Abandoned Ferris wheel

IMG_0300Ferris wheel, Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

One of the enduring images from Pripyat, the main town in Ukraine’s Chernobyl disaster region, is that of an abandoned amusement park. A totem for the fall from innocence, here are rides that children once played upon but will never do so again. Rising above the park is an abandoned yellow Ferris wheel – a dejected structure that has fallen in grace from a onetime wheel of fun and joy to a symbol of nuclear catastrophe.

At one time Ferris wheels could found in most Soviet towns of a certain size. One former SSR state I know better than most is the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, a country named after the once-nomadic people indigenous to the region. With three revolutions now since its independence in 1991, it is classic example of a territory in transition, a new country of arbitrarily imposed political boundaries that is still trying to find its feet.

IMG_1250View of Manas Square from Bishkek Ferris wheel, Kyrgyzstan

To my knowledge there are at least four Ferris wheels that stand in Kyrgyzstan today, although there may be more. The one in Panfilov Park in the heart of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek has been upgraded in recent years to replace the somewhat creakier Soviet-era one that stood before. Kyrgyzstan’s second city of Osh in the south of the country has another. This Ferris wheel is older (and a little cheaper) than its Bishkek rival and stands in a city park close to the rather desultory canalised river that flows through the city. Alongside the wheel is decommissioned Aeroflot Yak-40 that has been repurposed as a children’s playground. Both Bishkek and Osh wheels afford excellent city views for an outlay of just a few Kyrgyz som.

IMG_1254Panfilov Park, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

There is another wheel, said to be the largest in the country, in the resort of Bosteri on the north shore of Lake Issyk-Kul but the other Kyrgyzstan Ferris wheel that I have personal experience of can be found in the small town of Toktogul halfway between Bishkek and Osh. Skeletal and long abandoned, this one is found at the edge of a leafy park next to a crumbing sports stadium. Old-fashioned fairground rides can still be found in some of the clearings; the wheel, though, no longer turns. With its seats removed – for their scrap value presumably – and left to the attention of the elements, the wheel, framed against the blue central Asian sky, evokes an air of melancholia. Argumentative crows perpetually flock around the structure as if it had always been theirs to inhabit, taunting its immobility with wheeling flight. At one time this over-sized bicycle wheel delighted children and adults alike with its thrilling views of Toktogul Reservoir and the snow-capped peaks of the Fergana mountains beyond. Now it is a wheel that no longer wheels; a rusting reminder of a half-forgotten past unknown to the children who visit the park today.

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Crows and abandoned Ferris wheel, Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

All photographs ©Laurence Mitchell

If you are curious to discover more about Kyrgyzstan you might want to try this…

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Beside Song-Köl Lake

IMG_1182There are places that stay in the mind long after visiting. Places that haunt the mind’s memory cache to prevail even years after having set foot there. Such places might be mountains, or rivers, or stretches of coastline; or even villages that charm and bejewel the bedrock of a singular landscape. Usually though, it is a combination of factors that constitutes the essence of such places – earth, sky, water, topography, the patina of a human occupation that beautifies rather than despoils. One such place is Lake Song-Köl in central Kyrgyzstan, the poster girl of a country that has occasionally, and not unreasonably, been described as the most beautiful in the world.

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It had been a long time – twelve years in fact – since I had last visited. My assumption was that it hadn’t changed much in the interim. I was right – the landscape was as I remembered it, almost exactly. If anything, it was I who had changed: a dozen winters of freeze and thaw had affected me more profoundly than it had the pasture of the lake’s hinterland, the ever-renewing grazing pasture that justified its seasonal occupation.

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There are several ways to approach the lake, set high at over 3,000 metres in Naryn province in what is more or less the dead centre of Kyrgyzstan. We drove up from the east, through stark, tightly folded valleys and arid badlands, until the lake finally revealed itself as a blue sliver beyond meadows grazed by yak herds.

The yurt camp where we stayed seemed familiar, although they all tend to look much the same – a cluster of yurts, an isolated toilet cubicle, a hitching place for horses. For all I knew this may well have been where I had stayed before. Its location was certainly very similar: up along the lake’s north-eastern shore away from the main concentration of yurts close to the approach road. The camp was overseen by a cheerful baboushka*, who exercised gentle rule over her son, daughter and daughter-in-law, and fussed over her laughing grandchildren who looked so at home here on the jailoo* that you might imagined that this was the only world they ever knew, although outside the summer months they would probably be town-dwellers like the rest of us. As ever in Kyrgyzstan, we were welcomed with tea and bread… and jam, and honey, boiled sweets and biscuits – just a token snack before lunch – plov*, salad, more chai – which would be ready in an hour. There was just time for a quick walk up the broad, green valley where a drift of chestnut horses were grazing the thin grass of its slopes.

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After lunch, we went horse-riding with the baboushka’s son for the best part of three hours, two hours longer than my habitually non-equestrian body was comfortable with. Later, stiff and sore, and thankful to return to bipedal ways, we hiked up above the valley before descending down to the lake water where horses were lined up drinking. A small marshy area close to the shore revealed a solitary redshank and a grey wagtail. We had hoped for birds of prey but, other than a single circling buzzard, raptors were shy in revealing themselves. Wheatears, on the other hand, seemed to be almost everywhere, flashing white as they cocked their tails flitting from rock to rock. And skylarks too, an improbable density of them jangling the sky – the birds had flown up in such abundance from unseen nests whilst on horseback earlier I had been concerned that we might trample eggs beneath our inexpertly guided hooves.

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After dinner – fish from the lake fried in batter, more bread, more chai – another brief walk to watch the full moon rise. A band of pink cloud humbugged the darkening sky like a vein of quartz in rock as definition blurred and colour drained from the land. Above us, hovering low in the sky, as if serenading – or perhaps, scolding – the rising orb, a single skylark clattered its song in the ebbing light.

*baboushka – grandmother

*jailoo – alpine meadow providing seasonal grazing

*plov – Central Asian dish made with mutton and rice

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Kyrgyzstan railway wagons

IMG_7265Kyrgyzstan does not have much of a railway system. A branch line from Moscow extends down from Kazakhstan to Bishkek, the Kyrgyzstan capital; another offers an excruciatingly slow service to Balykchy on Lake Issyk-Kul. Another line extends from Jalal-Abad in the south into Uzbekistan, although trains no longer run on this one. All of these routes date back to Soviet times but even then, Kyrgyzstan, or the the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic as it was in those days, sat on the outer fringes of the USSR, closer to China than to Moscow. All the more surprising then that, wherever you go in post-independence Kyrgyzstan, you tend to see Soviet-era railway carriages re-located and re-purposed as dwellings, shops, storerooms and even roadside tea-houses. What is most striking is how these are often located far away from a railway line or anything that even resembles a serviceable road. Bump along a rough stony track up to an isolated jailoo (alpine meadow with summer grazing) and the chances are that the nomadic family you meet there will have use of a rusting railway wagon parked somewhere near their yurt. Yurts are ubiquitous in the mountains in summer, and so central to the Kyrgyz way of life that the tunduk, the circular wooden centrepiece  of the roof, appears on the national flag.  But recycled decommissioned railway wagons have their part to play too, even if rusted metal is less aesthetically pleasing than white felt. In poor countries undergoing rapid transition like Kyrgyzstan, such a resource is too useful to be wasted.

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All the above images ©Laurence Mitchell.

From top to bottom: 1 – 4  Karkara valley, close to Kazakhstan border; 5 Tamga village, Lake Issyk-Kul ; 6 Bel-Tam, Lake Issyk-Kul; 7, 8 Kochkor, Naryn province; 9 Suusumayr village, Chuy province; 10 Roadside near Too-Ashuu Pass; 11 Roadside near Ala-Bel Pass

 

Lenins of the world, unite!

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I don’t quite know what it is but whenever I have come across an old Lenin statue anywhere in the territories of the old Soviet Union I have usually not been able to resist taking a photograph. It may be it purely a matter of posterity – these things will not be there for ever. But perhaps it for other reasons – vague nostalgia for something I never had the opportunity to experience, or a sneaking regard for an idealistic yet flawed political system that had such indomitable self-belief? Another part of me acknowledges that I am drawn towards old Soviet statuary in the same way I am attracted to photogenic ruins: as revolutionary ghosts manifest in stone and concrete that serve as repositories for the recent past.

IMG_6856The countries of the former Soviet Union have widely differing attitudes to displaying representations of their erstwhile leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The new Baltic countries and those of the Caucasus region, keen to sever any lasting connections with the USSR, tend to shun them completely – most of the old statuary has long been toppled and reduced to rubble or hardcore for roads. In a few cases, like the irony-heavy Grutas Park in Lithuania, the statues have been collected together and repurposed to make a joke of the past by creating a sort of Soviet-era theme park. This comes complete with statues, barbed wire, military music and canteens that serves ‘Soviet-style’ food – dishes that feature cabbage, beetroot and, of course, vodka.  Such a move is motivated by nostalgia to some extent, but it is also undoubtedly partly taking the piss.

IMG_7900Ukraine, which once had an impressive number of Lenin statues, has got rid of up to 500 of these over the past couple of years, an ideological casualty of the civil war and perceived Russian aggression in that divided land. Currently many still remain in place but President Petro Poroshenko has recently signed a bill setting a six-month deadline for the removal of the country’s remaining communist monuments and so their days are probably numbered – in the pro-European west of the country at least.

IMG_5854Elsewhere, where Soviet-era murals are attached to buildings or just too cumbersome to remove wholesale, the offending revolutionary faces are simply scratched away. I once saw a hillside in Uzbekistan where a Lenin-shaped ghost image was left where a giant face had been erased from the landscape. Once lovingly marked out in stone, the image of the revolutionary leader was no longer needed – or indeed desired – in a newly independent country presided over by a self-elected president-for-life. I have seen much the same sort of thing in Georgia – murals of Soviet period scientific achievements in which Lenin’s face has been clumsily redacted by means of a chisel. Curiously, local boy Stalin – a far more murderous character than Lenin ever was – is still revered in some circles in that country. A museum to the ‘Man of Steel’ – more a shrine of very dubious taste – still stands at his hometown of Gori together with a statue that used to have pride of place in the town’s main square.

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Russia has long condemned Stalin’s brutal excesses but his predecessor Lenin can still to be seen in more or less every town and city the length and breadth of the land. The same can also be said for Belarus, Russia’s closest ally in Europe. Kyrgyzstan – the Central Asian country I know best – is much the same, the only only place in Central Asia where it would appear that the recent Soviet past is not thoroughly scorned. Weather-beaten statues and busts of Lenin can still be seen in most towns in the country, although these are now slowly being usurped by shiny heroic representations of national heroes like Manas and Kurmanjan Datka.

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Photographs from top to bottom (all ©Laurence Mitchell)

Lenin and bust in Soviet sculpture park, Moscow, Russia

Lenin waving at civic buildings, Yekaterinberg, Russia

Lenin in taxi-hailing mode, Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia

Nonchalant Lenin, Pskov, Russia

Redacated Lenin face on Soviet space travel memorial, Akhaltsikhe, Georgia

Lenin and friends, Russian flea market, Tbilisi, Georgia

Dynamic ‘caped crusader’ Lenin, Tirasapol, Transdniestr

Lenin the theatrical performer (note the redacted face on plinth), Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin the thinker, Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin points out the lofty Ala-Too mountains beyond the city (not any more though, he’s been moved and now faces the other way), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Stoic upright Lenin with Kyrgyzstan flag, Chaek, Kyrgyzstan

Osh Bazaar

IMG_9760The first thing to know is that it isn’t in Osh. Rather, it is in the capital Bishkek. Why this bazaar shares the name of Kyrgyzstan’s second city is uncertain. Perhaps it’s because it is here that you come to look for a shared taxi ride south to Osh; or maybe it is something to do with the shout of the porters as they work their way through the crowd asking shoppers to move out of the way – “(b)osh, (b)osh”? No matter, there is no confusion when you get here as the bazaar’s name is spelled out in big red letters on the large arch that marks its entrance. In Cyrillic script OSH looks more like OW, but there’s no exclamation mark à la Devon’s Westward Ho!IMG_9761Osh Bazaar, just west of the city centre near the main bus station is Bishkek’s best known market, although not its largest – for that you need to travel just north of the city limits to Dordoi Bazaar where you’ll find thousands of stacked shipping containers serving as shops. Osh Bazaar is more traditional – no shipping containers, just hundreds of small shops and a couple of huge hangars that have stalls selling everything that you might imagine along with a few items that you might not. Mostly though, it is food and drink – fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods. This is the place to come for Kyrgyz specialities like kumys (fermented horse milk) or kuruut (sour yoghurt balls) but pretty well anything can be found here with diligent searching. If it is angels’ tears or unicorn ham that you need then Osh Bazaar is probably your best bet in the city.IMG_9763My last visit was early last summer on a scorching day with temperatures nudging 40 degrees centigrade. Osh Bazaar has something of a reputation for dodgy plainclothes policemen who home in on obvious foreigners to ask for passports and the handing over of foreign currency ‘to count’. Perhaps it was just too hot to bother that day – or maybe I just looked like an ethnic Russian local (unlikely) – but there was no sign of them. Just heat-frazzled shoppers and exhausted stall holders dozing between customers.IMG_9737IMG_9756IMG_9753IMG_9748untitled

 

The third edition of my Bradt Kyrgyzstan guide will be published later this week.

 

 

Kyrgyz Graveyards

IMG_8525You see them everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. From afar they resemble hillside villages of mud-brick dwellings but a closer look reveals them to be cemeteries. Usually located a little way outside a village, sometimes on top of a low bluff, they are often more impressive than the villages they serve. With a mixture of mud-brick, shrine-like tombs, gravestones with etched images of the deceased, and Islamic crescent moons intermixed with communist five-pointed stars, they represent an odd amalgam of funerary styles. What makes them unmistakably Kyrgyz, though, are the large, wrought-iron, yurt structures that mark many of the graves.

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A nomadic people until well into the 20th century, the Kyrgyz used to be buried without fuss wherever they died. Although important nobles and warriors were sometimes honoured with showy mausoleums, most Kyrgyz graves were simple and basic. However, when this nomadic lifestyle was forcibly abandoned during the Soviet period the erection of large memorials to the dead started to become fashionable with the newly sedentary Kyrgyz. It may seem ironic that a wandering people like the Kyrgyz should choose such an earth-bound dwelling after death but a new practice emerged in the 1930s of erecting monuments that recalled their former nomadic lifestyle. As well as the wrought-iron yurt frames that reflected nostalgia for the old way of life, etched portraits – a Russian custom – also started to feature on gravestones. Traces of an altogether more ancient culture became prevalent too: the tradition of pre-Islamic shamanism in which antlers, animal skulls and horses’ tails are used to decorate tombs.

IMG_8530In Kyrgyz graveyards disparate traditions – shamanistic, Islamic, communist – intermingle freely. Gently crumbling as their mud-brick mausoleums slowly decay back into the earth, such cemeteries can be seen far and wide in this central Asian country. Some of the finest are those that can be seen in villages along the Suusamyr Valley in Chui Province. The photos here were taken in two villages in this isolated valley – Kyzyl-Oi and Suusamayr.

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There will be more on graveyards and many other aspects of Kyrgyz culture in the forthcoming third edition of my book Kyrgyzstan: the Bradt Travel Guide, which will be published early next year.

More information on Kyrgyzstan, including photographs and extracts from the forthcoming book, is available on the Kyrgyzstan page of the Bradt website.

Arslanbob – In Walnut Tree Shade

IMG_9321It had been almost eight years since I was last in Arslanbob, a tantalisingly spread-out settlement in Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad province. As before, I had arrived at the start of Ramadan – the moon was new, the mosque was full; a holiday mood gripping the steep rocky streets of this sprawling mountain village. This time though, it was stifingly hot late June rather than pleasantly cool mid September, and the walnuts that the area is famous for were still forming on the trees – ovoid green jewels dangling from silvery branches, their sweet ripeness yet to develop. The last time I was here it was during harvest season and walnuts were everywhere – stacked in pyramids at the bazaar, piled in dishes in every home, filling pockets, bags and every potential container. To walk in Arslanbob at such a time was to invite walnut generosity – for foreign visitors even the shortest excursion into the streets resulting in bulging pockets, stuffed rucksacks and camera bags. Walnuts even appeared to serve as legal currency – on first arriving in the village I witnessed a pair of laughing schoolgirls paying their minibus fare with a handful of nuts; the driver didn’t seem to mind at all.IMG_9163IMG_9394Of course, Arslanbob is not just about walnuts: the village has multiple identities. A relatively conservative Uzbek enclave in a predominantly Kyrgyz nation, Arslanbob has strong historical ties with Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley that lies not so very far away over gerrymandered Soviet-period borders to the south (never was the political strategy of ‘divide and rule’ more apparent than with the convoluted and sometimes utterly nonsensical lines of demarcation that separate the now independent republics of Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan). Almost totally Uzbek in population and culture, Arslanbob is also a spiritual centre of sorts, with holy rocks and sacred lakes in the mountains above the village and religious shrines in the surrounding forest. Islamic it may be, but there are strong animist and shamanist overtones too – the peoples of Central Asia have always had a strongly developed sense of place that has its spiritual expression beyond the normal confines of formalised religion.IMG_9172IMG_9597So walnuts and sacred shrines . . . there are another elements too. Since Soviet times the village has had a turbaza, a sanatorium that provides R&R for weary city folk. These days it is predominantly Uzbeks from the sweltering cities of Kyrgyzstan’s southern basin – Jalal-Abad and Osh – that come to stay. There is local sightseeing too – a scenic waterfall against the backdrop of a ravine lies quite close to the village centre. When I first visited this eight years ago, there were almost no visitors and little to be seen apart from plummeting water against a rugged rock face; the votive rags tied to the branches of a tree above the waterfall, the only evidence of human interest. Now things are rather different: a dust-cloud of lumbering Toyotas ferries visitors up from the bazaar where, after paying a token entrance fee, they pass through a phalanx of makeshift wooden stalls en route to the falls. The stalls sell all manner of tourist tat – plastic trinkets, cheap jewellery, carved wooden souvenir eagles and lions, souvenir Astanbap (Arslanbob) hats, medicinal mountain herbs in cellophane packets, lengths of fruit leather like seaweed and ‘I heart Islam’ T-shirts.IMG_9225IMG_9280It is easy enough to escape though. Take the path beyond the falls and the tawdry commercialisation swiftly drops away as a dazzling landscape reveals itself – towering snow-capped peaks, emerald pastures and farmhouses peeping through poplars on steep ridges. To the east and south extends a vast green swathe of walnut forest that stretches sublimely to vanishing point. Just two minutes beyond the falls the only sounds to be heard are those of running water, rustling leaves, birdsong, a distant complaining donkey and perhaps the woody squeak of a horse-drawn plough. All is transformed, and this is a heart-gladdening landscape to behold.IMG_9304IMG_9446Having struggled up to the Holy Rock before (at 2,900 metres elevation it lies at 1,600 metres above the upper part of the village), a long walk through the walnut forest seemed the sensible thing to do this time round. I set out with two German cyclists and a local guide from the uppermost part of the village, our starting point reached by means of a redoubtable ex-Soviet Army UAZ, which, although uncomfortable, you feel could go almost anywhere with a skilled driver and plenty of vigorous wheel twisting. From our dropping-off point a shady woodland path runs all the way to the settlement of Dashman in the heart of the forest. Along the way, we enjoy the unparalleled dappled sunlight – perfect camouflage for the green, yellow and black of golden orioles (which, sadly, we don’t manage to see). Here and there we pass through clearings filled with flowers – clary, marjoram, orchids, bugloss and tall yellow daisy-like blooms whose names we will never know.IMG_9530IMG_9554Dashman could hardly be described as a village, more just a scattered collection of houses each with its own bit of land in a clearing. This isolated settlement was, however, once home to displaced Chechens, uprooted and displaced from their Caucasus homeland by Stalin during World War II. The Chechens have long gone (one solitary Chechen remained in Arslanbob I was told, ‘a good man but too much drinking problem’) and now the houses are occupied by a handful of locals who keep animals to graze in the forest. There is a crossroads of tracks close to Dashman. Today it was a quiet place, with just a woman out fetching water, a beautiful blonde-maned horse wafting flies way and the liquid song of a blackbird trilling from the bushes. But it was at this very same location, our guide told us, that things came alive during the September walnut harvest. Many villagers would come from Arslanbob to camp here for a few days, gathering nuts by day and celebrating and socialising by night. There would be music, dance and laughter; traders from Arslanbob would set up temporary stalls; shashlyk would be grilled, much chai would be consumed. Naturally enough, the main currency of exchange would not be Kyrgyz som or US dollars but freshly harvested walnuts: a timely opportunity for nature’s bounty to show its true worth and for just a brief few days turn capitalism on its head.IMG_9573IMG_9563IMG_9510

Yuri Gagarin’s Holiday

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When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from the first successful manned space flight in 1961 he took a well-deserved holiday. We can only assume that this took place after a considerable debriefing by the Soviet military – it was, after all, a highly significant achievement and overnight he found himself to be the most famous living Russian after Nikita Khrushchev. The place he chose for his vacation – or rather, was chosen for him – was close to a large alpine lake in what was then the Kyrgyz SSR in Central Asia. This was a forbidden zone at the time and so safely well away from the prying eyes of Western journalists.

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Tamga is a small, dusty village close to the southern shore of Lake Issyl-Kul in what is now Kyrgyzstan. Tamga still has its sanatorium, formerly a Soviet military R&R facility, and it was here that Gagarin stayed for a while, strolling the pine-shaded paths, bathing in the lake perhaps, no doubt eating shashlyk and contemplating his short but epoch-making sojourn in space. The camp is still popular with visiting Russians in high summer. While not deliberately nostalgic there is plenty to remind of its Soviet past – statues of military heroes tucked away between the conifers and stirring murals of proletarian power in the Soviet realist style. There is nothing to record Gagarin’s time here, no plaque or monument, but head a dozen or so kilometres up the neighbouring Barskoon Valley, and you will find a bust of the world’s first space traveller on a plinth. It stands beneath a lofty waterfall and Gagarin, of course, is depicted wearing a space helmet. On the road nearby stands another rather more colourful memorial to the cosmonaut, although damaged around the time of Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991 it has since been repaired. Although he belongs to another era, and another country, Gagarin remains a hero to many.

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San-Tash: The Riddleof the Stones

New Image7A large pile of stones in the Karkara valley: in the far northeast of Kyrgyzstan, close to the Kazakhstan border, San-Tash is an enigma. What can this pile alongside one of the ancient Silk Road routes possibly represent? Who placed them here, and why? One popular legend relates that the stones were deposited here by Tamerlane’s troops whilst they were on their way to battle in China. Tamerlane instructed each of his soldiers to bring a stone from Lake Issyk-Kul and leave it here, removing a stone on the way back if they had survived the conflict. But most of the stones are far too large to make this at all believable, and the number far too large – for an army to lose so many men in a battle, or even have this many men at arms to begin with, defies credibility. A more likely theory is that they are the stones left over from the excavation of a large burial mound – the region abounds with large kurgani (tumuli associated with Saka warriors, otherwise known as Scythians) constructed around two millennia ago. Either way, San-Tash (‘counting stones’) is an evocative sight tucked away far up this beautiful valley of horses and horsemen – a veritable piece of super-sized landscape art.

New Image5Strolling around the stones, absorbing the atmosphere and enjoying the heady, herb-tinted breeze, we see a young Kyrgyz women walk determinedly across the jailoo (alpine meadow) towards the other side of the valley. Suddenly she stops and stands motionless as if rooted to the spot by some powerful unseen force. Her arm is raised as if cupping her ear to listen to the wind. Binoculars reveal that the woman is holding a mobile phone in her hand – her purposeful walk to the centre of this wide valley was simply to pick up a signal. The unseen force was Beeline KG.New Image9

Ghosts of the Aral Sea

To continue from the earlier post about a hotel that thought itself a ship, here are some more landlocked boats. These, though, are real ones – the rusting remains of what was once a large fishing fleet on the Aral Sea in central Asia. The Aral Sea, which at one time was the world’s third largest inland sea, has shores in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Or rather it did have – it has now almost completely dried up (you might want to check it out on Google Earth).

It is a depressingly familiar story – large scale environmental damage thanks to government incompetence. In this case, the government was that of the Soviet Union, which diverted a vast volume of fresh water from the Aral Sea in order to grow huge expanses of cotton in Uzbekistan – a very thirsty crop in a very hot country. The fishing fleet used to catch several species of fish here, and much of the haul was transported an awful long way by train to the Baltic coast for canning. The main fishing port on the southern shore was Moynaq. Now the boats lie stranded just off the former shoreline. The water, such that remains – saturated with pollutants and virtually devoid of fish – lies hundreds of kilometres to the north.

Given mass employment, isolation, heavy metal pollution and an uncaring post-Soviet government in far off Tashkent, Moynaq is not a happy place.

I visited Moynaq by taxi from Nukus to the south. It was certainly the longest taxi ride I have ever taken – 220 kilometres each way – but even so I managed to bargain a return fare of just $60 (petrol is cheap in Uzbekistan, so is time). The road was surprisingly good, and we speeded north through Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan that translates literally as ‘the land of the black hats’), through a flat landscape of cotton fields, reed beds and poplars yellowing with the arrival of autumn. The driver put his foot down and it took just a little over two hours to arrive at the erstwhile port.

In Moynaq, the scene from the ‘shore’ was both poignant and surreal: scrubby vegetation, sand and rotting boat hulks as far as the eye could see, everything shimmering slightly in a heat haze – the unwordly setting for a Sergio Leone Western that would never be made. My journal records it as ‘a sort of post-apolcayptic Wells-next-the-Sea where the tide never comes in’, and that seems reasonable enough. Away from the absent sea, the town itself, with its depressed air, street corner groups of listless youths and tangible taint of pollution, simply gave the impression that even with full employment, fishing and fresh water it would still be a dump. Now Moynaq was just a neglected and forgotten backwater… without the water.

(For another tale about another former Soviet fishing port now fallen on hard times you can read this about Balykchy, a threadbare port on Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul.)

Nukus, where I had based myself for the dash to the rusting Aral fleet, was marginally better, although it had none of the Silk Road allure of other cities in Uzbekistan like Bokhara, Samarkand and Khiva, which despite heavy-handed reconstruction still hold  romantic appeal. Oddly enough, what Nukus does have is an incredible art collection. The Karakalpak Museum of Arts has a fantastic display of modernist work from the 1920s and 1930s that was collected by the artist Igor Savitsky (1915-84) and safely squirrelled away here in this distant corner of the former USSR. Here, far from Moscow, supposedly counter-revolutionary work such as that of the Russian avant garde managed not only to survive but also to go on display alongside ‘approved’ works of Soviet realism. There are even some who say that, in terms of Russian and Soviet art, the Nukus gallery is second only to the far more famous collection in St Petersburg’s Hermitage.