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