As any close reader of these postings will have noticed, I was hopelessly romantic (nearly Romantic) about the idea of the Silk Road, and what I would find there (here). I have a history of romanticizing people and ideas; it hasn’t always turned out so interesting though.
I feel a bit silly, thinking I would find heaps of people living in yurts, traveling by camel train, living the life of Marco Polo’s time. We did see people living in yurts, traveling by camel train, living by herding sheep and goats, but only in the highest reach of the Tien Shan; they are overshadowed by modern day Asia; they are being absorbed by Han Chinese and Russian/modern Kazak culture.
We are blocked in Kazakhstan with our visas rapidly running out. We have decided to fly to Azerbaijan Saturday June 11 to pick up our route by bicycle there. We are looking forward to that part of the trip; we will intersect the modern Silk Road again when we follow closely the route of the newly opened pipeline to the coast of Turkey; oil is the new silk, and the West is hungry for it.
We will miss the people we met in the countryside and villages of China and Kazakhstan. We had the most trouble with the Chinese language, but the people were always willing to give it a go with us. They smiled, shared with us and were never upset (without good reason) with us.
The comments we made in humor were based in fact: they are the worst plumbers and electricians in the world; their penchant for make-work jobs, particularly at hotels makes for poor infrastructure, even poor service, and their continued dependence on collective farming in the hinterlands bodes ill for the future. But I must say, there was nothing we encountered in China that we could not deal with. The one exception was the government: being followed across the country by the police via our registration at hotels is not something I, as an American, can easily accept. The old Communist paranoia has overstayed its usefulness for China. Get rid of it! One other thing is the environment: China is the most overused part of the planet, and it began a very long time ago; there are too many people, and the environment is in a poor state. Communism is supposed to be for the common man, but it is not; it is the poor who suffer most from a polluted environment (and bicycle tourists); the rich can turn on the high tech filtering systems in their big black cars, turn up the CD player and cruise past the donkey carts and shovel-wielding peasants breathing their unregulated diesel exhaust. America has a better idea; all people are created equal, and deserve the same from government. We too often fail in that, but underneath our greed we still hold a place for the idea, and at least some in government still strive to live up to the American ideal; the Christian requirement.
This is part of a newspaper story found June 7:
The first indications of nervousness in Tashkent appear three weeks after the Andizhan tragedy Arkady Dubnov, Vremya Novostei.
The first indications of nervousness in Tashkent appear three weeks after the Andizhan tragedy. This assumption is confirmed by the decision of the US Department of State to recall its diplomats from the capital of Uzbekistan last week. All American citizens are recommended to avoid trips to Uzbekistan unless they are absolutely necessary…. The extraordinary measures are ascribed to the possibility of terrorist acts against Americans and Israelis.
Our flight goes through Tashkent, but nobody would bother a plane load of Central Asians of mixed ethnicity for two Americans. We don’t get off the plane.
I have found Almaty somewhat underwhelming, with far too many crumbling Russian apartment blocks and a deteriorating infrastructure. After the exotic cities of China, it is a little boring. It looks much too Russian, and seemingly caught in a frenzy of oil funded consumerism. The location is spectacular, situated close under the Tien Shan mountains at the edge of the great Asian steppe, and has a few interesting Soviet style fountains and plazas. The infrastructure was funded by Soviet debt (still extracting its toll on all involved) and not maintained since independence. There are Mercedes and Audis everywhere; nearly as many as the killer potholes. There some interesting spots to visit: a huge bazaar with a wide variety of Central Asian peoples selling wonderful vegetables, dried fruits and nuts as well as modern consumer goods. Claire wanted to get a zipper repaired on one of our panniers, and we got it done at the market in a minute, and he didn’t want to accept payment; he was not Russian, they want as much payment as possible for everything.
The mountains near the city are beautiful and accessible (for a fee). We took a tour to a rock art site way out in the steppe that was well worth the effort. Almaty is very expensive; expect to spend as much in a medium U.S. city, quite a shock for us coming from China where everything is very reasonable. The best part about the city is the trolley system; we seem to be able to get close to almost any place we need to go for 50 tinga about 40 US cents.
Talking Politics on the Steppe
Marat deftly swerved between potholes that could swallow a Soviet tank on the narrow steppe road that ran a rope-line over the rolling grasslands of Kazakhstan. In USSR times, Kazakhstan was the recipient of many modern roads through remote areas. Since the breakup, roads outside major cities have been ignored and are deteriorating rapidly. There are high automobile taxes, supposedly targeted to fixing roads. However, the only company allowed to do such work is owned by the President of Kazakhstan. Marat says the funds have gone to the building of palaces in Italy and elsewhere. The President has apparently amended the nation’s constitution five times to keep himself in office, and elections somehow get postponed indefinitely, yet they claim to be a democracy. There is a unique circumstance that keeps Kazaks from going nuts over this graft and corruption, and the loss of their democracy. They are evenly divided between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians. The Kazaks allow the status quo, because they fear a real democracy would lead to the Russians voting to create a separate country in the north, and aligning with Russia. It seems as if the politicians in power have it made.
Marat is very bright and speaks excellent English. He likes to talk, and entertained us over seven hours of driving with his observations of Kazakh and American culture. He has studied American history, and knows more about our government than most Americans; sad to say. He is particularly interested in the Civil War; he believes it was necessary for us to form the strong federal system that led to our world dominance. I told him there are many in America who are striving mightily to undo that federalism; the South Shall Rise Again; but now not all of the states are in the South.
He believes, as do I, that Communism was an experiment that would have been conducted sooner or later. Sometimes I think it was our stringent resistance to it that gave it the strength to last as long as it did. We finally brought it down by using the Cold War to force it to spend its self into bankruptcy (we are doing it to ourselves in Iraq), but Marat and I both believe Communism would have come down by itself. After seeing remnants of the collective system in both China and Kazakhstan, I am convinced of it. In China, millions of lives were destroyed by the Cultural Revolution, with absolutely no benefit. The great experiment was a disaster, and it will take decades for it to shake out, and the countries involved to find themselves. I just hope Kazakhstan makes some plans for the day when the oil runs out, but it does not appear so from here.
We’re no longer the tallest people around, but probably the most frumpishly dressed. The bicycle is the low vehicle on the totem pole and outside of the university racing team, if they ride a bike at all, most people ride on the sidewalk.
Walking Among the Ancients on the Central Asia Steppes
The petroglyphs we saw at Tamgaly were just a few in a large area of rock art. More than just news, they seemed intended to convey ceremonial or ritual information as they weren’t cluttered or overwritten. Hunt scenes were common but the images of most interest to researchers seems to the the sun-headed deities. After visiting Chaco Culture Center in New Mexico, we were particularly interested in solar markers and found one very basic one that our guide suggested was actually a lunar marker. With limited language understanding here, we hope to learn more after we get home. We got lots of photos and visited their burial ground. Apparently there are many rock art sites around Central Asia
Our guide to the Tamgaly petroglyphs, Marat, had many insights to offer about his country and Central Asia. The one that really rang a bell was about the collapse of the Silk Road as a trade route some 300 years after the death of Genghis Khan. It seems the increasing numbers of autonomous authorities were each collecting their toll on the passage of goods through their territories. It finally got to be too much for the traders. Sounds very familiar to today’s difficulties in navigating the old silk road. Administrative overkill is still the major stumbling block to travel and trade. Will oil grease the skids?
A Convergence of Cycle Tourists
Alice and Andoni found Bob waiting with the bike while I checked in. We were having a good long visit in the tight driveway when Guiliano happened along. He had told us about the budget accommodation a couple of days earlier. Guliano had just crossed China by bike. He was here organizing visas for onward travel and seemed to have endless patience and persistent charm. Alice and Andoni were a golden brown from the sun and the extent of information they shared was also like gold to us. They had come across the Caspian on the Russian rustbucket we’d hoped to take. It turns out the ferry runs every 3-5 days, not every 10-15 as we’d been told earlier. They ended up taking the train through a remote part of the desert and had to load their bikes in the overhead luggage rack on the train. (No baggage car.) We decided to meet at the grocery store for a picnic for dinner in a local park. After settling in by the fountain of the Monument to Independence, three cyclists rode up on touring bikes. Soon, we were seven, sharing food and stories of who, what, where and when. Alice and Andoni are Belgian and Basque, on the road a year now (5 months in Turkey), continuing on for probably two more years. (www.mundubicyclette.be.tf) Alistair is a solo tourist going around the world for Hope and Homes for Children. He gives slide shows at schools and stays with expats when the opportunity arrives. Central Asia and Eastern Europe are the last legs of his tour. (www.roundtheworldbybike.com) Christine and Marlin are just in from Western Washington for a tour down around the Tajik-Afghanistan border and to really live on the edge, they ususally don’t treat their drinking water either. (www.3Dslideshows.com) Next they fly to West Africa.
To be able to sit in Almaty, Kazakhstan below the mountains of the Tien Shan, hearing both familiar and exotic stories from cyclists who’ve toured all over the world was a rejuvenating experience. Their reaction to hearing Bob’s age was interesting. Bob was more than twice as old as the oldest one there.
We had so much to share that we ended up together again at the home of Christine and Marlin’s host. Alice came up with a chili con carne and we stayed late visiting. I felt normal again, hearing and relating to the reactions of Alice at being the only woman around in countries where the women spend more time inside while the men hang out in groups outside. Andoni, in thick Basque accent, told excitedly how the Azerbaijani love the Basque and how the Georgian’s love their wine and could very nearly kill you with hospitality. Christine and Marlin are photographers specializing in 3D. When they aren’t traveling collecting spectacular photos, they travel the U.S. in their mini motor home, presenting 3D programs complete with 3D glasses. Some of the remote areas they will visit require special permits. They’re up to $500 so far. They’ve managed to cull their gear down to four cameras and fit it all onto just the rear racks of two mountain bikes. Amazing.
We couldn’t have had a better way to celebrate Bob’s birthday. Christine even had a birthday cake with a candle.
Association of Parents of Disabled Children
Almaty is a sister city to Tucson, Arizona, and we wanted to make a connection. We found it at the Association of Parents of Disabled Children. They run a school and support center where children receive all types of therapy and education. Parents run the program and are involved at every step. Asiya and her son Amanat spent time showing us the facilities. A new accessible playground is under construction as well as the foundation for the lift to the second floor which Tucson is sponsoring. The physical therapy room was the busiest place in the center and though they had some equipment, Asiya had a wish list for more: wheelchairs, electric wheelchairs, braces, crutches, mats, balls and other therapy tools. All child-scale.
Goodbye until probably Turkey, a month (we hope) away.