Thursday, October 23, 2008

Goodbye Central Asia

Six months in Central Asia, gone in a flash. Amazing. Spectacular. Inspiring. Humbling. I can't think of enough good things to say.

"Are the Stans worth it?" That was the question that the Lonely Planet posted on their discussion forum a few months ago. Most people felt that they weren't, and I can sympathize. It was some of the hardest travelling I've ever done. Almost nobody speaks English and it is endlessly frustrating to never be able to communicate. Visas are a never-ending nightmare of red tape and changing rules. Any trip in a taxi involves almost certain "robbery" by the taxi sharks who try to rip off foreigners with outrageous prices. The food is some of the worst we've ever had.

Yet for us the Stans are the most amazing travel experience we have ever had. I would recommend them to anyone who like adventure travel in out of the way places.

Central Asia has some of the nicest people in the world. It is amazing how many Central Asians will invite you into their homes, feed you, and give you a place to sleep without expecting a thing in return. From shop keepers to hotel owners to people we me on the street, we were constantly made to feel welcome.

Central Asia has some of the best historic sites in the world. The cities of Uzbekistan are amazing. Samarkand just celebrated it's 2750th anniversary. Everywhere you look there is an old fort or an ancient shrine. In Tajikistan we saw Bronze age cave paintings and silk road forts. In Uzbekistan we saw some of the most beautiful buildings people have ever created.

Central Asia has some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. The Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan and the Pamirs and Fan mountains in Tajikistan are nothing short of incredible. These are some of the highest mountains in the world and I've never seen anything like them. Until you've seen it you can't imagine what it is like to be at the base of a 2500m high vertical face that is covered with ice and has the wind whipping a plume of snow off it's summit.

Central Asia has some of the best lakes in the world. Song Kol in Kyrgyzstan is a little slice of heaven, a blue pearl surrounded by lush grasslands and beautiful peaks. Issyl Kol is a weird an wonderful vacation spot, full of Russian tourists swimming in the reflection of the glaciers that surround the lake. And the lakes in Tajikistan are like nothing I've ever seen. When you first see Karakul lake in the Pamirs it is like seeing a new color you didn't know existed. How could water look like this? How could water even exist in this landscape?

Central Asia is one of the biggest travel adventures that remains. There are whole cities that aren't in any guidebooks. There are whole valleys where no tourist has ever trekked. There are ridges nobody has ever climbed. There are ancient ruins that nobody has ever studied. And through it all there are a warm and welcoming people who will go out of their way to help you.

Yes, it was worth it!

A Good Day in Uzbekistan

We had many great experience in Uzbekistan and it would be hard (and dull for readers) to describe them all in detail. Instead, I'm going to describe one wonderful day to give a sense of what this quirky little country is like.

Lara and I decided that we wanted to catch a Sunday market at a little town near Samarkand that was described in our guidebook. We woke up and had a breakfast of freshly-baked bread, tea, jam, cheese, and oatmeal at our B&B and then walked 20 minutes to the Registan shared-taxi stand. We easily found a van that was going where we wanted and after a few minutes of waiting it filled with passengers and departed. It cost $1.00 each for the 90 minute drive.

Most of the passengers were muslim women wearing their colorful dresses and headscarves. The lady ahead of us had a beautiful daughter in a pink dress. She was about six years old and kept smiling and sticking her tongue out at me. In Uzbekistan you can still look at people's children and even talk to them and play with them without everyone thinking you are a pedophile!

We arrived at the market and were blown away by the scale of it. It was a teeming mix of fruit, clothing, food vendors, textiles, brooms, coal, carpets, nails, and any other thing you can imagine. We saw maybe 4 other tourists there in the entire day. Everyone was dressed in their traditional clothing, except that for them it wasn't traditional clothing. It is simply what they wear every day to go about their business: Uzbek hats and often suits for men, colorful "pajamas" for the women.

Everyone wanted to talk to us. People gave us samples of different foods to try. Everyone wanted to know where we were from and how we liked Uzbekistan. Nobody was at all pushy or rude. "Welcome to my country" was what we were told both by people's actions, and a few times in those very words.

The market had a huge selection of old textiles although we decided not to buy any in the end because we didn't find anything that really struck us. The craftsmanship of the local weavers is incredible, but Lara and I just couldn't decide on a pattern that we both loved.

Several people wanted to practice their English with us, and we gave one young man some advice on what he needed to do to work abroad ( a common question). Then a youth with fairly decent English came up to us and offered to take us to a nearby old mosque.

We accepted the offer and he and a friend hopped in a bus with us and drove to the edge of town, from where we walked uphill for about 20 minutes to a lovely old Mosque. It was in a park of 1000 year old trees which line a small river that came out of natural spring. Two old men in white beards were sitting in front of the Mosque. One of the trees had such big roots that you could pay $1.00 to sit in a little room that had been built underneath it.

We walked to the source of the spring, a pool of incredibly clear water filled with fish. A group of girls were playing there when we arrived and they all wanted to have their photos taken. When we walked back into town the kids insisted on buying us an ice-cream (an example of how the hospitality can really get crazy here). Then they helped us find a shared taxi and we drove back to Samarkand.

We went for dinner at a nice little BBQ place near a flower market. I actually considered buying a flower for Lara but thought it logical not to buy one since she would have to carry it around all evening. Apparently logic isn't called for on these occasions as Lara kindly explained to me afterwards. The flower vendors know this apparently. When we walked back out of the market we stopped to smell the flowers and one of the vendors gave her one. Luckily I was better looking!

To finish the night we went for a beer a little pub where we had met a local business owner last time we were in town. He didn't speak any English but we (Lara) managed to communicate incredibly well with a paper, pencil and sign language. He has just finished planning an English menu and we proof-read it for him. It was pretty good for having been done using the Internet. (In China by contrast we were offered "Flesh" and "Baked hairtail" on one train menu). We fixed a few minor mistakes and gave him some suggestions to help attract tourists.

He insisted on paying for our beers.

We walked back in the dark, feeling very safe even though we were in a big city and obviously had lots of money. All in all, a good day in Uzbekistan.

How to Visit Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is a very touristy place, even if you've never heard of it. This year it got about 1.5 million tourists, most of them French of German, and 99.9% of them on package tours. As a matter of fact, the government so heavily promotes the idea of the package tour that is pretty hard to visit the country independently. We had to get a letter of invitation to get a visa, and that will only be issued with help from an Uzbekistan travel agency. Of course most of those travel agencies want you to book a tour with them, but there are a few (notably Stantours) who cater to backpackers.

Travelling independently is a wonderful way to see the country. The Uzbeks are warm, funny, and lively people, but it is hard to see this if you are in a group of 20. There were many times where we were chatting with a shopkeeper only to see him totally change as a big guided group swept in and out.

The other advantage of travelling independently is that the tour groups travel a very well-worn trail. As soon as you get off it you experience a side of Uzbekistan almost nobody sees. We often got invited to stay with people and join them for tea simply by being away from the tourist hordes.

The Uzbeks are wonderful people and if you like old stuff there is a lot of stuff to see in Uzbekistan. Ditch the guide and do it by yourself! The country has a great rail system and lots of English speakers in the tourist industry and is by far the easiest Central Asian country to travel in. It's well worth three weeks.

Three Magic Cities

We spent a little over 3 weeks in Uzbekistan and saw most of the main sights. The main attractions are the ancient silk road cities of Khiva, Buhkara, and Samarkand.

The first of these that we visited was Khiva. We went here after the Savitsky Museum in Moynaq in a shared taxi. Khiva is a breathtaking place. It is a world heritage site and the inner city is essentially an open air museum which is little changed from the way it was 100 years ago. The inner city is surrounded by it's original mud fortification walls; walls that until 100 years ago were still repelling invaders and keeping people safe. There is little stone in the area so all the buildings are made of mud or baked clay.

The main attraction in Khiva is the numerous minarets (towers) which poke out from everywhere, as well as a couple of wonderful medrassas (religious schools) which date back as far as 1200 AD. When you walk around the streets the tour groups vanish and you can try to imagine what it was like 200 years ago when this place was ruled by ferocious warlords.

We spent about 5 days in Khiva soaking up the atmosphere. One of those days was spent doing a side-trip to visit some ruined forts in the surrounding country side. We hired a car with Shane (our Australian friend) and took a tour to 5 different forts in various stages of ruin ranging from little more than eroded mud walls to a few somewhat better restored sights. The ruins themselves were not that interesting but they were breathtaking in their scale and age. Whole walled cities with thousands of people dotted this area 2000 years ago and now we know almost nothing of the people who lived there. Kings who created huge walled fortresses and ruled huge areas of land have vanished so completely that even their names are forgotten. All that remains is mud walls and the outlines of the extensive irrigation system that was turning the desert into fertile farmland before Jesus walked the earth.

From Khiva we went to Bukhara which was our favorite city. Bukhara also has a very compact historical core, but it is a bit more spread out and we really enjoyed the laid back feel of the place. In Bukhara the main attraction is dozens of medrassas, all studded with blue tile mosiacs. The Uzbekistan government has been criticized for overdoing some of their restoration efforts and many of the building feel a bit too new, but overall we were very impressed by the architecture. Many of the buildings date back to just after when Ghengiz Khan razed the city to the ground. The exception is the Talon Minaret, a tower 1000 years old that so astounded Khan that he ordered it spared. It apparently survived until the early 1900s without any restoration work before the Russians bombed it and put a bunch of holes in. Luckily it didn't fall down and they fixed it up very nicely.

In Uzbekistan the government rents out space in a lot of the tourist sites to vendors who sell all range of wonderful crafts from textiles to pottery to carving. The quality of work here is really quite amazing and I'd have to say that I've probably seen the best pottery, carving, textiles, and metal working of my life in the markets here. Many of the pieces belong in museums and it was a lot of fun to shop for them although they sometimes distract a little from the buildings that house them. Still, many of the buildings are themselves ancient bazaars and it lends them life. The vendors are also pretty mellow on the whole.

Our hotel was very close to the center of town where there is a 500 year old pool surrounded by trees that were planted the same time. There are a couple of very reasonable restaurants around the pool and we had a number of meals there.

Our final stop was Samarkand, which we had already spent a few days at on the way in. 150 years ago few westerners had seen it and , although it was an important stop in the silk road. Now we could get there in 3.5 hours on an express train.

Unlike Khiva and Bukhara, there is no big concentration of sites in Samarkand. The sites that there are though rival anything in the world in their scale and beauty. The best known site is the Registan, a set of three six hundred year old medrassas that are lavishly decorated with tiles and paints. The restoration work is excellent and it is breathtaking to imagine what the ancient city must have looked like before it was wrapped in modern Russian suburbs.

We spent a few days in Samarkand and then headed to Tashkent, the laid back and pleasant capital. The best thing in Tashkent is probably the subway system. The stations are beautifully decorated, each one a unique work of art and architecture. On had tilework on the ceiling reminiscent of some of the old mosques. Another series of stations had beautiful pillars and really nice wrought iron lamps hanging from the ceiling. The subway would make a great photo art book if it weren't for the fact the for some unexplicable reason it is illegal to take photos!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

How We Lost Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is lost. The generals won't admit it yet, but nobody would expect them to. As long as their are still troops in the country it would be irresponsible to declare their task to be hopeless. The politicians won't admit it either. But nobody would expect them to. They've made great promises that this was a war we were going to win. We were going to bring stability and democracy to a country that has seen nothing but war for a thousand years. It was going to be shining victory for the forces of light.

Everyone knows that the south of Afghanistan has been a problem almost since the invastion. The optimists however, pointed to Kabul and the north. Girls were being educated for the first time in a generation, the economy was growing, and the security situation was pretty decent. A year ago some NGO workers were actually camping in the countryside in the north. Those days are past. NGOs have now banned all travel between cities in the north except with armed escorts. Many workers aren't even allowed to leave their guarded compounds to buy groceries except in a private car with an armed driver.

The reconstruction effort in the north is a complete shambles. A friend of ours who just returned from Afghanistan says that the security situation is so bad that the road building program just simply stopped. There is simply nobody who will build a road any more. For any price.

Around Kabul the situation is even worse. The only place that is still safe for foreigners is Chicken Street with it's armed perimiter and metal detectors. The hills around Kabul are all controlled by the Taliban now. Recently bandits attacked and killed a bunch of police officers just outside town. When the bigwigs arrived to investigate a car bomb went off and killed even more. The insurgents are getting more sophisticated, and the Afghan police don't have the training or staff to do anything about it.

If it was just security though, there would still be hope. An Iraq-style "surge" might restore stability and win the day. But the real loss is the hearts of the Afghan people.

To understand what is happening in Afghanistan today, one must understand it's history. Afghanistan is cursed with a geography that makes it at once isolated and at the same time strategically important. It is at the crossroads of Asia- the logical path from India to Russia and from Iran to China. Yet at the same time it is isolated by impenitrable mountain ranges and terrible deserts. This geography makes it a hard country to control. So Afghanistan has spent the last thousand years at war, overrun by one army after another, only to beat them back when their supply lines crumbled or they got too complacent.

In the 1800s Afghanistan featured as the center piece of the "Great Game", the battle between England and Russia for the control of Central Asia. The Russians encroached on neighboring states, capturing most of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan through a series of small advances. The British, worried that the encroachment would continue invaded Afghanistan twice to their great cost, before deciding it was better to support friendly warlords instead. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the British and Russians defined the boundaries that make up modern Afghanistan. The Afghan's weren't even consulted in the process. Afghanistan was simply a convenient buffer state to keep the two great empires apart.

Afghanistan was then forgotten. It languished under tribal warfare and terrible leadership until communists took control in the 1970s. At their "invitation" the Russian army invaded, and the seeds of today's problems were sowed. The United States started a proxy war against the Russians, mainly by providing money to Pakistan's Intelligence Services so that they could train and arm fighters. The Pakistanis however, had their own interests in mind, and funded a variety of competing warlords and unsavory characters including Osama bin Laden. The Russian army was no match for suicidal mountain men armed with modern American weaponry, and they pulled out at the end of the 1980s.

Afghanistan was abandoned.

A terrible civil war broke out, but the United States, who had laid the seeds for the war by funding all the competing groups no longer had any interest in Afghanistan. The world forgot about Afghanistan. The fighting was so fierce that Kabul was destroyed. There wasn't a building left standing. Millions of refugees poured across the borders.

Into this chaos came the Taliban. Their strict Islamic law wasn't particularly popular, but they were well led and they provided peace (at the point of a gun). The Taliban ended the fighting, as well as education for women, music, playing of games, television, movies, the arts, books, and any teaching not related to the Koran.

Nobody cared though, until September 11th, 2001.

A few months later the Taliban had fled to the hills and an international security force was promising peace and prosperity to Afghanistan once again. The only problem was that they weren't prepared to deliver it. The United States somehow became convinced that the real problem was Iraq, and the attention of the world shifted. Much of the reconstruction money that was promised never arrived. Afghanistan has only received a fraction of the money per-capita that Rwanda has gotten for example.

There simply weren't enough troops to provide stability for the whole country. A weak central government was set up, but with no power to back it up it was largely a joke. Afghan's refer to their president as the "Major of Kabul". Most of the areas outside of Kabul fell under the control of warlords, drug lords, and other unsavory characters, and since the government was powerless, there was no choice but to work with these groups and bring them into the fold.

With one important exception.

The newly resurgent Taliban are once again a power to deal with. Nobody in Afghanistan likes the the Taliban (most Afghans say that even the terrible situation today is better than the Taliban rule). But the Taliban are motivated and unstopable. Their insurgency has made the country ungovernable and driven out most of the groups who could help rebuilt it. Girls are no longer being educated because teachers are afraid of being killed. Women are back under the Burkha. People live in fear.

President Karzai knew that he couldn't defeat the Taliban and tried to arrange a deal with them. No surprisingly this was vetoed by the United States. The unfortunate result was that a powerless government was left trying to control a lawless country where even the miltary can't travel safely.

There is no winning now. The Afghan people are fed up. Our friend said that anti-western sentiment is so high that a local man who was helping him couldn't find a single bus that would take him from Kunduz to Mazar-i-Sharif (both in the far north) because the drivers were too afraid to carry a westerner. A guard he talked to at one of his hotels said that his Afghan friends have become increasingly radicalized as they realized that all the western promises were empty.

The path forward is clear if not that pleasant. There is no winning in a situation like this. You can't bring peace when the population of the country is against you. If I were being elected to the Presidency of the United States I would increase the number of troops in the country in order to put pressure on the Taliban. Then I would work with the Afghan government to negotiate a ceasefire along the lines of what Pakistan has done with its tribal areas. The Taliban could get autonomy in the South on the condition that they end the insurgency in the rest of the country. And maybe, just maybe, the rest of the country could be saved from another dark age. The Afghan people have suffered enough for fighting our wars.

The information in this article comes from a number of sources including people who have been in Afghanistan a few weeks ago. I've tried to relate everything as well as I could, but as history is always written to support a point of view there are no doubt other interpretations of some of the events I describe.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Savitsky Museum

The Savitsky Art Museum is one of the more unlikely art museums on earth. It is in Nukus, Uzbekistan. If were possible to put the middle of nowhere on a map, Nukus would be a front-runner. Nukus is in the Kyzylkum desert, a day's drive from Tashkent (the capital) and far from any tourist attractions. We spent 18 hours on a train from Samarkand to get there. It would get no tourists except that it is a stopping point to go to the Aral Sea. And it has the Savitsky Museum.

Many people don't realize just how repressive the Soviet Regime was. The Soviets controlled almost every aspect of people's lives including the art. Stalin decided that art should not have western influences. Art should be realistic, and it's purpose should be to promote the ideal of socialism. Smiling happy workers were good. What most of us consider to be art was bad. Artists who voilated these rules were jailed, locked in mental institutions, or killed. Their works were destroyed.

Savitsky was a Russian painter, scientist, and archeologist who lived in Uzbekistan. He collected a vast array of clothing and jewelery from the area. He also did a lot of archeological work. As a result the Savitsky museum has an excellent collection of costumes and other ethnographic exhibits, as well as some great archeological stuff.

The museum is famous for another reason though. Savitsky decided to try to save some of the art which Stalin's regime had banned. With the help of supportive local authorities, and at great personal risk, he collected over 90,000 paintings, prints, sketches, and other questionable works of art. His focus was on little known artists, and he often bought hundreds of paintings by the same person. Many of these works would have been lost forever if not for his bravery.

Times have changed and Savitsky's work is now housed in a lovely museum. For $18.00 three of us got admission and a three hour tour with an English-speaking guide. We saw lots of examples of local art, and some of the best pieces from the vast Russian collection. Because there are so many works of art in the museum there is a rotating exhibit which changes regularly. Unfortunately (in my opinion) not enough space is given to the rotating exhibit. I found it much more interesting than all the costumes and pot fragments which you can see in many other museums. Still there are many great paintings and if you like art it is worth going to the museum for the story alone.

Ships in the Desert

(Sorry for the lack of posts. Internet is really spotty here!)

Fifty years ago Moynaq, Uzbekistan was a thriving fishing village. It was situated on a peninsula at the edge of the Aral sea, and every day dozens of fishing boats filled their holds and brought their catch to the local cannery. The fish were cleaned and canned right in town and distributed throughout the Soviet Union.

Then Stalin came up with the idea that Uzbekistan would be a good place to grow cotton. There was only one problem. Uzbekistan is one of the driest places on earth and cotton requires a lot of water. The two main rivers leading to the Aral sea were diverted into thousands of cotton fields and Uzbekistan became the world's second largest cotton producer. And the rivers no longer reached the sea.

The sea began to dry up.

Moynaq is now a living monument to the tremendous damage we can do to our planet. The rusted hulks of ships lay just outside of town in a canal that was dug in a desperate attempt to maintain a path for the water. It wasn't enough. The sea is now hundreds of kilometers away. What is left of the Aral sea has become so concertated that there is nothing alive to fish for anyway. And it continues to shrink. From Moynaq all you can see is a parched desert of dunes and low shrubs. Beetles make their home in piles of tiny shells.

With the sea gone the real environmental disaster has begun. There is nothing to protect the former seabed from erosion, so every year the winds blow millions of tons of salt into the air and onto the neighboring farmland. As the sea shrinks in one direction and ever widening ring of blighted lands spreads in another.

Lara and I hired a car to take us to Moynaq because we felt we had to see it for ourselves. At the edge of town is a sign with a big fish on it. You can go past the old fish canning plant although the locals don't like you to take pictures. I guess it is hard enough to live in a place like this without all the tourists coming to gawk at your misfortune. And you can experience the ships. You can climb in their rusting shells, stand on their decks, and protect yourself from the blazing sun and blowing sand in their shade.

Moqnaq is a terrible place. There is no future for the people. No agriculture, no running water (it is brought in by truck). It is an environmental version of Auschwitz. And like Auschwitz we haven't learned our lessons. We saw what happened in poland and yet we allowed Rwanda, Somalia, and Cambodia. And we've seen what happened in the Aral sea, and yet we allow the destruction of the Amazon, the poisoning of the ocean, and the modification of our very climate.

Sometimes it is hard to be optimistic about our future.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Uzbekistan Money

The currency in Uzbekistan is the Som and it is our first real experience with runaway inflation.

The biggest note you can get is 1000 Som, which works out to about 75 cents.

When we changed $200.00 into Som this morning we ended up with a stack of bills the thickness of the yellow pages. We have to carry our money around in a backpack since there is no way it will fit into a money belt.

Vanishing Pedestrians

(This happened about 10 days ago, but it is worth repeating)

We were walking down the main North-South street in Dushanbe in the middle afternoon. The street is broad and treelined and has a nice smooth sidewalk on both sides. There are lots of pedestrians.

Suddenly we heard a scream and turned to see a lady's head and shoulders sticking out from the ground. She had stepped on a loose manhole cover, which had pivoted and dropped her into the ground.

The moment was so slapstick that we didn't know whether to laugh or be horrified. Fortunately she was OK, but both Lara and I step carefully over manholes now.

Washing Clothes

We checked into a nice guesthouse in Samarkand yesterday. My laundry was filthy so I asked for a bucket so I could wash it. Then I asked where I could get water, and where I should dump it when I was done. They looked at me like I was crazy and asked me to repeat the question.

Apparently there was running water in the room. And I could just dump the dirty water down the sink. It's been so long since we've been in a place that has a tap that I didn't even consider the possibility.