Poking Around in Central Asia: October 2014

Trip 2 - Part 1

Morgantown to Almaty to Isfara

by Craig Mains

Poking Around in Central Asia: October 2014
Trip 2 - Part 1
Morgantown to Almaty to Isfara

by Craig Mains

The trip to Central Asia in October 2014 involved more work than the earlier trip in July, which was mainly an information-gathering trip. The roughly three months in between involved a lot of research on my part to get up to speed on some topics with which I wasn't at all familiar--specifically irrigation related topics.

I felt like I had a pretty good background in several water-related areas--stream ecology, drinking water and wastewater treatment, public health aspects of microbial pollution, and groundwater hydrology, among others. Out of all the different water-related subject areas, the one I knew the least about (irrigation) was the one CAREC wanted us to develop presentations on--although they weren't specific about which irrigation topics. I spent a lot of the three months between the first and second trips doing research on irrigation. The more I read about irrigation the more I realized how little I knew. I felt like I was treading a thin line between taking the opportunity to expand my knowledge of water into a new area and being a complete impostor. [1]

Our director, Jerry, who accompanied me on the first trip, was not going on this trip. I would be traveling with one of my co-workers, Sandra. She would be presenting on water and wastewater topics. Logically, since she was presenting, she should have been along on the first trip. I don't know why she was not included.

It was occasionally frustrating working with our Central Asia partners, CAREC, because we never felt fully clued in to everything that was going on. They frequently failed to respond to emails and requests to set up Skype calls. They also set deadlines for us that seemed to mean nothing to them. For example, they gave us a deadline to get our presentations to them so that they could review them and then turn them over to Sergei so he could translate the presentations into Russian--a reasonable request. I met the deadline for all three of my presentations but, I realized later that weeks had gone by before CAREC relayed them to Sergei. (I later learned he thought I had waited until the last minute.) As a result, Sergei was still translating my material the day before the first presentation. I'm sure CAREC probably got frustrated with us at times as well.

Our project was only a small part of a larger grant CAREC had gotten from USAID, which required them to spend a set percentage of the grant in conjunction with a US partner. In some ways, I think our project was an annoying hurdle for them to overcome in order to fulfill the grant requirements so they could access the bigger sum of money. We never had a clear idea of how we fit into their larger project and what other things had already been done. Eventually, I just decided to make the most of it and not worry too much about any of it.

Saturday, October 18 and Sunday, October 19, 2014
Morgantown to Almaty, Kazakhstan
Sandra and I flew out of Morgantown on a Saturday. We had slightly different concepts of what traveling light meant as she came prepared for multiple worst-case scenarios, including a backup LCD projector (just in case). Her luggage felt like it weighed at least 80 pounds. However, she brought a much nicer camera than the small shirt-pocket camera I brought, and with which I had some battery problems. She took a lot of photos and I've borrowed many.

Our flight was from Morgantown to Dulles in DC; from Dulles to Frankfort, Germany; and from Frankfort to Almaty. It was uneventful but, for me, draining. We had a layover of a few hours in Frankfort. It seemed like we must have arrived at the gate that was the most geographically remote from the gate that our next flight departed from. It felt like we walked at least two miles to get to the tramline that was to take us to another concourse. The tram seemed like it only took us 100 yards or so and then we had another long walk. After sitting for so long on the trans-Atlantic flight, the walk felt good for a short while until I realized how tired I was. We finally made it to our gate with time to take a nap, but, as usual, I had a hard time getting some sleep despite my exhaustion.

We arrived in Almaty around midnight, where we were met by Tais and got a taxi to our hotel. Tomorrow we would be heading for Tajikistan but our flight was not until late afternoon so we would have some time to relax and also to walk around Almaty a bit.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Monday, October 20, 2014
Almaty, Kazakhstan to Isfara, Tajikistan
Shown above is the entrance to the Kazzhol Hotel on Maylenova St. in Almaty. The Kazzhol was a decidedly more upscale hotel than the Favorite Hotel that Jerry and I stayed in on the first trip. They had bellhops in beautiful royal blue uniforms, a continuously staffed reception desk, and an elaborate breakfast buffet. (I still liked the funky aura of the Favorite Hotel, however.)

The street the Kazzhol was on was a narrow one-lane alley with some occasional wider spots. At first it seemed odd that a good-sized hotel would have its main entrance on a narrow alley but Almaty is full of narrow alleys that connect the larger thoroughfares and there are lots of businesses located on what would seem to be out-of-the-way locations.

One nice thing about the Kazzhol though was that, unlike the Favorite, it was in the city center. It was a short walk to some of the downtown parks and stores. The Favorite didn't seem to be close to anything except the airport.


Photo by Craig Mains

The view from my room at the Kazzhol, which was on the third floor. We had pleasant autumn weather when we arrived. I liked that I was getting to see Central Asia in different seasons.

The three to five-story apartment buildings, like the one shown above, are sometimes referred to as khrushchyovkas, after Nikita Khrushchev, who was premier of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most of these were built. Because of a post-war housing shortage, Soviet engineers came up with a design for apartment buildings that could be mass-produced. They incorporated prefabricated concrete panels and pre-built modular bathrooms that could be inserted whole during construction. Five was designated as the preferred number of stories so that elevators would be unnecessary, although some apartments were taller in big cities. Kitchens were tiny--about six by ten feet. Most khrushchyovkas were intended to be temporary housing and were designed for a lifespan of about 25 years. There are many thousands still in use in Russia and across the former Soviet republics.

Almaty is located in an active seismic zone. The khrushchyovkas in Almaty were reportedly designed to be earthquake resistant. However, since the last major earthquake was in 1911, they have never been truly tested. A major earthquake devastated Almaty (then called Verny) in 1887, after which the city was rebuilt with one-story buildings made of wood or mud bricks. It stayed that way for quite some time.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Sandra's room was on the seventh floor at the opposite end of the hotel. She had a much more expansive view than I did, which included the mountains, although they were mostly not visible.

You could see the deteriorated conditions of the roofs of the apartment buildings from higher up. It looked like patchwork repair rather than replacement was the usual approach.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Sandra and I met for breakfast and then went for a short walk in the area near the hotel. Almaty prides itself on being the most modern and cosmopolitan city in Central Asia. There did seem to be a wide variety of types of faces on the streets. Almaty has about 1.2 million people, of which (as of 2010) about half are ethnic Kazakhs and about one third are ethnic Russians. Of the remaining, about 6% are Uighurs, 2% are Tatars, 2% are Korean, 1% are Ukrainians, and about 5% are "other."

Almaty was previously called Verny during the czarist era and Alma-Ata during the Soviet era. The city was the capital of the Kazakh Autonomous Region and of the Kazakh Soviet Republic. When Kazakhstan became independent it was the capital of Kazkhstan from 1991 until 1997 when the capital was moved north to Astana. [2]

The name Almaty comes from the Kazakh word for "apple." For many years it was believed that the genetic source of the domestic apple originated from a species of wild apple, Malus sieversii, which grows in Central Asia, including the area around Almaty. DNA research in 2010 confirmed it. The fruit of Malus sieversii is the largest of any wild apple--about the size of typical commercial apples. There are still forests of wild apple trees in Kazakhstan but they are increasingly threatened.


Photo by Craig Mains

There are not any really old buildings in Almaty because of past earthquakes. However, there are some sections of the city with somewhat older buildings such as this one with European style architecture with more ornamentation than that on the more recent apartment buildings. These probably go back to the Stalin era.


Photo by Craig Mains

A view of some of the older style apartments.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

An Almaty street scene showing two characteristic features--the street-side channels called aryks that can be flooded to water the trees and to absorb stormwater, and the trees, whose trunks are usually painted white up to a height of four or five feet.


Photo by Craig Mains

I think the American image of Soviet-era government buildings is that they are all imposing gray structures. On the previous trip I noticed that a number of the government buildings I saw were painted in various pastel shades such as turquoise, teal, or salmon pink, such as this building. I'm not sure what this building housed but it was some sort of governmental office.


Photo by Craig Mains

A closer view of one of the bas-relief scuptures on the building.


Photo by Craig Mains

An Almaty street scene. For some reason I find deteriorating structures interesting. There were plenty of buildings in Almaty and Central Asia in general that were in a moderate to advanced state of decay.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Tais had instructed Sandra and me to be packed up and checked out of the Kazzhol by mid-afternoon, which we did. She was supposed to come by the hotel with a taxi to take us to the airport. We started to worry a little when she was a half hour late. We called her cell phone but she did not answer. Probably about 45 minutes late, Tais blew into the lobby of the hotel in a great state of agitation. "Go to the taxi, hurry, we will miss our plane." She instructed the taxi driver to hurry as much as possible. Almaty cab drivers didn't seem like they needed much encouragement.

At the airport, we met up with Anna, Sasha, and Sergei. We did make it through all the customs and security lines with scant time to spare--but just enough time for Anna and Sasha to get a smoke. Shown above is the smokers' chamber at the Almaty airport. That is Sasha, Sergei, and Anna on the right. Sergei announced that he had given up smoking so he was just keeping Anna and Sasha company while they smoked. I'm not sure how long he made it without smoking but within a day or two he had resumed. Neither Tais nor Sandra smoke so I would not be the only non-smoker this time around. I did bring some American cigarettes to give away as gifts, but I didn't offer any to Sergei.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

A view of the Almaty airport with the mountains in the background. The terminal is not large for a city of Almaty's size. There are no elevated walkways from the terminal to the planes. A bus shuttles passengers from the terminal to the plane. I grew to dread these shuttles. There were few places to sit so one often ended up standing, hanging on to a pole or a strap. Fellow passengers were not timid about pushing their way into a shuttle that appeared to be full, using their luggage to open up some room. It seemed like once the bus reached about 200% capacity, the doors would close and then the bus would sit there for 10 minutes without ventilation before heading to the plane.


Map source: University of Texas Libraries

Map source: University of Texas Libraries

We would be roughly following the same itinerary that Jerry and I did on our first trip--with some variations. As on the first trip, our travels would be roughly within a triangle defined by the cities of Almaty, Dushanbe, and Shymkent. For the day, we were flying from Almaty to Dushanbe in Tajikistan. From there we would take a short flight from Dushanbe to Khujand, and then travel by car from Khujand to Isfara, where the first meeting was to be held.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

I had a window seat on the plane but it was right over the wing so I really couldn't get a good angle to take pictures. This is a shot of some of the rugged mountains of the Tien Shan, probably over Kyrgyzstan at this point. The Tien Shan is a major system of mountain ranges running east-west for about 1700 miles from eastern Uzbekistan to western China. The highest peak is Jengish Chokusu with an elevation of 24,406 feet. There are numerous named mountain ranges that are part of the Tien Shan system.


Map: M.F. Maury, Physical Geology, University Publishing Co., 1885

Map: M.F. Maury, Physical Geology, University Publishing Co., 1885

This stylized map of the mountains of Asia shows the location of the Tien Shan Mountains relative to the other mountain systems of Asia. If I correctly understand the plate tectonics explanation for their origin, they are older than the Himalayan Mountains, which were formed and are still forming from the collision of the Indian sub-continuent with Asia. The Tien Shan were formed by the collision of another, presumably smaller, landmass prior to the Himalayan collision. However, the slow-motion collision of India and Asia has further deformed the Tien Shan Mountains, a sort of ripple effect.


Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

The highest peak in the Tien Shan is Jengish Chokusu (24,406 feet) but Khan Tengri, shown above, may be the most awe-inspiring. Jengish Chokusu is more of a huge, high-elevation block of rock with multiple connected peaks while Khan Tengri has a sharp peak that rises well above most of the surrounding mountains. It is located at a point where the borders of China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan come together.

Technically, Khan Tengri has a "geologic" elevation of 6995 meters (22,949 feet). However, it has an icecap on its summit that increases its elevation another 50 feet or so. From the perspective of serious mountain climbers that makes it a 7000+ meter peak (7010 meters), which is an important distinction since big-time climbers include 7000+ meter peaks in a special category. The area around Khan Tengri is also home to a number of alpine glaciers including the Inylchek (or Engilchek) glacier, which is about 60 kilometers long. Khan Tengri is the northernmost 7000-meter peak in the world . This makes it more challenging for climbers due to a shorter climbing season.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Approaching Dushanbe. The river that flows through the city is the Varzob. The landing at Dushanbe this time was smooth, unlike the first trip. The entire passenger cabin broke out in hearty applause, so perhaps the people here have come to expect rough landings. After deplaning we had to visit the cramped customs office to get visas, then go through border security, and claim our lugguge. We then left the airport, made our way through the crowd of cabbies and begging kids, and started walking. I asked Anna where we were going and she told me "to the other airport." We were going to take another plane from Dushanbe to Khujand. (There would be no car ride over the mountains this time and no Tunnel of Terror--it was too late in the season as there was already snow in the mountains.) There was, I learned, a separate airport for flights within Tajikistan next door to the larger international airport. It was probably only a half mile away but there was no walkway--we had to walk across a huge, empty field to get there. It was mostly rocks and sand, so not so easy for those in the party who were dragging their luggage on wheels.

Once in Khujand we had drivers to take us to Isfara. By this time it was night. Khujand was lit up, but most of the villages between Khujand and Isfara were completely dark. Anna told us that the electricity is turned off at night. That's because the electricity is hydro-generated and whatever water is released to generate electricity is then not available for irrigation. Sasha (half) joked that the lack of electricity at night was the main reason for the high birth rate in the area.

The original itinerary had all of us staying in a hotel in Isfara. However, our local host, Rustam, had made new arrangements for us to stay at a guesthouse near the Water Users Association office building where Jerry and I had lunch on the previous trip. We would be staying there for a few days, as there were three days of meetings scheduled in Isfara.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Isfara, Tajikistan
Today was the first of three days of meetings for the Isfara River Small Basin Council. Unlike during the previous trip, the Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations were actually holding a joint meeting. This was the first time that the two groups had ever met in one location and, because of the history of conflict and occasional violence in the area, it was a big deal and a major accomplishment for our CAREC friends.

Two drivers picked us up from the guesthouse, which was on the edge of the city, and drive us into Isfara where we had breakfast at a local restaurant. Then we went to the local government building, shown above, where the meeting was to be held. The Tajiks, who were hosting the meeting, must have also considered the meeting to be significant. I noticed that they had competely renovated the meeting room, which was the same room where Jerry and I had met with the Tajik group on the first trip.

The first day was solely a meeting of the two delegations so there was very little for Sandra and me to do besides listen. Sergei did not translate word for word for us but occasionally would summarize for us what they had discussed. One of the major things was that the group somehow did manage to get a backhoe to clean sediment from the irrigation ditches. The two groups were negotiating how they would share the backhoe so that it could be used on both sides of the border.

After the meetings, everyone was transported to back to the resturant where we had had breakfast.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

The gentleman on the left is the father of our local host, Rustam. He was also the director of the Isfara River Water Users Association before Rustam. On the right is Tais, one of the CAREC staff we worked with.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

One of the members of the Tajik delegation of the Small Basin Council. He was happy that Sandra admired his traditional clothing. He said people were abandoning traditional clothing and he thought that was a shame.


Photo by Tais

Photo: Tais

Sandra and me with some of the Kyrgyz delegation to the Isfara River Small Basin Council. The white hats are called kalpaks and are traditional headwear for Kyrgyz men. Sandra is in the middle.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

On the left is Abdul and in the center is Ali Akbar. Thse guys knew absolutely no English and I knew only a very tiny smidgen of Russian. Yet somehow Sandra and I were able to carry on a conversation with them. Ali Akbar writes medical textbooks. They asked if I was a father and I showed them a picture I had in my wallet of my son Corbin. They said he looked like a Tajik, which I thought was funny since when I showed the same picture to Aladdin in July he remarked that Corbin looked like a Kyrgyz. Ali Akbar asked if he could keep the picture and I let him have it.

The hats, called chustis, which are square and not perfectly flat on top, are the traditional hats of many Tajik, Uzbek, and some Uyghur men. Rustam gave me one before we left. [3]


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

The ornate interior of the restaurant where we had our breakfasts and lunches. Our translator Sergei is in the white shirt. Sasha has his back to the camera in the reddish jacket. The person on the right with glasses is a staff person with USAID who was observing the meetings. He was also staying with us at the guesthouse. I can't recall his name. He is a Kazakhstan citizen and spoke excellent English. We had a couple of conversations at the guesthouse that were very informative. This would be his last day with us though; he was not staying for the training.

On the left in the blue jean jacket is Makmoud. He works for the Water Users Association and I think that Rustam had assigned him to make sure everyone in our travel party was taken care of. He cooked dinners for us when we were back at the guesthouse and I think facilitated getting rides for us back and forth between the meeting place and the guesthouse. He and Sasha appeared to be established drinking buddies.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

These are the two waitresses who took care of everyone at the restaurant. Sandra was very good at getting people to agree to have their pictures taken.


Photo by Sergi

Photo: Sergei

A group photo of mostly everyone in attendance at the historic meeting. This was taken just after lunch in front of the restaurant. The man on the far right who is sort of half-kneeling with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him introduced himself to me as a professor who had been studying drip irrigation for 35 years and said he was looking forward to my presentations the following day. Splendid. I was already nervous about doing a presentation on a topic that I felt unqualified to talk about without an actual expert being present. And why, did CAREC ask me to talk about drip irrigation if there was an expert available?

The drip-irrigation expert was not present at the July meeting. I gradually realized that, with the exception of a few core people, most of the people at the meetings in October were not the same people Jerry and I talked with in July. I found this a little disconcerting. What good was it to meet with people to learn what training they needed and then find you were presenting to a group of mostly different people?


Photo by Craig Mains

Shown above is the side end of the guesthouse where we were staying and the dry hills on the other side of the Isfara River, which ran nearby. The area was on the southern edge of the city of Isfara in a semirural area.


Photo by Craig Mains

A closer view of the hills from the porch of the guesthouse. The hills from a distance looked to be some sort of sandstone that was riddled with cavities.


Photo by Craig Mains

In the early evening, before we ate, Sandra and I went for a short walk in the area near the guesthouse. On the left, barely visible, at the base of the second tree, is a young boy, probably about 10 or 12 years old. On the right, also rather hard to see, are some sheep under the trees. Sandra and I were discussing how young boys like him had probably been tending sheep in this area for many centuries. We then realized that the boy was either texting or playing a video game and probably not watching the sheep all that well.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Isfara, Tajikistan
Today was the day I was scheduled to give my presentations. In very loosely coordinated consultation with CAREC I had put together three presentations that were irrigation related. One was a discussion of how the US was addressing water scarcity and irrigation in the western states. I think I was pretty honest in telling them that the US was generally not a very good role model when it came to wise water management.

The second presentation was an overview of drip irrigation or micro-irrigation, which, I was told, they were very interested in. However, after cramming on micro-irrigation for three months I had major doubts about whether it would work in Central Asia. Micro-irrigation systems require a high level of regular maintenance and operator knowledge. I was pretty sure that if the Isfara people were having trouble keeping ditches maintained that adequate maintenance of a drip system would be challenging. Because Central Asia is so remote it would also be hard to obtain customer service from manufacturers. In the US, regular onsite technical assistance by manufacturers is common. There are manufacturers of drip irrigation systems in India and China but they didn't seem to have much of a presence in Central Asia. Rustam later quietly thanked me for emphasizing some of the difficulties of operating drip systems because he felt some of the farmers had unrealistic expectations of the technology.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Some of the Tajik attendees during my day of presentations. The third person from the right is Rustam, our local host.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Some of the other Tajik attendees. That's my friend Abdul in front.

The third presentation focused on soil moisture monitoring devices and how they could be used to determine when the soil was dry enough that irrigation was needed and when it was wet enough to stop. I was trying to make the point that even where the main type of irrigation was flooding the fields, which was common there, that the water could be used more effiiciently by monitoring the moisture level. Unfortunately, the farmers here don't always have full control over when they receive irrigation water so they can't always decide when to start and stop. Sometimes those decisions are made for them.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

The man standing is the person who introduced himself to me the previous day as the professor of drip irrigation. Despite all the cramming I had done I still felt totally unqualified to be giving a presentation on irrigation and nervous about having an actual expert present. At the beginning of the day though I acknowledged him and told the group they were fortunate to have access to an expert in their group because of the complexity of the systems. I could tell that he appreciated being acknowledged and I felt he was sort of maybe on my side afterwards.

The following day he brought in some examples of drip irrigation tubing and emitters. (I had tried to obtain some samples from US manufacturers but they were not cooperative.) He showed some tubing that was made in China and used it as an example of shoddy manufacturing. I had read that there was a trend in the industry to make disposable tubing that would be used for one growing season and then discarded. I wondered if his samples were disposable tubing. I didn't see any benefit in promoting the idea of disposable drip tubing in Central Asia--it would probably just end up being burned with all the other plastic stuff.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

We had an agenda for the day but with CAREC it seemed like things like agendas were subject to change at a moment's notice. In this case, the printed agenda had a morning session, a lunch break, and an afternoon session. At some point in the morning though, Tais (Anna had left on other CAREC business elsewhere) decided that she wanted me to go straight through with the presentations. Her concern was that if we broke for lunch that people would not come back.

So, I just kept going until we were done, which was sometime after two o'clock. I probably had slightly less than three hours of presentations but everything had to be translated and there were questions and comments, which also needed to be translated. I cut some material short where possible but I was probably up front for six hours.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't find it very encouraging if someone told me that if we broke for lunch people wouldn't come back for my afternoon presentation. However, I didn't get the feeling it was a reflection on the morning session. The attendees seemed to be attentive and asked good questions and added their own comments. I was satisfied with how it went.


Photo by Craig Mains

Aftewards, we were off to the same restaurant where we ate the day before. After lunch, there was more picture taking. These Kyrgyz women were the only female participants at the Isfara meetings. Without a translator we figured out somehow that the woman on the right with the purple hair and I were born on the same day and year.


Photo by Craig Mains

This was one of our drivers for the day. I had noticed him wiping dust off of his car a couple of times and commented that he liked to keep his car clean. I was told however that you could get in trouble with the local authorities if your car was not kept adequately tidy. Since it hadn't rained at all for about five months it didn't take long for a car to get dusty.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

Above is a street scene in Isfara taken by Sandra on the way to the local bazaar. Makmoud was going to make a local dish for us for dinner and needed some ingredients.

Isfara is an ancient city that has been mentioned in writings from the 10th century when it was known as Asbara. It served as an outpost on one of the branches of the Silk Road. In the early 1500s it was the site of a battle during which the city was under siege. The current population is about 40,000 people.


Photo by Craig Mains

The entrance to the bazaar where most of the people selling Tajik nan were located. Some of the vendors were under roof and some were not.


Photo: Parviz/Panoramio

Photo: Parviz/Panoramio

This is an older photo of the entrance to the Isfara Bazaar. It would not have been possible to get this photo on the day we were there because it was quite busy outside the market with many mini-buses picking up and dropping people off from the outlying villages. There was also a building under construction just to the left of the archway, which was unfortunate because the view of the entrance will now be permanently partially obscured.


Photo by Craig Mains

The inside part of the bazaar.


Photo by Craig Mains

A dried fruit and nut vendor. He is bagging sugar-coated almonds.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

In this section there were mostly food vendors but there were also a few vendors selling household goods. There may have been another section where there were more vendors of non-food items.


Photo by Craig Mains

Spice vendors.


Photo by Craig Mains

One of the qurt vendors at the market. The Tajiks have a dish made from qurt called qurutob. They add water to the qurt to make a sauce to which they add vegetables, meat, and small pieces of bread.


Photo by Craig Mains

This was the building that was going up just outside of the archway of the bazaar. This seemed to be a typical method of erecting multi-story buildings--constructing a framework of poured concrete reinforced with rebar. Brickwork was added to fill in the spaces between the concrete frames.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

This photo shows the front of the guesthouse where we stayed while we were in Isfara. It was within walking distance of the Isfara Water Users Association headquarters where we had our evening meals. The guesthouse had six or seven individual units, which all had their own kitchen, dining room, and bathroom downstairs and a bedroom and small sitting room upstairs. Sandra, Tais, and Anna shared one unit and Sergei, Sasha, the USAID person (whose name is lost to me), and I shared another. Anna and the USAID person were only there for the first night, after which they were off to somewhere else. None of the other units were occupied. We did have electricity, even at night.

For some reason neither Sandra nor I got a photo of the dinner Makmoud made for us on this evening and I can't remember the name of the dish. Makmoud cooked it over an open fire in what looked like an enormous wok. He layered a bunch of vegetables, meat, and a little rice and covered the top with layers of cabbage leaves. He started off cooking it over a low fire. The idea he explained was that the dish should not require any water to be added. As the vegetables and meat cook they give up some of their water and the top layer of cabbage leaves holds it all in, steaming the ingredients. He said in some circumstances it might be necessary to cheat a little by adding a small amount of water at the beginning, which he did almost apologetically. It was delicious.


Photo by Sandra

Photo: Sandra

At some point we became aware that the women's quarters were, um, slightly nicer than the men's quarters. This photo shows the women's upstairs sitting room.


Photo by Craig Mains

This photo shows the men's sitting room. Aside from the fact that one of us spilled a cup of tea that stained the tablecloth, our area was noticeably dingier. As Sasha put it, "The girls are staying in a palace and we are staying in a barn." The furniture, bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms were all noticeably different. I can only assume the the guesthouse was being remodelded unit by unit and they just hadn't gotten to our's yet.

It didn't bother me. The only problem I had, other than Sasha's world-class snoring, was that Sasha and Sergei both liked the bedroom very warm at night. It did get a little cool at night but they both plugged in two ancient radiant electric space heaters, one on each side of the room and kept them cranked up all night. I was sleeping in the middle and felt like a slice of bread in a toaster since there was an incandescent orange glow coming from both sides of the room.


Photo by Craig Mains

The guesthouse was close to the main flow diversion facility for the Water Users Association as well as the WUA office where we had some of our meals. This photo shows the gates that control some of the flow on the Tajik portion of the river. There is a similar set of gates upstream on the Kyrgyz side of the border that diverts water to the Tortgul reservoir that Jerry and I visited in July. There is another gate set perpendicular to these that allows them to divert water into a canal.


Photo by Craig Mains

This is the view looking upstream from the flow control gates. I also took a picture from this spot during the July trip at which time the water was noticeably higher. Because the river originates in Kyrgyzstan as meltwater from snow and glaciers, there is greater flow during the summer months. By October it was already getting cold enough in the mountains to reduce melting.


Photo by Craig Mains

A view of the Isfara River looking downstream from the flow control gates. The canal through which some of the water is diverted would be to the right of this picture.


Photo by Craig Mains

This is the first major canal through which water is diverted from the river in Tajikistan. This canal is further divided downstream and there are additional downstream diversion canals from the main channel.

Click to see Google Earth location

Click image to see Google Earth location

None of the Isfara River reaches the larger Syr Darya except under unusual circumstances. This image from Google Earth shows that the river, coming in from the upper left, has over many years formed a huge alluvial fan where it enters the Fergana Valley. What isn't obvious is that a canal diverts what water remains in the river towards the upper right of the photo so the last of the water can be used to irrigate the Tajikistan section of the Fergana Valley rather than flowing into Uzbekistan.

The agreed upon allocation of the Isfara River is 37% for Kyrgyzstan, 55% for Tajikistan, and 8% for Uzbekistan. It seems doubtful whether Uzbekistan is regularly getting their 8% however.

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Footnotes

[1] West Virginia was probably the worst place in the US from which to learn about irrigation. The USDA has pretty detailed data on how much irrigation and what types of irrigation are occurring in each state--except for West Virginia, which was the only state for which no data was reported. West Virginia may be the least irrigated state due to a combination of its generally adequate rainfall and not being a big agriculture state. It would have been a lot more convenient to have been located in an area where irrigation was common.

[2] In 2019, the Kazakh capital, Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of the retirement of longserving president/autocrat, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was president from 1991 to 2019. Elections in Kazakhstan are widely considered to be neither free nor fair. Nazarbayev used his influence to eliminate term limits (but only for him) and further expand executive power. He is credited with rapid economic growth in Kazakhstan during his tenure, but criticized for widespread corruption, nepotism, human rights abuses, and suppressing dissent.



Chusti - open

[3] Chustis are worn by Tajik and Uzbek men. They are also called duppis or doppis. The name "chusti" refers to the city of Chust, Uzbekistan where most of the hats are made. Chust is in the Fergana valley about 90 miles from Isfara.

The patterns on the hat are said to be highly stylized representations of almonds and hot peppers. Most of the chustis I saw the Tajik men wearing had the patterns embroidered on them, but some of them were stenciled on such as this one.

Chusti - inside

A view of the patterns on the inside of the chusti. One can see the somewhat square shape of the hat. I have to wonder about the significance of the sailboat motif in a hat manufactured in a landlocked country. The closest seaport to Uzbekistan (Karachi, Pakistan) is more than one thousand miles away. It is possible, however, that sailboats once sailed on the Aral Sea, the remnants of which are partially within the borders of Uzbekistan.

Chusti - flat

Even though the fabric the hat is made from is stiffened, the hat folds flat. This makes it easy to pack when traveling.

ak-kalpak open

On my first trip to Central Asia I was given this ak-kalpak by the people from the Kyrgyz delegation of the Isfara River Small Basin Council. Kalpak is the word for cap or hat in many of the Turkic languages and there are a number of other types of hats called kalpaks in other countries. However, the ak-kalpak, which means white hat, is unique to Kyrgyzstan. Like the chusti, the ak-kalpak is worn only by men. It is made from just four piece of felted wool, the bottom of which is folded up to make a narrow brim.

There are at least 80 different variations of the ak-kalpak but they are almost all tall hats, the design of which is thought to be a representation of the snow-capped mountains of the Tien Shan. The designs embroidered on the hat have symbolic meanings, which along with variations in the type of the hat, can convey clues about the age, status, and family background of the wearer. The hats have been worn for centuries as a symbol of the Kyrgyz people and have become an official symbol of Kyrgyzstan. March 5 is National Ak-Kalpak day in Kyrgyzstan.

ak-kalpak flat

Ak-Kalpaks also fold flat, which is handy for traveling or storage.


Next: Isfara, Tajikistan

 

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