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A Central Asia Diary

Follow two daring travelers on their journey through Central Asia.

[Editor's Note: This is taken from a series of e-mails from my friends Greg and Janet-- artists, adventure travelers, mountain climbers, lovers of Medieval culture and good times--during their trip through Central Asia, principally Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. They were not submitted as travel journalism; I requested them. So yes, the writing is a little rough in places, but I hope you agree that their story of these almost unknown lands is fascinating. Most of the narrative is Greg's; Janet's sections are marked [Janet] at the beginning and [/Janet] at the end. This is quite long; you probably want to print it.--Shel Horowitz]

Thus begins our journey! Much credit to Turkish Airlines-- the most comfortable transatlantic flight we have ever been on. No one batted at eyelash at our huge bags, and as soon as we sat down we had socks, a toothbrush and paste, blindfold, headphones, a comb, and a really good in-flight mag, which we will have to take with us on a later flight. Nine hours and we arrived here around 11 am Monday morning. Customs and taxi were simple and totally easy (ignoring the $45 visa fee). Our hotel is just a short walk from the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.

An hour after arriving in Istanbul there we were in a giant underground cistern several football fields long. It was built in the Sixth century by one of the Byzantine emperors. It was cool and quiet there while the street above was about 92 degrees. After a while underground we notice the parts of the columns were stolen elements of older pagan temples.

We did manage to visit the harem section of the Topkapi this afternoon-- Floor to ceiling tiles, wind catching towers, colored glass wall--just so lush. Also visited the treasure rooms. Various famous items including The Prophet's two swords and bow, King David's sword and Moses' staff. The entire place is very beautiful and peaceful, a delightful vibe.

Last of Istanbul. Janet, hunting at the Grand Bazaar, found two belly dance stores she'd located on the Internet. Two costumes later... We even got to Blue Mosque! Turkish Lira equals 600,000 to the dollar--- calculations difficult. Very hot out, wearing sandals and loose clothes everywhere. Hard to keep hydrated. That is our worst complaint. Food (vegetarian!) great. Turkey a dream. Next stop Tashkent (Uzbekistan).

* * * *

Arrived Tashkent via Turkish Airlines 1:45 am. No problems with passport control or customs other than an hour's wait in sweltering heat and pushing crowd. Nevertheless, we were met by Mir tours, getting to hotel around 3:45 am. First impressions are of huge concrete buildings, wide boulevards and many trees. Lots of chirping birds! More later.

Day in Tashkent. Beautiful city, contrary to reports in guidebooks. Fountains, monuments and lots of trees. In main square, Karl Marx statue replaced by Mongol-Turkic warlord Tamerlane-- huge figure on horseback. Rode subway to Kosmonaut Station, place full of public art. No need to worry about elephant to bring back stuff, as we are specializing in miniatures and painted boxes. High point today was meeting artist still doing manuscript illumination using the techniques of the Middle Ages. Is hot, around 94, but down from last week's 104. Still, a dry heat, very very dry if you were out in the sun too long. All is well, lots of bottles of mineral water. Next message from Bukhara in six days or so -- I am guessing.

* * * *

Pleased to report we are alive and well and happy and have arrived in Bukhara. We are having a great trip and no troubles whatever. Tour Company is superb and everything is clicking.

This is posted from email office by a public square in Bukhara. It is 7:30 p.m. and 92 degrees. Topped out at 105 today. Public Square has a pond in middle with kids swimming in green water. Each end of square has an ancient mosque. There are several 500-year-old trees growing along the water. Music: Russian and Uzbek rock and roll. Everyone sits around drinking tea and coca cola.

Royal Road to Samarkand. Actually is a four-lane divided highway, where our driver, former geology professor, could hit speeds of 120 km/h. But unlike our highways, there are cows, donkey carts, children and melon vendors all over the road. Plus people casually crossing the highway at all points. Plus police check points every 30 km or so. Needless to say, Vladimir (our driver) is very very careful! If he hits a cow, he goes to jail. Besides the road it is very lush for a desert-- cotton fields, trees, apple orchards, corn, grapes. Cross Syr Darya River. We do realize that all the lushness here contributes to the death of the Aral Sea further east. Cross a small piece of Kazakhstan, where they don't plant a tree and boy is it bleak! They didn't call it the 'death steppe' for nothing!

Next message I will tell you something about Samarkand proper. (Janet now gets a minute before they throw us out!)

[Janet] Today Vladimir picked up his geologist boss and we headed into a canyon on black rock, on a road fit for a jeep but ok with our small car and great driver. The canyon is full of petroglyphs. We found a good number of them, some very graceful depictions of animals with antlers and horns, some well-endowed men, someone with their hands on their hips, and a large cat-like animal running after some gazelle. They were very beautiful and kept us out in the very hot sun (105) for a good bit. After we retired to the shade of a children's camp across from a medieval fort. With the help of vodka, it didn't seem to matter that we all didn't speak much in common, except of course for "Jackie Chan." We had great food made by Zoya, our wonderful host in Samarkand bed and breakfast.

More on the fab city of Samarkand later! [/Janet]

* * * *

Events are out stripping my ability to get online access, so understand that we are writing about events from four and five days ago, now.

We arrived in Samarkand August 24.

A unique geologic feature near the city are some strange angular hills, covering 300 acres. Only later do we find out that this isn't natural, but the ruins of Samarkand leveled by Genghis Khan around 1220. Absolutely nothing was left standing except the base of one minaret, spared by the Mongol leader because it was the tomb of the cousin of the Prophet. A holy site to this day.

Went to Registan, one of the landmarks of all Central Asia. You should try to get a picture of it to understand what I will next describe. Three courtyard buildings with elaborate tile facades. We walked in on a rehearsal in the main courtyard for the Independence Day Celebration. Watched high school students go through a whole Busby Berkley routine several times to martial and traditional music. Some good dancing and some of it just bored high school kids in the hot sun. A guard took me aside and offered to take me up the highest minaret, for the princely sum of $2. I could not but accept and soon enough found myself ascending 35 meters of extremely steep spiral stairs. For my climbing friends I would rate it 5.2, considering it was in the dark and I was wearing sandals. What a view! The next day we returned to a dance performance-- a recreating of wedding ceremony, where we were the only audience. But I will let Janet tell you about that!


[Janet] Yes, Samarkand, the Registan is a stunning place and yet somehow hospitable. On each side stands a medressa, a former school for young Muslim men, now full of sellers of carpets, gold embroidery, amazing pill box hats, jewelry, paintings, chess sets, and in the center are these great seats made of wood with cushions that look like great double beds with a railing around three sides, sometimes a table in the center, where anyone can lounge and play chess or drink endless rounds of hot black or green tea in the 95 degrees in the shade, somehow it works. We visited Tamarlane's (known here as Timur) mausoleum, known as Guri Amir, in beautiful shape (many monuments have been recently restored, much of the restoration can be seen in action!).

We visited the observatory of Ulugh Bek, the astronomer king, all of which is left is the base of a huge sextant dug into the top of the hill. He was killed and most of the observatory was destroyed, ah, the ways of the world. The museum there is a beautiful place, with great new murals of the great king.

I have been spending some good money on silk, and after watching it being woven, it is hard to bargain down the price, though that is the custom, and can be a lot of fun.

The dance we saw in the Registan was wonderful, with a humorous drummer pulling more drums out of thin air. They play all sizes of frame drums, usually while holding them on the edge. I did videotape the entire thing, the costumes were wonderful, both men's and women's. The dance is fun and very lively, with lots of hand and arm movements, turns, shoulder pushes and shimmies, with plenty of teasing and fun. And that was the amateur troupe. Last night we saw the professional dancers, who were wonderful but not quite as fun loving. There was one belly dancer (belly exposed) with a costume to die for. She has obviously commissioned some of the local gold embroiderers to do bra, cuffs, and belt, and did the sleeves and skirt in black with gold dots, amazing... The dance was interspersed with a fashion show using Bukharan silk in modern designs, nice, but I prefer the old stuff.

We have managed to get wonderful vegetarian food everywhere, our guide helping out in Samarkand by ordering a baked veggie and cheese dish that wasn't on the menu. Very few folks speak English, but everyone likes to practice, esp. the little kids. In other words, we are having a great time... [/Janet]

Second day in Samarkand we drove over a 5000-foot mountain pass to Timur's hometown, Shakhrisabz. Was getting wicked hot. Ruins of Timur's palace here, just the front door-- 30 meters high! Giant statue of the fearless leader and sure enough, married couples come to lay flowers. Is surreal, white wedding dresses, Uzbek bands playing 8-foot long brass horns, clarinets and drums all out in 100-degree sun!

Wonderful experience yesterday at a teahouse. These are always under trees, where people sip hot tea when it gets too hot out! Joined an elderly fellow on one of the platform beds that people eat on. Fell to talking through a translator. He is 94 years old, still has several of his teeth and prays three times a day. He was chewing tobacco as we ate plov (rice pilaf). He had a black jacket with a medal. I asked and sure enough he was WW II veteran who had fought at Stalingrad, liberated Sevastopol etc. He said a wonderful blessing to us, "May you live to be as old as me and be as happy as me."

All for now. Typed in the only and way too hot Internet access point in Bukhara.

* * * *

The people here are pretty sweet and wonderful. Historically, I guess these are the town dwellers that've planted orchards, fostered trade and survived nomads for three millenniums. Some of the people look European, others Chinese and still others Arabic. Actually that is the range, mostly they just look Uzbeki. The men wear slacks and collared shirts, tucked in for formal, out for labor. About a third wear black caps with white embroidery. Just for color a few older men wear turbans and robes. Occasionally you see an older man in battered black suit jacket with war medals. The younger women wear ikat silk dresses in about a million colors. The predominant style is brightly flowered below-the-knee dresses and headscarves. About half the time pants are worn with the dress. I described the tailoring as a "house dress," but Janet says much nicer than that! A few headscarves are seen, but this is rare.

Uzbeks love to clean. It seems that the whole city gets washed and swept between seven and eight each morning. And we figured out where all the water from the Aral Sea went-- the people here drink an awful lot of tea!

A neat thing just happened when we were looking at Persian (or, more properly, Bukharan) miniatures-- We asked about one image and the artist said, "Oh, that is Iskander and Darius fighting." As in Alexander the Great. Long memory here.

Saw all the great sights here in Bukhara. It is mostly the texture of a truly ancient city, its markets, mosques and medressas intact. Here Genghis Khan left two buildings standing! One is the tower that is so tall that his hat fell off when he looked up at it. So he bowed down to pick it up, "Any building that makes me bow deserves to survive"

We are about to leave Bukhara tonight, so you shouldn't be hearing me whine about the heat anymore. Tonight Tashkent, tomorrow Bishkek. Wish us luck at customs!

You all cannot imagine the conditions under which these are written. All computers in Asia are kept in broom closets, where Euro pop music is pumped in, as clothes are steam cleaned. :)

Bonus Sufi story: Sufi mystic Nasreddin was bringing a roast turkey to Tamerlane. He got hungry on the way and ate one of the legs. Tamerlane asked him the meaning of a one legged turkey. Nasreddin pointed out sleeping turkeys, sure enough, all on one leg. "See they are all like that!"

* * * *

Well, here I am typing in the steaming laundry room of the yurt, with the smoke from the dung fire making my eyes smart and damn it! There is mutton fat all over the keyboard!!

Okay, okay, I am joking. It is wonderful here and our hosts are superb! Met us after a flight on old twin-engine prop Uzbek airliner. Altynbek and his wife have arranged for us to stay in his brother-in-law's empty apartment in a five-story apartment block just 100 meters from his home. Between apartment buildings are tons of trees and playgrounds. It is very cozy and reminds me of nothing so much as Brooklyn. Dropped our paintings off at the Museum of Art. Our show is being hung for us, tomorrow, opening the next day. We are the main show in the lobby!

Need I say, all is well. We got brief view of 4500-meter-high snow-covered mountains that are only 30 km south of town. Will get there in about a week.

* * * *

Today we were witness to the ninth anniversary of the Independence of Kyrgyzstan celebrations, here in the capital, Bishkek. Bishkek has population of 800,000 people. It is a triumph of modernist planning with broad boulevards, loads of parks and green belts. Often the individual buildings are a little crude, but they are always surrounded by greenery. Interestingly, there are no streetlights anymore because of "economic difficulties." Still Altynbek says it is fundamentally safe to walk around at night. And so we have found it. Well, except for falling into manholes and ditches.

Anyway, about Independence Day. Big festival with thousands of banners moving in unison. Floats, evocations of ancient history with guys in armor (I got plenty of pictures). Biggest group of pompom-wielding cheerleaders on the planet. Climax was a release of balloons, doves and fountains. Bad side was restricted viewing for the masses. We got a fast lesson in the kind of petty corruption and trickery that is needed to live day to day. Suffice to say we got special passes and got a pretty good view. Celebration took place yesterday in front of big statue of Lenin, which remains standing (no Tamerlane here) Also, here, official alphabet remains Cyrillic.

Keremit (Altynbek's daughter) roller bladed all day with us Great kid.

Street life much like Broadway in the Village or Soho. Vendors, crowded streets, food, books etc. Unlike New York roasted whole sheep, occasional (and all too rare) yurts as mini feast and festival halls, and guys with great hats. And yes, today I saw my first platter of boiled sheep's ' heads. (Just don't ask!)

Tomorrow is our opening at the National Museum. Previewed today, four of Janet's banners up on wall, one will be placed outside.

There is a detergent here called "BARF" Cool, huh? Want some?

* * * *

[Janet] You will all be pleased to know we were just watching Ren and Stimpy in Russian, Nick at night in Bishkek!

We have had quite a day! We arrived at the Kyrgyzstan Museum of Art around 1:00 to see our show all hung beautifully, with my painting of Kuan Yin hung on the front of the building. A little bit later the press started showing up and during the next couple of hours we must have been interviewed by 5 TV stations and 2 or 3 newspapers (Kyrgyzstan Today and the Bishkek Times) all being wonderfully translated by Altynbek. It is not easy summing up one's artwork in a few sentences, esp. knowing they would be translated! We both got lots of interesting and enthusiastic comments by all sorts of people, including some of our host's kung fu club members who want me to give them a belly dance lesson. It is lots of fun for me to see four of my 8' by 8' paintings hanging up in a museum. Greg and I both gave short speeches and they handed me roses. It is nice to be treated so well.

After the opening we went out for dinner, eating and talking and singing from 4:30 to 10:00 PM. The guests at dinner were a wonderful collection of Altynbek and Annara's friends, the vast majority of who are architects. One person was appointed captain of the party and made sure everyone had the floor at some time in order to give a toast, tell a story, or sing. A few spoke English, all speak Russian and Kyrgyz, one speaks Japanese. They are a very smart bunch, warm and interested folks. [/Janet]

* * * *

(Joe- can you try to forward the following message by email to US Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

"We are two us citizen who have arrived in Kyrgyzstan three days ago and will be in country until September 16th. We have made repeated attempts to call the embassy, but you voice mail doesn't allow us to connect. This is a problem! As per State Department request, we are checking in with you. Gregory Frux passport # *** Janet Morgan passport #*** we are staying with Altynbek Sultanalievy at (address) Our travel plans include time in Issyk-Kul and Ala Archa National Park. We are aware of travel advisories for the region southwest of Osh. We don't plan to go to that area. Please contact us to confirm receipt of this message!)

* * * *

[ Joe- your efforts have resulted in complete success.] US embassy and I spoke today on the phone and we are officially registered. We also found a way to get 'visiting alien' document (not real name).

Today we made arrangements to camp in Ala-Aracha canyon, a National Park 30 km from the city with 4500-meter peaks. I will be up there with a guide service for five days and Janet will be base camping it for at least three days with Altynbek and friends. The crew coming up is his Tai Chi club, including a Sufi mystic and a Xena type--does great sword form--and several other women who want to learn belly dancing. Should be quite a scene. We will all be together first night where the road ends at about 7000-foot elevation. New moon so there should be plenty of stars. Expect us to be out of touch for a while!

Other adventures. Visited academic drawing teacher Sergei, who is truly inspired. He gave us a cast drawing of Hercules sculpture, a real serious present.

Next a bookstore and an English language copy of the Manas--1000-year-old Kyrgyz National epic. Then a Moslem-Chinese restaurant. Xianzaig style Uyghur food-- spicy and greasy noodles. Yum!

From there we went on to the Osh market, a huge produce market with walnuts, almonds, apples, melons, strawberries, plums, grapes, apricots, rice, flour, spices, meats and entrails, fishes... etc! My favorite part was the two-humped camel out front for portrait picture making. We aren't in Kansas!

Then on to Altenbek's mom for another meal that couldn't be beat!-- Plov (pilaf) tomato and cucumber salad, compote, crepes and raspberries. Then on to Tai Chi class run by Altynbek.

(Here is the detailed climbing program for trip to Ala-Archa. Tomorrow, drive to end of road: 2300 meters. Camp. Monday climb with guide and porter to cabin at 3200 meters (~2700 foot climb). I understand this route includes 3 pitches of 5.0 rock. Tuesday climb to hut on glacier at 3800 meters (~1800 foot climb). Route includes 35-degree slope glacier travel. From high camp "camp Koronaski" we will have two days to try peaks up to 4800 meters, including Korona, high point of range. I think that this is a good program, as far as pacing and plan, especially as I don't have to carry much weight. We've agreed to let them assess my climbing before choosing final destinations. An adventure for sure!

* * * *

[Janet] Yes, we have been very lucky to be within Altynbek's wonderful community of friends, which, it turns out, was created, at least in part, by our inspiration (after visiting us and you all in New York in 95). Very cool people, of Russian and Kyrgyz descent, all very open and fun, interesting and enthused. I did Tai Chi today for the first time in ages, and did remember parts of the long form I learned back in the 80's, it feels very good to do. More tomorrow, in the mountains. The Sufi guy, who is a very cool fellow, invited me to a seminar of walking on fire and ice and glass! Altynbek says he is a close as one can get to a modern day shaman. Shamanism has all but disappeared here, it seems.

People here are very modern, teenage fashions not much different from New York. They not only have buses, but also vans that do all sorts of routes and cost 5 cym, which is about 10 cents (salaries are not high here). Many streets are tree-lined, many have a long-park like plaza in between the two sides of the street, like Sara Roosevelt park in Chinatown, but much nicer. It all looks very green to us and this is the driest time of year. We'll be up in the mountains for a few days, me painting with Altynbek and Sergey, that wonderful drawing teacher. [/Janet]

* * * *

Short version-- we just had a wonderful five days in Ala Archa Canyon National Park. One Australian climber I met rightly described it as the Asian Chamonix (or however you spell it). Picture Grand Teton range and add about 3000 vertical feet, then extend in every direction to the horizon or all the way to China or India depending on your preference. It is, to put it bluntly, magnificent. Janet spent her time on valley floor (around 6000 feet elevation) in a rented cabin with a very passionate academic painter and our host Altynbek. There she painted, discussed linguistics, Taoism, Tai Chi, art, psychology, politics, philosophy, the colors of the aura (with the local Sufi master) and sociology (e.g., who is perceived to lie the most in US politics?--compare subjective views). She managed to find time for a sauna during her busy schedule.

Meantime I was wallowing in snow, climbing up to 3500 vertical feet a day in the company of two teenage mountain guides. The infrastructure is great, with cozy cabins at 11,800 feet and 12,700 feet. We used both in the course of our five-day "campaign." The guides rocked, carrying 80 pound packs which contained fresh food, many many cans of fish, four climbing ropes and spare sneakers. Monday we climbed from the valley floor to the first hut. Guides had to do two carries up steepest sections. Did I help? Well, no. I was busy acclimatizing. Up 3500 feet to a cabin by a waterfall where ibex frolicked at dawn and dusk. (Frolicked on the 5.7 rock I might add.) Day two we decided to climb a peak, "Uchila" It is consider a nice introduction to the area. Some four hours later we are standing atop a mountain higher than any in US outside Alaska - elevation 14,500 feet! It was one of the hardest climbs in terms of exhaustion that I have been on. It would have helped if the guides had carried more than a liter of water (I brought one too). Anyway it was humbling to learn that the mountain's name means "teacher" and it is considered a beginner climb for mountaineers (Russian grade 1!)

Day three we moved our camp up to the higher cabin up above a glacial moraine and across a glacier. Climbing up a thousand feet felt like a rest day! Cabin 8' x 10' felt very cozy once we got the Primus going and going. Yesterday (day four) we woke up a five a.m. It was touch-and-go fighting altitude headache and eating enough breakfast to get going. We got out the door at 7 a.m. and headed up to climb Korona Peak, highest in the range (15,500 feet). Route followed a gravel bar, then up a glacier and snow slope. The final part of the route was four pitches of 45-degree snow and ice and then a final pitch of rock. The guides fixed ropes for the last bit (which is why they carried four). We got to the summit at 1 p.m. pretty thrilled. I only learned later that by doing these two ascents I have qualified receive the title Alpinist of the USSR. I am looking forward to getting the medal.

We returned to the high hut last night and descended to camp and home tonight. I had to apologize to Janet, "sorry I got back so late (2pm), but the glacier was covered with 6 inches of snow and was hard to cross and then the descend of all those snow covered rocks… "

At any rate I trust that you all got the idea that I just had a brilliant time in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges on earth.

Guys were great feeding and protecting me. Had to put up with a few snatches of Russian heavy metal lyrics, dimly remembered and occasional cases of the giggles, but what can you expect from two twenty year olds. Fed me wonderful meals: porridge, vegetable stews (from fresh veggies), cheese, fish, bread, jam, honey, and coffee! There were the occasional bombs like the breakfast salad of hard-boiled eggs, canned peas and sardines smushed together. That almost did me in. But once acclimatized I was happily chowing down on sophisticated dishes like catsup on bread and canned sprats. Hey, they kept me happy and fit and climbing 1000-plus meters a day!


How to go camping in Kyrgyzstan (at least with Altynbek). First rent a bus, yes, a city bus. Get forty friends and pile in. Get fifty pounds of food. Drive very slowly to deal with 10 percent grade. Stop to pick up additional people. Stop to pick up bread. Stop to pick up gas. Stop to pick up a large cook pot. Each time you stop have everyone pile out to walk up the road, to pee and to meditate. Finally arrive at Ala Archa National Park. Find a cabin, unpack. Decide on a different cabin. Sweep it. Wash it out. Move gear. Rejoin forty other people for a mega picnic. First tea and candy and fruit on blankets out by a sacred tree (you can tell because it has offerings tied to it). This is followed by a huge plate of plov--rice, all sorts of veggies (and in our honor) tofu. Eat until you cannot move. This is followed by cooked apricots, apples, a salad and tea.

* * * *

[Janet] Yes, our picnic was really quite amazing. Except for the fact that most folks were speaking Russian, it could have been a Rainbow picnic or any gathering in New Paltz (New York). I helped Altynbek teach his Tai Chi class, not that I remember much of the long form I used to know, but I did teach a belly dance class, and we had a lot of fun. Folks were really into it and I will do it again tomorrow. Tai Chi folks are good at learning new moves! And for all of you who know about the Rainbow Gatherings, next year there will be one in Almaty, Kazakhstan! And after that, here on Lake Issyk-Kul. The world is a small place and hippies are everywhere. The valley we camped in, besides the decrepit Soviet-era camp facilities, was very beautiful (the sauna is very well kept), and one day it was like watching the weather channel (from the front porch of our cabin), changing every few minutes, sun shining while it is raining, the trees glistening below the snowy peaks. I did a dozen or so small watercolors, sometimes being helped by the rain. The boys kept me well fed and well taken care of. Had good talks also with a few interesting travelers, Australians and Germans, everyone seems to be having very different experiences, but mostly very good, esp. Here in Kyrgyzstan. The painter Sergey did an amazing drawing of me in the academic style, the Russian school, as he calls it. The valley was also full of beautiful red and white horses who would follow you around if you fed them! And lots of ravens and magpies, who don't help the litter situation much, but are lots of fun to watch. [/Janet]

* * * *

Today, a fine tour of Bishkek. We hit a souvenir shop full of paintings, silver, amber, felt, knives, stuffed camels etc. Well, we do need to bring back some souvenirs! Two bookstores later we arrived at the National History Museum, the first floor of which remains a monument to Lenin's life-- huge bronze reliefs, ceiling murals and dozens of documents. Upstairs is an archeology and ethnography display. Guess where the Scythians started out? Kyrgyzstan! More costume information than we could absorb.

Later, Janet taught a belly dancing class to about a dozen Kyrgyz friends. It was much appreciated and we got invited to dinner afterwards. Had borscht and tomato salad on the floor of an apartment on a blanket as it the gracious custom here.

Tomorrow we head off to Lake Issyk-Kul and the town of Cholpon-Ata. It is a beach on an inland ocean surrounded by 4000-meter peaks. We won't be back until Thursday.

* * * *

Today we returned from the lake called Issyk-Kul, which means warm lake. It is fed by hot springs and never freezes, despite being a mile high. A beautiful blue, somewhere around two-thirds the size of Lake Michigan, but much deeper. And as one stands (or lies) on the beach, full of Russian-speaking bathers, small gulls and big beaked corvids (that pesky crow family), one can gaze across the water and see 17,000 foot peaks, running for miles east and west, topped with snow. At times the tops of the mountains are hard to distinguish from the clouds above them. There are also 15,000-foot high peaks behind the beach.

We stayed for a few days at the big home of Altynbek's in-laws, Anara's parents. They fed us to bursting: wonderful combinations of eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers, cheeses, apples, breads, some meats, cabbage, knishes, pickled mushrooms, watermelon, homemade jams of raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and some local orange berry, and of course plenty of tea, called Chai here. All topped off with local cognac and wine, very delicious. It is a good season to be here for produce, esp. tomatoes that are very tasty and very red, sold all over the place, along the road, in every market place.

One gets to like the houses along the road, many white with blue shutters and carved wood ornaments, in the Soviet style. Most homes have a courtyard with fruit trees, maybe an outdoor shower, animals, and places to sit outside. It is an interesting way to live. All the trees are bursting with fruit at the moment- apples, apricots and pears. This is the first shower we have taken with an apple tree in the shower room!

The town has a Soviet-style spa where we went to take a mineral bath. Everything about the place is a bit worn, but the flowers are in bloom everywhere and the tree lined walks are very charming and relaxing and lead right down to the beach.

The first day there we went to see the local petroglyphs, hundreds scattered on small boulders over a large field at the edge of the foothills, just above the lake. We found more graceful animals with large curved horns, some hunters. Near to the petroglyphs is a newly built mausoleum in the Arabic style, with dark green onion domes, housing the body of the founder of the town, Chopin-Ata. It was supposedly funded by some local Mafioso. It is quite beautiful, and a large garden is being built around it.

A few days later we drove to a beautiful canyon and did a bit of hiking. We realized why folks like horses here; the trail that looked very short and easy took us an hour and a half! There were cows and horses grazing, birds of all sorts, green rolling hills and views of the ice covered peaks. I did a fast watercolor, including it a horse a rider who entered the view at the last minute.

The next day we drove around the east end of the lake to visit Karakol, which means black lake. On the way we stopped in a local cemetery. They are very beautiful from both near and far, with graves like small mosques and yurts, making for a small village. Near Karakol we visited a red rock canyon with a large feature called the Seven Bulls, and another called the Broken Heart. There was a very nice spa, known for it healing waters. We had breakfast (with cognac to drink to our host's health) and explored the lush grounds of the spa and the wild mountain river. A statue of Lenin and a few of the heroic worker still dot the grounds.

Later we visited wonderful wooden Russian Orthodox Church, and a Chinese mosque that looks like a Buddhist temple, go figure. Over dinner our hosts asked us if we believe in god, Greg said no, I said many of them, and our host said 'so-so'. Folks are not religious here, after so many years of Soviet life, and even though many call themselves Moslems they drink like Russians. Luckily for us we have been around very moderate drinkers!

Today on the way back we visited an ancient Turkic tower, which we climbed (old architecture is very rare in this country). It is pre-Genghis. It is situated smack in the middle of a large plain ringed by mountains. There was a wonderful museum there, including some metal items from a female warrior and her horse. There were Buddhist, Arabic, Zoroastrian, Nestorian Christian and other ancient writings and sculpture, including a field full of these happy stone gods (or whatever) that no one seems to know much about. We have been hiring cabs rather that taking buses because it is almost as cheap and very comfortable.

Today we talked at the school of architecture and design, mainly answering questions about architecture and our lives.


The policeman is not your friend. His job is to catch people in petty crimes and collect personal fines (for his pockets). His favorite is taxi drivers for not wearing seatbelts-- 20 soms (40 cents). They tried a shakedown of us, coming out of a bush and checking our passports. Not finding anything and failing to intimidate us they have to give up. They aren't too intimidating as they carry flashlights instead of guns. They are not well loved. Speed bumps are called sleeping policemen.

Stretch your stomach! You, the guest will be expected to eat and eat and eat. Don't try to get out of it. Remember that the stuff all over the table at the start is mostly decoration. The food comes later. Eat slow, you can do it.

The food here just isn't that weird. We are all at the same latitude. Fruits and vegetables are identical to USA, only without preservative and chemicals. You have apples, pears, apricots, tomatoes, eggplants, onions, potatoes, wild mushrooms, walnuts, hazelnuts, rice, watermelons, etc.

One of the wild birds in this part of the world is the mynah bird. Remember them from the pet store? They talk!

* * * *

Last message from Kyrgyzstan. It has been a truly wonderful trip filled with imaginative and gracious people. In about twelve hours we will board Turkish Airlines to New York. Our only, very minor complaint is that we have just both developed head colds. We should have expected it, but we have been deluged with farewell gifts. If we can't move the bags tomorrow morning we will know the cause.

As few last minute notes about loose ends:

* Yurts. Yes they got 'em. They line roadsides from Bishkek to Issyk-Kul. They serve as roadside shops, restaurants and mobile homes. Kyrgyz yurts are very beautiful with red latticework wood, bent wood rafters and hubs and felt coverings. Yurts cost about $1200 to purchase, which is roughly a year's salary. Vendors sell smoked fish and koumiss or run teahouses. Occasionally yurts are covered with blue plastic, but this is frowned upon as "not period." The ugliest yurt I ever saw was covered with a plastic tablecloth with a flower pattern. Ugh.

* Koumiss, fermented mare's milk. We tasted it and it is good! Sort of like thin buttermilk, but more sour with a bite of alcohol. NO, I said it tasted good. Really. No really. Oh well, you aren't going to believe me, are you?

* I should have taken a Russian class. Next time. Everyone speaks Russian here.

* Picked up show from the National Gallery. Donated several paintings to museum and to our friends here. They have a superb collection of 19th and 20th Century Russian realist artists. Right now they are showing some treasures from a Moscow gallery. Proud to be a part of this all!

* * * *

[Janet] We are back!

Well, we are a bit ragged about the edges, we both have colds, which made the 15 or 16 hours of flying a bit of a trial, though Turkish Airlines is very civilized. Watched a couple of movies, got fed frequently, etc. as we chased the sun around the world.

It is strange to be back in such a rich place, where most things are in excellent repair (not so in the post Soviet world!), and the toilets flush well and the toilet paper is soft!

Anyway, we are back safe and sound, we hope everyone enjoyed our emails; we had a lot of fun writing them. It was an amazing trip; it will take us awhile to digest what we have seen. The cats seem to remember us, though they are looking rather chubby! I have to work tomorrow, so wish me luck! [/Janet]

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