All posts for the month May, 2023

On a sleek pedestrian bridge over the Ishim River

Jim models an old Kazakh warrior helmet

At some point our cameras have started doing crazy things, like making images pop out of their surroundings like this. Cool!

Our last stop in Central Asia is Astana, the shiny newish capital of Kazakhstan. If you had trouble coming up with the name of the Kazakh capital, you’d be in good company. To begin with, the capital was moved here from Almaty in 1997. And to make things worse, Astana holds the Guinness Book world record as the capital city with the most name changes in modern times. The town was founded in 1830 as Akmola, and has since been renamed Akmolinsk, Tselinograd, Astana, Nur-Sultan, and then back to Astana.

Astana sits in the vast wide open flat steppes of northern Kazakhstan, so utterly unlike the mountain setting of Almaty. This part of the country is more linked with Russia than the rugged mountains of the south. After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh parliament soon planned to move the capital here, no doubt in part to stem any breakaway notions on the part of the large Russian population. Since independence, the percentage of ethnic Kazakhs here jumped from just 17% to over 80% as the city grew dramatically. With 1.3 million people, Astana is now second in size only to Almaty.

We decided to fly way up to Astana just to see the spectacle of it all. Fueled by big ambitions and oil money, this planned city features gleaming architecture, grand vistas, lush parks, and elaborate public art. The skyline is dotted with cranes in every direction, raising countless new luxury apartment blocks. It’s fun to see a place with so much growth, ambition, and energy — even if Astana lacked the culinary charms and inherent culture of a more mature metropolis like Almaty. After a couple days here, we were sufficiently wowed yet ready to move on.

That means making one more stop on the way home – Istanbul for a few days to celebrate my very own birthday.

The Baiterek monument sits at the center of the monumental core of the city

The Khan Shatyry entertainment complex occupies a huge tent-like structure by British star architect Sir Norman Foster

Inside Norman Foster’s entertainment complex

Discovering a patch of bunny rabbits in a huge park

Birch trees line a long lovely embankment on the river

Like so much else here, the National Museum of Kazakhstan occupies a stunning piece of architecture. But once we got beyond this dramatic entry foyer, the collection was super chaotic and did a terrible job of providing any context.

This exhibit at the National Museum had something to do with technology. It was a cool looking room to walk through, but there was little indication of what its point was.

Shiny architecture and cranes everywhere

Fun public art

Jim makes the most of a neighborhood lined with lilacs

The monumental core of the city

So much cool architecture

That’s the presidential palace photo-bombing our selfie

Mark snapped this while we were flying down to Dushanbe. Pretty impressive mountains, huh?

We’re kind of hopping back and forth over the Tian Shen mountains – north of the range in Bishkek, south in Uzbekistan, north again in Almaty, and south now in Dushanbe. What has been interesting to me, in part at least, is that while the area is relatively small and the cities are relatively close, the people are quite different. While north of the mountains people are decidedly Eastern Asiatic, south of the mountains they are Turkic and Persian. Very different look, language, and (I would guess) cultures.

Dushanbe is the capital of Tajikistan, a land-locked country that is 90 percent mountains. It feels poorer than the other Central Asian cities we have been to and dustier. The first day we were here, in fact there was an intense haze in the air that we’re pretty sure was just dust blowing in from the deserts around the city. By the evening it was really becoming a problem for our eyes but then a rainstorm blew in and the next day all was clear.

Fountains in front of the Opera House. Sadly, nothing was playing while we were in town.

There wasn’t really a lot to do in Dushanbe – we hiked up in the mountains one day, went to the National Museum another day – but that was OK; we didn’t expect a lot here. To be honest we figured this might well be our only trip to Central Asia and if you don’t check off Tajikistan now, when will you?

I did learn bit about the country and history, though, and some of it was interesting. First, when we’d been in both Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan we were told that most of the people in those cities were ethnically Tajik. Then why are those cities in Uzbekistan? And doesn’t Tajikistan want them back? They are, after all, world-class tourist destinations.

Our hotel was on a main street through the city with a wide boulevard and these cool lights at night

It turns out Tajikistan would like them back. The national museum was mostly forgettable, but there was one line in one display that intrigued me. Under the heading of National Territorial Demarcation in Central Asia the display read “Although the national territorial demarcation on the basis of national identity [performed under early Soviet rule in the 1920s] offered tremendous advantages to some peoples of Central Asia, it artificially deprived Tajik people of their historical cultural centers. This act is evaluated as a national tragedy, the negative aftermaths of which are still discussed from political, economic, and moral stands.”

That’s it, just two sentences in a big national museum, but they clearly reference Bukhara and Samarkand. Uzbekistan is vastly larger and wealthier than Tajikistan so don’t expect the latter to start a war or anything, but it clearly grates on the national pride here.

Oh, and when we were in Uzbekistan our guide explained that while the people in Bukhara and Samarkand are mostly Tajik and speak Tajik, they understand Uzbek as the two languages are pretty close. Not true at all: Tajik is a Persian language while Uzbek is Turkic. Completely different families of language.

One other thing about the national museum? You could spend a lot of time there and as far as I could tell you would have absolutely no idea that there had been a civil war when Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union. Someone must have forgotten about that.

The other thing I learned is that Tajikistan, like neighboring Turkmenistan, is well down the path of becoming a dynastic dictatorship. The current President, Emomali Rahmon, has ruled since 1994 after winning a five-year civil war on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. His son is both mayor of Dushanbe and chairman of the National Assembly; many people expect him to succeed his father. On the one hand, that sort of dynastic power seems fairly ridiculous in the scheme of things. On the other, Rahmon claims with at least some credibility that he is keeping radical Islam at bay (Tajikistan borders Afghanistan…) and that justifies his relative lack of concern for religious freedom and civil rights. The one thing we were certain of was that he is serious about the cult of personality: his picture was everywhere in the city.

Rudaki Park – named for a ninth century Persian poet – is a wonderful oasis in the center of the city and a perfect place to relax with a good book (or Kindle, as the case may be)

Highlights of the city included some good food – Lebanese, Ukrainian, and of course Georgian – and a fabulous park in the middle of everything. We hired a driver for a morning to drive out of town and up into the mountains; we read in Lonely Planet that there was a nice hike up to a waterfall. That didn’t exactly pan out: there were no signs at all as far as we could tell and at some point the gravel road that we thought we get us there ended in a big, locked gate. It was nice hiking in the mountains along a bubbling stream but it would have been nicer if we’d found the waterfall.

One more stop in Central Asia – we’re headed north again, this time to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan – then it’s Istanbul and back home.

A lovely creek we walked beside heading up to the waterfall that we never actually saw…

Mark and Jim on the hike

And just Jim

A statue of Ismoil Somoni at the entrance to Rudaki Park, built in 1999 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the Saminif Empire which he led

A view across Rudaki Park from the national library to the Presidential Palace

Daytime under the strange-but-not-unattractive walkway

One final strange picture. We had lunch twice at a Georgian-Italian restaurant. When you entered they asked which menu you wanted and seated you to the left for Georgian and to the right for Italian. Apparently a Georgian appetizer and Italian main course is just not acceptable. This space, though, is the waiting room for the toilets – women on the left, men on the right. It was just the most attractive, comfortable-looking space I’d ever seen. It would be weird to just sit there, but it looked so comfortable!

Zenkov’s Cathedral in central Almaty, my favorite site in the city

Three days in Almaty and there was a lot to love about it. Now, much of the story was just about recovery from the bike trip. We were both a little exhausted, I was still recovering from dehydration or whatever hit me in Bukhara, and there were little chores to do like laundry and replenishing my lost drug supply.

On that last note, the only really important drug I needed replaced was my blood thinner. And I’ve experienced this before but I’m starting to recognize that this may be universal, at least in poorer countries: not only do I not need a prescription – I just tell them the name of the drug and the dosage – but it’s massively cheaper outside the U.S. than it is at home. Even with my Medicare Part D subsidy, I paid about one-third the cost per pill as I pay in the U.S. That’s crazy. And I may never buy it at home again. Why not just travel to Mexico or the Caribbean (or Almaty) once or twice a year and stock up?

Now, back to Almaty. Three things in particular stand out: the food, the weather, and the views. Let’s take the last first. We stayed at the Ritz-Carlton on the edge of town as part of our recovery regimen. When the yurts in Uzbekistan weren’t as comfortable as we might like we would say “Just four nights until the Ritz!” It really lived up to the Ritz reputation but the special part was that we had amazing views of the Tian Shen mountains from our window. No photos – there was too much glare and reflections in the windows when I would try, but trust me, the views were great.

The interior of the Cathedral

(Pro tip: If you’re on your way to Russia or Central Asia, there is an Uber-like shared ride app called Yandex that makes travel so much easier. And insanely cheap – a 15- or 20-minute ride from our hotel to the center of the city would typically cost no more than $4 USD. Not bad!)

As for the weather, apparently spring is the time to be in Almaty, just wonderfully warm but not hot and lots of fresh greenery. Just about perfect.

And then the food. Almaty is something of a bustling city these days, much more so than what I remember from a couple work trips some 20 years ago. Kazakhstan is a big oil and gas producer and that’s generated a lot of wealth, at least for the elites. And you can see the results all over the city: chic restaurants, luxury hotels, glistening new office towers. I’m pretty confident that the area where our hotel was located wasn’t remotely in the city 20 years ago. So we ate at a very nice Georgian restaurant, a stylish Italian place, and buzzy international cuisine place. Good wine, good drinks, great food. And after two weeks on the bike trip the chance to pick our own restaurants was pretty special!

A very buzzy, happening restaurant in Almaty with really good food

Oh, and one other way you can tell Almaty is thriving. About a quarter of the younger, hipper, westernized women you see out and about have these crazy medically enhanced big lips. Sometimes it looks like a porn convention must be taking place as these women parade around with these big puffy lips. Very weird.

So, what is there to actually do or see in Almaty? Not a lot, at least for those who were more into recovery and errands than being serious students. There is one major park in the middle of the city that was our favorite hangout. Leafy, green, cool – perfect. In the middle of the park was a beautiful wooden cathedral – the largest wooden orthodox cathedral in the world – that I remember from earlier visits. Built without nails, it’s a fun visit. The park also included just about the most serene, perfect coffee shop I’ve ever visited, just comfy and relaxed.

And that was Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city though not it’s capital. That’s Astana, which we’ll be visiting later. For now it’s off to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. How often do you get to say “Oh, I’ll be in Tajikistan tomorrow…”?

Here I am in the perfect coffee shop in the perfect park in perfect weather. Kind of nice!

The Memorial of Glory, a fierce tribute to the Soviet warriors of WWII, in the same park as the cathedral AND the coffee shop. Is that a great place or what?

Italian food in an elegant, semi-outdoor restaurant

Another shot of that cool buzzy restaurant filled with upscale tourists and residents

Mark and the fountains