyrgyz.

We were almost back to the edge of Tamga at this point. You can see a small peninsula called Tosor that juts out into the lake, which is considered one of the best beaches along this stretch of the lakeshore.

We returned to the guesthouse for lunch and then to pack up and head back to Bishkek.


Photo by Craig Mains

Some roadside scenery on the way back to Bishkek. I noticed these 10 to 12-foot-high eroded cliffs in many places along the lake. I had read that geologists had determined that Issyk Kul was once larger and I wondered if these were remnants of an ancient shoreline.


Photo by Craig Mains

The other BP. We saw lots of "BP" stations in Kyrgyzstan. Most were even more obviously copying British Petroleum stations in that the overall color scheme was entirely green and yellow. British Petroleum owns other companies but I doubt that Bishkek Petroleum is one of them.


Photo by Craig Mains

I'm not sure what village this was. We were still along the south shore of Issyk Kul. There were about as many horse-drawn vehicles in this stretch as there were cars.


Photo by Craig Mains

Scenery in the Chu River canyon area. Barely visible is a person on the right holding his arm out horizontally. The canyon is known for a certain type of leafy green that grows wild at this time of year. Local people would gather it and then stand at the side of the road holding out a handful to show they were selling. There was not much of shoulder in most places through the canyon and sometimes people would be standing in remote spots where there was no real place to pull completely off the highway.


Photo by Craig Mains

I had noticed this place on the way to Issyk Kul and asked Ramil about it. Someone had cut up dozens of steel shipping containers and then welded the side pieces into a long fence. It wasn't clear what the purpose was. I though t it might be intended as a visual barrier to hide a junkyard or a landfill, etc. But, when we got further down the road we could see that there was really nothing behind it--just a few parked cars. Marat said it was typical of something a Kyrgyz person might do--go to a great effort to do something that in the end served no real useful purpose. They used only the sides so I was wondering what they did with all the tops, bottoms, and ends.

Marat and Ramil dropped us off in Bishkek back at Asia Mountains. I gave them both what I thought was a generous tip and we said our goodbyes. After riding around with them for four days if felt strange that it was abruptly over.


Photo by Craig Mains

Thursday, May 21, 2015
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Almaty, Kazakhstan
Today we were heading back to Almaty. I was up early to try to arrange a ride back.

The hotel had what appeared to be an authentic balbal at the front entrance. This was probably why balbals were disappearing--people were removing them to use for landscaping decorations.


Photo by Craig Mains

I made arrangement with Jane (I'm pretty sure that wasn't her real name), our travel consultant whose office was in the basement of the hotel, for a ride back to Almaty. By plane it would be about $80 each and by car it would be about $30 for all of us. We would have to go through the border crossing and it would take a little longer but we decided to go by car. I had to go exchange some dollars for some Kyrgyz som to pay our driver so I went out for a walk. Chain and Corbin stayed behind to pack up.

This is a street scene along Gogol Street near the hotel. One of my travel companions, either Jerry or Todd, had previously described Central Asian cities as "scruffy," and that seemed to generally be true. There wasn't much evidence that anyone saw the need to trim vegetation. One of the CAREC people told me that in the Kazakh and Kyrgyz languages there is no concept of the word "weed." It gave the cities a sort of wild, untended feeling that was different from US cities.


Photo by Craig Mains

One of the apartment buildings along Gogol Street.


Photo by Craig Mains

This guy and his wife (I assume) were out scavenging for aluminum cans. His wife did the rooting around in dumpsters and garbage cans and he lugged whatever she found. They were bickering the entire time I was within earshot.


Photo by Craig Mains

These are some type of utility pipes that parallel the railroad tracks just to the left. Asia Mountains hotel would be just to the right of this picture. I don't know what the pipes convey--some of them look like they might be steam lines. They seemed typical of many things in Central Asia that didn't seemed to have gotten much maintenance since the Soviet Union dissolved.

The ride Jane had arranged for us was with a cab driver of Korean descent. She told us he had agreed to take us the entire way to Almaty, which was good because most drivers don't want to have to cross the border because of the hassle and the long time it takes to clear customs.


Photo by Craig Mains

The closer we got to the Kazakhstan border, which is not far from Bishkek, the more congested it got. A lot of people take the mini-buses, like the blue one, between cities. They are called marshrutkas, which means "fixed route." My CAREC friends discouraged me from traveling between Bishkek and Almaty by marshrutka because they said many drivers won't leave until the bus is unbearably crammed with people, including some people standing. Also, because foreigners often take longer to clear border control, the drivers sometimes get tired of waiting and leave them behind at the border. I have no idea why these women seemed to be wandering around in the middle of the highway.


Photo by Craig Mains

So, even though our driver had assured Jane that he would take us straight through to Almaty, when we got to the border he told us that he could not. He didn't speak any English so I learned this when he handed me his phone to talk to someone in his central office, whose English was not that good either. She told me that he could not take us to Almaty but that he would negotiate a ride the rest of the way for us.

To his credit, he did arrange a ride for us and surprisingly, he didn't try to get us to pay any extra--he split the som we had paid him with a Kazakh driver he recruited somewhere. He insisted on taking a family picture of us in this parking lot on the Kyrgyz side of the border--that's his cab on the right. Just out of the picture there was a bonfire fed by a huge heap of plastic bottles and other trash. Fortunately, the wind was blowing the other way but it still smelled bad. I can't look at this picture without recalling it.


Photo by Craig Mains

A shot of the Korday border crossing, which is the same place I crossed with the CAREC group earlier in the trip that now somehow seemed like the remote past. There was a lot more pushing and people trying to squeeze in front here than the last time. A woman in line behind me had a big roll of some kind of plastic tubing that she kept sliding in front of me. I had positioned myself so she couldn't squeeze by me but I think she thought if she could get her tubing by me then I would have to let her by. I kept rolling her tubing back and she finally gave up after about three tries.


Photo by Craig Mains

The highway through the mountains in Kazakhstan. This was a low point in the range so they were not big mountains.


Photo by Craig Mains

This was typical of the scenery until we got to the other side. It was usually two lanes upill and one lane down hill. The orange disc on the dash is a deodorizer, which was no longer working.

Not far into Kazakhstan we got pulled over by some sort of state or federal police for a random check. They were very curious about Americans traveling around on their own in Kazakhstan and wanted to know why we were there. One of them spoke some English. When I told him we were tourists he told the others. They didn't seem to believe me. They were also convinced that Chain was a Kazakh even though she had an American passport. We finally persuaded them otherwise. In the end they sent us on our way and wished us good luck.

I was planning to show Chain and Corbin the big rookery we passed on the way to Bishkek with CAREC. Somehow I missed it though. It had seemed to go on unbroken for tens of miles on the way to Bishkek from Almaty but now all I noticed were a few isolated trees with nests. It was almost as if I had imagined the whole thing.

We had booked a room online in Almaty at a place called the Hotel Tahar. However, there is also a hotel on the outskirts of Almaty called the Hotel Bahar and our first driver, the Korean guy, thought that's where we were going and told the second driver to take us there. We figured out that there was a misunderstanding when we pulled into the Hotel Bahar parking lot. I was able to straighten him out with the little Russian I knew. The Bahar was much more luxurious looking than the Tahar, which our driver had a hard time finding because it was on an obscure side street.


Photo by Craig Mains

This is, as Corbin called it, "the inviting grand entrance" to the Hotel Tahar. You do have to wonder a little about any hotel where you have to buzz the staff to unlock the entrance for you. We had booked it through booking.com.


Photo by Craig Mains

It turned out to be fine though. The one sign says it is an economy hotel--in case there was any doubt about that. The other sign over the door says it is a "konak" hotel. I have no idea what that means unless Konak is a chain of hotels.

The desk clerk did not have a reservation for us. She asked us if we had booked through booking.com and when we said yes, she nodded as if that explained the problem. Apparently it never works right for them. Fortunately, they did have some vacancies.


Photo by Craig Mains

Aside from the turquoise and lavender color scheme I had no problem with our suite, for which we paid the equivalent of about $39. We had this room with a double bed, TV, and refrigerator, and our own bathroom. They also had some rooms without bathrooms, If you had one of those you had to use shared facilities off the hallway. We had splurged for the full-blown luxury accomodations.


Photo by Craig Mains

We also had this room with two single beds as part of our suite. It was very simple but clean. It kind of reminded me of some YMCAs that I had stayed in many years ago.

There was no air conditioning but it wasn't an issue since it wasn't hot. We had the windows open a crack to control the temperature.


Photo by Craig Mains

A view from the window of our suite. The surrounding apartments looked like they had been built about the same time as the hotel. We got some rain.


Photo by Craig Mains

The otherwise plain concrete stairs had pieces of colored glass embedded in the treads--the closest thing to a touch of elegance. Even though it was a plain building, it was actually very conveniently located. It was very close to the central city and we had a day to walk around and see more of Almaty tomorrow. Chain and I left Corbin in the room blissfully watching Kazakh TV and went out and found a take-out place where we got some food to bring back to the room for dinner.


Photo by Craig Mains

The front desk of the Tahar. The desk clerks were very nice. The day clerk spoke some English but the night clerk did not.

We were told when we checked in that if we wanted to use the Wifi we needed to come to the lobby. This was confusing to us because we were able to get a Wifi connection in our rooms. I convinced Corbin to come to the tiny lobby with me, which was right across from the front desk so he could use his ipad. I really was just curious to see what types of people stayed in the Tahar. From the time we spent in the lobby it looked like a mixture of college students and long-term residents. I don't think they had many, if any, transient guests and, almost certainly, no other American tourists. When people came in they all seemed to stop and chat with the desk clerk. She offered to unlock a study room for us where we could also use the Wifi. I told her it wasn't necessary. I have no reason why we weren't supposed to use the Wifi in our room.


Photo by Craig Mains

A view of the hallway outside our room. I rather liked the Tahar. Although it was plain, it was clean and the staff was friendly.


Photo by Craig Mains

Friday, May 22, 2015
Almaty, Kazakhstan
Our flights back to the US left very early Saturday morning so we wouldn't have another night in Central Asia but we did have the whole day to wander around the city. We decided to walk to Panfilov Park by way of the Jibek Joly (or Zhibek Zholi), shown above.


Photo by Craig Mains

Panfilov Park is the biggest city park in Almaty. Within the park is the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension, built in 1907. It is more commonly referred to as Zenkov Cathedral after the designer. Because of Almaty's history of earthquakes, the entire building is made of wood, including the nails. It is one of the few remaining buildings in Almaty from the Tsarist era.


Photo by Craig Mains

A side view of the cathedral. I'm sure it would have looked even more colorful on a sunnier day.

During the Soviet era when religion was suppressed it was used as a museum and a theater. In 1995 it was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and was refilled with icons and other religious artifacts. We were able to go in but I did not take any pictures. There were quite a few people praying but they were all elderly, mostly ethnic Russian-looking women. I wondered if it could continue to function as a church once that generation died.


Photo by Craig Mains

Next to the cathedral there was an open area where people fed pigeons. Chain struck up a conversation with this woman who came regularly. She said her father had brought her here often when she was a little girl to feed the pigeons. He had recently died so she came to feed the birds and think of her father.


Photo by Craig Mains

She shared some of her millet seed with Chain and Corbin. I am not that big of a fan of pigeons myself.


Photo by Craig Mains

The park also contains a number of military monuments. This one is a monument to Panfilov's 28 guardsmen, for which the park is named. The official story is that the guardsmen, who were recruits from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, heroically served in the defense of Moscow during World War II. All 28 were killed in action but not until they destroyed 18 German tanks and killed 70 German troops during a battle on November 16, 1941. They were collectively honored with the title, "Heroes of the Soviet Union."

In the 1960s, as records became declassified, it became clear that the feats were a mixture of exaggerations and fabrications. Six of the 28 guardsmen actually survived the war. At least two were said to have deserted and later served on the German side. Some of those who were killed in action were killed in battles prior to November 16th. One of the survivors later stated that he never killed or wounded a single German the entire time he served in the military. There are, however, still parks and streets named for Panfilov (the unit commander) all over the former Soviet Union. The outline of the statue is supposed to represent a map of the Soviet Union, to show that volunteers came from all of the republics.


Photo by Craig Mains

A World War I memorial.


Photo by Craig Mains

The matching World War II memorial. Russians call it the Great Patriotic War rather than World War II. As a young child growing up during the Cold War, I was only vaguely aware that the Soviet Union was an ally of the US during WWII. However, the politics of the time made it nearly impossible to acknowledge the sacrifice that the Soviet Union made during the war. Everything I learned about WWII in school and on TV focused mostly on the US role in the Pacific and western Europe. It wasn't until I was older that I learned about the extent of human suffering and death in Russia during the war.

The total number of American WWII deaths is estimated at 418,500 including about 1,700 civilian deaths. The official government record of war deaths in the former Soviet Union is listed as 26.6 million people, including about 8.7 million military deaths. However, many critics feel this estimate is intentionally low to cover up the disregard for human life that the government had for military personnel. They believe the total number is closer to 44 milllion, with as many as 26 million military deaths. Few Russian familes went through the war without losing some family members.


Photo by Craig Mains

A closer view of the WWII memorial.

Kazakhstan alone lost more people during WWII than the US did--about 660,000 Kazakhs, including 350,000 civilian deaths. How they lost that many civilians in an area that was not a battle zone is a mystery. A complicating factor for estimating war deaths in the Soviet Union is that many civilian deaths from 1941 to 1945 were due to Stalinist repression, not German aggression.


Photo by Craig Mains

We were the sole pedestrians on this huge plaza. The imposing building is called the Palace of the Generals. There is a museum of military history upstairs. Rather than dwell on the carnage of war though we chose to visit the building on the left, which is a museum of folk instruments.


Photo by Craig Mains

A closer view of the museum. It is a Russian style wooden building, completed in 1908, but recently renovated. It is a small museum but very well organized. The admission was the equivalent of a couple dollars although you had to pay extra if you wanted to take pictures.

The displays fortunately included an English translation. Not only did they include information on the age of the instruments, many of which were more than 300 years old, but often, where they were made and by whom, for whom.

There were also recordings of musicians playing the instruments, some of which were more like the sounds of nature than conventional music--i.e. the sound of wind, a running stream, or howling wolves.


Photo by Craig Mains

After the folk instrument museum we had lunch at a noisy cafeteria where it seemed like everyone assumed that Chain could speak Kazakh. Afterwards, we explored the huge Green Market or Zelyoni Bazaar. The lower level is all food. We didn't spend much time there because Chain and Corbin had visited the lower level at the beginning of their trip.


Photo by Craig Mains

Chain wanted to bring some gifts back including some scarves so we wandered around on the labyrinthine upper level. It's almost like a flea market, except everything is new. There are no big stores though, just small booths that are run by one or two people. Stores of similar types are located together so there may be one alley that is hardware vendors, and other alleys for clothes, electronics, toys, etc. It wasn't long before both Corbin and I had seen enough.


Photo by Craig Mains

By mid-afternoon we started leisurely walking back to the hotel. We hung out on the pedestrian mall for a while, had ice cream cones, and watched people. The guy on the left and some of his buddies were trying to raise some money by break dancing and doing some street gymnastics. Unfortunately, none of them were very good so very few people stopped to watch, let alone donate. I felt sorry for them and gave them 500 tenges.


Photo by Craig Mains

Russian-style wooden building ornamentation.


Photo by Craig Mains

An Almaty street scene. A woman waits while her husband buys a lottery ticket.

We found a gyro place for dinner where the entire staff of three seemed delighted to have some foreign visitors. We then returned to the hotel to relax and pack up. Our planes were scheduled to leave around 4:00 a.m.


Saturday, May 23, 2015
Almaty back to Morgantown
I went down to the front desk shortly after midnight to arrange a taxi ride to the airport. The night shift person was a very pretty, dark-haired Russian girl. She didn't speak any English but fortunately the Russian spoken words for 'taxi' and 'airport' are the same in both languages and I still remembered how to say the time in Russian so she clearly go the idea that we wanted a taxi to the airport around 1:30 a.m.

We came down with our bags shortly before 1:30 and went outside to wait. The night clerk opened a window on the entrance side of the building and stuck her head out to keep an eye on us. I wasn't sure whether she was just verifying that the taxi showed up or was making sure we were safe. Either way it seemed very nice of her. I had gotten the impression that the area around the hotel was safe during the day but maybe not so much at night.

While we were waiting a young woman came out of the Tahar. Chain and I both thought that she was probably a sex worker. We conjectured whether she had been visiting a client in the Tahar or whether the Tahar was her base of operations. I wanted to ask the night clerk but I'm not sure how I would have asked that and my Russian wasn't adequate anyway. It made me wonder if there was more going on in the Tahar than what it at first appeared.

The taxi came right on time. The driver was sullen and seemed to be in a bad mood. We were at the airport with more than enough time to get through border control. My flight arrangements had been made through work and I had flown Delta/KLM. Chain had found cheaper tickers for her and Corbin's trip through United/Lufthansa. As a result we were taking separate flights back. Conveniently though, the departures were only 15 minutes apart, their's at 3:55 a.m. and mine at 4:10. Amazingly, for a rather busy airport (almost 5 million passengers in 2015), Almaty has only two departure gates so we could wait together. Before long, we were in the air in our separate planes. Their flight took them through Frankfort and Washington, DC and mine took me through Paris and Pittsburgh, so we weren't back together until we were all back in Morgantown.

November 2017


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July 2014: Trip 1 Part 1

 

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