Friday, October 13

Tekfur Palace and End 61

From from Tekfur Palace on the highest point of Constantinople
Saint Sauveur in Chora is closed for renovation upon our arrival so we walk 15 minutes to the Tekfur Palace, a late 13th century Byzantine castle in northwest Constantinople on the highest point of the city, therefore controlling the Golden Horn, Pera (today's Galata), and the city itself. It suffered following the taking of Istanbul by the Ottomans in 1453, after which it became housing for the Sultan's animals, a brothel and, from 1719, a pottery workshop making Iznik-styled tiles that can be seen in mosques (and museums) around the world. The kilns went silent by the 19th century and the building converted to a poorhouse for Istanbul Jews before the structure's importance rediscovered in the late 20th century.

We also stop by the Yenj Cami "new mosque" (1665) on the Golden Horn but for another time.

And so, like that, our trip comes to an end, as I sip Turkish coffee at a street-side cafe awaiting the airport transfer. 

Thank you all for sharing the last four weeks with Eitan and me. Thank you for your emails, and being with us. 

Journey's end

Küçük Ayasofya Camii 60

The flat ceiling is unique
Our guide at the archeology museum (impressively he is 91 y/o with degrees in architecture from England and law from Paris) shows us the greatest hits including marbles of Hadrian, Apollo and Alexander the great, and the first currency (gold) discovered in Lydia, Turkey. He recommends the Küçük Ayasofya Camii or the "little" Hagia Sophia which he describes as the "most beautiful mosque in the world."

Really? So we go. Firstly, the mosque's dome is flat ("easy to make a curved dome, hard to make a flat one") and, from the inside, the lines break dramatically upward, even awkwardly, towards the ceiling peak (pictured). The detailing is exquisite. It is peaceful with no tourists and feels like our own discovery.

For its history, the Greek Orthodox dedicated the church to Saints Sergius and Bacchu from when it was built in 536 AD. The structure converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire from 1452 and remains a place of Muslim prayer today.

There are sunlit rooms inside and Eitan reads the Koran.

"It is they who follow the guidance from their Lord, and it is they alone who are successful in attaining the object in this life and the Hereafter."
--The Koran

"As for those who are bent upon denying (the truth), they would not believe, because it is all the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them."
--The Koran
A restful place

Thursday, October 12

Hagia Sophia 59

A building for the ages
We enter Istanbul, a most extraordinary city of 16m and the seat of the Islamic Caliphate from 1517 to 1924, with its proud minarets that spike the sky, alien and frightening, in the most modern and complicated of Muslim cities where crossroads of religion, peoples and history meet on this very square.

Immediately I am struck by the noise, traffic, construction, movement, hustle and (most) women not wearing hajib in contrast to the last four weeks. It is autumnal and the tree leaves are browning.

We stay at a nice hotel, a reward for our travels, 15 minutes walk to the Hagia Sophia built in the 6th century by the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire was one and the same) and an Eastern Orthodox Church until the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1452; it was a Catholic cathedral for a century after the Fourth Crusade of 1204.

The call to prayer from Sophia is, per Sunni, 5x a day, competing with the Blue Mosque 500m away, for beauty and song.

As Eitan and I have been in the Sofia and Blue Mosque before we choose to sit in front of each in the wonderful shade until the sun sets. We are joined by two friendly dogs.


The White House 58

Kyrgyz parliament house
Pictured, the national parliament building (called "The White House") built initially as Bishkek's communist headquarters in the 1980s. Beautiful brutalism and what is not to love? I think of Rocky IV.

The 2005 Tulip Revolution and the 2010 Kyrgyzstan riots were here - the latter to oust President Bakiyey, whose son, Maxine, split for the UK during the upheaval, taking a whispered two billion and a place in Knightsbridge (Eitan and I debate if it is simply a crime or a cliche). 86 protesters died and Bakiyey fled to Minsk while sentenced, in abstentia, to 24 years prison time in 2013.

In front of the presidential building - pointing at it in fact - is Lenin. It surprises me that the statue not destroyed with the rest at national independence; now, unsurprisingly, it is a tourist point.

Commie background

Bishkek 57

Zhupka bread
We spend our final day in Kyrgyzstan - indeed, Central Asia - in the capital city, Bishkek (population 1m) formally named Pishpeck pre 1991, when it was mostly ethnic Russian. Today, Russian is the main language and Kyrgyz losing ground with young people in part, I think, drawn to Russian pop music. There are frequent daily flights to Moscow (as I sit in the airport, 6am). The pull of Russia is everywhere.

Run down or decrepit Soviet block towers stick out like a sore thumb with very cool Soviet symbols atop, in a city that is trying to modernise itself rapidly: cars disobeying traffic rules, 24 hour ATMs and new hotels; Coca-Cola of course. There is a KFC.

We go to the bazaar which is dense and enormous filled with copycat Nike and Polo, vibrant fruits, nuts and cheeses and all cuts of meat smelling of fresh blood to make one gag. Despite being barely passable and unmarked, the passage ways have their own sense of order. A woman on loudspeaker broadcasts who-knows-what, silenced briefly for the Muslim call to prayer. Neon advertising. Blade Runner.

Soviet tower block

Marco Polo In Short 56

In 1271 a group of Viennese merchants, including the elder Polo men, voyaged eastward. 15 years later, at a time when life expectancy was under 40, they returned, having met Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and the Kublai Kahn, the founder of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty of China.

At this point in history Europe had no direct communications with the East, other than the missionaries who bumbled about trying to convert the heathens. The Mongols were a terrifying, demonic prospect, whose empire was expanding across Central Asia, China and Persia and was at Western borders by the 13th Century. The opportunistic Viennese merchants wanted to make contact and secure trade and great wealth with Islam. A second voyage set out for Constantinople and beyond, this time including the young Marco Polo, with the aim of completing a promised mission to the great Kahn bringing him oil and knowledge from the West; the journey to reach him took three years with Marco paying attention.

The Kahn, who consolidating his vast kingdom, was impressed by Marco's observations from the lands he had journeyed and asked MP to cross his Mongolian Empire and report back his findings. MP did so, using Kahn's seal to allow him him passage and protection from the conflicting Mongolian warlords. He returned 17 years later - Kahn received him as one of his own.

MP's writings were published in the 14th Century and were a sensation across Europe. A discussion continues to this day whether Marco Polo was a fictional character created by the publisher, yet the descriptive detail of the writings indicate MP was almost certainly the witness.

Elysor 55

A derelict Soviet-era factory lays dead for who knows how long and once employing how many and so many stories?

On the now paved highway - four lanes with markings! - the driver must remain alert to the odd cow that wanders on to the road and stands dumb, unyielding, though it sees us.

Master: Between father and son, there is a bridge which neither time nor death can shatter. Each stands at one end, needing to cross and meet.
Caine: But he is dead.
Master: The bridge of which I speak, Grasshopper, is your love for him.
--Kung Fund

Tian Shans 54

Tian Shan range
The mighty Tian Shans, across Issyk-Kul, whose highest peaks in the distance include Pik Pobedy at 7,439m. Climbers come here from around the world to try their chances.

Tian Shan means "mountain of Heaven" or "mountain of God."

A proper autumn has arrived at altitude which means winds, clear air and a dusting of snow on the mountain tops that surround us. In late October or November the heavy snows arrive closing the passes until springtime.

Today we drive to Bishkek, the capital city, and tomorrow it is Istanbul.

A Brief Moment Of Inevitable History 53

The Chinese are expelled from Central Asia
When the western Turks faded from Central Asia in the 7th century, a new power was waiting to fill the void - the army of Islam. Exploding out of Arabia just a few years after the Prophet Mohammed's death, the Muslim armies conquered Persia and set up a military base in Turkministan; the power struggles ebbed and flowed and eventually the Arab Muslims gained ground, taking Bukhara in 709.

China, meanwhile, had revived under the Tang Dynasty and expanded in Central Asia, murdering the khan of the Tashkent Turks - perhaps the most costly skulduggery in Chinese  history (the Silk Route had already given them a strong presence here). The enraged Turks were joined by the opportunistic Arabs and Tibetans; in 751 they forced the Chinese into the Talas Valley (present day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) sending what little remained of their 200,000 strong army back across the Tian Shans, marking then, and now, the outer limits of the Chinese Empire. 

And so it goes.

Babushka 52

Russian Babushka
The babushka, who serves us wonderful potato stew and speaks not one word of English, offers me and Eitan her homemade alcohol made from grape fermentation that must be like 50% alcohol - served in dainty silk coated shot glasses and tasting like dirt - I gag loudly as it burns my throat - than have another glass.

We have the luxury of electricity (from 7pm) and cable tv allowing Eitan to watch Bayern Munich defeat Manchester United (in Russian), the game starting at 1am. No question of his watching.

Two Russians arrive late and drink their own home made whisky informing it is 60% alcohol (not that were are competing, we are).

Note the Christ child hanging on the wall.

On Jihad 51

We discuss Jihad over dinner. Jyghal says that teachers in places like Syria and Iran with no authority have usurped the teachings of the Koran, which demands, most broadly, peace (the Iran Iraq war was a sanctioned two-way holy war that killed easily a million Muslims).

Who, then, can call jihad? Any imam and only in response to an attack, or threat, on the Muslim practice. The ultimate authority is the most learned 'student' of the Koran - the Ayatollah Khamenei, for instance. But the local Osh imam can do it, too.

Why would a practicing Muslim want to go to paradise (72 virgins) for Jihad if he loves his wife? "He loves his wife and Paradise is only18 years. Then what? Nothing, it is dust."

Is there 'hell' for, say, murder? "32x heat of the sun."

Yet nothing, says Jyghal, including murder, is worse than pre-marital sex which disgraces the family and the village. I wonder: Does it flip everything on its head - women are the center of Islam, reflected by the ability to cause the greatest harm, instead of subjugated in a dominant male culture? I don't know the answer.

"Stan" means 'land of" like Kazakhstan. Or Finland or England.

Wednesday, October 11

Espresso and Taylor Swift 50


Surprise - it works
We stop at a super market in Balkchy properly stocked with local fruit (pears, pomegranates, plums; no vegetables) and imported from mainly Iran (oranges and bananas, nuts) and processed foods galore including an espresso machine. Heaven. 

There is also an isle dedicated only to liquor which surprises me - it is for the tourists, of course, who are mainly Russian. There is a direct train from Bishkek that runs from Spring to September 1 for the beach holidays. 

Manchester United plays Bayern Munich at 1am and Eitan stays up to watch the match. Jyghal knows every player on the team yet has never heard of Elton John. Or Taylor Swift. For my part, I am happy to be asleep during the game, dear.

A novelty here

Janaza Prayer 49

When a Muslim dies there is no ceremony nor period of mourning, at least for the working classes. The family gathers with friends at the house to offer their support then to the cemetery where the imam says the 'janaza' prayer meaning 'someone has died' and the burial. "That's it."

We enter Balkchy city next to Issky-Kul lake, the largest in Central Asia and the seventh-deepest lake (668m) in the world, the tenth-largest lake by volume and the second-largest saline lake (0.6% vs 3.5% for seawater) after the Caspian Sea. Issyk-Kul means "warm lake" in Kyrgyz; although it is located at 1,607m and subject to sever cold during winter, it rarely freezes due to the salinity. The lake's southern shore, where we are, is dominated by the Tian Shans over which is China.

Yes, I swim here.

The One When Jyghal Works The Off Season 48


It snows at Kalamk pass (3,352m)

Jyghal describes his six months in the UK where he spent last winter to make money during the tourist off-season. Of six Kyrgyz men, only Jyghal spoke English. The crew arrive on a 'seasonal visa' to work in a factory in Scotland "boxing" 13 hours a day, six days a week (5am to 6pm). How much? £65 a week (he insists, but I think wrong because he also informs he brought home 10 grand though it could be for all six).

In any case, initially, for efficiency given one free day/ week, the men, led by Jyghal, hit Lidl and Asda (low-cost grocery chains) and empty the shelves of all the bread, eggs and sugar - and directly told they cannot do that. Next time, "we get smart, use two shopping carts" we laugh.

The promised accommodations turn out to be a caravan "very awful. Very cold. The winds shook our place so bad." Electricity and gas purchased on the meter - "so much" - until Jyghal takes matters into his own hands and finds a house for six, rented from a Bulgarian he finds on Facebook - "only a Bulgarian would rent a place to guys like us, otherwise impossible." The house is far from the factory and Jyghal somehow sources a 2005 Honda for £1,700, haggled down from £2,000. "Oh, man, the insurance and tax so expensive" and not anticipated in the purchase price. The car serves its purpose and then given to the Bulgarian for the final months rent ("we told him we had no money") and accepted only after Jyghal proves the MOT is good for another six months.

I nod to Eitan, don't laugh too loud: such conditions are endured by most young people - my first apartment in Manhattan on 6th Avenue not far from being a tenement house shared with three college friends with one sleeping in the closet and the commute to work on the subway a cattle-call. These stories are gold dust.

Monoo Awyy 47

Monoo Awyy, 3,335m
Eitan and I walk along a windy and dusty dirt road back to camp. It provides a chance to discuss a number of books Eitan is reading or has read as part of his English Literature degree. He has a lot going on in his head and I delight in the depth of understanding, and the links he is able to make covering - at now - Russian literature from its 'golden age' of the second half of the 19th century. 

Our trek is extended when we take a wrong fork and must eventually cross rolling grassy fields, passing untended horses, and underneath a cowboy sky.

Tuesday, October 10

Horse Play 46

This morning the local men have a game of Bushkashi 3X3 but without the sacrificed calf; the slightly altered objective is to place a large bag into the tire. While this contest lasts maybe half-hour, it is typical for a match to go three hours.

Alatoo Pass 45

Cowboy on the range
We cross the Alatoo pass and have lunch watching the clouds drift overhead and the herds move across the grasslands, overseen by several horsemen and a complement of dogs.

The dogs are ubiquitous in the villages, often underfed or starving, sometimes old and friendly and always non-threatening and well behaved. Herding dogs are a different category. While not on par with Border Collies from a simple observation, they are indispensable for the task.

Trusted companions

On Mornings 44

Somewhere in the Alatoos
Mornings are admittedly hard after sleeping 8hrs like the dead. Eitan stays up reading while I simply crash on the always hard beds - sometimes too hot for a blanket, maybe too cold without thermal underwear. However it may be, the alarm goes off for a pre-arranged breakfast and we stair at each other stunned - facing dressing, organising our backpacks and uncomfortable toiletries eg often navigating squat toilets. The reward is coffee - always Nescafe (I avoid the milk which could be horse) - and then a sense of well being here with my son who is now a man of 22 years, planning his independence, and dependable in almost all ways.

A man runs across a crazy Osh street, like Frogger, jumping from lily pad to lily pad on a dangerous stream. He is carrying a man-sized punching bag on his shoulder.

Alatoo Mine 43

Trucks and their payload heading to Osh
We drive by a coal mine in the Alatoo mountains (North Kyrgyzstan; one of Kyrgyz's three ranges with the Pamirs and the Tian Shan). It is a rugged affair and not pretty - a dirt lot filled with 30 large trucks, others grinding up or down a terraced hill to the elevated pit. There are discarded rusted drums and machinery by the roadside and an accommodation for shelter for the men including beds and a toilet pit.

Before this point we hit our first rain/ snow turning the dusty road to mud and making the coal grounds even less pleasant. I am happy to drive by.

Halasa 43

From the wedding we share a taxi ride with Jyghal's cousin Halasa ("my sister," he calls her, anyway in the family), on the right, who is from Morgab in Tajikistan, where we spent a night and no reason to ever go back. Halasa moved to Osh to receive her education 20 years ago, already making her exceptional, and now speaks five languages and has been studying in China for four years (she goes every year). What will she do? "I am not sure what she learnt (says Jyghal) but something on the economical side."

Halasa has four young children. Her husband, I learn ,is Jyghal's colleague at the touring agency. The family lives in a modern well lit condominium in a nice central neighbourhood.

Covid was devastating to Osh and Jyghal's family.

Sheep, it's whats for dinner

Monday, October 9

Beta Prayer 42

Jyrghal's wife at their wedding in 2017
From here forward Nurkyz will wear the joluk that covers her hair and live with her in-laws' family, replacing Jyghal (the oldest brother) and his wife, who will move out of the family apartment. Nurkyz will rise every day at 5am to put on her joluk and prepare the house, wake the family, and stay at home to do chores and prepare food (Jyghal concedes, "it is too hard. It is for the first time with us, she does not know the family and does not know our traditions. It is a different house"). Eventually Nurkyz will return to her job at Optima Bank, while continuing her home life, until she has a child then any external work stops.

Kairet and Nurkyz will remain with Kairet's family until the youngest son is married then they are free to leave as the new family bridge and groom move in.

The late-evening's final toast/prayer "Beta" is made by the eldest father (82) : "Wishing you make a happy and easy life, we hope you give us children." As he speaks, our palms are open before us, then over the face, brushing downward with our eyes looking up.

Jyrghal family member

Sex And A Dowery 41

Kairet and Nurkyz
Kairet and Nurkyz, the groom and bride, look decidedly uncomfortable both during the dinners (separated) and dancing - where they stand awkwardly, she holding his arm and looking downward (for respect to men, which she will do for the next several weeks) and he is stiff as a board.

Jyghal explains, there is no sex before marriage - "it is impossible" (and called "harem") which would be the most "horrible thing" in Sunni Islam - he snickers it is OK for Shia though.

This will presumably be the couple's first time with the naked opposite sex nor have they been allowed pictures of "bikini women" or sex education, at least formally or in the family. I can see why they may be petrified.

The bride and groom have know each other four years and it is Kairet's decision of marriage. Once agreed, he makes the argument to his family presenting Nurkyz's friends, reputation and family history.

Before the wedding there is a 'Nika' where the imam of their mosque prays for the couple, enabling them to become husband and wife. Then it - sex - is 'Halal', clean, and OK.

In Sunni Islam, before the ceremony, the bride is checked by two or three people to confirm she is a virgin, which is reported to the husband's mother (I do not ask who does the checking as I sense it crosses a line). If it checks out, a dowery to the bride's family is discussed and called "Kalan," Jyghal says, "we will pay for her, it is like this is Islam." How much? 250,000 somone and six sheep ($3,500+$500 for each sheep). It is a negotiated sum that started at 400,000 somone and ten sheep. 

Party? Dates are set within a month. The bride's family hosts. There is a culling of numbers ("it is very big money, we must cut everyone"). Despite the enormous family burden, we are included with a moment's hesitation ("Rirsk" means "God to bring all together with us, special guests and generous always").

Groom's evening

Wedding 40

On our first day in Kyrgyzstan, Jyghal reports that his brother - the middle of three - is to be married the next day - do we wish to join? As the oldest son, Jyghal is responsible for the wedding negotiations including the party (first of many) and a very special occasion for the two families to meet for the first time. We accept with enthusiasm and drive the seven hours to Osh on the wedding day.

The Islamic wedding is a remarkable and joyous event on the outskirts of Osh with many courses of local food including four slaughtered lamb of which the fourth goes home with the guests in large plastic carrying bags (Nb one lamb can feed 12 people). For the dinner, one lamb is smoked all day and three are boiled and everything - everything - is eaten or taken home. For me, the food is the most extravagant part of the affair costing equal to several months of a doctor's-equivalent wages.

Eitan and I have two meals with the 23 family elders and one meal, in a separate room, with the groom and his c 15 male friends. Bare in mind no English, no alcohol. It is a real affair and we feel accepted as privileged guests. A toast - in broken English - is made on our behalf which I reciprocate.

We dance and the elder women are the most uninhibited of the party ensuring that we are participating. Eitan charms their socks off.

I sit next to the "Godfather" (via Google translation, may be wrong) who is decidedly not the "best man" though he is the married-couple's age.  What does he do ? Ensures the bride and groom remain happy - I interpret it like an inner-circle friend and therapist for the groom. "It is a very big problem for me," and we share the joke.

A joyous evening

On Drugs 39

Roadside lunch
Jyghal states there are no drugs in Kyrgyzstan - "impossible," he says. Firstly being caught with hard drugs is 20-25 years in prison (one can only imagine). Another reason, though, are the natural borders - nearby Afghanistan is the opium source for Central Asia with its poppy fields yet to get to Kyrgyzstan a seller must pass through China and Tajikistan, with their closed borders, and across rivers or over mountains, making transport difficult to, indeed, impossible. Islam also forbids all non-medical drugs including alcohol with severe retribution.

Jyghal says that poppies are very hard to grow yet thrive in Afghanistan's rocky, dry climate and high altitudes. Farmers can make more money selling poppies than herding livestock and it is unclear if the Afghani government actively supports the crop and may purchase the poppies. Any case, there is a large and needy market in Russia and Europe while next-door China is hugely severe on drug users, so less attractive. The Taliban, for its part, is alined with the West as it is trying to suppress the poppies to control addiction by its people, a real problem for them.

On alcohol, I have noticed beer has dried up since the border though it can be purchased, along with spirits, in the city. Nb Shia practice allows alcohol and, in Khorog (a Shia town we crossed in Tajikistan), "everyone is smoking and drinking everything" Jyghal informs enthusiastically.

Jyghal and Eitan

Horse Milk 38

To Osh, by gosh
We cover about 235km yesterday to Osh - a long day for sure but the early autumnal weather offers a respite at 25C degrees. It is peak-season for fruit and vegetables and the markets we pass are loaded with bright red peppers, watermelons, apples and plums. Despite this abundance, our diet has been mainly meat at least twice a day.

In  Osh, a payment to our touring agency is required - this one, $1,500. As anticipated we go to the bank for a withdrawal (Mastercard only, no Amex) to find our cards are rejected for dollars - same at the bank with a private banker. The cash is needed to pay for our lodgings, crossings etc so it is not simply solved by a wire transfer from Coutts, which takes five days. The solution found extracting somone currency, which works, only we need c 135,000 of them. The ATM allows a 15,000 somone withdrawal and I already see a day driving to 15 stops. Fortunately, at Eitan's suggestion, I try the same money teller again and a further 15k OK. And another and another and another.

At the wedding we try horse milk (before I know) which is circulated in 2L plastic Coke bottles and received with gusto by the table. It is a thick white colour sprinkled with black dots that look like dirt. The taste is a harsh and sour - I cannot help but think of urine - but what is fantastical is the seasoning which is like drinking smoke. Eitan and I finish half our bowls under pressure to finish it all.

Mandatory in the morning

A Brief Note On Education And Salary 37

Education is a central focus of the Kyrgyz family, starting at kindergarten then through the grades and, for some few, university. Villages share their resources when there are not enough numbers to support a classroom. The government is investing heavily in new school buildings and paying teachers more, as it is easy for teachers to go to Moscow and make much more ("easy") money.

Universtiy costs $2,500/ year (only US dollars respected) and Kyrgyzstan has the best universities in Central Asia, Jyghal informs, located in Osh and Bishkek. It attracts students from Pakistan and India mainly interested in medicine and the cheaper cost. Non Kyrgyz students may pay a premium up to $3,000 year. The only equivalent family expenditure is a wedding and the bride's dowery. Jyghal is blown away to learn a US private school is at least 50 grand year - an unimaginable amount of money.

Medicine in Kyrgyzstan has become very popular as a doctor's salary is c $1,500 month, only matched by military service at $800-$1,500. Teachers, pre-covid, earned $150 month but, since they were leaving the profession, or relocating to Russia, they can now earn $1,000 month, the third highest earning profession in the country.

For interest, one sheep ncosts $150 to $1,000. A cow is $1,000 to $3,000 A small horse, $1,500, and racing horse up to a million

-- -- 
-- -- --

Sunday, October 8

Bushkashi 36

Kyrgistan's history is nomadic, and the horse is very important in the culture. Young men want them like an American 16 year-old wants a driver's license.

Bushkashi is the national game here - "very dangers", Jyghal says. The rules: Two teams of five horse-riders each side line up on opposite edges of a circle (maybe 300m in diameter). A smaller circle is in the middle and holds the prize: a sheep or calf, throat slit, feet cut off. The objective: snatch the body and bring it back to your side. At first, one horse each side, races to the middle to snatch the objective - once in hand, all horses race in to support, or stop, the running back. 

The sport is filled with ritual and celebration. At the national matches many thousands will watch. Manas Neazaov is the best, and most famous, player of the sport.

Taldyk pass 35

Taldyk Pass
"Hard pass" - at 3,500m, Taldyk pass is one of the highest passes here. It is a windy, twisty and steep road and, happily, well paved.

I ask Jyghal how he gets his information ? "From Russia. Not much going on with the local news. Russia-Ukraine." Jyghal informs that Russian news can be trusted; he is less convinced by the BBC : "It is only America."

Meanwhile, back at home, Sonnet and Stephanie drive Madeleine to Manchester for her last year of university.

Meat is being served

Saturday, October 7

Osh City 34

 Luxory at its finest
Osh - back to civilisation (outside our hotel, assured the best in the city; we are happy to enjoy a "modern" break). 

Kyrgyzstan faired relatively well, of Central Asia's 15 countries, following the Soviet collapse - there was no civil war, for instance (Jryghal informs that the Mujahideen maintained control of Tajik districts until 2005 despite the elections). 

From 1991, factories and trade stopped ("like Afghanistan when the Americans left, 24 hours only") and there was virtually no economy. What did people do? "Drinking, sleeping and fucking" for two years. Fair enough. The first election in Kyrgyzstan was in 1992 bringing stability by 1995.

Kyrgyzstan survived this period due to its abundance of water - more than any other Central Asian country - and gold, which it has in abundance. Its commercial borders remained open and its ties to Russia strong - the US made some efforts in Central Asia post the Soviet collapse, including sponsoring Kyrgyzstan's acceptance into the WTO (1999) but following 9/11 the Americans took a greater interest in the region, and opened the (military) Transit Center at Manis (Kyrgyzstan) in December 2001, to Russia and China's horror. Under pressure, Kyrgyzstan closed the base in 2006.

The US relations have been difficult here at best, Russia is the center of gravity, yet there is an American embassy in Bishkeck. To me, it seems China is the real worry. Next door, China has lent Tajikistan tons of development money, including to pave the Pamir Highway, and eventually it will absorb the mineral-laden territory in return. Indeed it is happening already as 60% of mined gold in the Fan mountains going to China.

Genghis Kahn 33

Genghis Kahn

From Eitan's journal:

"800 years ago, this was Genghis Kahn territory. In 1218 a governor in Otrar (now Kazakhstan) received a Mongolian delegation to initiate trade relations. Already aware of the menacing threat that was sweeping the continent, the Otrarian governor had the lead delegate assassinated. Kahn had been plotting to expand his empire up until this point, and this was all he needed to launch a full scale attack. In 1219, Kahn readied an army of 200,000 men to ride west from his stronghold in Altay. In the space of one year, Kahn had sacked Kojan and Otrar (Kahn watching as the Otrarian governor had molten silver pour in his eyes as revenge).

Mongolian tribes continued to sweep across Central Asia and destroy its major cities. The siege continued until Kahn's death in 1227 and, eventually, the Mongolian empire would go on to become the biggest continuous land empire in human history. Settled civilisation in Central Asia only began to recover 600 years later following Russian expansion in the 19th century."

Soviet Comms 32

Soviet technology
We cross the Ali Valley pinned by Lenin Peak (7,135m) and the Pamirs. The Soviets had a military base here and the metal balloons were used for communications.

The valley btw is about 2,000m above sea level which means we are looking at mountains that peak three miles above us.

Jyrgal speaks many languages including his native Kyrgyi, english, farsi, Russian, Tajiki and Pariri. He spent six months in the UK on a seasonal visa working at a factory, allowing him to visit London, Canterbury and Scotland including Glasgow and Edinburgh (Eitan compares notes).

Really, though Jyrghal is pro-Russian whom, he informs, still controls the region and enjoys frictionless trade in goods, services and people. He has been to Moscow ("crazy, crazy place, too. many people") and studied at a Russian school in Osh where there are many; Russian is the second language here. NB Kyrgyzstan is 4,500km from Russia, traversing enormous Kazakhstan.

The original Soviet-built Pamir highway was from Osh to Khorog or 800km (of the 1,800 total distance) which we travel now. 

Do people climb these mountains? Yes, many die each year (on Lenin peak).