Central Asia (various grades)

hey all,

okay, so my six weeks sojourn in central asia (the ‘stans) has come to an end. untimely, i think i can say. this is a long email. the key points are:

* i have dabbled in turkmenistan (9 from 10 – otherworldly), dawdled in uzbekistan (5 – disspiriting), missed a bunch of kyrgyzstan (7 – with upside potential) and raced right across kazakhstan (7 – great people). i have seen mosques, monuments, medressas, mausolea, minarets (english clearly has a thing about arabic stuff and ‘m’s), lakes, mountains, cities, towns, deserts, steppes, cemeteries and camels, as well as tonnes of other stuff and lots of people in hugely varying modes of dress and every possible frame of mind.
* i have eaten and drunk with some of the locals, shared train carriages and queues and kitchens and tea with them, and talked about what makes us the same and what makes us different. i discovered that as well as enduring, russians complain (their lot in central asia is not the easiest as their colonial power now wanes in many places). i learned that the central asian reputation for hospitality is justly deserved. i have had numberless conversations about how old i am, why i am not married, and how much cars/bread/meat/trains/tea/sheep cost in new zealand. how much does a sheep cost anyway? how can i not know that when we have so many?
* i saw first hand the difference in opportunity between being born in new zealand and born in central asia. i marvelled at the apparently indominitable spirit of the young people seeking education, looked on in wonder at the business nous of the infinite number of small kiosk owners, and shook my head in dismay at the evidence of the broken spirits of those unable to adapt.
* i laughed at russian-made cars and locally built roads. i learned not to fear oncoming traffic and the appropriate use of the horn (a reminder you are there, not a criticism). i hit the kebab wall (although i could maybe eat chicken, the thought of lamb shashlik still makes my stomach cringe), and ate too many cucumber and tomato salads and not enough fresh fruit. i drank local beer (yum – kazakh-made Tian Shan is the best), local traditional drinks (yuck – without exception), and local vodka (less traditional but at least more palatable).
* i laughed with glee and shouted in rage. i stood in queues and got served first. i argued with taxi drivers and agreed with garrulous street philosophers. i stayed in comfortable houses and uncomfortable dives. i travelled in style and i travelled in fear. i spent five months salary for a family of three on a visa for kazakhstan and then only stayed for a week. i learned again what it was to feel cultural deprivation, to seek out people who speak my language, and the feeling you get when you haven’t really laughed in a long time.

in the last few weeks i have done a tonne of things. by way of summary, i present my own central asia awards:
* worst experience (non-toilet location) – scraping wads of congealed fat from my teeth and the roof of my mouth with my fingers after a peculiarly delicious kebab in samarkand, uzbekistan.
* worst experience (toilet location) – the road-side toilet stop between khiva and bukhara in uzbekistan. necessity makes one desparate. enough said.
* least nice people in central asia – just about everyone with something to sell in bukhara, uzbekistan. the whole country seems to be filled with people who don’t want to be there. nowhere to go, and home is not great. as a fellow traveller put it, this feels like a regressing country, not a developing one.
* least communicative individual – taxi driver from bishkek to osh, kyrgyzstan. perhaps 10 unprompted words in the 22 hours we spent together. makes a stone wall seem like a blabbermouth.
* place with worst reputation – kazakhstan. the whole country. no one had anything nice to say about it. even people who lived there said there was nothing to do. it is the 9th biggest country in the world, so that is really saying something.
* greatest distance travelled without a ticket – 24 hours from turkestan to aktyubinsk, kazakhstan. if you pay off the conductor, a seat miraculously appears.
* most surreal location – definitely the central square in ashgabat, turkmenistan. palaces, massive grandeur, huge statues of the noble leader in a poor desert country of just four million. has to be seen to be disbelieved. watching the incredible hulk kick arse in russian in kazakhstan is also high on the list, as is listening to stevie wonder while cruising across turkmenistan in a taxi that just kept breaking down.
* softest bed in central asia – yak tours hostel in karakol, kyrgyzstan. think hammock and then make it three time saggier.
* best breakfast in central asia – yak tours hostel in karakol, kyrgyzstan. there are some nice beds too. just not mine.
* place most likely to be revisited – samarkand, uzbekistan. as the lonely planet understates it, the registan is one of the single most impressive sites in all of central asia. a fellow traveller suggested it was ‘at least’ as amazing as the taj mahal.
* best dressed people – definitely turkmenistan. any country where most of the women wear full length, brightly coloured, velvet dresses and colourful headscarves has to be highly recommended. combine that with men in crazy huge afro-style white wool hats, high boots and frock coats for a winning combination.
* nicest people in central asia – in turkestan, kazakhstan. friendly, talkative, agreeable, interested, but not in putting my money in their pockets. also highly commended is the waiter in that small russian restaurant in turkmenbashi, turkmenistan, who understood my babblings, tolerated my idiosyncracies, and had a table brought out onto the street for the strange foreigner with the unlikely beard.
* most pleasant place to kick back – tamchy, a small, quiet, mercifully-litter-free beach on the shores of lake issyk-kul in kyrgyzstan. sunbathing at 1,800m. best when combined with leisurely site-seeing at unimportant places, and excellent accomodation with a preternaturally friendly family.
* nicest thing anyone said to me – ‘what beautiful eyes you have’. worker at apartment bureau, almaty, kazakhstan. and on my birthday as well. aw, shucks.

i am already thinking up plans to come back, of course, but that must wait a year or three. from here i am crossing russia (quickly), heading into mongolia (a few weeks), then down south through happily post-sars china into laos, cambodia, thailand, malaysia and ending up in singapore in mid-september or so.

hoping that all is well in your part of the world as well,