It is the best of all winter holiday weather, a steady soft snow for hours, not so cold (around 30°), and the world, or at least my corner of it, is perfectly quiet. Dipping back into the serious business of Writing The Book today. Breaking for a late brunch of ‘Costco.’ Panko-breaded shrimp leftover from last night’s ‘dinner’ and Kirkland Irish Cream Liquor. Can only have a tiny bit as I have pages of writing to go. Both book and blog.
I am quite angry about Thanksgiving this year. If we stick to thinking about it as a harvest festival or a chance for a nice long weekend it’s fine. But do not bring the damn Pilgrims into it puleeze…. They came, like all immigrants and refugees have come, to escape difficult-to-horrendous conditions wherever they were living at the time. Your Englishmen and my Scandinavians were no more and no less worthy than the Iraqi or Mexican or Haitian who shows up at the border today. Many of us are sick to death of a bunch of poorly-educated white dummies claiming divine rights on lands that were originally the homes and homelands of brown people—and shouting ‘no brown people welcome’ in this new land of the Cult and home of the Terrified.
Do I want to maintain my Scandinavian traditions of enjoying gloomy weather, hard work (usually), outdoor pleasures, and eating lots of butter…of course I do. And I want to visit everyone else’s. No, I do not want to participate in most religious traditions…and I still prefer waffles with butter and berries to most world cuisines. Feeding the poor and welcoming the stranger were religious traditions worth adopting; however corporate greed and dominating women seem to be more of the norm (in every single religion—tell me differently!). And it is good to have a fish taco or nicely crisped lumpia now and then.
My happiness now ever so slightly dimmed with the advent of the sun.
I probably should apologize to the people who read this blog because it is labeled as a ‘travel’ blog—it really is that usually. But without a partner, dog, or shrink in my life, it is also occasionally a place to vent. Sorry. I do try to make the rants a little bit clever but ‘clever’ is not one of my dominant traits.
Now this becomes a foodie blog. As many of you know, I have food issues. No evening food, no gluten, no meat (by choice because I like animals and not destroying the environment), the tiniest amounts of alcohol and that only early in the day, and generally nothing super-richly-delicious. So I eat oddly and try new recipes that typically turn out badly…sometimes really badly.
So during Thanksgiving week, a time devoted to gluttony and frenzied shopping, here’s what I ate. It is not a pretty picture.
What an unreliable blogger I am…I just realized this break has extended from Istanbul at the end of September until now. True…I have not traveled anywhere other than back and forth to work and the gym, but surely I could make a post or two around the small adventures of daily life.
To catch up in time to this week before Thanksgiving—speaking of what immigrants can do a place; they arrive in a new land, subjugate and/or kill the people already there, take the whole damn thing over…and then dedicate a national holiday of gluttony to their actions. October and November have gone like this: I was sick for awhile after returning from the Stans. I got better. My doctor suggested I stop whining about getting old because if I kept it up I would…be…old. I stopped. Work is work. Abs class is abs class. There are so many books worthy of reading. There are so many shows/series worthy of streaming. There are so many new exercises and diets/recipes worth of trying, even doing. My family and friends are fine. There, everything’s current.
Just one last travel photo…all the way from Turkey.
I wish I could say that as this year draws to a close—so does the Trumpian Presidency. We rational American citizens are living through what we can only hope is a bizarre one-time experience and experiment in whether the US can survive a narcissistic, corrupt, incoherent, greedy and mentally-declining man leading our country. Actually we’ve survived presidents that had elements of at least one of the above in their personalities—but never before a president with all of the above. Frightening to say the least. Thank god for dedicated and observant people within our government.
All of the diplomatic/government employee witnesses at the impeachment hearings were excellent…straightforward, articulate, knowledgeable, earnest, the best of our country. Why do we so rarely get people this good running for public office, which at least on the Republican side, appears to be a gang of sly, not-very-bright losers
As director of a lively color-full innovative art center I am a most fortunate person. The North Fourth Art Center is filled with creative and engaged artists, staff and community theater lovers who will inform you and entertain you…and make you happy. It is never boring and (almost) always uplifting.
Last but not least…I’ve been engaged in a bout of Swedish death cleaning. Look it up, it’s quite a cheerful activity. This is one newly-arranged corner of my living room. Nice I think. A mix of some imaginative work from North Fourth, a Suzanne Sbarge piece and my photo from Hoi An, Vietnam.
Last post of last days of last trip of 2019. I admit to wimping out on our day and one-half in Istanbul. I did spend a spectacular few days there in 2011. Go to https://mneset.me/2011/09/25/bus-about/ for my pictures to prove it! If I appear ever so slightly defensive it’s because I probably should be embarrassed that the highlight of this last day of this major trip for me was visiting LC Waikiki, a French clothing chain that offered up an array of gold for my shopping pleasure.
Turkish breakfasts are things of great beauty. And taste.
I did manage to rouse myself for a trip to the seriously-grand bazaar. Bought $125 worth of Iranian saffron by mistake (you had to be there) but once it was divided between my four foodie friends in Albuquerque all was well. Istanbul is so full of tourists that it’s a bit much. If I were to start my travels all over again I would only go to important tourist destinations in the most-off of seasons.
The trip was winding down by the time we reached Almaty. I’ve already posted photos of my very fine borscht plus fat and dumplings meal. (https://mneset.me/2019/09/26/on-the-trail-of-borscht-and-dumplings/).The next day we actually made it to the Kazakhstan Museum of Arts. I was primarily interested in paintings from this last century and was not disappointed. There was a good collection of work reflecting Kazakhstan’s nomadic steppe cultures, its Russian and Soviet heritage, and its place in the history of space flight. Baykonur Cosmodrome in southwest Kazakhstan has been the site of all Soviet/Russian manned space flights. It’s even possible to visit there if one goes through a well-connected travel agency.
There is a part of me that wishes we had spent an entire week in Kazakhstan, exploring the countryside, Baykonur, the Aral Sea disaster zone, the Tian Shan Mountains and other natural wonders, and last but not least the spectacular new capital city of Astana, said to be full of imaginative buildings and other ‘fantastical’ attractions. Should I ever find myself in the neighborhood again (let’s say that rich Nigerian uncle comes through with a whole bunch of cash) there will most certainly be a week or two reserved for Kazakhstan.
In the meantime here are more of the best representations of what I did not see.
And then we went to Istanbul.
Morning in Khujand was mostly spent at the Panchshanbe Bazaar, said to be the largest bazaar in Central Asia. And it was grand.
Then we drove off to Isfara.
Our last meal with Beck and Amok. Who had come to feel like lifetime companions and our caretakers in a new land.
And then we were in Kyrgyzstan on the way to Osh.
The next part of the story has been written and posted…all about Tamerlane’s Terror and borscht in Kazakhstan. See “Not for the Faint of Heart” published 9/22; “Quick…spell Kyrgyzstan…Too Late…We’ve Moved On” published 9/26; and “On the Trail of Borscht and Dumplings” published 9/26.
The drive from Lake Iskanderkul to Khujand took up a good part of the day but like all of our time in Tajikistan it was low-key, filled with engaging conversation, and worthy scenery. Every travel experience is partly about that place at that moment in time and partly about our physical and mental health while there. But there are also the serendipitous moments/insights that appeal to all of our senses and to our desire to be part of a wider world of wondrous stuff—if only we can pause to appreciate it all. The bright freshness of the apricots and tomatoes; the easy friendliness of the little kids in the mountains, the elegance of Tajik women of all ages in their silk and velvet rainbow-hued dresses and trousers; the casual urbanity and knowledgeable insights offered by Beck on every aspect of Tajik history and social life. And I suspect one of the pleasures of our time in Tajikistan is that there were relatively few western tourists and most of them hikers and backpackers. It’s nice to be tourist-free…says the tourist. No. I am not a tourist; I am a traveler. There are a whole lot of Russian visitors but with so many ties between nearly all of the Stans and Russia they hardly seem like tourists.
Tajikistan has, as mentioned in previous posts, an intimate history with Iran. As well the northern part of the country where we traveled was directly on the Silk Road so it has witnessed a plethora of all kinds of ‘visitors’ over the centuries. The latest incarnation of Tajikistan overrule was during its years as the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. Not everyone in the Soviet Union was thrilled by its demise and that included and still includes some of its ‘republics.’ In fact all of our guides and contacts expressed a mixture of relief and regret at the disintegration of the ties leading back to the Soviet Union.
Tajikistan was involved in a horrendous civil war in the 90s; every region and belief system seems to have had a dog in that fight but at least the hard-core Islamists didn’t win the battle—although as in every other corner of the world the fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews seem to lurk in the dank dark corners until another opportunity arises. I do remember reading a number of years back that this was a dangerous part of the world in which to travel. I reflected on that now and then as we traveled about, in reality at least several degrees safer than in Trump’s gun-slinging America.
I always experience a little sadness, nostalgia, regret when I leave a place I’ve almost loved and to which I know I’ll never return. I even feel that now as I prepare to send my last posts about Tajikistan. Oh sure…when it’s in the news I’ll feel a familiarity and the smallest of connections but it’s doubtful I’ll read a lot about the country or think so very much about it. There’s such a big world and such a fascinating cast of good guys and evildoers one cannot keep up with it all. Tajikistan will be like Romania for me. I am drawn to almost everything about the two places but my attention’s too fractured by the noise of the day and my life too short to get back there.
Who knew that my (almost certainly) last-ever job offer would be in Tajikistan. No wonder I am so enamored of the place. I understand that Ruth and Nancy are out there saving the world for democracy…still, at our ages, job offers aren’t plentiful. Since this was the most exciting event (for me) of the entire trip, please allow me to elaborate.
We reached Lake Iskanderkul in the early evening, settled into our comfortable rooms (colorfully basic but with the warmest heaviest quilts I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping under—even weightier than mom’s quilts back on the Minnesota farm—and that entails some serious poundage), and enjoyed a simple late supper. Our lodgings were at Dilovar’s Villa, a place of pleasant hospitality and the best views in a country with no shortage of spectacularly otherworldly scenery.
And in the morning…The Job Offer. Seriously. The boss/director/manager/owner who spoke very little English approached me with smiles and questions which Beck kindly interpreted. And the gist of which was…would I consider coming there next summer (and for as long as I wished [or lived?]) to be the manager of all English-speaking guests. He explained that there are many of them and he can’t communicate the rules, times of meals, make suggestions for walks, etc. very well. He needs someone to boss them around was Beck’s interpretation. There were one or two small issues; I would have to get there on my own and actual pay wasn’t mentioned! He kept assuring me through Beck that I would have nice lodging and meals and freedom to ‘be the boss.’ I assumed this whole proposal was tongue in cheek but Beck kept assuring me it was very serious. So I have decided to accept the offer as authentic and simply be encouraged that I might have a few more lives to go. ‘So Ruth and Nancy, while I wish I could help you with the Supreme Court and Congress, I’ll be busy next summer at Dilovar’s Villa up by Alexander’s Lake. If you get sick of the whole mess here in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave,’ I’ll be happy to reserve rooms for you…just remember breakfast is at seven and do not be late.’
Unfortunately I was compelled to decline this most inviting opportunity…since it would interfere with my present job which actually comes with a paycheck—and I do get to boss around English-speakers (not that they listen all that attentively). I believe my new potential employer erroneously assumed independent wealthiness on my part. And it would have been such a fine last entry on my resume. Boss of English-speaking travelers, Dilovar’s Villa at Lake Iskanderkul. Remote mountain site at end of long rocky road, in the country of Tajikistan in Central Asia, formerly part of the USSR after long years with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane the Terrible.
With additional spring in my steps, I walked around with Lace and Scott and then we headed out for a long day on the road, destined for Khujand by day’s end.
If I go on and on about Tajikistan for a few posts please understand…it was a nearly perfect few days in a place unlike any other I’ve been in…also it was the few days before we all came down with the nasty, nastier and nastiest bug that colored our experience dull gray for awhile. So here’s the second of four Tajik posts; this one primarily a photo album.
After a good night’s sleep under our piles of heavy quilts, a morning walk, and a simple breakfast in these most picturesque surroundings, we left Seven Lakes for Lake Iskanderkul.
The day’s drive was by turns smooth and jolting but always scenic in a most top-of-the-world kind of way.
Eventually we pull up the last rocky road to Lake Iskanderkul which is named after Alexander the Great who supposedly visited here on his way to conquer more even more territory. Once again, I will plead description-exhaustion and borrow Lonely Planet’s words. “Iskander-Kul is an opal-blue mountain lake that looks almost tropical in strong sunlight. It isn’t. At 2195m, it invites a distinctly chilly swim even in summer. The approach to the lake is made particularly interesting by the streaks of copper and iron oxide that striate the barren mountains, contrasting with pockets of virulent green vegetation along the river’s edge.”
We stop for a walk before checking into our lodgings for the night.
Home Sweet Home for a night.
Lace says we shouldn’t make comparisons between countries/places—as in better or worse. I believe it’s okay to have favorites however (unless it’s children, grandchildren or the family dogs). Tajikistan is my favorite country for this 2019 trip and will remain among my favorites of all-the-countries-in-the-world. Tajikistan is basically a whole lot of mountain ranges squished into a small country with a modest strip of the Fergana Valley (the breadbasket and ethnic trouble spot of Central Asia) for a brief change of scene. Tajikistan is actually a little different than any place I’ve ever been (of my now-visited 116 countries!); it is gloriously grandly high—one of the places justifiably labeled “Roof of the World”—and proudly culturally traditional.
Given my praise of and pleasure in this tiny history-rich country, I’m going to include a small piece of background remembered from our chatty and informative guide, Beck, and stolen from Lonely Planet. I did read a few books that touched on history and politics in Central Asia before the trip but now, when I leaf through them for specific references to Tajikistan, few appear. Fortunately Scott’s bible, Lonely Planet, comes through again. “Tajikistan, always something of a poor relation given the challenges posed by its geography and topography, shares much of the history of neighbouring Central Asian nations.” There are some differences however. Tajikistan has strong links to Persia/Iran that go far back and it continues to maintain the language and cultural connections from that long-ago history as part of the Persian Samanid dynasty (of which Samarkand and Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan, were major cities). Eventually the Turkic peoples occupied the region and to a large degree absorbed the Tajiks. Of course the Mongols and Tamerlane conquered almost the entire territory at one time or the other so the blood of all of Central Asia flows through local veins.
Beck was quite proud of the Persian connection; he being half Tajik and his wife, wholly Tajik. Seeing the people change in appearance as we traveled from Uzbekistan all the way to Kazakhstan was one of the most interesting aspects of this trip. The Uzbeks and Tajiks overall reflect the Persian/Iranian heritage to a greater degree than the Kyrgyz or Kazakh peoples who are more typical of the Turkic or Mongol peoples and appear more Asian. This is of course a huge generalization so you must understand this discussion of appearance comes purely from my untutored observations and Beck’s comments. More about recent Tajik history in tomorrow’s post.
THE FIRST DAY
On Tuesday, September 17th, we were collected at our hotel by a driver who shortly thereafter had us at the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan border. We had an easy walk through border formalities with our visas all in place, and were greeted on the Tajikistan side by Beck our favorite guide of the whole trip and Amok our truly expert driver who kept us alive on some of the sketchiest roads I’ve ever seen. Scott booked the guide and driver through a Tajik travel agency recommended by Caravanistan, an information service highly recommended by … who else … Lonely Planet of course. With extremely exciting roads in some areas and almost no English spoken anywhere, it was good advice.
We stopped briefly in the small city of Penjikent then drove for a few hours to the Seven Lakes region where we would have a hike and an overnight stay. The main roads are good, the byways not so much but the mountains and lakes and tiny villages full of colorfully, beautifully garbed adults and wildly waving kids made every bump and deadly switchback worthwhile.
The destination was Haft-Kul or Seven Lakes. We wound along slowly with Beck regaling us with facts and entertaining us with local lore, stopping at each of the lakes for a leg stretch and photo op. Lonely Planet offers a lovely few paragraphs describing the Seven Lakes region which I’m just going to straight up copy as it’s well-done and saves me a certain amount of adjectival labor.
The first lake is an astonishing azure blue, the next four are aquamarine and the sixth is a pale turquoise. And the final lake needs to be seen to be believed. Six of the lakes are just about accessible … by 4WD, but the final lake (Hazor Chashma) is most enjoyable reached on two legs…. The walk to Hazor Chasma is one of the most lovely walks in the region. It’s an easy 2km ascent through beautiful wild flower meadows, above Marguzor village, following a racing river whose waters rush down the hillside to the six lakes below. There’s a satisfyingly broad shore at the mouth of Hazor Chashma offering a perfect opportunity to picnic by the water’s edge. (I must add that one of the lakes was a most unusual shade of royal blue, a blue I’ve never seen in any body of water before)
Time to adjourn to the sixth lake where our guesthouse awaited. The only lodging in these mountainous areas are guesthouses operated by the local mountain people. There has been a serious effort in recent years to assist the villagers and farmers in establishing these places for travelers to stay in the simplest of surroundings but with some basic comforts like beds and—‘praise be’ as Offred would say—non-squat toilets. Since the accommodations were booked by the agency each evening was a highly anticipated surprise…arriving and settling into a brand new environment and looking forward to a family-style dinner in a remote Fan Mountain village.
This evening was perfect. Well, Scott didn’t have any toilet of any kind in his room but Lace and I were thoughtful enough to let him use ours. And it was a might chilly at such a high altitude but we didn’t travel this far to sit around streaming Netflix with the thermostat turned up did we? It really was just the right amount of adventure for me; Lace and Scott might have opted for a notch up on the rugged scale although Lace seemed quite happy with the brief moments of warmth from our little wood fire (someone from the kitchen built for us since we non-smokers no longer have matches at the ready—and really don’t know how to make a proper fire anyway). Scott also expressed some concern about where he’d pee if he woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get into our locked room; even though we were in the middle of pure forest, there were other campers around and holes in the ground to fall into and large hungry bears (or not) or dangerous snow leopards (actually not them either). So perhaps we were all okay with being this brave and daring and no more.
How is it I almost forgot to post a photo album from Samarkand, that most exotic of Silk Road cities? It says something to me about where my head has been this entire year…it is hard to pay attention to the world when one is creating a new identity for oneself. I’ve been trying to describe what’s happening to me but lack the verbal skills—perhaps it’s the crossing of a Rubicon that puts one finally irrevocably in that dread category of ‘old,’ let me change that to ‘elder’? Such a different vibe.
Here’s a quote by Glenda Jackson to help me explain such intense naval-gazing (also known as omphaloskepsis I just found out) that I almost forgot to mention Samarkand. I can’t actually see myself putting make-up on my face at the age of sixty, but I can see myself going on a camel train to Samarkand. You see, I have, for a long time, ignored the siren song of cosmetic youthfulness… however I’ve clung passionately to the idea that I can and will take a ‘camel train to Samarkand’ or ride a Mongolian pony across the steppe or cross the sea on a steamer or climb a grand mountain. What if I won’t? Who am I if there are no more adventures?
This year, while physically I’m much the same as I was last year or the year before, mentally I’m struggling…finding it difficult to cling to the probability of adventures in the future. What future my evil twin asks? I respond…did Ruth Bader Ginsberg know several years ago (when she was the age I am now) that she still had to save the world? Of course not…so okay…I have a future…maybe…maybe not…gloom re-descends. So who in the hell am I? Meanwhile in Samarkand…
We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
(James Elroy Flecker)
No reason at all for extensive background information about the times and glories of Samarkand. You can google more than you ever wanted to know or read one of a few thousand books on the subject. I’m here to share a few photos of the grandeur of the past (in buildings original and structures replicated) and the pleasure of being with my charming ‘young’ travel companions. And to express photographically my pleasure in the very fact of visiting Samarkand even sans camel train. Here’s a quote I like very much about how each of us in our time and place view the mysteries of the world and how we never cease longing to ‘go there’ and see for ourselves.
Every age has its dreams, its symbols of romance. Past generations were moved by the graceful power of the great windjammers, by the distant whistle of locomotives pounding through the night, by the caravans leaving on the Golden Road to Samarkand, by quinqueremes of Nineveh from distant Ophir…Our grandchildren will likewise have their inspiration-among the equatorial stars. They will be able to look up at the night sky and watch the stately procession of the Ports of Earth-the strange new harbors where the ships of space make their planetfalls and their departures. (Arthur C. Clarke)