A travel blog about Scotland, Italy, Central Asia, and everywhere else

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

Greek Temples of Sicily: Segesta

Segesta is a dream.

On the trail of Greek archeological sites in Sicily, it’s also an outlier. The settlement was founded by a local Sicilian tribe and was never actually subject to Greek colonization. As the surrounding Greek culture began to permeate the town in the 5th century BC, the Segestans began construction on a Doric temple outside the city walls. Conspicuously, the roof was never completed, likely because of a war with the neighboring Greek settlement of Selinous (Selinunte). Competing theories suggest the Sicilians didn’t know how to build the roof and invented construction delays to save face. 2,500 years later, it’s difficult to prove either scenario.

Though the main temple is roped off, the rest of the settlement is surprisingly unrestricted. Visitors can walk in, climb on, and touch everything in the theater as well as the rubble of a nearby mosque. I don’t entirely disagree with the lax approach to preservation. The historians have already catalogued everything so what’s the harm in eating lunch on an overturned pillar and enjoying the view?