Kyrgyzstan

Although Kyrgyzstan is similar to Tajikistan – once central to the Silk Route, mountainous high terrain, nomadic people and former USSR state, Kyrgyzstan has a much rougher past and present largely because of its history.

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The Kyrgyz flag tells the story.  The 40-rayed yellow sun in the center of the flag represents the 40 tribes that once made up the entirety of Kyrgyz culture before the intervention of Russia during the rise of the Soviet Union.   Even though it had falllen to various foreign occupiers similar to those in Tajik, its pre-Soviet internal tribalism meant that this country has rarely seen peace.  Before Soviet times there was a steady succession of tribes and clans looking for power.  Today, after independence, the Soviet influence remains.  Kyrgyzstan is one of two former Soviet republics in Central Asia to have Russian as an official language, Kazakhstan being the other.   And since independence, the old tribalism has revived so that there are numerous threats to the Kyrgystan people coming at them literally from all directions.

Though the tribes are divided by its many mountains, the traditional nomadic lifestyle (on the flag, the lines inside the sun represent the crown of a yurt), the tribes tend to run into each other and compete for valuable pastureland.  While Uzbeks and Tajiks traditionally farmed in the valleys, the Kyrgyz nomadic tradition continues to function seasonally as herding families return to the high mountain pasture (or jailoo) in the summer.

Human Rights

Human rights continue to be a concern in the country.  In a move that alarmed human-rights groups, dozens of prominent Uzbek religious and community leaders were arrested by security forces following the 2010 South Kyrgyzstan riots, including journalist and human-rights activist Azimzhan Askarov, who was sentenced to life in prison

American diplomats expressed concern in October 2014 when Kyrgyzstan lawmakers passed a law that imposes jail terms on gay-rights activists and others, including journalists, who create “a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations.”

On 24 January 2017, a Kyrgyz court reinstated the sentence of life imprisonment for Askarov.

Human Rights Watch

In 2019, Human Rights Watch issued a report on Kyrgystan, stating in part:

“Long-term human rights concerns persisted in the first year of Soronbai Jeenbekov’s presidency, even as blatant attacks on media freedoms became less frequent, and the president appeared to seek more constructive engagement with civil society. Violence against women, including bride-kidnapping, and impunity for torture persisted.  Kyrgyzstan has not released the wrongfully imprisoned human rights defender Azimjon Askarov.”

Read the full report, here.

Violence Against Women

A law banning women under the age of 23 from traveling abroad without a parent or guardian, with the purpose of “increased morality and preservation of the gene pool” passed in the Kyrgyz parliament in June 2013.

Bridenapping.  Illegal, but still practiced, is the barrbaric tradition of kidnapping, raping and enslaving a woman and marrying her, guaranteeing her enslavement for life.

In its 2019 report, Human Rights Watch stated:

2F361283-B928-4435-A493-E179E56D4D7F“Impunity for widespread domestic violence persists, despite a 2017 domestic violence law that mandates police and judicial response to domestic violence and guarantees greater legal protections for victims. In July, the Prosecutor General’s Office commented in the media that “in the
last two years” it had registered more than 9,000 cases of violence against women and children and had opened 5,456 administrative cases and 784 criminal cases.”

Women protest, but many are arrested.

It really is a straight man’s world in these parts.

The Switzerland of Central Asia

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7D6576EF-93A2-4208-84B1-AE096E7CF3A8All of that said, Kyrgyzstan’s beautiful scenery and potential for mountaineering adventure is what continues to attract some tourists despite its internal political problems.  A landlocked country, it borders on Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is farther from the sea than any other individual country, and all its rivers flow into closed drainage systems which do not reach the sea. The mountainous region of the Tian Shan covers over 80% of the country, where Kyrgyzstan derived the handle, “the Switzerland of Central Asia.”

Tourism

In 2006 and 2007, the number of tourists visiting was more than a million a year. However, due to the economic and political instability in the region, the number has declined in recent years.

Canadian Travel Advisory:  Exercise a high degree of caution

This was the pre-COVID travel advisory.  It states:

“The security situation is tense and there is a possibility of violent clashes and civil unrest in:

    • areas south and west of Osh
    • throughout the Fergana Valley
    • along the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan

There are landmines in the areas bordering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Use officially recognized border crossings only, as landmines may be present in uncontrolled border areas.  Violent crime is common and criminals (including organized gangs) target foreigners due to their perceived wealth.”

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This doesn’t necessarily mean not going to Kyrgystan after the COVID threat is gone.  The same advisory was present when I went to Egypt.  It does suggest it would not be advisable to travel alone, especially if you are a woman, and to use a tour company you trust with the best security knowledge on the ground and to follow the advisory about situational awareness and safety.  Only you can decide about your own personal safety.

 

Banned Airline Status

4147C026-D8AB-4278-8E68-7FA269D62503Kyrgyzstan appears on the European Union’s list of prohibited countries for the certification of airlines. This means that no airline which is registered in Kyrgyzstan may operate services of any kind within the European Union, due to safety standards which fail to meet European regulations.  No EU airline has flights to Kyrgyzstan (as of 2020). Travel between the European Union and Kyrgyzstan includes changing aircraft, most often in Moscow or Istanbul.

Nonetheless, if you are not risk-averse, there are some compelling reasons to visit and we’re visiting with utmost safety.

Bishkek

1F187A80-F7B6-41D3-A534-954539BD56C0The capital city, Bishkek has broad, tree-lined streets, plenty of parks and impressive Soviet white marble architecture, such as the buildings lining Ala-Too Square.  The central square is a good place to start.   The State History Museum is one of the most impressive.  Unfortunately the museum isn’t a history of the Kyrgyz people, but a Soviet history.  It is currently shown online as permanently closed, but I am not sure if that is really permanent or COVID-related.

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The “White House,” the marble presidential office building in the Stalinist modern style, reportedly has a secret tunnel network linking it to Ala-Too Square on the other side of the street.

 

Also in the square is a monument dedicated to Manas, the iconic “Homer” of Kyrgyz culture and history.

Manas, the epic poem

His forefathers were all khans
Blessed by Kidir from the beginning,
His ancestors were all khans
Blessed b y Kidir from the beginning.
In places where they had stayed overnight
Sacred shrines were built, for
God had blessed them from the beginning.
In the places where they had passed by
A city with a bazaar was established, for

God had blessed them from the beginning.
They had exchanged greetings with twelve saints,
Learned writing from a caliph,
And thus were called great “sahibs.”
His first forefather is Böyönkhan,
From Böyönkhan is Chayankhan,
From Chayankhan, is Nogoykhan,
Nogoykhan was undefeatable
Those who fought with him were doomed.
The last had lived along the Sumpuk River.

– Translated by Elmira Köçümkulkïzi, University of Washington (Seattle)

6CBD0E8F-372E-4C4A-9A64-BD9B04051EBFThe Epic of Manas is perhaps the most important part of Kyrgyz culture, and is (arguably) the longest epic poem in the world. At 20 times longer than the Odyssey, this epictells the life of Manas, an epic warrior, and his son and grandson.  Each of its 500,000 lines contains 7-8 syllables and maintains alliteration and end rhyme.  Manas is the classic centerpiece of Kyrgyz literature, and parts of it are often recited at Kyrgyz festivities by specialists in the epic, called Manaschi. Manaschis tell the tale in a melodic chant unaccompanied by musical instruments. 

There are some videos on YT of Manaschis performing the poem, but this was absolutely the most adorable.

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The city’s Opera and Ballet Theater has productions from fall to spring.

 

 

Osh Bazaar

This vast open-air market, the biggest in Bishkek, is well worth a visit.  There are heaps of all kinds of food, crafts, and housewares.

You’ll see a lot of small restaurants and food stalls where you can buy traditional Kyrgyz dishes and meals.  The food in Kyrgyzstan is hearty and delicious. Most meals consist of lamb, beef or chicken, served in dumplings, on top of noodles or rice or alongside potatoes.

Night Life

Bishkek is a party town, but the night clubs start late (think Madrid).  You are warned to dress up, and “face control is strictly enforced.”

92B99994-7342-46FF-8764-92C5F43F9E90Face control:  “the policy of upscale nightclubs, casinos, restaurants and similar establishments to strictly restrict entry based on a bouncer’s snap judgment of the suitability of a person’s looks, money, style or attitude, especially in Russia and other former Soviet countries.”

 

Toktogul

Time to get out of the city to explore the spectacular scenery.  We’ll stop off in the city of Toktogul on our way to beautiful Osh Province.    Oddly, and likely instructive, this is literally all I could find online about the city:  it is named after its most famous son – the musician Toktogul Satilganov. It is located on the northern shore of the Toktogul reservoir.

Toktogul Satilganov was a well-known poet and composer with democratic views even during the Tsarist Russia’s colonial era in Southern Kyrgyzstan (1876–1917).  His fame reached a high point in the Soviet era when his works were promoted by the state as a musician of the people and he was known throughout Kyrgyzstan simply as “Toktogul.”  Although his music was originally interpreted as dealing with the pre-revolutionary class struggle, he welcomed the revolution, writing in celebrationWhat woman gave birth to such a person like Lenin?

Some of his music has more oriental flavour than Ming Kyal, but this piece has a lightness, airiness, and a bracing quality that evokes the high mountain country and the chill of the alpine lakes.   See if you agree.

Osh Lake

6B285958-CE70-4405-B98D-7289321E7562Among Kyrgyzstan’s gorgeous mountains are the sparkling alpine lakes.  We’ll visit Kulun Lake, a rock-dammed lake in Osh Province. It is located at the altitude of 2856 m in catchment of Kulun River, right tributary of Tar River.

 

Well, this is our tour of Kyrgyzstan as I know it and the end of our tour of this part of Central Asia.  I’m sure if w were there we would continue for a few more days on our tour across this Kyrgyz landscape of endless soaring beauty.   

Ah, the Silk Road, caravans of camels, yak and horsemen.  The fragrant spices and teas, colourful silks and ceramics and probably some laudanem, too, traversing thousands of kilometres, some of it through this mountainous terrain.  Central Asia is a part of the world previously veiled in mystery to me.   Nomadic people, religion mostly Muslim, culture somewhat Russian, history former Soviet  – I’ve begun to understand how all these seemingly conflicting ideas merge into these two peoples, in some ways more successfully than others.  And I’ve seen the cultured cities and the spectacular mountainous scenery.

Thanks to you, I have a few ideas as to where we will go next in our flying armchairs…

Best,

Jan

 

 

 

 

Tajikistan

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The Republic of Tajikistan is a mountainous, landlocked country in Central Asia with an estimated population of over 9.25 million.  It is bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and China to the east. The Tajik people are those who speak the traditional language Tajik, a dialect of Persian, though generally Russian is the language used today.

Branch of ripe cotton on the cotton field, Uzbekistan

Following the end of the American Civil War and the end to slavery there, the world’s chief source of cotton disappeared. The Russian Empire eyed Central Asia as a place where it could grow its own cotton.  By 1885, Russia had taken control of Tajikistan and replaced all of its grain production with cotton.  The Soviets expanded the cotton production and today, cotton remains the country’s main export.  Tajikistan is the poorest former USSR country.

The fall of the USSR and the independence of Tajikistan sent the country into a five-year civil war that left tens of thousands dead and one-fifth of the population displaced.  The end of the war saw Tajikistan nominally a democratic republic, but there is virtually one political party and strongman President Emomali Rohman, a former cotton farm boss installed in 1994, has remained in power ever since.  Each mention of Rahmon in the media is preceded by his official title: “founder of peace and national unity, leader of the nation.”  The government has been criticised by a number of non-governmental organizations for authoritarian leadership, lack of religious freedom, corruption and widespread violations of human rights.

Although the political system is secular, Sunni Islam is practiced by 98% of the population and was declared the official religion in 2009 although Rohnan reportedly despises the religion.  1.2% of the population are still Zorastrianism, an ancient religion formed in Iran.  I was curious, so…

Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions.  Major features of Zoroastrianism, such as messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will may have influenced other religious and philosophical systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam, the Bahá’í Faith, and Buddhism.

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Zoroastrians pray in front of a fire, which represents purity and sustainability

In Zoroastrianism, the purpose in life is to bring happiness into the world and battle evil..  We could use a little happiness right now!  Zoroastrianism’s core teachings include:

  • Follow the Threefold Path of Asha: Humata, Huxta, Huvarshta (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds);
  • Charity is a way of maintaining one’s soul aligned to Asha and to spread happiness;
  • The spiritual equality and duty of the genders; and,
  • Being good for the sake of goodness and without the hope of reward.

A good Easter message, don’t you think?

Tourism

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The spectacular scenery and opportunities for mountaineering and adventure travel are boundless and tourism was being promoted and growing until the COVID outbreak.    Many companies are offering tours of this land of the Silk Road for its stunning scenery and friendly people.

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Lonely Planet says:  “The term ‘predominantly mountainous’ doesn’t do justice to a country where over 90% of the land is upland. This fact of nature has given Tajikistan a precious advantage over its neighbours, namely some of the most inspiring, high-altitude landscape in the world. Within an hour of Dushanbe lie multi-hued lakes, peaks that beg to be climbed and high passes that thrill even reluctant travellers. In among this natural splendour are scattered villages and towns….  For visitors tolerant of a few travelling hardships (outdoor loos, cold water, potholed roads), the country more than compensates with a rare glimpse into life lived on ‘The Roof of the World’.”

Let’s go!

Khujand

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Khujand is one of the oldest cities of Central Asia, founded in the 7th-6th centuries BC. It was conquered by Alexander the Great, who rebuilt, fortified and re-named it to Alexandria Eskhata (Extreme). Located on the Great Silk Road, and connecting Samarkand with Fergana Valley, Khujand enjoyed a favorable geopolitical location and significant transport importance. Later, it was conquered by the Arabs (in the 8th century), and then it maintained resistance to the army of Genghis Khan, but eventually was destroyed (in the 13th century). However, very soon the city revived, becoming one of the largest commercial, cultural and scientific centers of the Central Asian region.

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A visit to Khujand Fortress, constructed 2,500 years ago, and the regional history museum are musts for visitors who want to know the history of the region.   

We won’t want to miss soaking up the culture at the Panjshanbe Bazaar!

Pamir Highway

Now it’s time to leave city life and be stunned by the gorgeous mountains, scenic valleys and alpine lakes that make this country such a wonderful destination. We’ll head out on the Pamir Highway which connects Tajikistan with neighbouring Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  This highway, the M41, is one of the highest in the world, with the peak point at Ak-Baital Pass, which is 4,655 meters above sea level.

Along the way, look out for flocks of yaks. If you are lucky, you may get a chance to spot the elusive but majestic Marco Polo sheep in the higher stretches of the surrounding mountains.

Iskanderkul Lake

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On our way to the Fann Mountains we will pass the beautiful Iskanderkul Lake, an excellent place for outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and swimming. It is sandwiched between the beautiful Fann Mountains and is one of the largest glacial lakes in north-west Tajikistan.


The Haft Kul:  Seven Lakes in the Fann Mountains

In earliest times, an old man living among the Fann mountains went missing. After many days without his return, his seven daughters began crying until they each drowned in a flood of their own tears, creating these beautiful lakes.  Each lake represents one of the man’s daughters.

That is the legend, but the more likely cause was earthquakes.  The Haft Kul is comprised of seven stunningly beautiful lakes in a narrow rocky valley that range in colour from black to vibrant turquoise. The name Haft Kul literally translates to Seven Lakes in Tajik. You may also hear the area referred to as Seven Lakes, Marguzor Lakes, or the Seven Lakes of Marguzor. For those short on time and not feeling up for trekking, 6 of the 7 lakes are reachable by vehicle.

If you’re in Dushanbe, it must be Monday

The country’s capital city was always known as Dushanbe before the name was formalized.  Monday (“Dushanbe” in Tajik), was market day.  And that’s where we’ll start our tour of the city, at the Mehrgon Bazaar.

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In the afternoon we’ll feast on some delectable local, home-cooked cuisines at the food stalls in the afternoon, including Qurutob, the other Tajikstan national dish.

 

Here, you can try it at home!


This World

O my valuable, o my gloomy friend,
O my fellow whose cries have no end.

The gone is gone, the becoming you can’t explain
The past is past!  Obstinate, why do you complain?

Go cry to the ends of time, if you wish!
You can’t return to life, a lifeless fish!

You’re life will get harder and harder-
If you complain for every blunder!

A bain awaits your heart, if you look
At its every desire, at its every hook!

Defeat the army of gloom assailing your heart,
With the power of wine, you carry in your cart!

Greatness and wisdom only come to you-
With the perils and pain you stroll through.

– Rudaki (858-941) (translated by Maryam Dilmaghani)

Timeless, isn’t it?

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A visit to the Memorial to Tajik writers (Wall of Great Tajik Writers) will acquaint you with the history of Tajik literature. It features the statues of famous novelists, poets, playwrights, and other writers of Tajikistan.  The “Wall” is the facade of the Writers’ Union building in Dushanbe, home to an association of novelists, poets, playwrights, and other writers. The large wall is carved with nine niches containing eleven life-size statues of famous Tajik writers, a tribute to Tajikistan’s Persian and Soviet history.  The 8th-century “Adam of Poets,” Rudaki, justifiably takes the centre stage. He is considered a father of classical Persian literature, though sadly only a small portion of his work has survived the test of time.

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The tidy avenues of Dushanbe lined with beautiful pastel frontages belie the violent civil war that ruined the city streets in the 90s. Stroll down the side streets, and you’ll see how Dushanbe is transforming.

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The Hissar Fortress – a palace of the ancient Bukhara Emirate – can be visited on the outskirts of Dushanbe. Enjoy the calm and peaceful atmosphere while exploring the fortress.

 

Kulai-Khum

E71C24AB-572A-44D2-89A0-97FA092DC768With a river raging through the centre, channelled between houses with terraces overhanging the impatient water, and with an attractive mosque and civic buildings, Kulai-Khum (Darvoz) is one of the Pamir’s most attractive towns. It is the first community of any significant size between Kulob and Khorog and as such one that most driver-guides attempt to reach as an overnight stop from Dushanbe, and we will join them.  Hopefully, we won’t end up like these guys!B3C58E6E-54FD-4F31-808E-0B5D97078C99

Khorog

This is the “highway” from Dushanbe to Khorog:

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Khorog is nestled at the foot of the Wakhan Valley, offering a dramatic mountainous landscape while also making the city feel like a cozy safe haven from harsh Pamir winds.DF4BE37A-2D2D-48D1-9901-2445101866B0

Home to a large population of Ismaili Muslims and the poorest city in Tajikistan, Khorog receives funding from Aga Khan, the 49th imam, which means the city has its own university, twelve schools, and hosts one of the three campuses of the University of Central Asia.  As a result, most people here speak English as well as the Russian most people use day-to-day.

 

 

Khorog boasts the second-highest botanical garden in the world, the Pamir Botanical Garden.

From Langar to Murghab

Khargush Pass is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 4.344m (14,251ft) above the sea level, located in the Kūhistoni Badakhshon Autonomous Region, in eastern Tajikistan. The climb sits in an isolated environment of dramatic beauty.

This is a quote from http://www.dangerousroads.org, which I never knew was a thing and right away spells adventure:

Located in the desolate Pamir Mountains, this route going through an indescribable area demands 100% concentration….  The road to reach the pass is gravel, in very bad conditions. It connects the Pamir highway with the Wakhan valley.  The road to the summit is gravel, rocky, tippy and bumpy at times.  It’s called The Royal Silk Road….  Stay away if you’re scared of heights. As you climb into the pass you come into a couple mirror-like lakes and then some weird, vast desert landscapes.  Expect a trail pretty steep. The average gradient is 5,5% though in actuality there are long sections between 10% and 15%.

Well, that seems like the perfect place to end our tour of Tajikistan, the first half of this journey.  If you’re thinking, but how do we get from the peak of the Khargush Pass at 14,251 ft to our next destination, Kyrgyzstan, frankly, I have no idea since I haven’t seen the actual (postponed) itinerary – but since we’re not really here, let’s hop on our magic carpet and use the thermals to head on over!

I’ll leave you, for now, with this.

In what will doubtless be a holiday like no other,

Best, and Happy Easter,

Jan

 

Tashkent

 

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There are several airlines that fly into the major international airport in the Central Asia region in the capital city, Tashkent, Uzbekistan; one that would appeal to me would be to connect with Turkish Airlines in Toronto to Istanbul, because who wouldn’t want a few days’ layover in Istanbul?

 

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On arrival in Uzbekistan, our tour would leave Tashkent almost immediately and head for Tajikistan.  But since we’ re here in Tashkent, and we aren’t actually here but virtually here, why not stop for a day or two in what was once the fourth largest city in the USSR, just because we can?

 

The city’s TV tower [pictured above] can be climbed to the top, and it would be a lovely way to get an overview of the city as the sun goes down, but that would have to wait.

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I will always grab the first tickets available to an opera in a beautiful opera house, so tonite we are going to Alisher Navol Opera and Ballet Theatre for a performance of Evgeny Onegin based on the poem-novel of Alexander Pushkin.   While the opera house hasn’t the history of its Russian counterparts, it been fully restored to its 1940’s-era original beauty.

Architecture

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To understand the architecture of the city, it is important to understand its history.  A site of frequent earthquakes, the worst on record came on April 26th, 1966.  Tashkent was at its epicentre and, at a magnitude of 5.1, it destroyed most of the city’s buildings, especially its historic centre, killed up to 200 people and left 300,000 homeless.  With Soviet resolution, the entire city has been rebuilt as a model Soviet city in the style typical of that era; only a few buildings were restored to their original splendour.  First, counterintuitively, we’re going to look down.

The astounding underground Metro stations, each with its own theme, were built for two purposes:  one, transportation and two, a nuclear bomb shelter.  It was for the latter reason that for 41 years, photography was banned in the underground.  It wasn’t until June, 2018 that these spectacular structures were revealed to the world.

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Some mosques and madrasahs, so emblematic of the Silk Road, have been restored to their original beauty.  This beautiful Barak Khan Madrasah [Islamic school] is one of the finest examples in the centre of the clay-built Old City.  The Barak Khan Madrasah has been considered a center of scientists, philosophers and scholars of Islam for more than five centuries.  It once housed the 7th century Koran text considered the earliest version in existence, the Koran of Osman in its magnificent manuscripts library.   

Legend has it that Caliph Osman was killed when he was reading this book, and from that time its pages made of deerskin keep his blood stains, and has been considered a holy relic.  It has moved around a lot, but upon Uzbekistan independence, Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan handed the relic to the Mufti on Khast Imam Square.  The Koran of Osram can be visited in the Hast-Imam library next door to the madrasah.

On August 31, 1991, Uzbekistan declared independence.  For several years, though, official policy emphasized the renewal of ancient national traditions over the exploration of the recent past.  It wasn’t until 1999 that open dialogue began about Soviet repression on Uzbekistan people, and only recently a museum and memorial were raised in memory of those killed as political prisoners during the Soviet era.  I find visits to these memorials difficult, but so important to the understanding of a people.  The grounds surrounding the memorial are wonderful for quiet contemplation.

Culture

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Given that so many of Uzbekistan’s cultural treasures are decorative, it is well worth starting your tour at the Museum of Applied Arts as it helps to put everything you see later into context.   The museum showcases the very finest arts and craftsmanship of Central Asia and each room is devoted to a different craft.  You’ll see how carpets, tiles, plasterwork, wood carvings and embroideries are made.  The building is an exquisitely decorated house dating from the early 1900s and built originally as the official residence of the Imperial Russian diplomat Alexander Polovtsev.

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A visit to the splendid Corshu Bazaar is a must, to sample the foods, shop for crafts and for general people-watching.

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You may want to sample Plov, the most famous Central Asian dish. This traditional Uzbek dish consists of rice fried with raisins, carrots, and spices with meat on top of it. It’s usually cooked in lamb fat and served with pieces of lamb meat.   Its all hands on deck when made in huge pans intended to serve hundreds.  Yum!

Its amazing how much you can see of a city in one day when in an armchair, but I might recommend a couple of days for even a quick overview in person.  And Tashkent is home to many more museums, fantastic restaurants and sprawling parks.  It would be a shame to treat it as a mere transportation hub and just pass through.  Note to self…

Best,

Jan

 

 

 

Land of the Silk Road

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Is there any more romantic a symbol than that of the Silk Road?  Chinese silks, spices, jade, the western connection to the exotic East.  This mystical route conjures images of camels and nomadic horsemen and has a history of lands that have fallen under the Han, Genghis Khan, the Persians and Soviet Russia, to name a few of the empires that sought to control the trade route.  Everyone from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo have explored here.  Starting in at least the fourth century BCE, the silk road was at least 4,000 miles in length covering 40 countries, but at its centre were “The Stans” of Central Asia.

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Now independent countries, the Central Asian region comprises Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan now coloquially known as “The Stans” (“stan,” the Persian suffice meaning “land of”).  This was the very crossroads of the Silk Road, connecting Muslim lands with the people of Europe, India and China.  The Routes Network of Chang’an-Tian Shan Corridor, covering this area has been protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

72B9B2CD-9AD6-4265-842C-38E10EC82240The region was under Persian control from the 8th to 13th Centures AD and perhaps that period explains the demographic of the population today, which is 95% Sunni Islam, with some remaining traces of its past religions, Buddhism, Eastern Orthodox and Christian.  There is still a flavour of Soviet Russia, with some of these countries, supposed democracies, still being ruled by former Soviet leaders.

The amazing geography of this area – arid and mountainous – made agriculture poor but was perfectly suited to nomadic horsemen and animal herders.  East of the Gobi desert and steppe settlements rise the snow-capped Pamir and Tian Shan ranges of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, home to traditional herding communities and some truly epic mountain scenery.  It is these two countries that would be explored now, but for the current global pandemic. 

In the meantime, we shall have to conjure images of exotic skylines of minarets and medressas and caravans loaded down with exotic goods from the East.

We would fly into Tashkent, Uzbekistan but the next day we’d head for Tajikistan and visit its magnificent cities and travel over over the Khargush Pass at 4,344m (14,252’).  The second half of the trip we’d visit the beautiful cities of Kyrgyzstan and travel through the High Pamirs mountain range.

Joanna Lumley, the very first Bond girl, now travel documentarian extraordinaire, travelled the Silk Road.  There are 4 episodes, here is the first:

https://dai.ly/x6vwssc

This is where I’d normally post a photo of me stepping off on a journey, suitcase in tow.  For now, I’m writing from my sunny balcony in fingerless gloves.  Let me leave you with this,

And the people stayed home.
And read books, and listened, and rested,
and exercised, and made art, and played games,
and learned new ways of being and were still.
And listened more deeply. Some meditated,
some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And in the absence
of people living in ignorant, dangerous,
mindless, and heartless ways,
the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the
people joined together again, they grieved
their losses, and made new choices, and
dreamed new images, and created new
ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed

                                                                                       – Kitty O’Meara

Best,

Jan

with thanks to Joan McNeely and Margaret Slade

On assignment

Before travelling to a country with some security issues, like Egypt, Turkey, Russia,  I  obsessively check out https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories before I go.  I never dreamed I would see this message:

A much anticipated trip to Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende and Oaxoca was cancelled, but not before I had researched and drafted the history and background for several blog posts.  The great big world I love to explore has shrunk down to the size of my living room.  So, in the interests of giving me a project and you a diversion, I stand at the ready for your research assignment.  We may not be able to physically travel, but we can open up the world again in virtual imaginings.

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 So let me know that city or region in the world you’ve always wanted to explore, or perhaps a trip you were planning that was cancelled in the current situation.  If I’ve been there, I’ll repost old posts, if not, I’ll give you all the special little snippets I can find, and all the background that I usually do on the arts, music, food and culture of the place, accompanied by interesting links and downloaded images.  Perhaps next year we’ll have learned enough to know exactly where we want to fly to next.  And that trip to Mexico?  It’s been postponed to 2021, so I will save those posts until then.

COVID-19

This site could also act as a link in these dark times.  If there is a need, post it here, maybe one of us can meet that need.  For example,

Rosie the Riveter?

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Remember when women stepped up to the plate in Canada during the second world war?  There are opportunities for women (or anyone who sews) to step up to the plate for our front line workers during the pandemic.  Some U.S. hospitals have called for “anyone with a sewing machine at home” to make face masks.  You could help your local hospitals now, before the hospital situation becomes dire.  There are patterns and detailed instructions available online.

 

N95-style mask here:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/tjmccue/2020/03/20/calling-all-people-who-sew-and-make-you-can-help-solve-2020-n95-type-mask-shortage/#436b42864e41

and here:

https://freesewing.org/blog/facemask-frenzy/

Home-style face mask here:

https://buttoncounter.com/2018/01/14/facemask-a-picture-tutorial/

Art & Inspiration

Or use this space for inspiration or suggestions.  For example, here’s Jane Goodall’s inspirational message:

Munro’s Books is offering a $5 flat-rate delivery fee across BC during COVID.  

https://munrobooks.com

What very long or challenging books do you finally have time to pick up?  (Or let us know about any favourite.)

You can stream those wonderful Exhibition on Screen films you missed when they were in cinemas, for 1.99 pounds here:

https://www.seventh-art.com/product-category/art/

Reminisce about your visits to Paris here:

https://bonjourparis.com/photography/50-things-i-miss-about-paris-part-i/?utm_source=Bonjour+Paris&utm_campaign=f93728df78-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_03_07_02_50_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_306bdf7563-f93728df78-294883865&mc_cid=f93728df78&mc_eid=11a3f85323

Amsterdam museums bring their  stunning collections into your living room, van Gogh here:

https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en?v=1    

The Rijks here:

https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio

This courtesy of Margaret:

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Let’s stay in touch!

Best,

Jan

 

 

 

The Smoke That Thunders

First, A Word About Zim

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We were only in Zimbabwe for a night, but the situation there is volatile (not where we were).  The border crossing was comical.  The official kept me standing there for 15 minutes while he fiddled with a stuck stapler, frequently banging it on the counter, which of course accomplished nothing, until I just wanted to snatch it from his hands and fix it myself, but restraint was the order of the day.

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After 30 years of corruption and dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe may be in even worse straits than South Africa and Namibia.   

6ED2725F-D7FD-4D2E-9F99-20FA7C84012EThe current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa has struggled to fulfil promises of economic prosperity and greater political freedom. The health system has largely collapsed amid the worst economic crisis in more than a decade.  Frustrations are running high as the economy crumbles. Inflation was last calculated at 300% by the International Monetary Fund in August, the world’s second highest after Venezuela.   Electricity is only on for a few hours per day in the middle of the night, so that is when people have to work, and fresh water taps work for only a few hours on day a week.

In November in the capital of Harare, protesters were met with police who fired tear gas and water cannons and struck baton blows.  Some Zimbabweans allege that repression is worse than under the late Robert Mugabe, who oversaw widespread rights abuses that led to international sanctions.

There may be some hope.  The government is taking steps to turn the economy around, having just announced that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe plans to incrementally inject $1 billion into the economy over the next six months, stimulating demand and production in a measured manner while keeping money supply in check.  We saw long lineups of people waiting at the banks.

The Geopolitical Monitor states that “implementing reforms – especially after decades of mismanagement – is a painful process and Zimbabweans are tired. But with political will tangible results are gradually being achieved. The country may be on the cusp of a better future, finally putting the years of isolation behind it. Perseverance and collaboration will help to ease the way.”

The Smoke that Thunders

Early this morning we left Botswana and crossed into Zimbabwe to witness the dreamy, amazing Victoria Falls.  At the Falls, four countries merge:  Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana.  Victoria Falls are on the Zambezi River.  My research suggests the best viewing point for the falls is in Zimbabwe.

I heard recently from two independent sources that Victoria Falls was nothing but a dribble.  I had the impression that was on the Zambia side, not the Zimbabwe side, and it appears that is correct.  The Zambia visa is less expensive than the Zim visa, so people make the mistake of choosing to see them from Zambia.

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That said, the water was at a three-year low and we were visiting at the driest time of year.  The best time to see the falls begins in March.  There were still falls, but half of the length of the sheet, which is what makes these falls so unique, was dry.  This was more evident in the air.  We took a helicopter spin to get the bigger picture.

On the ground, walking the 18 points from which to view the falls from Zimbabwe, they were more impressive.

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We could hear the roar of the falls and see the spray before we saw the actual falls themselves. This is one of the reasons why the local Makalolo tribe’s name for the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The Smoke That Thunders,” is so appropriate.

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Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone (“Livingstone, I presume”) renamed them Victoria Falls when he became the first white man to see them, on November 16th 1855.   Having heard stories of a spectacular waterfall, Livingstone paddled down the Zambezi in a dugout canoe and landed on a small island at the lip of the falls.  In his diary, Livingstone wrote of the falls: “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

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Livingstone Island in the background.

 

We saw the Devil’s Cataract, a separate particularly heavy and dangerous flow.

The falls are twice the height of Niagara Falls and twice the width of its Horseshoe Falls. 

The spray thrown up by the falls creates a special rainforest microclimate along the rims of the falls where there is 24/7, 365 days of annual rainfall, in what is otherwise a very dry area.  We witnessed the spray and the full-on rain in the forest.

No, thank you.  During the months of September to December, tourists enjoy ‘toying with danger’ on the edge of the waterfalls at the naturally formed Devil’s Swimming Pool.  Several have died falling over the natural stone barrier and plunging down the falls.

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The Falls were beautiful, but I’d still like to see them like this, at full force.

 

 

I guess I’ll just have to come back.

Best,

Jan

Birds of Chobe

,We saw some wonderful bird life in this beautiful park both on the water and the land.

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Malachite Kingfisher

 

The magnificent Marabou Stork:

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Fish Eagle

 

Glossy Ibis and Sacred Ibis:

African Darter:

Goliath Heron and Grey Heron:

African Spoonbill and Egrets:

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White-backed Vultures:

Egyptian Geese:

Farewell, beautiful Chobe National Park:

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North of the park, the Chobe River meets the Zambezi River and tumbles over Victoria Falls, where we are headed tomorrow.

Best,

Jan