Across Continents

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Central Asia – a postscript

July 23rd, 2010

It’d been a brief foray into Central Asia, a region, for much of its history, closed to foreigners. Azerbaijan, endemic corruption, nepotism. Across the Caspian, relatively prosperous, stable Kazakhstan, the nation others aspired to be. Probably. Kyrgyzstan. A country still trying to find its feet. Enthralled by barren steppe, imposing mountain ranges. Intrigued by politics, the recent ousting of a President, forced to flee into exile. Fascinated as to how vast oil and gas revenues had influenced things. Humbled, always, by a warm and generous people.

I’d learnt a little along the way of nearby Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Time, and to some extent restrictive visa requirements, had precluded a visit, for now at least. Quite distinct from the other Central Asian countries I’d passed through. I’d met a few Uzbeks, garnered quite a bit about their homeland, shaped as much by the Silk Roads as arbitrary Soviet era borders. But no Turkmen.

In fact, my only insight into Turkmenistan came from their TV channels I’d picked up in Kazakhstan. North Korea meets Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Lots of young children entertaining their Leader. Something of a Presidential personality cult in evidence. Seems a journalist had actually made a documentary along these lines, but it was difficult to confirm this. She’d died in prison. And no ATMs. It’d have to be worth a visit. Assuming their Secret Police don’t get to me first.

[Author’s note: Some debate as to whether Azerbaijan is in Central Asia, geographically at least. But culturally, linguistically, and ethnically, I thought so. Besides, it ends in Stan. Sort of…]

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Longest Day

June 13th, 2010

If there’d been a flaw in the plan, it was the distance. Bit more than I’d anticipated. Quite a bit more. Around two hundred miles in a little over twenty four hours. I’d left Kyrgyzstan’s Capital Bishkek mid-afternoon, avoiding the full heat of the day, heading for the city of Almaty in eastern Kazakhstan. Slight delay at the border crossing. Refused to budge until the guards provided me with all the relevant stamps I’d need to be allowed to leave and cross into China.

Wild camping

I’d chosen to tackle the worst of the climbs on the road to Almaty in the relative cool of the evening. As dusk approached, around nine in the evening, I’d pulled off the road along a small track across rolling moorland. Found a discrete pitch for the night. Up at six, back on the road before seven.

Within an hour or so I’d finished the last of the climbs, and made a rapid descent to the plains below that would lead me to Almaty. Stopped at a small roadside cafe, the first I’d seen for quite some distance. After a quick breakfast I’d joined the lorry drivers freshening up at an outside tap, attempting to remove some of the previous day’s grime and salty deposits.

Road to Almaty

Then a steady grind eastwards, flat, barren steppe at first, more undulating later. Mile after mile. The odd cafe, small settlement with a few market stalls besides the road, perhaps a shop, to break up the monotony. And to replenish fluids.

Reaching Almaty around five, the evening rush hour traffic was quite bearable, the railway station rendezvous with my host for the next few days remarkably straightforward to find. I’d been my choice, largely because it appeared on my maps, but was on the opposite side of the city to where I’d be staying. The longest day. So far.

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Perspectives on Bishkek

June 12th, 2010

Flag

These were not a people possessed of a revolutionary zeal. They simply tired of injustice. Corruption, nepotism, an impotent administration. A revolt, a public uprising, a riot or a revolution? Not bloodless, for over eighty people were killed. An act of defiance, a protest in which some subsequently lost their lives. Opportunistic looting before the gradual restoration of civil order. Over within a week.

At the fountain

Two months on, soldiers once more stand guarding the national flag, fluttering in the gentle evening breeze. A young child plays amongst the fountains with her mother. Others waiting for a bus. An overwhelming sense of normality.

Bus stop

Bishkek might lack some of the sophistication, and expense, of other Capital cities I’d visited, but with its tree-lined boulevards, plentiful leafy parks and wide open spaces, it was probably the most pleasant. Even the rush hour traffic seemed relatively benign. It felt safe. Very safe.

Spray

But not perfect. The centrally provided hot water hadn’t been seen for a month or so, and neither had the heating. And a society with no concept of orderly queuing can be a bit testing. But the real risk to your well-being? Probably the breakfast menu at Fatboy’s Cafe. Hardly a war zone.

Truckers

And of the future? The interim President has just extended her term in office. Sounds ominous. Hope I’m wrong. And the Honorary Consul? Never did find him.

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In Bishkek

June 11th, 2010

In Bishkek from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes the situation in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s Capital, a few months after the public uprising and removal of the former President.

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More troubled times

June 11th, 2010

Scant evidence of the recent troubles to beset Bishkek. A few burnt out buildings, boarded up windows, little else. Floral tributes to the fallen long since removed. Broken glass swept away. A city at peace once more. Cosmetically at least. Nothing to as much suggest the loss of over eighty lives amongst the protestors, or sporadic looting in the centre.

Bullet hole

Little to show of the ransacking of the White House Presidential residence, just a few buckled bars in the wrought iron entrance gates, the remnants of an old barricade, a few bullet holes to peer through. Smoke damage that had been visible around the upper floor windows scrubbed clean. Burnt out cars scattered around the rear of the building removed.

Prosecutors office

In the centre of the city, only the Prosecutor’s Office, a few minutes from the White House, still showed any real signs of the destruction that had been inflicted by the crowds venting their anger and frustration at the then Government. But you’d be forgiven for mistaking the damage as being the result of an unfortunate accident, not a deliberate act.

Boarded shop

Whilst Government buildings had borne the brunt of the protestors wrath, there had been widespread opportunistic looting of shops and businesses, largely focused on those owned by the former President’s family. A few premises still remained boarded up, the odd window yet to be repaired. But otherwise little to suggest what had happened a few months previously.

Sons house

The former President’s son’s house had also been targeted by protestors, ransacked and set ablaze. But even it too was slowly being rebuilt, discretely behind high wooden gates. Destined, it appeared, to become a home for disabled children.

Rebuild

Order had been restored, in the Capital at least. But there was nothing to suggest this was a new administration stamping its authority, or a Soviet style airbrushing of history, erasing all traces of a past best forgotten. Simply a gentle return to normality. A single workman sitting precariously above the shell of a burnt out shopping mall, slowly restoring one of the few sights that gave any clue to recent events. The People had spoken.

[With especial thanks to Esther for hosting me, and being so generous with her time, acting as my guide around the city, sharing her collection of images taken around the centre of Bishkek in the immediate aftermath of the uprising]

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The Full Monty

June 10th, 2010

Not a bad effort I suppose. A small omelette in lieu of the fried eggs, baked beans replaced with red kidney ones in a tomato sauce. But proper toast, and a quite acceptable mug of tea. I’d arranged to meet my host for the next few days in Bishkek at Fat Boy’s Cafe, mainly because I liked the name of the place. And it was on my small city map. Although early evening, I’d covered a good eighty miles or so to reach the Kyrgyz Republic’s Capital, and considered the Fully Monty breakfast option to be fair game.

Fatboys

No sign of the Honorary Consul who supposedly frequented the establishment, but I’d see if I could look him up later. I’d pondered who should be buying who a mug of tea. Or something stronger. Instead, an evening sat in the pleasant sunshine, chatting about life in Bishkek. The cafe was just a stone’s throw from the burnt out remains of the State Prosecutor’s Office, and a short walk from the White House, the Presidential residence ransacked a few months earlier by an angry mob.

This evening, though, the city seemed tranquil. The rush hour traffic, such as it was, had dissipated. Young couples strolling along the wide pavements. Fountains dancing in the central square, children running amok in the fine cooling mist. Families wandering through the parks. Tree-lined boulevards. Not what I’d expected for what the US deems to be an active war zone.

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