Monday, September 6, 2010

Lady GAGA on the Silk Road

Okay, imagine us driving along the Bishkek road near the Burana Tower, about 80 Km from Bishkek, an 11th century monumemt while crooning along to Lady Gaga's "Ale, Ale, Alexandro". That tune will stick with me forever. Arriving at Burana, you see a mound to the north of a restored 30M tower - all that remains of the stump of minaret from the ancient citadel of Balasagun, founded by the Sogdians (ancient Persians) and later a capital of the Karakhanids. This Shamsy Valley yeilded a rich hoard of Saka (Scythian)treasures, including the heavy gold burial mask. In St. Petersburg at the Hermitage, we looked at the gold treasures excavated here. The intricate work was fascinating. So it seems that the Canadian-Kyrgez gold mine is simply picking up on the tailings left behind by the Scythians. Guess that's the reason for having to use so much cyanide. We found the Kyrgez people to be very attractive and enjoyed the last evening in Bishkek. While Kyrgestan is quite secular, this is the month of Ramadan. Young men and women, families, kids, grandparents flooded into the restaurant where we were having Kabobs and it was interesting to see that most people wear western clothes; the women in tight jeans, short skirts and stilletto heels. I could feel their side way glances at us and felt their contempt for our treking clothes. Where ever you are in the world, it seems that women are determined to look beautiful. Bishkek has lots of trees and parks and the roads are paved; it has been described as being like "an ugly woman in a beautiful dress". Very sexist comment, but goes along with the culture where men (Stefan) will always be served before women (me).

Sept. 4 2010. Bishkek. We had a nice but short stay at the Silk Road Lodge and awoke early for the flight to Dushanbe. Although we knew that the Americans are using the civilian airport as US base, it was a bit of a shock to see 10 big US Airforce military airplanes on the tarmac. Just as I remembered in Vientienne Laos in 1969, where the Viet Nam war was being provisioned from Laos, it seems that the same thing is happening from Bishkek for the war in Iraq and Afganistan. We were told that the Americans serving on the base in Bishkek are not permitted to leave the base. Everything is provided from the USA for the military personnel, but they are confined to barracks. Must be boring. We flew in an acient, Russian turbo prop aircraft over big mountain ranges covered with snow and glaciers to arrive in Dushanbe. We had been a bit worried about this flight as the major flights had been cancelled. However, everything worked and we flew into Dushanbe without incident. The only disappointment for me is that the weight restrictions have kept me from buying anything. The population of Dushanbe (estim. 600,000) is a little smaller than Bishkek (900,000) and Tajikistan is sthe smallest of the 5 Central Asian countries. It is described to be stable since the civil war in the 1990's but economically impoverished. It seems when the Russians departed from Central Asia, they left everything as it was but the people with special skills, training and know-how left too. So the factories stand abandoned, there are few markets for the produce of the counries, and many of the local men are working in Russian and sending money home to their families. Our hotel, Poyhat, previously called the Dushanbe Hotel, is a huge place with two arms and a big trunk. It was generously planned with double, wide marble stairways and chandeliers but everything is in disrepair and looks worn-out. The current president gets involved in everyday life and advises women that the chador and headscarfs are not Tajik standards and neither are gold teeth. From what we can see, about 90% of the women on the streets of Dushanbe are wearing a modified version of the "salwar chemise", pants under a matching long top. They look quite beautiful, tall and elegant and use every flashy fabric that you can imagine. Most wear a matching scarf or hat. The other 10% have been watching European TV and have become incarnations of Lady Gaga. I am constantly amazed that women can speed along broken, chipped sidewalks in stilletto heels and not miss a beat. They have tougher meta-tarsels than I and are undaunted by open sewers, uncovered manholes, and traffic that adheres to no written rules of the road. The Tajik ancestry has roots reaching into the Bactrians and Sogdians. The Turkic language is similar to Persian and to Afgani. While the country is reported to be on economic life-support, we have seen more new, spotless BMWs, Mercedes, & Hummers than you would see in Calgary. Our guide, Vlad, assures us that most of the economy is drug-related. While we have only met hard working normal people, like waiters and people in the shops, there must be another industry behind these scenes that I can only imagine. We've visited the market and have seen hand guns for sale. What I was looking for was good toilet paper. The paper provided in this hotel is recycled from something, the result being just like crepe paper but peppered with bits of wood. You can use your imagination.
We have met a few tourists: in Karakol we met a Swedish guy living in Verbiers France. He and a buddy had just climbed Khan Tengri (7,010M) on skis. He is an engineer by background and has a fascinating job working 4 weeks on and 4 weeks off doing sea rescue from Norway. It is a dangerous job, but he is very well remunerated and loves the time off. We have run into a few groups of French, and of course, the Germans travelling in a huge bus pulling a self contained "RolHotel". Yesterday we attended an opera in Dushanbe and met a couple from Atlanta, Georgia. The man was Afgani and is a Fulbright Scholar now retired and teaching here in Dushanbe for a term. Seems they wanted some English speaking company. He visited Kabul 2 years ago and he gave me his version of the political situation in Afghanistan and it pretty much sounds like Ahmed Rashid's books.
The central part of Tajikistan encompasses the southern spurs of the Tian Shan and Pamir Alay ranges, while the southeast comprises the Pamir Pateau. Within these ranges are some of Central Asia's highes peaks, including Koh-iSomoni (Pik Kommunizma) at 7495M. Tomorrow we will drive to Kalaikum via Tavildora. Please note that using the internet and computer is both timed and expensive. I don't have a chance to edit my posts. Hope all is well at home. Lots of love to all, XX00 Corine and Stefan

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