29 October 2007

Modes of Transportation in Central Asia

In our trek into and out of Central Asia from China, we've tried a number of different transportation options.


Bus

Perhaps our worst, but most authentic experience was our bus ride from Tashkent to Samarkand. We heard from a fellow traveller that it was easily done, without the hassle of negotiating prices. So one morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed to the public bus station.

First of all, it was raining. It rains about once every 6 months in Uzbekistan. In the drizzle, we were first taken to the train station by our taxi driver. When we finally got to the bus station, we found a little stall marked "Samarkand bus tickets." We walked over, and then the fun began. First, the ticket seller refused to sell tickets. She couldn't sell tickets, she said, until the bus pulled up in front of the stall. When was the bus going to pull up? She had no idea. So we joined the rapidly growing huddle of people next to the stall, as it continued to pour. An hour and a half later, there was a false alarm. Someone thought tickets were beginning to be sold. Vigorous pushing and shoving began as people pushed handfuls of money in the direction of the stall window. Mark was nearly bowled over. This stopped after 15 minutes.

Half an hour later, a bus arrived. It was the Samarkand bus, but it did not pull up to the stall. The locals started to pile on, only to be chased away by the chauffer. When it finally pulled up, people started piling in again, ticketless.

Meanwhile, I had at this time worked my way up to the ticket window as people had gotten tired of waiting. The ticket seller opened her little window, and again there was a furious jostling of elbows as people tried to get to the stall. Armed with my big backpack, I managed to be 3rd in line, and got a ticket. However, it was too late. By the time I had gotten onto the bus, there were no seats, and barely any standing room.

It turns out that bus drivers in Uzbekistan are more interested in overselling seats than providing safe transportation. The ticket seller sold only a total of 10 tickets in a 40 seater bus. With a ticket, the bus driver were forced to find you a seat. Without one, you paid 50% extra for the privilege of standing 5 hours to get to your destination. It was 100% more for a seat. All this for a slow ride as the driver stopped every 10 minutes to cram more people and produce into the bus. Not a good option.


Shared Taxi

One of the most popular options for backpackers. The theory is great. You find 3 other people to charter a car to your destination. It is flexible, as you can go anywhere, and leave anytime. None of the hassles of having other people picked up. So we tried this one too.

We wanted to drive from Bishkek, the capitol of Kazahkstan, to Tashkent, the capitol of Uzbekistan. Early in the morning, we made our way to the parking lot where the shared taxis were congregated. Once we arrive, we were swarmed by touts. Shoving signs of their destinations in our faces, shouting in our ears, they stopped just short of hauling us into their cars. We managed to shake them off and start inquiring other, less aggressive drivers. For Tashkent, the market rate was supposed to be between 150 to 200 USD. All the drivers started at 400. For one proud owner of a Mercedes, he was talked down to 200 and refused to budge. He told us we weren't going to find any other cars going to Tashkent. Finally, we found a nice Audi with a driver who was willing to accept 150USD. We piled our bags in and took off. However, 100 meters down the road he started asking for money. For "benzene (gas)", he said. We gave him 50 USD. "Useless! Sum (the local currency)!" We didn't have any. His face red, he tried to dump us by the side of the road. We finally made him drive back to the parking lot, where he almost ran Mark over. Finally, after getting into and out of another shared taxi, we located a Nissan that worked out. We got to Tashkent safely, but the ordeal of the bargaining wore us out.


Plane

Perhaps the most civilized option, we thought. We were finally leaving the Central Asian portion of our trip and flying back to Xi'an. We had made it from our guesthouse to the shiny new airport 4 hours early. We hoped that it would be easy sailing from then on.

The first inequity was that the airport refused to accept the local currency. We were in Uzbekistan, yet the exchange office refused to turn the Uzbek Sum back into dollars. They were happy to take our US dollars and turn them into Uzbek Sum that we could not use, but not the other way around. When we poked our head into the gift shop, they also refused their own money. US dollars only. Even the cafe in the waiting lounge had a large sign saying, "We do not accept Sum!"

Secondly, none of the strict security rules in Western airports applied. Although you could not bring explosives, fireworks, and guns onto the plane, you could bring an array of knives that varied from scimitars to samurai type blades. Liquids? Of course that was allowed.

Thirdly, the pushing and shoving culture was not restricted to cheap bus tickets. Adhering to the rules of queueing, we lined up to check in our luggage and get boarding cards. Not the locals. Once the ticket agent showed up, the line turned into a swarm as again passports and tickets were shoved in the general direction of the desk. It didn't help that one of the ticket agents had trouble using computers, or that as our boarding cards were being printed the machine broke down. This every-man-for-himself mentality applied to every situation that arose. Passport control. Customs. We nearly laughed when we pulled up in our shuttle onto the tarmac. A man, luggage in hand, broke free of the vehicle and sprinted towards the entrance of the plane. Were we going to leave without him?

As we finally touched down in Urumqi, we thought that perhaps this event-filled plane ride could no longer surprise us. We were wrong. Once the plane landed, as it was coasting towards our gate, the passengers in unison got up, took their luggage from the overhead compartment, and surged towards the front. For our part, we had had enough. If you can't win 'em, join 'em. We violated all plane etiquette, grabbed our stuff and pushed forward onto Chinese soil.


Train

After the trans-Siberian, Mark and I often wondered the following: Were we going to be so sick of trains after our trip that we would never want to see one again?

Scarred by the bus experience from Tashkent to Samarkand, we decided to splurge and spend an extra 2 dollars per person for a train from Samarkand to Bukhara. We could not contemplate the waiting, pushing and shoving, and the uncertainty that during the many stops our backpacks would mysteriously disappear. A finer choice we could not have made.

In our usual obsessive-compulsive manner, we had arrived a good hour before our train departed. The platform had plenty of seats, it was a fine day, and most surprisingly, there were no crowds. We had a beverage seller finger our Pacsafes and marvel at the construction, but that was all the hassle we got. When the train arrived, we embarked and found nice comfortable chairs. Shortly after departure from the station, 2 packets of crackers were deposited on our tables. Steaming cups of chai were brought around. All this free of charge. As we dug into our snacks, plates of hot food were also brought around for us. Harkening back to my memories of New Jersey transit, I thought, "What a difference! How nice it is to make a big deal out of a train trip!" Besides bad Russian movies and loud Indian MTV being blared from the television, we really had nothing to complain about as we saw the countryside roll by.

In the train, then, we had our winner for "Favorite mode of transportation in Central Asia." We hope to do a lot more of it in the coming months.

Atavism of the highest order

What does it mean to be home? Your indulgences for a small excursus into amateurish philosophy, but I ask this because landing in Xi'an last night felt like coming home. Not only that, but the days leading up to our return saw us engaged in thousands of conversations that began with "You know what I miss?"

Why should Xi'an be home? We first laid eyes on it just a month ago. We know nobody here. We have no community, no ties. We know it only by its major roads, its tourist sites, a soup dumpling restaurant, and its McDonalds (I don't know what worries me more—that the Big Macs taste different than the ones in New York, or that that fries don't). It's a big, polluted, Chinese city, replete with the vigorous construction of grandiose facades over squat little buildings that characterizes this exploding economy. And it's littered with the spittle of old grandmothers, the discarded wrappers of bao zi, and ATMs that gleefully accept your card without dispensing money.

But, in these last few days—and especially last night—we've felt, as Moore wrote three centuries ago, ...sadly sweet / The dream of home... / Steal o'er the heart, too soon to fleet, / When far o'er sea or land we roam.

What makes this city, once so new, feel like home? Is it simply that we've been here before, and that there's just a sense of safety, of sameness, of not having to fight against the new? Is this feeling only an example of mankind's tremendously facile ability toward adaptation, directed at what has once been experienced and subsequently removed? Is homesickness simply a longing for what's known in the midst of the strange? Is the very concept of home, then, anything more than the crystallization of psychic familiarity, a concept laden by the emotional weight of its very absence, an example of atavism of the highest order?

I don't know. All I know is that we're reveling in a town where there's a free pool table in the common room of our hostel, where we're forced to endure the Backstreet Boys' almost-hits at ear-bleeding decibels, and where hot-water showers are plentiful.

All this is good, since we leave for Lhasa in 36 hours, far over land to roam.

Bluster

When I was groing up, my conservative Chinese parents stamped the following into my head: Well-bred folk do not make a fuss in public. Do not allow anybody to lose face, they said, and do not show "hard" emotions to people. That means no loud arguing, no vigorous hand motions, no anger.

Well, travelling in Central Asia has been a trial to these tenets my parents hold so dear. It appears that bluster is part and parcel of everyday life.

A few days ago, we were in Bukhara. Tired, weak (from a gastrointestinal malady that struck both us and every other person staying at our guesthouse in Samarkand), and weary, we had booked a hotel in advance. On arrival, the manager showed us our room and disappeared. We had wanted to talk to him about the price, and also to register our passports. When we asked the maid, she shrugged and said that the manager had already left for the day. So we left our bags there and wandered around the Lyabi Hauz square, took in an Uzbek wedding-dress fashion show, and checked out some more hotels. Several things were readily apparent. First, that the quoted internet price (40 USD) for our hotel was exorbitant. Second, that almost all the hotels were empty. Third, that a beautiful new hotel down the street had a gorgeous room with a balcony for 45 dollars. Armed with this information, we went back to our hotel and asked to speak to the manager again. He showed up half an hour later, and we began our negotiations.

Manager: "40 dollars."
Us: "That is too expensive,"
Manager: "This is already the discount price" (a lie—this was what was advertised on the internet). "You stay one night, I can find you cheaper hotel tomorrow."
Us: "No, it's too much. We are leaving."
Manager: "You already walked into the room. You used the refridgerator" (another lie—it was not even plugged in). "You are cheap, three-dollar tourists. I will call the police if you leave."
Us: "We just put our bags down. We are leaving."
Manager: "You pay 70% of the price and I let you leave."

He proceeded to call us names. We walked in the room and picked up our bags. Suddenly, he changed his attitude. "How much do you want to pay? 35 dollars? 30 dollars? You can stay as many days as you want."

At that point we were offended beyond staying. We walked back to the new hotel only to find that they had given the room with the balcony away. Another scene. Mark, who grew up used to this sort of thing, started raising his voice. Asking to speak to the manager.

At the end of the day, we ended up with another room, no balcony but beautiful nonetheless. For the bargain price of 35 dollars. I was beside myself. Were we ugly tourists? Were we being rude? The boy at the front desk who gave away our room had seemed upset. We had violated my parent's cardinal rules of good behavior.

The next morning, however, the boy at the front desk greeted us happily. The hotel was unfailingly courteous to us for the duration of the stay. If not for Mark, I would have bought into the entire act and allowed my conscience to continue chastizing me. And paid a good deal more money.

When it comes to bargaining here, bluster plays an integral part. The pretense of wounded feelings, rules disobeyed, or offense given is employed on the part of the seller in raising prices, or on the part of the buyer in lowering them.

For instance, we had agreed on a price with a cab driver to hire him for a day trip to Shakrisabz. On our return he asked for more money. His face contorted in anger and his voice grew louder. He complained about the wear and tear on his car and his fatigue. Mark simply handed him the agreed upon sum and said, "Do you want this or not?" He tooked the money, and then it was all over. The pantomine stopped. He smiled and waved as he pulled out of the parking lot.

Likewise, there was the proprietess of the two-room museum in Shakrisabz who locked us in while trying to extort more money from us. She stamped her feet and yelled at us. She gave all sorts of reasons why we had to pay over double the going price for museums. However, once she gave up and took the money, the act was dropped and we were friends again. No hard feelings all around.

It's been a particularly difficult lesson for me to learn. My parents aside, I had always prided myself on being open-minded and knowing what distinguishes cultures from each other. I was so sure I knew what was appropriate social behaviour that it took Mark several conversations with me before I understood that this entire business of bluster was used on a daily basis. I suppose that is why different cultures clash because pig-headed people like me on both sides think they know what is going on. Thank goodness for patient Lebanese.

27 October 2007

As told to Tintin

Imagine, if you will, showing up in the run-down parking lot of a third-world country's long-distance bus station at 6:30 in the morning, being trundled into the back of one of many waiting Russian-made cars (after much intense haggling, sometimes devolving into pushing and spitting), and being driven across two borders to a completely separate country, whose relations with members of the first are very strained.

Now, imagine doing it to ten hours of Russian techno music. It's amazing how boring a synthesized back-beat can be.

That was how we got from Bishkek to Tashkent, from one of the poorer Central Asian countries, through its richest, into its most cultural. In doing so, we crossed the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, effortlessly (though it is a bit telling that the customs declaration form has the word "Free" written diagonally across it, in big, bold, baby-blue letters and in three languages), spent a grand total of ten hours in Kazakhstan marvelling over their crazy language—so much for our double-entry visa—and were dropped off at the Kazakh-Uzbek border by our friendly Lada-driver.

Yes, it is a crazy language. In Kazakh, verbs not only have tense, aspect, and mood. They also have evidentiality. Meaning, you can't just say, "He wrote this." You have your choice of six different possibilities. "He wrote this, and I saw the result," or "He wrote this and someone else saw the results and told me about it," or "He wrote this and told me about it, but I probably didn't see it," or, most declarative, "He wrote this, and I saw him write it," and more, all by just changing the verb's ending. Don't ask me why.

We walked across the Kazakh-Uzbek border, into the waiting, loving arms of taxi touts and gipsy kids. We picked an older minibus driver with five other passengers in his car, told him where we wanted to go, and trusted him to get us there. Thirty minutes later, we were unceremoniously dumped by the side of a major road, with blustering assurances that we had arrived, about an hour's walk from our destination. And not a single other passenger said a thing about it. Welcome to Tashkent.


Tashkent
The former Soviet Union's fourth largest city (after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev), and the only Central Asian city with a functioning subway system, this was our introduction to Uzbekistan, and to its tricks. The most distressing of these was the levying of entrance fees at random gates throughout the city.

For example, the Kukeldash medressa. This is a Muslim school near where we were staying. After about 10 minutes inside its front door, we were approached by a man (who, as they all would for the next ten days, appeared frankly out of nowhere, in Russian-tailored suit and too-pointy shoes) pedantically calling himself the "Deputy Director of Foreign Relations". He was, I was informed, "in charge of meeting all foreign tourists to our medressa," from whom he would extract a 1000-sum entrance fee.

(Ask the old men whiling away the afternoon inside the medressa's courtyard who this guy was, and they'd smile a knowing, toothless smile. "He's just a guide.")

Of course, if you were Uzbek, the entrance fee was simply your nationality. To make matters worse, if you tried to find a sign anywhere dictating a particular entrace fee, you would be flummoxed. These signs didn't exist.

It took us about four hours to determine that entrance fees, like everything else in Central Asia, were eminently negotiable. What was most distressing about this particular scam, though (perpetrated at every site that could remotely be considered a monument, including looking at the one remaining wall of a Timurid palace in the middle of nowhere) was that you never knew who these ticket collectors were.

Which meant, you never knew where the money was actually going. Often, the touts were the souvenir sellers closest to the door. Sometimes they'd approach you from miles away. Sometimes they'd be kids. But they'd latch on to you like rabid dogs, ignoring any logic, until another—likely more docile—tourist walked in.

By the way, the Kukeldash medressa wasn't worth the 1000-sum entrance fee.

But mostly, Tashkent has been a city of fast internet, Nutella, and the world's oldest Koran (from only a few decades after Mohammed's death).


Samarkand
Now this! This is Central Asia. Samarkand is grandiose. It's magical. It's well-preserved and under-touristed. It dramatically lights its monuments up at night. It's walkable. It's steeped in history. And it was our favorite city in this entire region.

It was in Samarkand that we were most impressed by the cult of personality that has developed around Amir Timur (aka Timur the Great, aka Tamerlane). Born in Shakhrisabz, a small town 90 km south of the city, and buried just outside the guesthouse we stayed at, his name is everywhere. His museums are ubiquitous. And his statues of flowing concrete show no hint of the lameness in his right leg from which his name derives.

It was in his museum in Shakhrisabz, though, that we had one of those quintessential travel moments. This museum contains two rooms, with facsimilies of Timurid coins, glazed tiles, pottery, and (for some, inexplicable reason) Alexandrine relics. All the signs are in Uzbek, but a too-eager docent is more than happy to take you around the rooms, point out the coins, and explain them, for your benefit. In Uzbek. You aren't allowed to refuse her company.

After our ten-minute tour of poorly-lit historical replicas and dioramas worthy of Sister Viola Pratka's first-grade class, we were escorted to the front door, accompanied by the only English words to come out of our Virgil's mouth. "Five thousand." (This is nearly triple the price of admission to most monuments in Uzbekistan).

"Five thousand?! No. We'll give you 2000."

"Five thousand. Real price! Not me! Director! Bank! President Uzbekistan!"

We held our ground. She held hers, blustering on about how this price was actually set by President Karimov himself. Because he's got little better to do.

So, she locked us into the museum! Walked to the door, and bolted it shut! And, just like that, we became prisoners in a Central Asian country.

We pulled out our books, sat down on a bench, and made like we didn't really care. We had enough water to last us till she went home. The ruse worked: our detention didn't last more than about 10 minutes before we were released, on 2000-sum bail, back to our guesthouse.

This guesthouse was run by two unmarried sisters. They lavished breakfasts, fresh figs, and for-a-fee travel services on all their guests (we availed ourselves of laundry). But it struck us as strange that one of these matronly, overly-interested ladies remarked, one morning, that 80% of her tourists got some sort of GI malady during their stay there (we did). And that she had a special tea, brewed from quince leaves and branches, that worked wonders (it didn't). Hey...At least they had a tremendous view of the Great Man's mausoleum.


Money
Speaking of our bail.... The Uzbek sum may actually be worth less than Monopoly money (OK. I looked it up. It's not. Monopoly money is worth about a third the value of the Uzbek sum). Currently, the US dollar trades at 1,282 Uzbek sum. Unfortunately, the National Mint hasn't printed new bills since 1999, and the largest they ever printed was 1000 sum. This means that the biggest bill in existence is worth seventy-eight cents.

Not that prices are commensurately cheaper. Budget guesthouses still cost between $15 and $20 US, per person. And nobody (not even banks) takes credit cards. Change $100 USD into sum, and you end up with a veritable brick of money. Here, for example, is 111,800 sum.


That's $87.20.


Bukhara
After the alopecia-inducing bus ride to Samarkand (Peggy's writing about that one), we swore off Central Asian buses and booked a train to Bukhara. Clean, comfortable, and fast. And, for three hours, the wheels tapped out the diambic rhythm of the first two words of La Marseillaise.

Allons enfants...allons enfants...allons enfants... We didn't realize how appropriate that would be.

Bukhara is, frankly, a suburb of Paris. Central Asia's holiest city, the birthplace of Avicenna, and the site of its oldest and most grandiose mosques, medressas, and minarets, has become a carnival of carpet sellers, hat hawkers, and the bus-loads of retired French tourists who love them. How many white-haired French men did we need to see with their necks bedangled by three different cameras and their heads covered with Kyrgyz felt hats of dubious quality?

This isn't something you expect when you book a trip like this. Uzbekistan—off the beaten track, desert-bound, and holy.

And completely cheapened. Bukhara is caricature. It is Central Asia, as told to Tintin.*

It was also the first place we were threatened with police action for deciding to go to another guesthouse than the one we'd originally booked.

Two days was all we could take. We booked it back here to Tashkent.

*Yes, yes. Tintin is Belgian. I know.

16 October 2007

Pictures!

Finally! Really, we promise. (I know. I can't believe it either.) They're not all titled or captioned or labelled yet, but they're up, and there they are. And there are lots of them.
















Moscow

Siberia

Life on the trains

Mongolia

China

Kyrgyzstan


In other news—allow us a momentary boasting indiscretion. Since I know most of you who read this blog regularly do so in either an e-mail or an RSS/XML feed, you probably haven't noticed the little red icon at the bottom of the right-hand column of the site itself. We've been picked up by Travelblogs.com as one of their featured blogs. We're slightly proud. Check them out. They're a good site.

14 October 2007

The kidney stone(s)

So... We're writing this from Bishkek, where our plan was to stay a single night and then to head out to Issyk-Kul, the world's second-largest alpine lake (second only to Titicaca, whose very name can never be surpassed).

As has been typical of this trip, plans were thwarted. This time, it wasn't a crooked Krygyz promise or a slipshod Chinese travel agent. It was the kidneys.

Attempting to pass two kidney stones (yes, two...no one's ever accused me of being half-hearted) while battling a case of food poisoning all in a single night makes one ill-disposed to do any canyon-walking.

It's been a hellish two days. Any words I find to describe the pain of these sub-centimeter demons are all devoid of meaning for their overuse. Agonizing. Excruciating. Doubled-over. You name it, I felt it.

What this did enable us to do, though, was visit the inner workings of the Kyrgyz medical system.

Word to the wise: if you travel, 1) Don't get kidney stones (I mean, really. Who gets kidney stones when they're travelling?), and 2) Avoid the inner workings of the Kyrgyz medical system.

To bring my Western weltanschauung to bear on this situation: from the dramatic beginning of the symptoms, it was eminently clear what was going on. Kidney stones aren't subtle. And if you show up in a doctor's office in the US with one, you're given a cocktail of pain relief and anti-emetics and then a bunch of tests are run on you. Not so in Kyrgyzstan. And God help you if you get this kidney stone on a Saturday.

Stop #1: The on-call urologist at the Kyrgyz Republic President's Hospital. This was your stereotypical NGO hospital—painted a pale blue, with doors that didn't completely close, and nurses in stockings and slippers and tall hats. I've worked in hospitals like this. The on-call urologist, however, labors only until noon. The same is true with the entire radiology department, and there is no emergency room (at least, not one open to foreigners). Come noon, best of luck to you. Unfortunately, we showed up at 11:30, so by 12:30, we were sent—on foot!—to another hospital where "Maybe, I think, they should be working."

Stop #2: The Kyrgyz National Hospital. Absolutely indescribable. Filthy. Dank. Dark. Dripping. Dirty. Desolate. This is what hospitals used to be like. This is where people go to die. Lasciate ogne speranza...

The doctor there saw me, pounded on my back, and sent me for an X-ray. With which I had radiation therapy to my kidneys. I kid you not—enough radiation in that thing that you could actually feel the hairs on your body stand at attention when it was on.

And don't get me started on the bathroom. Unisex (yes, I'm from New York, where unisex bathrooms can be kind of hot. This one? Not hot). And filthy, with heaped-up middens of past occupants floating in places they shouldn't be floating. At the Kyrgyz National Hospital, you give your urine sample in a well-used, barely-rinsed baby food jar. So much for sterility. (In fact, the only thing that was sterile in the entire place was the lancet used to draw blood.)

The X-ray showed nothing, at which point he wanted to inject me with contrast so he could see exactly where the stone was so he could operate on it! Yes, I'm a surgeon. Yes, I'm constantly telling people we need to operate. But there was no way a man in a hospital worthy of the eighth circle of Hell was coming anywhere near me with sharp objects.

Thither we came, and thence down in the moat
I saw a people smothered in a filth
That out of human privies seemed to flow

So, I lied. Forgive me. Told him I was allergic to contrast.

Stop #3: Walk another 15 minutes in search of a sonographer who's open. Have that sonographer push, prod, press on your abdomen in search of the stones. I can't malign him, though. He was competent and genuinely kind, and the only one of his ilk that we met all day.

Stop #4: Back to the Kyrgyz National Hospital, armed with information about the two stones you're harboring. Be told by Belial the Urologist that—now!—it was finally time to operate. Refuse (vehemently) again.

Ask next for the results of your blood and urine tests, and get told, "Well, you know. Tests. They could be one thing today and another thing tomorrow." (I insisted. He gave in, reluctantly). And then—the clincher, even to my pain-addled mind—get handed a prescription written on Big Chief paper for four things:

1) Normal saline + potassium.
2) Two herbals "for the urine," one of which you had to drop on a sugar cube before taking (thank you, Albert).
3) A single injection of ketorolac, for which you have to walk to a neighboring pharmacy. Once you purchase the injection, you're welcome to come back to the hospital, where, for a small fee, they'll be happy to give it to you.

As for the normal saline drip, we were told that we could come back for that too. On Monday!

I refused, and Belial thought I was bargaining with him. "Alright," he said begrudgingly. "You can have the drip today." I still refused, so he told us that we could take that prescription to any hospital and have the drip there. But it was of utmost import that, after the IV, I needed to hop on my left foot. Specifically, by the way, on the instep; the outstep just wouldn't do. This was how you got rid of your kidney stone. I am not making this up.

Stop #5: Find a rare, open-on-a-Saturday pharmacy, purchase your own narcotics, straight over the counter (the objection from the pharmacist, "Well, it would be better if this was given by a doctor," was overridden by, "But we are doctors."), and tamsulosin, which Belial had forgotten to write.

Stop #6: Finally, home. For another night of agony.

One stone has made its way out. The other? Well, we'll see.

13 October 2007

The malignant degeneration of a country

Kyrgyzstan is an absolutely gorgeous, fascinating country, where men wear twelve-inch-tall hats and find it a mark of status, where people greet each other by touching the corners of their foreheads together, where water flows uphill (really...). And it is being actively ruined by tourism.

The substrate: Take a poor, third-world country whose coal-based economy collapsed with the death of the Soviet Union, leaving it with a per-capita GDP of $542 per year.* (This places its economy below that of Ghana and just above those of Haiti and Mali. An optometrist here makes $50/month; a physics professor, $42. A sack of grain, on the other hand, costs $35). Strip this country of a regime that was, while oppressive, at least responsible for keeping it afloat with money from other provinces. And in doing so, leave 55% of its populace unemployed or underemployed, and hungry for money.

The reactant: Now. Add to this an industry which promises money—lots of it—and quickly. In three hours of driving, for example, a guy whose car we hired to get from Osh to a small town in the mountains earned almost as much as either of his optometrist and professor parents made in a single month. Just for driving.

The result: Well, greed. And though this greed may be eminently explainable, we still bristle under it. We tourists are walking wallets. Anything costs money. And I mean anything. Travelling in the former Soviet Union is already trying, simply because of the attitude people have toward tourists. This is that much worse.

Case in point: The bedrock of tourism in Kyrgyzstan is a loose federation of tour "operators" (sometimes no more than one person with a cell phone) who work under the umbrella of an organization called Community-Based Tourism. CBT is modelled on the Swiss Helvetas and is touted by the Lonely Planet as "a world leader in...grass-roots tourism." (But of course. LP is fond of hyperbole).

In that mountain town (called—in almost bad CS Lewis nomenclature—Arslanbob), our hope was to work with CBT and do some horseback riding through the Ferghana arm of the Tian Shan mountains. Because, quite honestly, this country is beautiful. We'd planned on a couple of days.

We got to the CBT office to arrange both a homestay and the riding. Before the salaam aleykums were out of our mouths, we were presented with a price list. It didn't look all that bad: $10 to hire a horse for the whole day, for example.

Ah. But then, there are these rules, see. For example: you hire your own horse and the horse of the guide. Your guide, of course, is "no problem English speaking" but you can also hire an "interpreter" for the day. We got a bad feeling about all this and decided to try them out just for a day trip. We were then asked if we wanted a cook (a cook?! for a day?). We declined.

Handshakes were about to happen, when it was sprung on us that we had to pay for our guide's food.

It's Ramadan. He's fasting.

That minor detail was of no import. We still had to underwrite our guide's nonexistent picnic lunch.

OK. Fine. "What about us," we asked. "Can you provide a picnic for us?"

"Oh no. There are stores in the center. You bring food."

Well, can we cater for our guide then?

Of course not.

To make matters even more insulting, our guide ended up not fasting but stealing a slice of watermelon from some Polish tourists we ran into. No picnic, however, ever materialized.

And this sort of wily, slimy slipperiness has characterized just about every interaction we've had in Kyrgyzstan. Paying for things that never happen. Ordering a Coke in a restaurant and being given a 2L bottle. Seeing a beef skewer on the menu for one price and having it turn out to be 10% more when the bill is presented to you. I grant that we're quibbling over pennies here, but it leaves you unwilling to trust anyone in this country.

Oh, and Faisul, the "no problem English speaking" guide? Yeah. Here is a snippet of one of our conversations. We were sitting on a rock outcropping, overlooking the Ferghana mountains and Arslanbob. There is a supposedly holy, cube-shaped rock midway up one of the peaks (we couldn't go. It was "too cold." In a country whose average winter temperatures remain above freezing, it was more likely that our guide was too cold). He tried to point out the Holy Rock to me. I couldn't see it.

He takes my camera. "Maybe zhhh zhhh yes yes?" and with each zhhh, he moved his right hand, palm facing him, closer and further from his eyes.

"Sorry?"

"Maybe кнопка yes yes?"

"I'm sorry. What?"

"Maybe...uh... I кнобка? yes yes?"

This went on for a good ten minutes, before I figured out that кнопка was the Russian word for button, zhhh zhhh was his way of expressing zoom, and what he wanted was to take a picture of the holy rock and show it to me on my camera's LCD screen. He was that kind of guide. God forbid attempting to find out whether there was a special greeting you made on Eid-il-fitr, the last day of Ramadan, and the day on which we were кнопка-ing.

Now, I know I've been perseverating over the issue of language in this blog. Don't get me wrong; between us, Peggy and I speak six languages, four of them well enough to hire a guide in. It's just the—evidently Western—concept that if you pay for some promised thing, you'd like that thing actually to be there.

We have met a few exceptions to this cheat-the-tourist rule. Like the guy who drove us (the son of the optometrist and physicist). He was genuinely interested in our opinions about care for the elderly in the West, or about the role of Islam in the elevation of the status of women throughout the world. (It helped, too, that if you closed your eyes, he really, seriously sounded like Borat).

Or, there was our homestay in Arslanbob. Hands-down, this has been the best experience we've had in Kyrgyzstan. The family we were staying with (an older man, his younger wife, an 11-year-old daughter named Alisha, and a baby) were Uzbeks who, like everyone else in the tourist industry, had benefited financially from the influx of foreigners into Arslanbob. But they didn't show it. There wasn't the slightest hint of rapaciousness in them. Every night, we had a sumptuous meal, home-cooked and traditional (rice pilaf, for example, to celebrate Eid). Every morning, an equivalent breakfast. When I asked, the first night, to take a loaf of the home-cooked bread on our horseback riding trip, the husband said yes, but then inexplicably stole the loaf from me. Only to come back with one his wife had just finished taking out of the oven.

They cared for the smallest detail. A space heater in our room was, mysteriously, turned on when we came back in the evening from riding. And our last morning, we left too early for breakfast. Instead, the whole family showed up to see us off with a sack absolutely laden with food for our drive to Bishkek. And when we came to pay, they gave us one meal for free.

We paid them the full price anyway, but five minutes later, he was knocking on our door to try to give us money back. It's people like that that engender in you a desire to lavish what little gifts you might have in your backpacks. That is the power of hospitality.

The avarice into which the majority of the country has descended, though, makes you wonder: yes, Kyrgyzstan is beautiful, but honestly, you can see mountains and alpine lakes and waterfalls in South America, in Nepal, in Canada. Do you still come here, with your (ever-weakening) US dollar and inject what little you can into their economy, even if you thereby cement the already metastatic, avaricious attitude to foreigners? In the end, what is our responsibility as tourists? To further the malignant degeneration of a country but help its economy, or to avoid it altogether?

*Nominal, in case you're wondering

09 October 2007

Drugs?

We've discovered something. Backpackers spend a lot of time in backpacker cafes, on forums like the Lonely Planet's Thorntree, and huddled around backpacker noticeboards, getting information about their next destinations.

What we've discovered is that most of the information is hyped-up melodrama.

We made it across the previously formidable Irkeshtam pass in fourteen hours (we were quoted anything from 23-28; maybe we just got lucky). Yes, it was snowing, but nothing even Dallas hasn't seen before. And the hordes of buses we expected to run into because this was the first time the pass was open in the last ten days? Yeah. They weren't there. There was one bus, full of retired French people and an officious, bustling Kyrgyz-and-Chinese-speaking guide. And there were a couple of carfuls of Kyrgyz traders. That's it. There were more pots and pans there than there were people.

It took us 25 minutes to get across the Chinese side of the border, and another 25 to get across the Kyrgyz side of the border. In between, we were trundled onto makeshift vans with the aforementioned pots and pans and Kyrgyz traders (although we had to pay $1.50 for a ride that was free for the locals, thanks to a Chinese official looking to make a buck) for the five-minute ride across no-man's land.

After the heated, cement Chinese border post, we pushed and shoved our way past these traders—who got increasingly aggressive as the day wore on—into a ramshackle wooden hut that was the extent of Kyrgyz border control. It did have the green nothing-to-declare and red declaration lanes, but everyone walked between the two. Ah well.

Here is the extent of Kyrgyz customs:

1. Get escorted into a small office with a severe looking official. Thankfully, the office is heated.

2. Hand him your passport.

3. Tell him your name.

4. Figure out that "vurks-hoom?" means "What's your profession at home?" and answer appropriately.

5. Smile, despite yourself, and say "no" when he points to your backpack and says, "Drugs?"

At this point, your passport is unceremoniously slid across a table back to you, with a small smile and raised eyebrow, and the word "Finish."

Then walk out and find yourself a taxi to Osh. There are plenty, happy to pocket your US dollars.

Osh, I've got to say, has very little to recommend it. It's evidently one of the oldest cities in the world (older than Rome, they like to remind you here). A steep massif sits at the west end of town, bathetically named Solomon's Throne, from which you can get a sweeping, panoramic view of this post-Soviet town, and, well, that's about it. Not even great internet access. (So, no pictures yet). And our hostel here rivals the one in Beijing for worst-ever. Toilet seats are optional. Pubic hair on the rim, though, isn't.

Our plan—horses, weather, and terrain willing—is to ride through central Kyrgyzstan for the next five days or so, on our way to Bishkek, the capital. We'll be away from e-mail for nearly a week, then, so forgive us if we don't get back to you.

In other news: We've just been informed that we may not actually be going to Sierra Leone. (And all that history reading! All for naught!) Evidently, with the newly-elected administration installed, there are some kinks that have to be worked out, which may not be worked out by February. If not, we'll be in Liberia instead, which was where we originally thought we'd be going anyway. We'll keep you updated.

07 October 2007

Minority in hegemony

It's our last night in China. Tomorrow, we're attempting to cross a border that's 12,000 feet above sea level—where a couple of inches of snow are expected—and that opens at noon for the first time in ten days. And all we've got is a car to the Chinese side of the border. Wish us luck...

But, what am I saying? We're not really in China any more. We haven't been for the last week. We're in this bizarre other world.

The Xinjiang province (the word in Chinese means "new frontier") has always been a crux of the Silk Road. Trade through here has been going on for at least seven millenia. It's been the seat of multiple rebellions over its long history, was briefly united with parts east under the Mongol reign in the thirteenth century, and then with parts west after Timur's occupation in the fourteenth. For the next five hundred years, it was ping-ponged between eastern and western rule, until it became a separate country (called "Turkestan") under Yaqub Beg in the nineteenth century. That lasted only a few years, before the Manchu swarmed in from the east and wrested control. It was again independent (and only part of it) as Eastern Turkestan in 1945, but then, again, only briefly. In 1949, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, there rose up another separatist movement that refused Beijing's rule. This Muslim league's leaders, however, all suspiciously died in a plane crash; Eastern Turkestan was overrun and its leader executed in 1951.

The Uighurs, who people this province (though that's not completely true any more), are not Chinese. Their language is nothing like Chinese; it's not even in the same linguistic family, and it's represented by letters derived from the Arabic alphabet (though it's not in the Semitic language family either; the letters are just used phonetically). People greet each other with the ever-so-Muslim salaam aleykum, and, even if they've never been truly independent, they are fiercely so. There's palpable tension between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese, whom Beijing has been enticing to move west since 2000 (through its ingeniously-named "Develop the West" campaign). Restaurants are either frequented by Uighurs or by Chinese, but not by both. Each group views the other with suspicion and speaks the other's language only begrudgingly (and accentedly at that). It's no longer, as the Lonely Planet writes, about whether you dip your dumplings in soy sauce or in vinegar, but about how you like your mutton cooked.

The fierce independence even extends to time: Although all of China operates officially on Beijing time, the sun, unfortunately, does not seem willing to follow Beijing's whims. So, Xinjiang has its own, unofficial, Xinjiang time, two hours behind Beijing time. This makes for interesting discussions when booking tickets.

In short, this is a fascinating part of China to visit.

Urumqi
The capital of Xinjiang is the most Han-populated city in the province, and the only one in which there is some measure of peaceable interaction. The benefit, of course, is that there's a Carrefour and enough ramen to get us on to our next country. Stay along Urumqi's main streets, and you'll see skyscrapers, hot pot restaurants, and grocery stores. But turn off into any of the side streets and you enter a fascinating world that hasn't changed, it seems, in years—a world of outdoor markets, of men in traditional Kazakh hats bargaining over half a sheep, of mutton kebabs, of mosques on every corner, of burqas, bread cooked in open ovens, and houses in disrepair. And of people who didn't quite know what to do with us—an Arab and a Taiwanese in Muslim territory. It was a bit jarring.

Urumqi is also home to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum. The museum has undergone a $13 million facelift that even includes Chinglish signs (yippee!), and is, quite honestly, one of the better museums we've seen this trip. Of its four exhibits, three are about the Xinjiang region—one on its history (and how wonderfully things have changed since the Chinese exerted their domination on the province; evidently the Silk Road couldn't have existed without the Chinese influence—ignoring the fact that, in the thirteenth century, when Marco Polo travelled the Silk Road, the influence was actually Mongolian. But, who am I to argue?), one on the different ethnic groups that call this province home, and one on the mummies found in the Taklamakan desert (more on the desert later). These are absolutely fascinating—they're mummies not through any preparation of the families that buried them. They're simply dessicated. They never rotted because they were just too dry.

And the desert's preservation is mind-boggling. You can see the mummies' fingerprints, their nail polish, their facepaint. They look like living—if slightly stiff and malnourished—human beings. According to one of the docents, one mummy—the Loulan Beauty—is, at 8000 years old, the oldest mummy in existence.

Of all the cities we've visited in China, we might have liked Urumqi the best.

Urumqi to Kashgar
The train to Kashgar defies description. It's, quite literally, an assault on every sense. For twenty-eight hours. We were in the last two beds of the last car on the train, cheek by jowl with eighty-two other people. Silence is impossible, especially when the berths are open and there's quite simply not enough room for the people and their luggage. The corridor is packed. And our location also meant we were also right next to the bathroom.

God, how do you describe it? The smells—the fetid, orange smell of unwashed feet, the milky one of dirty babies, the grey, watery smell of squat toilets, the odors of raw sausage (eaten, straight out of the wrapper, with relish), peppers, cigarette smoke, sweat, musty old ladies, and decades-old carpet, all compete for primacy. And the sounds—I simply can't get over how dramatic most of the people here feel they need to be with their bodily functions. There's a veritable sonata of snot that happens constantly, with each movement more grand than the last. And I'm not just using that as cheap alliteration: there's actually an A-B-A'-coda structure to this expulsion of humors. Snort-snort-spit / Cough-hack-retch-cough-retch-spit / Snort-spit-snort-spit. One man's coda was a nice, long, relished bit of flatulence. Another guy's sonata took a full, timed six minutes. And it's not just the men who do this. The women do it too, though less often and slightly more quietly. The six-minute guy...he was back for more, half an hour later.

The terrain that the train crosses, though, is amazing. It passes the lowest and hottest point in China (Turpan, second only to the Dead Sea in depth below sea level; the highest temperature measured here was nearly 50 degrees Celsius) and, not three hours later, is up above 10,000 feet, crossing the Tian Shan mountains. It spends its entire length skirting the Taklamakan desert.

For good reason. "Taklamakan" means "He who enters never comes out." And I believe it. Supposedly it's the world's second-largest desert (though I've also heard fifteenth-largest...), and, unlike the Gobi, with its brush and vegetation and inexplicable saxault trees, this desert has nothing. Simply nothing. It's valleys of dirt between mountains of dirt around dried out river beds of dirt; sometimes the dirt is ochre or yellow or red or green, but mostly, it's just brown. The path around the desert was only discovered in the last couple of millenia. It's that massive. Our train was stuck for five hours in the middle of the desert, too, for high winds and rain (yes, rain...we've been so plagued by rain this trip that it even rained in the desert for us). But finally, twenty-eight hours later, after a range of Reeses-colored mountains and an incongruous oasis of grapes, corn, donkey carts, and poplar trees, Kashgar appears.

Kashgar
More Muslim than Chinese, more Central Asian than East, Kashgar has what's supposed to be the oldest and biggest open-air market in existence. Its location—at one of the major crossroads of the Silk Road, near Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and India—means that people come from all over to trade here. We saw Kazakhs, Russians, Uighurs, Kyrgyz, Chinese, and the ubiqitous Western tourist. You can buy anything here. Cows, camels, kitsch, TVs, DVDs, cloth, carpets, cooked food, raw food, goats. You name it, it's on sale. Whereas, because of the Develop the West campaign, Xinjiang's Uighur population has dropped from 90% to 50% overall, here, it's still up near eighty. This place is not China.

Of course, it never rains in Kashgar. It rained for the market. Anyone else not surprised? At least we got a beautifully sunny day for Lake Karakul.

But here, more than anywhere we've been so far, I wonder—what's it like to be a minority in hegemony? All of us in the west who aren't of WASP origin think we're living in some sort of hegemony, but truthfully, we're not. Not this kind of hegemony. Not codified, government-sponsored hegemony. The biggest and boldest signs, even here in Kashgar, have no Uighur script on them. They're all in Chinese. The mosques, as Peggy has already mentioned, have placards in three languages detailing the Party's glorious contributions to the preservation of minority cultures (and, jarringly, religious freedom). Even the place we're staying—the Chinibagh Hotel, a word that isn't Chinese at all—has no Uighur writing anywhere except at its entrance.

What does that feel like? What does it feel like, as a minority person, to walk into the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum (I just like typing its full name) and see your culture's musical instruments, traditional costume, and home furnishings displayed on mannequins, with signs next to them blathering on about how "Kazakh women like the dance," or "the Uighur man embodies the plains"? Are you proud? Proud that your culture has been well preserved, in a well-done museum, for the world to see and learn? Or does it bother you that there isn't a section for the traditional music, dress, and home furnishings of the Han Chinese, that there isn't a placard reading, "Han Chinese women used to bind their feet"?

What's it like to see a huge statue of Mao Zedong in the central square of Kashgar? How does it feel that one of the only four exhibits in a museum dedicated to your culture is actually about revolutionary Han Chinese achievements (this one, interestingly, had no English signs)? What does it feel like to realize that your image, as a minority, is on the 10-cent and 50-cent pieces and on nothing else? Do you even realize this, having grown up under this regime? Or is this, really, just the way things are? I can't tell.

Does the propaganda, the ethnic displacement, the language supremacy bother you, or are you happy that money is, truly, being poured into your region? Is this what the First Nations people of North America felt when the Europeans first started settling?

Even though I find myself getting angry when I see blatant examples of an imposition of a foreign culture on a region steeped in its own history, I recognize I'm bringing my own anti-imperial western leanings to the table. But, really, what's it like to be a minority in hegemony?

06 October 2007

Propaganda

We are in Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, at the gateway to the silk road. We finally have a moment to reflect on the assault of propaganda we have witnessed. It started with the first Chinese train we took from Beijing to Xi'an. The conductor, polite but nonstop, droned out dissertations on what kind of fruit to buy at the train stops, how to keep the train environment clean and safe, and the morality of making money when one owns a company. Even our circadian rhythms were tightly regulated as at 10PM Beijing time, the lights on the trains were shut off, and the provodnitsa unceremoniously shushed anyone who was still talking. Once off the trains, in all the touristy places, we met more. The Xinjiang autonomous region museum, which had quite tasteful exhibits, unfortunately had a placard at the entrance of each exhibit extolling how the glorious revolutionary Chinese were responsible for preserving the unique cultural identity of each of the tribes in Xinjiang. Even worse, at the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, we read the following: "All of it shows fully that the Chinese government always pays special attention to the another and historical culture of the ethnic groups, and that all ethnic groups warmly welcome the Part's policy...They cooperate to build a beautiful homeland, support heartily the unity of different ethnic groups and the unity of our country, and oppose the ethnic seperatism and illegal religious activities." And for me, the kicker. As I came down the elevator in our hotel in Urumqi, a little girl of 7 or 8 asked me where I was from. "Taiwan," I said. She demonstrated shock. She then hemmed and hawed before asking, "Auntie, my teacher told me that Taiwan does not want to reunify to make one glorious China. Why?""

01 October 2007

We fought the law, and...

Not really the law, per se, but the notoriously inefficient Chinese bureaucracy.

Here's the story: A trip like this takes a bit of forward planning (we thought...we may have been wrong). We started with a vague and overly-ambitious itinerary, and, step by step, it became more and more concrete. Those steps were pretty sequential—we planned Iceland, then Russia, Mongolia, and China. Central Asia didn't start getting planned until we'd figured out our trains across northern China, and for this we'd retained the services of a travel agent in China. We had agreed on an itinerary with him a few months ago.

You know where this is going.

As I write this, we're supposed to be on a train from Urumqi to Almaty, to start the Central Asian portion of our trip. We're obviously not. (Either that, or they've got some pretty swish computers on Chinese trains).

What our travel agent neglected to realize was that international tickets to Kazakhstan could only be issued against an original passport, and only to those passport holders themselves. And no amount of Chinese guan xi could circumvent that rule. This meant we spent our entire day yesterday in the clutches of his colleague in Urumqi, shuttled from train station to bus station to airline ticketing agency, in search of alternate means of transport into Almaty. This, only to find that—surprisingly on China's National Day holiday—all means of getting to Kazakhstan were booked. Or prohibitively expensive.

We were right stuck.

But that's travelling. Things change. What struck us most, though, was an (initial) appalling lack of any sense of personal responsibility. Throughout the entire day, we heard all sorts of excuses: this is naturally the fault of the government, who made the rule. Or of the railway station, who enforced it. Or of the October 1 holiday, just for existing. Or, even, our fault because we didn't know that this rule was in effect, and had been since 2005 (begging the question of what commissions are for).

Anyway...I know this post sounds extraordinarily negative, but, believe it or not, we're quite happy. Our travel agent, in the end, has shown himself to be a man of some integrity, working against a very flawed system. And, all of a sudden, we've had a month completely open up for us. We're spending more time in Xinjiang, which we love, avoiding Almaty, whose only purpose was to obtain an Uzbek visa, and planning a more sane tack across the Silk Road.

We're still in Urumqi, then. We've currently booked tickets down to Kashgar in a couple of days. We'll be in Kashgar for its infamous Sunday market (the oldest, biggest, hottest, craziest market in the world, we hear...you can even test-drive camels before purchasing them), and on Monday or Tuesday we'll attempt to cross the Irkeshtam pass, a 3600-meter cleft in the Tian Shan mountains leading into Kyrgyzstan, where we'll try again to obtain an Uzbek visa (provided our new letter of invitation comes through).

And hey, at least we no longer have to worry about finding places to stay in Almaty. More on Urumqi, which is a gem of a town, in a few days.