KYRGYZSTAN

Somewhere In Kyrgyzstan (Barskon Valley)

Along the south shore of Issyk Kul, near the village of Barskoon (Барскон), the single road that hugs the perimeter of the lake splits off to the left. This was once a Silk Road shortcut, providing access over a towering mountain pass into China. Now the road is largely maintained by Canada.

Why.

The Kumtor Gold Mine (operated by a Canadian mining company) sits at 4,000 meters above sea level on a mountain plateau, only reachable by the abovementioned road. My traveling companions and I had no interest in the gold mine itself, but a decently maintained trucking route into the elusive far reaches of these mountains seemed like a guaranteed scenic detour on our meandering eastern Kyrgyzstan drive. Why should a gold mine be allowed to spoil all those dramatic mountainous landscapes for everyone else?

The road is closed to the public, but like most things in Kyrgyzstan that are closed to the public, you can enter anyway if you have some extra cash for the guard on duty and are competent at negotiating in Russian. So we weaseled our way in. It was a special occasion, after all: Our last trip in Central Asia for a very long time.

The road heads up into the mountains via a tight series of switchbacks. The road is paved and fairly wide, but there are seldom guard rails. Every so often, there is a landing where mining trucks can safely pass each other, and that’s where you’ll get out to take photos of the plunging rock walls surrounding the valley.

Eventually, the road emerges onto a marshy plateau sprinkled with small clear lakes. A handful of people seem to live up here but there are no visible settlements; Just miles of grassland hemmed in by snow-capped peaks, now considerably less towering. We did feel like we might be pushing our luck to continue too close to actual mining operations, so we headed back down from there, past stunning cliffs and fields of grazing horses, back to Issyk Kul.

 

Foreigners In First President’s Park

Almaty, Kazakhstan

After a month or two of Russian classes at KazNU, some of our teachers loaded all the beginner students onto two buses and took us on a tour of Almaty. By this point I had already seen a lot of the city myself, sometimes the extremely hard way, with a working knowledge of a few main bus lines, a pair of good walking shoes, and roughly a 50-word Russian vocabulary. But there was one place that always seemed too far, at the extreme southern end of the city and the end of Al-Farabi Avenue: Парк Первого Президента, or First President’s Park.

“More like only president’s park,” mumbled a student from Afghanistan, nailing both the Russian genitive case and the appropriate level of sarcasm.

He wasn’t wrong. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and thus far only president of Kazakhstan, has been in office since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He was a well liked leader of the Kazakh SSR in various capacities for over a decade prior, and the election, in which he appeared alone on the ballot, was a no-brainer for most people. But anyone who does want to see Kazakhstan under different leadership will likely be waiting until he dies.

For now his image remains synonymous with Kazakhstan itself, and as our group of sixty students gathered together for a group photo at the end of our visit, it was not the elegant colonnade at the park’s entrance or the stunning mountainous backdrop of the park that our teachers herded us toward. It was the massive bronze statue of Nazarbayev, seated in front of two looming and less-than-suble abstract eagle wings bearing inscriptions in Kazakh and Russian. My classmates couldn’t sit still, but our teachers were beaming in every photo.

I returned to the park in the morning of my last day in Kazakhstan. The early summer weather had tripled the amount of green space and brought the detailed landscaping to life. A series of paved paths leads deep into the park, towards the foothills of the Alatau. Seeing those mountains every day is, without any doubt, the thing I will miss the most about living in Almaty, and First President’s Park yields a completely unobstructed and relatively smog-free view.

First President's Park Mountains

World’s Tallest

A friend in Kazakhstan once told me: “Don’t go to Dubai unless you have money to spend.”

This turned out to be sound advice, but I went anyway on a two-day stopover between Istanbul and Delhi.

There’s nothing I can say about modern Dubai that isn’t already common knowledge. Depending on your taste, the downtown area is either a gleaming display of architectural prowess or an obscene and vaguely desperate demonstration of excess. Either way, the whole thing erupted out of the bare desert in less than 25 years on a wave of oil revenue, leaving few traces of the old trading town behind. It is a destination for those seeking a hot sun, a warm sea, and unbelievable luxury; As a visitor, you’re unlikely to get a true window into Emirati life just by walking around the city.

In late May, it was 104°F/40°C outside and Dubai was a ghost town. Everyone with the option of spending their day inside an air conditioned building did so, leaving me and my traveling companions nearly alone to wander the beach and the empty streets downtown. During the hottest part of the day, I could almost stand to be outside for about an hour at a time. A group of landscape workers caught me staring at them as I wondered what ten hours of daily physical activity must be like in this climate.

A sticking point for me in getting to know a place like Dubai is its reputation for abusive practices towards foreign labor. While that criticism alone could be leveled at almost every developed country on earth, Dubai is unfortunately unique for reports of construction companies literally for years at a time with no other option than to work long days in intense heat for low wages until they can afford to escape.

As a tourist, maybe you’re entitled to ignore this sort of thing. But I think it’s better to confront it; To view Dubai not as some miracle oasis that grew out of the Arabian Desert when the time was right, but a city built with as much human sweat as tons of steel, and no small amount of blood.

It’s ok to know this, and to still find the Burj Khalifa pretty amazing.