Sunday, September 28, 2003

Kazakhstan - Riding the Iron Bazaar

I trust all is well in your sections of the world. I felt the need to tell you all what the last 3 weeks have been about, by bursting into song.

"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"

That was Almaty, the big smoke of Central Asia: some kind of vortex that had me attached with a rubber band. Every time I tried to get out of the city it snapped me back in. I gave up trying to leave after...cue music....

"Tragedy! When the feelings strong and you can't go on"

All the trains were booked and I had to wait five more days and thus had no time to stop on the way to Russia. This clanged very loudly with my fear of missing out on something. Then again, there isn't much in Kazakhstan that I haven't already seen in the region. The desolation of the Aral Sea disaster, and poverty from ruined Soviet plans. Something different would have been going to where the Soviets deemed the country "uninhabited" and used it for nuclear tests. Hum, I might not have missed much.

But, back to Almaty. I arrived feeling like a country bumpkin lost in the concrete jungle. I marvelled at the western food and incredible displays of wealth paraded by some. From Gucci to BMW Z3, it was all there. Moreover, it demonstrated the huge gulf between the rich and still very poor. Stories of government and police corruption were astonishing. I hung out with expats and made a local friend.

The women were the most consistent wonder though. They can wear whatever they like, as long as it is skin tight, high heeled and caked in makeup. This was evident in the other Russified stans, but reached a crescendo here. I, the Amazon grot, did not fit in with them.

I toyed with the idea of trying to.

Step 1: Handbag. Easy, the Central Asian briefcase is a blue plastic bag with, inexplicably "A & G Amgen, Made in Italy" on it. I have one, 30 cents. No worries.

Step 2: High Heels. From 12 year olds to grannies, everyone is in them. But, I decided that even the drag queens would not have the ankle hobbling spikes in my size.

Step 3: Tight pants. I would get an ankle in where their thighs go. The skirts wouldn't cover my bum. Not an option really.

Step 4: Tight tops. This I could easily do, it wouldn't matter if it didn't fit.

So, that would give me a plastic bag and a booby top. Hum, I don't think you can match up to the locals in teva sandals. Gave up. But, I did think ahead. I bought the heaviest, warmest, most funky sheepskin coat with enough fluff to look the part in Moscow.

The climax of my dagginess was trying to attend the Opera. They very nearly didn't let us in we were so messy. My companion Charles, being Canadian and thus a perpetual apology, and I felt our embarrassment was almost tangible. We skulked to our seats and refused to move until everyone left. It was good though, a Kazakh opera in Kazakh language, a gripping love tradegy.

One very cool thing we did around Almaty was...cue music......

"Flash, arrr arrrrrrr, he's one of us"

A mad, defunct astronomical observatory is in the beautiful mountains outside Almaty. It looked like a ruined set from a 80's Flash Gordon: death rays and what looked like space junk lying around, odd scientists ghosting between buildings, cows grazing.

We were disappointed not to use the one telescope that worked to see Mars, it was too cloudy. I walked out in the morning to light snow that added an eerie feel to the place. I loved it.

Me on some fun junk

"There's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend"

So, I saw Kazakhstan from a train. For three days and three nights, this moving bazaar provided views of utterly endless steppe. The clear sky banged into the horizon in a precise line. Two-humped camels grazed as we passed. The numerous stops at tiny villages caused atom bombs of activity as people on the train sold goods to the villagers. I went first class, mostly because no other tickets were left, but it was very comfy and still cheap.

Looking down the train platform at the instant market the train brought to the village

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when"

So, I left Central Asia. The best thing about my trip in the region was it was almost an entire surprise. I had almost no pre-conceptions of what would be there and what it would be like. I wonder if I will get that feeling again; travelling an entire region that was a blank blob that has now been so richly coloured in.

But, onto Russia! It feels logical being here, like getting to the horse's mouth. I entered Russia in the most obscure way I could think of. I am in Astrakhan in the Volga Region. Overnight I stepped from Asia to Europe. The buildings are lovely, but run down. The desolate steppe has been replaced by the lush Volga River. I have perversely made it hard on myself by having no guide book here. A very thin armour of bad Russian is all I have. But it causes me to talk to people, ask their help, and I have met some lovely ones so far. Except for the old dragons behind hotel counters, they can go to hell with the taxi drivers.

There are tourists here, all Russian. I haven't talked to anyone at length in English for six days. Besides Charles, there hasn't been any others travellers for 3 weeks. It is a challenge, but this is what I wanted. It is rewarding.

Enough crap from me, I hope all is well, tell me all, as you can might guess, I need a little more

Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Kyrgyzstan - Disaster has struck

I have run out of Vegemite!

My last update let you in on the challenges one sometimes faces in Central Asia. I will make up for that with gushy, flowery words....I love Kyrgyzstan!

It is an exceptionally beautiful country, covered entirely in mountain ranges that always change: naked brooding rock, powerful folds in the Earth, golden velvet coverings, alpine trees, many glaciers sparkling and varying sizes of snow caps. I could describe my time here as a Lake Tour and, of course, mayhem is never far away either.

Lake Issy-Kul

Oh god, I thought I was in heaven when I walked into a village on this gigantic lake, stayed in the home of a lovely middle-aged couple who made me feel as safe as if I was staying with my grandparents (she was a food Nazi, "eat, eat, eat, Suzanne!" ) and wandered down to the beach.

My lovely hosts who welcomed me in when I showed up on their doorstep

I found an entire cove to myself, dramatic mountains behind me, the fresh water lapping in front and the snow caps of the colossal mountains on the other side mingling with the clouds. I proceeding to get really burnt at this altitude, nearly run over by a guy hurling out of nowhere over my beach on his horse, and joined by kids arriving in their horse and cart, dressed in the latest bikinis, playing volleyball in the lake.

Lake Ala-Kul

My usual approach for experiencing mountains is to stare up at them in wonder and think that the trekkers crawling up them are nutbags. Suddenly I realised that every bastard travelling here was into trekking and I was the weird one not doing it. So, I joined some others and our semi-prepared crew did a hike in four days; it takes fit Israelis only two.

The scenery was alpine. I picked edelweiss and thought it was all fine until we were shaken out of our tents at 2am by the police brandishing guns (scary). However, I was sharing the tent of a tattooed, shaven head, big bearded, Bavarian truckie so he handled the negotiations while I shivered behind, and the Aussie girl screamed into the night. The police are considered the biggest criminals here, but these did eventually leave us alone.

We climbed up 900 metres in one day into the hail (very cold), scrambled across the pass (very spectacular until it started snowing horizontally), literally dove down the other side with Russian porters laughing their guts up at me staggering down (nothing left of the outer sole of my boots) and finally make it to some hot mineral springs where heaven was found again.

Me, hair on end, high in the mountains on our walk past Lake Ala-Kul

Lake Kol-Ukok

I couldn't wait to get on horse back and find the remote summer pastures, called Jailoos. I rode with two dutch girls up to this remote little lake: blue skies above, shimmering glaciers staring down and marmot's shrieks piercing the silence. On the way local men crossed our path, proceeded to get drunk and our guide got into a horse whip fight with one of them. I decided this stuff is becoming normal.

Yurt life is fascinating. It is so far removed from our own lifestyles as they cook, eat, and sleep all in the little, efficient space. I love the beds they make up on the floor of piles of quilts, mostly because there is no foot boards; the beds in the houses are designs for the short arses around here! I have stayed in yurts a total of six nights, and could write an essay on it. Let me know if you want to know more.

Yurt life on the high Jailoo I visited

Lake Song-Kul

I went up to this big lake with a Aussie/Kiwi couple, not as huge as Issy-Kul but higher. We stayed in a tourist yurt, but got horses and a guide to find a more authentic one at the other end of the lake. Little did we know the crazy old bastard was a vodka terrorist. He directed us over to a shop yurt for lunch, vodka was produced and it never stopped: he kept us pissed for 24 hours.

Giggling across the fields, we arrived at a yurt for the night, the woman frantically tidying and 12 men crowding in to laugh with (at, more like) us. Vodka continued, there was no escape and I wasn't as much of a man as I couldn't get the huge shot glass down in one. The night blurred into ruddy faces in the single lantern light.

Our sleep was interrupted by comings and goings, and things got ridiculous as vodka was presented for breakfast! By 10am we were forced more shots, and I started begging for the vile fermented mares milk instead. Riding back, all the hills seemed to know us and had converged on the shop yurt where we had no choice in arriving at. But, this time we were seriously pissed; vodka terrorist victims rolling around on the grass. A man was singing Kyrgyz folk songs, we danced and ate salted, raw fish. Very wonky at remounting, we were given another shot while astride and, with vodka-fueled need for speed, I took off a couple of times with the couple bouncing along behind, then got called back. We hid out like timid mice that night.

A vodka terrorism victim: Ken with a local

Ken with the crowd at the shop yurt

Lake Chatyr-Kul

This was my last adventure and a truly remote location. At the far end of the country, I got very over-romantic about the Silk Road. I crawled around an historic stone caravanserai, picturing the camel trains arriving here, men crouching into the rooms in a mirage of wares and swords.

I was with another Aussie guy and we took horses and a guide into the dramatic, evil looking mountains of naked rock. Passed old camel skulls and into bad weather, I didn't realise we were crossing a pass at 4,300 metres. I had to walk the horse the last bit, heart pounding and the sleet hammering my face: it doesn't tickle. I understand the Kyrgyz skin tone now, and my hands resembled theirs: very ruddy red, and completed dried out.

These men don't leave home without their dog, and the one along with us was called Dingo. He got into a fight with a furry marmot, and I watched the cute little creature fight a losing battle for his life.

The lake was massive. China is over the mountains on the other side and not a scrap of civilisation was to be seen. Where the hell was the yurts? Some white dots in the distance became welcoming yurts with smoke from the chimney, the warmth inside nearly a shock. This was the most traditional yurt stay I had as I watched the woman work no stop, milking horses and making bread. The next day we crossed back over a different pass, the horses toiling almost straight up loose shale. We crossed with three other men, herding three cows and two calves, attended by Dingo and another dog.

Me and my steed on the way up to find the yurts around Lake Chatyr-Kul

By far one of the greatest experiences of Central Asia are the people. I am getting used to it now, but for the first month or so I was astounded at how consistently courtesy, generous, cheerful and genuine they are. I think I have never mixed with the locals so much before; it is a matter of course here. You live in their houses or yurts, and are not treated like a cash machine.

My Russian has extended from zero, on the first deaf/mute day without Jim, to about 40 words. It is getting exciting that people understand my one word sentences, English being little use here.

Wow, what an epistle! Hope you are still with me. I am onto my next stan tomorrow, Kazakhstan, to hang in cosmopolitan Almaty for a while. I will be fighting the infamous Russian embassy to get a visa and then cross Kazakhstan by train. I have a feeling this is a very long way. I have a feeling that Kazakhstan is as wide as Australia.