Big Skies in the High Kyrgyz Pamir

For whatever reason, it’s often the places where I have the most transformative experiences that get the least amount of screen time on this blog.  I think it’s because I can never really find the right words to do a place or experience I really love justice.  It’s happened in the past – there’s a reason why you don’t see any posts about things to do and see in Tbilisi or Seoul here.  But, having just written an account about nature that terrified me, I thought it would be best to get my thoughts down about our time in the high Kyrgyz Pamir, where we were fortunate enough to take a three-day trek last September while we were in Kyrgyzstan.

The Pamirs, or, more specifically, the Trans Alay range, in Kyrgyzstan don’t have much in common with the dense jungle rainforest of Suriname on paper, but to me the two represent similar types of experiences.  The uniting thread is that of dominance of the natural over the man-made.  Our time in the Pamirs of Kyrgyzstan, between Turpal Kol, Peak Lenin Base Camp, and Tuyuk Valley, wasn’t as daunting as in the dense jungle, I think due to the vast expanses of land visible from every vantage point.  This isn’t to say that obstacles didn’t exist – just in this case the antagonist was altitude over 12,000 feet, whereas in Suriname it was the hypothetical threat of creepy crawlies in every nook and cranny. Read more

A Walking Tour through Soviet Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

One of the things that most excited us for our trip to Central Asia was the number of well preserved buildings from the Soviet Era. Bishkek, in particular, had a great concentration of the buildings, ranging from Stalinist to Socialist Modernist, all within easy walking distance from one another.  As you know by the title of my blog, I am a big fan of concrete architecture, and this post is for all of those wishing to see the greatest examples of the medium in the shortest amount of walking time.  I did a great amount of research before our trip to ensure our two days in the Kyrgyz capital wouldn’t be spent idling about.  We had an itinerary, and we stuck to it.

To start, here’s the route we’ll cover:

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A Shvitz in the Steppe: Almaty, Kazakhstan’s Arasan Baths

In a past life (circa 2009), David managed the local Russian bath here in Seattle.  It was there that he met our friend Helmut, who happened to be traveling with us in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan this past September.  So it made perfect sense that we spend an afternoon in Almaty’s Arasan Baths, famous for being the largest and most opulent of all public baths in Central Asia.

The combination of David’s history with the banya and my living experiences in bath-intensive places like Japan and Korea make us avid bath and hot springs travelers.  We seek them out nearly every place we go, from traditional Turkish hammams in Istanbul, to traditional Northern European spas in the Baltics.  Public baths are a great place to get to know a culture, as they are frequently social hubs, where people gather to not only soak away the aches of the day, but also to gossip about the neighborhood’s goings on. Read more

Osh, Kyrgyzstan: Not So Large, but Contains Multitudes

Boo yeah, that is a Walt Whitman reference in the title!  Literary self-congratulations aside, the description fits our impressions of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city.  Often referred to as Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, Osh feels completely different from Bishkek – less modern, more steeped in tradition, and more Islamic.  As we ventured even further south, to Sary Mogul and deeper into Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic heartland, stores even stopped selling alcohol and cigarettes.  Despite how Islam is portrayed by American media and, sadly, the incoming presidential cabinet, we found that as places became more majority Islamic, so too did their people become more friendly.stans-2016-292_29912580065_o

Though, to be fair, the comparison is mostly Islamic versus Russified.  And in comparisons of friendliness, I’m afraid Russians will typically not make the podium. Read more

Renewing our Vows at a Post-Soviet Wedding Palace: Almaty and Bishkek

Unlike our time in Southeast Asia this past May, where we were pleasantly surprised by several examples of our favorite architectural styles in Phnom Penh, I knew leading up to our Central Asia trip that Almaty and Bishkek would be tremendous places for modernist/brutalist architecture spotting and photography. Thanks to several books I’ve collected over the years and some mildly creepy Instagram stalking, I already knew the places I wanted to see in both cities. I’ve always been particularly captivated by Soviet Wedding Palaces, and prior to this trip we’d seen some great examples, most notably being those in Tbilisi, Georgia and Vilnius, Lithuania. And while not much has been written (in English, anyway) on Almaty’s Wedding Palace, Bishkek’s Wedding Palace has been well documented all over the internet – particularly well by this post by Cooper Thomas, a former Bishkek expat.

Almaty Palace of Weddings
Almaty Palace of Weddings
Bishkek Palace of Weddings
Bishkek Palace of Weddings

Wedding Palaces served a very interesting role in Soviet society – a role which continues today in many post-Soviet nations: to gather information, making sure every couple is properly registered. It seems like the actual ceremony plays second fiddle to the act of registering itself. Despite this, it appears that weddings in the post-Soviet world have adapted to incorporate the more conspicuous displays of wealth commonplace in American weddings. The weddings held in these Wedding Palaces aren’t traditional to the region – contracts between families and festivities that usually linger for weeks – but instead more closely mimic their Western counterparts. Official documents are signed, then couples are whisked off in a fancy car, often back to everyday life. Read more

Sary Mogul, Kyrgyzstan: An Unlikely Hamlet at 12,000 Feet

There isn’t much space devoted to places like Sary Mogul, Kyrgyzstan in guidebooks.  Sary Mogul is one of those places that is typically seen as a stopping off point, or a place to have a sort of layover, perhaps in the midpoint between two more noteworthy destinations.  But for whatever reason, I was immediately struck and fascinated by the place.  Neat rows of one-story mud houses, free-roaming cows and pigs, a lack of vegetation (save for the odd potato plant), and the curious people made it very hospitable, and I found it to be an absolute delight to explore and photograph.img_2302 img_2300

Places like Sary Mogul, traditionally, shouldn’t exist in Kyrgyzstan.  Sary Mogul, like it’s larger neighbor to the east, Sary Tash, were founded in the 1940s by Soviets in an attempt to supply nearby Murghab with potatoes and livestock.  Murghab was a strategic point along the Pamir Highway, connecting the major parts of the southern Soviet Empire with the relatively more Russified Kazakh and Kyrgyz Soviet Social Republics.  Thus, Sary Mogul came to existence to support another town that wouldn’t exist if it were left to the rules of traditional Kyrgyz nomadism.  It was truly a manufactured place, and in that respect, it had been given a blank canvas for independent cultural development. Read more

Hanoi, Vietnam, without Plans

I’ll be honest with you, I was a bit afraid of Hanoi before we went there.  Most of what I’d heard about the city was contrary to our travel style: it’s busy, disorganized, full of scammers, loud, etc.  I’ve had friends travel there that have absolutely hated it, but also friends that absolutely loved it.  I was worried that, after three days relaxing in Luang Prabang, Laos, Hanoi’s energy would be too much for us.dsc_0849-2 dsc_0886

As luck would have it, when you have a bar set pretty low for a place, the conditions are set for it to really knock it out of the park.  And while I’m not sure my opinion of Hanoi would be the same if we’d been there a full week instead of a mere 48 hours, I’m glad we spent the time we did in Hanoi rather than skip it altogether. Read more

Almaty, Kazakhstan, Dressed in Resplendent Concrete

The first stop on our whirlwind tour of Central Asia was Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty.  It remains the largest city in the country, as well as its cultural epicenter.  My knowledge of the city was somewhat lacking (aside, that is, from my standard furious pre-trip googling and wiki-ing), and the city threw me through a loop.  Not because of culture shock – actually, it was quite the opposite.  Almaty was strange to me because of how cosmopolitan, ostentatious, and developed it was, thanks in large part to the Central Asian (primarily Kazakh) oil boom.stans-2016-13_29877361666_o stans-2016-127_29877426286_o Read more

Where are the Tourists in Central Asia?

It’s been a few weeks since our return from Central Asia, and I think I’ve had ample time to process our amazing experience there. One of the things we noticed throughout our time there was the near complete lack of tourists. With the exception of the odd Dutch or Israeli traveler, we met very few other travelers on the road. With all Central Asia has to offer, from crumbling modernist concrete to majestic scenery to extremely inexpensive transportation and cost of living, we were constantly wondering, “Why are we the only ones here?”

So I went about gathering opinions about why Central Asia (granted, we were only in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) seems to fly under the radar when it comes to travel destinations. To be fair, this is not a statistical study, as my sample size was about five, including my parents and others who might have some trouble identifying the stans on a map. Hey, I never claimed to be a mathematician.img_1958 img_2092 img_2222 Read more