Tajikistan: USSR’s poorest ex-republic stands tall with pretty peaks and a sparkling capital

Me frantically trying to capture in words the raw beauty of Kulikalon lake in the Fan Mountains.


(Third of a four-part series on my three-week trip through Central Asia.)

ARTUCH, Tajikistan — The Artuch Mountaineering Camp sits in a deep bowl in the middle of postcard-perfect snow-capped mountains and a forest of juniper trees. A small river babbles down the valley into a little village below. I’d feel as if I was in Switzerland except for the camp’s origins.

USSR, 1971.

My cottage in the Artuch Mountaineering Camp.


Back when the Cold War had the world on edge, climbers from everywhere behind the Iron Curtain rushed here to exercise one of the few freedoms they had. Climbing was their way of seeing the world. However limited their freedom was on the ground, altitude has no wall.

And the views aren’t bad.

The camp hasn’t changed much since it was built 48 years ago. I believe the bathroom in my roomy cottage was modernized. But my prayer room with the huge carpet still existed and the expansive dining/TV/bar room with adjacent lodging quarters was around.

The mountains certainly haven’t changed. They all look painted by a romantic artist who didn’t think it implausible for each mountain to have its own corresponding lake below it. The snow, even in late May, stretched deep below the peaks and the lakes were so clean and clear I could fill my water bottle without worry of some third world illness I can’t pronounce.

Here’s another fact that hasn’t changed: Tajikistan, the poorest state in the USSR, is still the poorest former Soviet republic. During the days of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan represented only 0.2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. After independence in 1992 and a civil war that cost 60,000 lives, its GDP dropped 70 percent. It did rebound, growing about 10 percent a year from 2000-07 but its average per capita income is still only $2,100 a year, lowest of the former 15 Soviet republics.

Emomali “Rahmon” Rakhmonov, a former regional communist boss, took over as president in 1992 and has been in charge ever since. Tajikistan has one political party, the People’s Democratic Party. He’s it.

Yet despite the lingering communist hangover, the bloodshed and the poverty, Tajikistan is one of the world’s great new destinations. The capital of Dushanbe shines like a lighthouse in troubled waters. Restaurants and Western-style cafes are popping up around town. The people have held onto their proud Islamic culture and the streets and countryside are safe.

A romantic walkway in Rudaki Park.


Tajikistan’s biggest calling card, however, can be seen from all over the country. Ninety percent of the nation is upland. Mountains provide bookends from the Fan Mountains in the West to the Pamirs in the East. The Pamirs are also where Marco Polo followed the Silk Road and gave name to the sheep who number nearly 24,000, making Tajikistan home to one of the largest wild sheep populations in the world.

It’s also dirt cheap. Taxis across Dushanbe are 3 euros. Beer 1 euro. Lunches 2 euros. Five-hour taxi rides 9 euros.

Greeting me in Dushanbe after my flight from Almaty was Jaf Asimov, a 42-year-old IT wiz who owned my lovely AirBnB in the heart of the city. Short, handsome, with a wisp of gray hair, he spent a year studying at Ohio State and lived through Tajikistan’s bloody civil war.

Like most people who grew up under communism, he’s seen more than he wanted to. Upon my arrival by taxi, he accompanied me on a perfect 75-degree evening about three blocks to Bundes Bar, in a group of glittery, modern bars in an area downtown. We took a table outside and I ordered an ice-cold beer. I told him my plan.

An army of caretakers work Rudaki Park.


I wanted to wing Tajikistan. I had no reservations. I wanted to kick back in Dushanbe for a couple days then hit the trail again, this time in the challenging Fan Mountains. I asked about contacts and beautiful hiking trails. Turns out, Jaf is as connected as any travel agency in Dushanbe. Within an hour and three or four phone calls, he had arranged for a taxi to the jump-off town of Penjikent, a homestay in Penjikent, an off-road vehicle into the mountains and a four-night reservation in Artuch.

The hospitality of the Tajik people I’d read about was in full display across the table from me.

I asked him what I should expect from my third country on this trip.

“It’s the most friendly country in Central Asia,” he said in perfect English. “People are nice here. Nature is nice. We have clean air. It’s not polluted. We have fresh, organic fruits and vegetables and meats, which are very rare and expensive in developed countries like the U.S. and Europe.

“Life here is good.”

He acknowledged that the unemployment rate is high and about a million of Tajikistan’s population of 9.2 million have left the country to find work. But while Tajikistan remains poor, its growth rate is high at about 2 percent a year.

I asked him what he remembers about life in the USSR. Continuing a theme I found all through Central Asia, his memories weren’t bad.

“We lived in one big country,” he said. “We didn’t have any borders. We didn’t have any visas with other regions. We didn’t have visas with neighboring countries. Traveling was easy from one city to another city. Education was much better.”

Today, like many former communist republics and countries, life in the city rocks while life in the country rots. Tajikistan is no different. Dushanbe is one of the many ex-communist capitals that has been polished up, propped up and illuminated. Like Prague, Ljubljana, Tallinn and many others, Dushanbe is immensely walkable.

I woke up on a sunny 75-degree May day and walked up the street to Tapioca, a cute, wood-polished cafe with spacious outdoor seating. A blackboard advertised margaritas and cuba libres. Another sign read, in English, “Why sleep when there’s coffee?” I had a pretty good cappuccino and a very good omelet while a chorus of birds sang next to a street with little traffic.

Welcome to free enterprise, ex-Soviet style.

Ismoli Somoni, the 10th century founder of what would become the modern Tajikistan nation.


A couple blocks farther is one of the prettiest parks I’ve seen in the old Soviet bloc. Rudaki Park is covered with flowers, particularly roses, with fountains and towering monuments. An army of headscarved women wearing way too many clothes under the beating sun painstakingly landscaped every pile of dirt and blade of grass.

As I entered the park, a traffic cop screamed at motorists to keep moving. Another cop saw me pull out my camera and in no uncertain terms told me the same. A government ceremony was being held in front of the 25-meter gold statue of Ismoil Somoni, the national hero who in the 10th century founded the Samanid dynasty which eventually became Tajikistan.

I got closer and it looked as if Somoni was holding up a middle finger, toward Russia. Alas, it was just Tajikistan’s national symbol: a crown under seven stars representing the Tajik heaven of seven mountains and seven gardens.

Rudaki, a native of Tajikistan and considered the greatest writer in the Persian language.


On the other side of the park, behind a ring of five fountains and under a graceful, beautifully tiled arch stood a statue of Rudaki. Considered the greatest poet in the history of the Persian language, Rudaki was born in the 9th century near the Fan Mountains and is among Tajikistan’s heroes.

No writer in Central Asia ever captured the plight of his people better than Rudaki:

Look at the cloud, how it cries like a grieving man
Thunder moans like a lover with a broken heart.
Now and then the sun peeks from behind the clouds
Like a prisoner hiding from the guard.

***

Shah Mansur Bazaar in Dushanbe


The sun didn’t creep behind any clouds on this day. The sky had no clouds. The heat had picked up into the high 80s. The previous week in Kyrgyzstan I kicked myself for scheduling this trip so early in spring, before the snows melted. But as I walked the hot, dusty streets of Dushanbe searching for food, beer and air-conditioning, I was so thankful I didn’t come later.

In summer, Central Asia is an oven.

I searched for typical Tajik food. I doubt anyone outside Central Asia has ever uttered the phrase, “I’m in the mood for Tajik.” But I did. Jaf recommended Toqi, a prototype Tajikistan restaurant near Dushanbe’s Shah Mansur Bazaar, a bustling public market where I picked up 200 grams of sugared almonds for about 25 cents.

Up a hill from the market and near a dodgy neighborhood, Toqi has three trees growing inside the restaurant, up and through the roof. It was Ramadan, Islam’s monthly fast, and restaurants in Muslim countries die from sunrise to sunset. I walked in mid-afternoon and a posse of bored waiters and waitresses sat around for the few May tourists to enter.

Kurotob, Tajikistan’s national dish.


I wasn’t real hungry. The heat and my maddening Maps.me sapped my appetite. But Toqi is as Tajik as reading a Rudaki poem by a mountain stream. No English is spoken. No English menus are offered. Without looking I ordered Tajikistan’s national dish, kurotob. It’s a piece of flat bread covered in tomatoes, onions, chopped parsley and coriander with a yogurt-based sauce. The young waiter came over with his iPhone on Google Translate showing me the message “with meat?”

I expected a little snack, kind of like a quesadilla. No. It was a Denny’s size portion the size of an entire dinner plate piled about two inches high with food. Intimidated and not very hungry, I still dug in. It was fantastic. The bread was soft and kind of cheesy. All the vegetables were fresh and the beef was lean.

Ramadan is a great time to visit Islamic countries. Not only do you not need a lunch reservation, get invited to a local’s home after dark and the food intake is massive. That night Jaf invited me to his home not far from the old presidential palace where in 1992 anti-government demonstrators, furious at the old communist guard still ruling the country, stormed the building and took hostages. Today it is a dark edifice with nary a light on, looking more like a true haunted house than anything close to a palace.

We walked along Rudaki Park with seemingly half of Dushanbe. Men and women strolled together. Kids laughed. Mothers rolled their strollers. The bright lights of the park’s monuments were to our left.

Emomali “Rahmon” Rakhmanov has been president since independence in 1992.


So was the president’s motorcade. We heard sirens and Jaf said it’s an announcement for everyone to get away from the street. The motorcade was taking president Rahmon to his home. I saw a fleet of black cars speeding up the road and I walked across some dirt of a garden to get a closer look.

“John! Get back from the road!” Jaf said. “Otherwise we are in trouble!”

Jaf, separated with two children, shares an apartment with his father and sister. Nigora is the most westernized of the trio. She married a British soldier cursed by being stationed in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. And she thought life in Tajikistan was stressful. Their dad, Muzaffar, is 70 and walks 10 kilometers a day. He looks like an old hippy, with a laid-back nature and long, white hair cut in a bit of a bowl.

“I cut it myself,” he said unabashedly. He worked in computers for the USSR in the ‘60s and even studied at what is now Moscow State Technical University, one of the top tech schools in the world. He said they had competitions against MIT “and we beat them all the time.”

Nigora brought out a pile of pancakes with sour cream and apricot extract and a plate of sweets. Then came tea and coffee. Just a couple of blocks and 27 years after blood spilled in the streets, Tajikistan opens her arms again.

***

Penjikent’s bazaar.


The town of Penjikent (pop. 35,000), once a major stop on the Silk Road, sits on the far western edge of Tajikistan, a country with a border carved up so much over the years it’s shaped like an amputeed reindeer. Penjikent’s bazaar is teeming with women in traditional head scarves and men in tunics selling everything from wheel-sized bread to cheap clothes. With a mosque across the street, it has the air of a Moroccan medina.

It’s here I met Akmal, my host for the night and driver the next day, and Bahodur Rahmatilloev, my 19-year-old guide, translator and all-around fixer. Bahodur is a real bright university student with tons of ambition and, in my case, patience. His father runs Penjikent’s driving school. The school’s perfect driving lot, complete with bright lane markings and stop signs, was one of the few good roads I saw in all of Tajikistan.

Bahodur, Akbar and Akmal and the feast at sunset.


My room in Akmal’s home, a spacious, airy place down a gravel alley, was a giant prayer room with a rug and a cot. Akmal told me an odd time to eat dinner: 7:40 p.m. Who says 7:40? Why not 7:45 or 8? I went into the dining room and saw a massive display of food that could feed the Red Army. With Akbar, Akmal’s nephew, there were only four of us.

“Go ahead and eat,” Akmal said in Tajik through Bahodur. “We have a few more minutes.”

The entire country has a calendar showing what time is officially sunset and it gets later every night. That night was 7:57. So I ate and ate and ate. And I barely made a dent in the food.

The list was exhausting. First there was a plate of pirashki, fried bread filled with meat, onions and a little oil. Then Akmal brought out a huge bowl of oshi turush, soup made with rice, grasses and chaka, a milk-based grain. Kind of sour but not unpleasant. Then came a heaping plate of macaroni with meat which was good but I was way too spoiled in Italy to appreciating it. They offered a mountain of tut, white garbanzo beans which I couldn’t touch.

Macaroni with meat.


Then they had a big bowl of navot, big chunks of what looked like hard orange candy. You put it in your tea to sweeten. By this time I needed a digestivo or I’d fall into a food coma. I couldn’t move. This isn’t mentioning the bowl of fresh cherries, big plates of onions, tomatoes and peppers and a giant plate stacked with plate-sized rolls.

“You eat like this every night?” I asked.

“Only during Ramadan,” Bahodur said. “Normally we eat very simply.”

After dinner as I spent 15 minutes trying to stand, Akmal went to the corner of the room and prayed. He didn’t say anything but with his back facing us he bent down and touched his head to the ground about five times. After 10 minutes he was back. They all pray five times a day and usually get up at 3 a.m. just before sunrise to eat a big meal to last them all day.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“Not really,” Bahodur said. “The first two or three days it’s difficult but this is our 17th day.”

Akmal had lost three kilos already. For me, however, it was good carbo loading.

I would be hitting the mountains the next day.

***

Bahodur Rahmatilloev, my 19-year-old guide/translator/fixer.


Hiking in Tajikistan isn’t like it is in Europe where I live or Colorado where I lived. The hiking culture in those places is centuries old and the trail system is as organized as German trains. The L.A. freeways have fewer directional signs.

In Tajikistan you see the top of a mountain and hike toward it. How you get there is up to you. Which is why I found myself looking up a 75-degree grade at a 600-meter climb with no trail in sight. On one side seemingly straight up sat loose shale. On the other side were bushes.

About 30 feet ahead of me stood Bahodur, in a pile of loose rocks, surveying Mt. Chuarak, a mountain of 3,300 meters which hovers over our camp like a night watchman. It’s tall, rounded and craggy and sits below two beautiful snow-capped mountains.

I started to climb. My feet slipped immediately. I fell on my hands. I went a few more feet. I fell again.

“This is impossible!” I said. “I can’t climb this!”

On my way up Mt. Chuarak.


“I think we should go this way,” he said.

He pointed left to the bushes. I saw no path, let alone a directional sign. But my feet didn’t slip. Fortunately, it hadn’t rained that morning and it was relatively dry. However, the incline was brutal. I went up, grabbing bush branches for leverage. I stopped after about 10 meters. I looked up. The top looked no closer. My breath was coming in heaves.

“Bahodur, this is really steep,” I said.

“Take your time,” he said. “We have all day.”

I climbed another 10 meters. I saw a flat rock. I stopped again. I noticed Bahodur wasn’t even breathing.

“You aren’t tired?” I said, gasping.

“Not yet.”

I kept going. I saw another flat rock which by this point started looking like a lounge chair. I looked up. Still, the top could not be seen.

“Bohadur,” I said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Yes, you can. Just take your time.”

The view of our camp from atop Chuarak.


Again, I trudged up. Then I saw something that kept me going: The view behind me. The lake that we had passed on the way to the climb was absolutely breathtaking from above. A turquoise lake set in front of a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. I could only hear birds chirping and a distant cascading river. No other person was within miles. I was definitely at the back of beyond.

I caught my breath and kept going. Another 10 meters, another stop. Then Bahodur got excited.

“Look, Mr. John! We’re almost there! See that rock?”

Wearily, I looked up. I saw a big round rock about 20 feet set between two outcroppings from the mountain. It looked about 100 feet up.

“That’s the top!”

I looked below me. Behind the lake I could also see another. Both lakes were superimposed against a range of snowy mountains. It looked like a tapestry. I needed to take that photo.

I got up and made a determined mad dash to the top.

“You made it!” he said.

Breathlessly, I gave him a hearty Tajik handshake, with my left hand over his wrist.

“FINALMENTE!” I yelled in Italian.

One selfie worth taking from the top.


The view behind me wasn’t as great as 100 feet below. A giant boulder prevented me from seeing the other lake. But the view on the other side made up for it. Down below — WAY down below — I could see a few tiny buildings and what looked like a little creek.

“That’s our camp,” Bahodur said.

It’s true. That little settlement was the camp from which we began. I felt as if I was in outer space. I ate some cheese and a Clif Bar, both of which tasted like filet mignon.

I told him between inhales of thinning air, “Bahodur, in the future I want you to tell me if you EVER get another 63-year-old to make it this far.”

***

Chuarak lake.


Life in the camp felt very isolated. Internet is awful in Central Asia and particularly bad in Tajikistan. It became worse in May when a prison break resulting in deaths, plus an ISIS scare, made the government shut down social media. I had Whatsapp and that’s it. Between that and the camp’s sketchy food, hiking became the lone source of entertainment.

Fortunately, every day’s trail was better than the last. The two lakes we saw from above were two of three lakes, also called Chuarak, that are just a couple hundred meters apart. Each one sits under a snow-capped mountain and is crystal clear. I could see a steady stream of water cascading down the mountain into the lake. This is the water that babbled past my cottage all day and what I used to fill my water bottle.

On a particularly cold, gray, rainy day in which we couldn’t see the mountains let alone climb one, we set out to explore the village of Artuch 10 kilometers downriver. About 2,500 people are spread along the river for about a kilometer. Shadowing us down the hill through a steady rain were cattle and locals on burros. We surveyed about 100 meters of the river to find a place we could safely ford, my shoe surviving the crossing much better than it did the muddy roads. The village is a ramshackle collection of wood and cement shacks with villagers in surprisingly sharp native costumes, as if preparing for a tourist show.

On the road to Artuch village.


No. This is the real deal. The only outsiders these people see are climbers and hikers coming through town on badly needed 4-wheel drives.

“A little girl died today,” said Bahodur who asked one of the locals. A funeral ceremony was about to begin.

A young Tajik man dressed for a memorial service.


We saved the best hike for last. Kulikalon lakes are some of the prize jewels of the Fan Mountains. Meaning “big lake” in Tajik, Kulikalon is 2 1/2 hours away from camp. One long hill was followed by a flat plateau followed by another hill. After two hours, Bahodur pointed out toward the horizon. A huge snow-covered mountain that looked straight from a Japanese tapestry stood before us.

“There it is,” he said.

I saw a narrow sliver of green. We walked about 200 meters and there it was: big and green and clear. It stretched for hundreds of meters in front of me and beyond, reaching to the edge of massive, snow-capped mountains forming a perfect white, wintery background. I stood on a rock at the lake’s edge, stretched my arms out, like, yes, this is what life is about. This is traveling. This is Mother Nature at her most unspoiled splendor.

Bahodur looked crestfallen. He said the lake, and the two others nearby, were too small.

“It’s much more beautiful in the summer,” he said. “The snows haven’t melted yet. I’m sorry.”

We saved the best for last.


Bahodur had nothing to be sorry for. Neither does Tajikistan. In a world that is getting smaller, where the Internet makes nations as accessible as the push of an Enter button, this mountainous corner of the world has picked itself up and stands tall to the intrepid traveler. It’s always better to take the trail less traveled.

And sometimes it’s even better when there’s no trail at all.

Almaty: Kazakhstan’s former capital a beacon of post-Soviet modernization — if only the government kept step

Almaty, a city of 1.7 million, has four ski resorts and countless hiking trails within 30 kilometers.


(Second of a four-part series on a three-week trip through Central Asia)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — I was sitting in what can only be described as an Arabic gazebo. My table sat under a pointed roof with drapes on four sides pulled back like on a square four-poster bed. It looked more like a harem tent in the Sahara than a dining table in Central Asia.

But then came the food. Then more food. And more food. From meat dumplings to cheese soup, from horse jerky to camel’s milk, I dined like a true Arab prince. After chewing laboriously on mutton in Kyrgyzstan, I had found the culinary capital of Central Asia.

Almaty represents what happens when former Soviet republics discover their own natural riches and spend them lavishly. The largest city and economic engine of the world’s ninth-largest country is awash in high-end restaurants, rollicking nightclubs, shiny shopping malls, leafy boulevards, efficient public transportation and cozy cafes. It’s what likely came to mind 30 years ago when oppressed subjects of the old USSR dreamed about a future democracy.

The national government? Well, it hasn’t caught up on the democracy scale, as 700 protesters confirmed this week when they were arrested over what they viewed as mock elections. Kazakhstan is like one of the shiny SUVs I saw cruising up tree-lined Nazarbaev, one of Almaty’s many pretty streets. The SUV looks great from the outside but inside grinds the engine of a 1965 Trabant.

Still, from the outside? Oh, that body!

I had an eight-hour layover in Almaty on my Almaty Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Thanks to Kazakhstan’s no-visa policy for Americans, I cruised right out of the airport skipping past immigration and customs and had a pleasant afternoon in one of the world’s most underrated cities.

High-rise apartment houses have popped up all over Almaty since independence in 1991.


Almaty, a city of 1.7 million people, is blessed with some of Asia’s most breathtaking urban scenery. On the ride into downtown, the snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau mountains seemingly came right up to the road’s guardrails. If I had more time I would’ve taken a bus to the city’s outskirts and some of the country’s best hiking, some leading to 4,000-meter peaks. Or if it was winter, I could go to one of the four ski resorts within about 30 kilometers of the city.

But it was a dry, sunny 80 degrees. I had six hours before getting back to the airport. For a quick look at the city, I took a gondola up to Kok-Tobe, Almaty’s landmark playground hill that was built in 2006. Up top, I walked around restaurants with outdoor seating, crafts stores, a kiddie playground, tame carnival rides, a rollicking sled ride and a life-size bronze statue of the Beatles, the only sculpture in the world featuring all four together. Just past a small zoo where male peacocks displayed a massive spread of white feathers about three meters across, I stood under the 372-meter TV tower that can be seen from all over the region.

On Kok-Tobe, the recreational playground established atop a mountain in 2006.


However, I came up for the views. They were spectacular and showed a modern city blending new world wealth with old Soviet-style architecture. In 2016, Kazakhstan was the world’s No. 16 oil producer, pumping out 1.6 million barrels a day. Below me were what rose from seeds planted: glittery, high-rise apartment houses, the windows all sparkling in the sun. Just past them stood some trademark Soviet-era buildings like the 26-story Hotel Kazakhstan, built in 1977 with a spiked, pointy roof, like a Soviet spaceship ready to take off; the egalitarian-named Central State Museum, with its beautiful sky blue dome built in 1985; and the blockish, yellow Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences, boasting of Soviet technology since 1946.

The city has the most interesting ethnic mix of any I saw through four Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan’s population of 17.8 million, by far the largest in Central Asia, is 65 percent Kazakhs whose Asian features are much more delicate than the Kyrgyz. While a Muslim country, Kazakhstan has much heavier Russian influence. Concerned about the Nazis overrunning his factories along the European borders, Joseph Stalin moved thousands of workers and factories to Kazakhstan. When old Russians talked about a prison “in the middle of nowhere,” they may not have been talking about Siberia. Kazakhstan was second only to Siberia in the number of gulags.

Talk to some locals today and you think maybe the country hasn’t changed much.

This week’s massive protests and arrests that made international news centered around elections that have become comical. Like many other ex-Soviet republics that put in charge the old communist guard following independence, Kazakhstan put in place Nursultan Nazarbayev. The son of a poor laborer and growing up in the mountains, Nazarbayev had been an old Soviet hand who became Kazakhstan’s first secretary of its communist party in 1989. Still clinging on to the communist apron strings in Moscow, he did not want the USSR to collapse and, thus, Kazakhstan became the last Central Asian country to become independent.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, left, ruled Kazakhstan from 1989 until he abruptly resigned in March. His hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, right, won Sunday’s election with 71 percent of the vote. Al Jazeera photo


Since then, he has engineered Kazakhstan into the forefront of progressive ex-Soviet republics. In 1998 he moved the capital from Almaty to the more centrally located Astana and poured money into a glittery new skyline that has attracted the world’s top architects. Using oil resources and an eye on tourism, Kazakhstan has grown into an urban paradise rivaling many Western European countries and a trendy off-the-beaten-path destination for intrepid travelers.

However, in openly admitting he favors economics over democracy, he has won a string of five-term elections that have been nothing short of formalities. In his last election in 2015, he won 98 percent of the vote. The other 2 percent, apparently, voted for themselves.

Then in March, he resigned. No one knows exactly why but it came one month after he fired his entire government for economic growth that didn’t meet his expectations. In response, the capital of Astana was renamed, in his honor, Nur-Sultan.

The people hoped for true open elections for the first time since independence. Instead, interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor, took 71 percent of the vote Sunday. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has refused to recognize Kazakhstan’s elections as fully democratic. Police have raided homes of activists; journalists have been detained.

The people took to the streets in protests despite a law against protests. With exiled activists promising more demonstrations soon, Tokayev was sworn in Wednesday with Nazarbayev expected to wield plenty of power as head of his Nur-Otan political party

Fortunately, I caught Almaty in the calm before the storm.

The hammock and dining areas at Qamaq.


Nothing can be calmer than sitting in said makeshift tent dining on a vast array of local cuisine. Qamaq is one of the new gems on the Almaty restaurant scene. Opened just last year, it is the place to go for an introduction into Kazakh food.

Not to say Qamaq’s atmosphere is laid back but there’s a hammock by the bar, perhaps for food comas.

Thankfully in the shade, I ordered a Line, one of Kazakhstan’s fine national beers. I should’ve saved room for food. The intake was massive. First came a warm salad of green vegetables that tasted a little like chop suey. Second were little cheese balls called kurt, so dry and chewy I needed an entire Line to get one down. It was, however, quite delicious and surely should come soon to taverns in the American South.

Karta, top, and beshbarmak, two of Kazakhstan’s favorite horse meat dishes.


Later came a bowl of what looked like horse jerky. They were little round shavings of dark maroon horse meat called karta. I like horse meat and it’s naturally popular in Kazakhstan where Genghis Khan once raped, pillaged and plundered while leaving only the Mongol cuisine behind. I’m not particularly fond of horses. Thus, I had no problem devouring the entire bowl. It tastes like venison but not nearly as gamey.

Them came the main horse. The national dish of beshbarmak is a bowl filled with huge chunks of horsemeat on a bed of flat, square noodles. Next was a soup, kind of a bouillabaisse, in which I added a dollop of cream cheese. Then came the samsan, fried triangle square filled with meat.

When in Kazakhstan, pass on the fermented camel’s milk.


By this time, after snacking on fried dough in a dill dip, I was about ready to explode. What better way to wash it all down but with …

… fermented camel’s milk.

It’s called shubat and came in a small bowl that looked like something I’d give a cat — preferably a starving cat. I picked it up, took one sip and made a face that looked like I swallowed mating cockroaches. It was as sour as a lemon and room temperature. In a lifetime of eating weird foods in weird places, camel’s milk made my bottom 10.

Qamaq is one reason Almaty is the culinary capital of Central Asia.


At the end of a long layover, it was one step back after many steps forward, kind of like Kazakhstan. As the country pulls itself off the Russian steppe, let’s see if its new motor is a BMW or a Trabant.

Kyrgyzstan: The mountainous heart of the old Silk Road beating stronger for this old backpacking nomad

Me above my Altyn-Arashan camp after a 14-kilometer hike.


(This is the first of four blogs on last month’s three-week trip through Central Asia)

KARAKOL, Kyrgyzstan — I’ve had a weird fascination with former communist countries ever since I went to Hungary and Yugoslavia in 1978. Coming from knee-jerk liberal University of Oregon, where the sociology department was just to the left of Karl Marx, I spent a week in communist Hungary and came away with an inescapable conclusion.

My sociology professors had never been east of Hartford, Connecticut.

I looked in a soldier’s desperate eyes as he told me his impossible dream of opening a flower shop. I heard the frustration of factory workers spill their guts over bottles of vodka. I saw how the equal standard of living Karl Marx proposed was, in actuality, one step below the poverty line.

Then I crossed the border into Yugoslavia. Here ol’ Karl would’ve been proud. The equal standard of living was more middle class. The people were satisfied and proud to call themselves communists. Yugoslavia seemed like the one country where the system actually worked, kind of like the one Yugo off the car lot that didn’t break down. .

Since the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, I have made frequent trips to ex-communist countries. Most are in Europe where nearly every city has memorials to the atrocities of communism. They have tours of prisons, museums, secret police headquarters. I’ll never forget the photo in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga of a desperately crying woman, holding her small child in front of her face, saying goodbye before a Russian soldier shot her in the head.

Europe’s former gray, prison-like capitals are now among the most glittery cities in the world. Tallinn. Ljubljana. Prague. Budapest. Communism left the house and they turned on the lights. They combine the conveniences of modern Europe with grim reminders of one of mankind’s darkest periods.

Lately I’ve been exploring more distant satellite states. Last year I went to the Republic of Georgia and found the old “Tuscany of the Soviet Union” lives up to its old billing even better. Last month, I continued east, spending three weeks touring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with an afternoon layover dip into Kazakhstan. Except for Kazakhstan, where I only saw the modernized, comfy, leafy former capital of Almaty, the other three are different from the ex-communist states in Europe.

Lives in Kyrgyzstan haven’t changed much over the decades.


This is Asia. It’s where shepherds still herd their sheep the same way as under Joseph Stalin. It’s where they have more distinguished features from neighboring countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and China. It is Islam. Yet their governments are more concerned with terrorism than the U.S.

It is also where snow-capped mountains tower over emerald lakes, where sizzling, grilled meats dot menus and travel costs are among the lowest in the world. Rooms are $15 and great meals $3. Six-hour shared taxi rides are $5. It’s also where the roads are more dangerous than the mountains, the Internet is something out of 1960s Siberia and food (How ya’ like your mutton?) can be sketchy.

It’s the old Silk Road, where Genghis Khan once laid waste and Marco Polo made famous, connecting the trade routes from China to the western edge of Asia. Central Asia is the vortex of the Silk Road. I was in the middle of it.

I came for the hiking but came away with so much more. My first stop was Kyrgyzstan. I left myself one less day than I really needed and wound up with a brutal first 24 hours. I took a red-eye from Rome to the capital of Bishkek, through Moscow and arrived at 2:50 p.m. on exactly three hours sleep. I then went straight from the Bishkek airport to a waiting car where we drove seven hours east into the Kyrgyz mountains.

Kyrgyzstan is the land that vowels forgot. But it’s more than a country few can pronounce (It’s KIRG-ah-stan). The seven-hour drive was a cultural kaleidoscope that kept my eyes open as if visiting a foreign land for the first time.

Kirill Mashenin, Aleksei Belov and myself before the start of our first hike.


Helping me in the cultural exchange was one Aleksei “Alex” Belov, a Kyrgyzstan native of Russian-Ukraine heritage who has run Kyrgyz Nomad Travel (www.kyrgyznomad.com) for six years. I normally don’t do tours but with limited time, I needed to get into the mountains as quickly as possible. Lonely Planet wrote that Bishkek’s huge Western Bus Station, about 40 minutes from the airport, is “thoroughly confusing even for locals.” For Lonely Planet to say a bus station is confusing is like a 1960s edition of Pravda saying a particular gulag is bad.

Alex, fit as an athlete, looks younger than his 38 years and more Western in his blue jeans, black T-shirt and black ballcap. He speaks barely accented English after living in Philadelphia for a spell and traveling around the American Rockies and Alaska training as a guide. He hails from Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city where about 300 people were killed in 1990 when ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, in Kyrgyzstan since the 1930s, clashed over land and housing. He has seen a lot and since moving to Bishkek for college, he has seen nearly every peak of Kyrgyzstan’s beautiful collection of snow-capped mountains.

As we drove east in his four-wheel-drive Sequoia, I saw cattle grazing on the side of the highway. We passed fields of potatoes, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers. Women sold wide brooms to passersby. Wolf skins for sale hung from sides of houses. A herd of goats crossed the road.

Best corn I ever had.

Kislichka, Kyrgyzstan’s roadside vegetable.


We pulled in where a small, almond-eyed Kyrgyz boy stood behind a giant iron pot filled with huge ears of corn half submerged in hot water. For the equivalent of 25 cents I had the sweetest corn I’ve ever had.

A half hour later, Alex pulled over where a half dozen men stood on both sides of the highway waving what looked like giant celery stalks. He called one over and bought one. He peeled away the green outer skin and ate it like a carrot. I tried it. Imagine a real sour piece of celery and you have the kislichka, the vegetable indigenous to this small region of Kyrgyzstan.

The country’s shape is odd. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were carved up based on ethnicity. Thus, the countries’ borders weave in and out like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. At one point in western Kyrgyzstan, you can travel about 20 miles and hit all three countries.

Due to the strange borders, Kyrgyzstan is shaped like a frog on its hind legs. Its giant eye is Lake Issyk-Kol, at 2,400 square miles the world’s second largest alpine lake after South America’s Titicaca. Issyk-Kol’s gills are the Central Tian Shan mountain range which is what we saw no more than an hour outside Bishkek.

The mountains are in sight early after Bishkek, the capital.


They are long, craggy and still covered in winter snow. I’d read that the height of the hiking season is July and August but I wanted to avoid Central Asia’s suffocating summer heat and Alex assured me hiking is possible in May. While we’d be limited in elevation to under 3,000 meters, there was no limitation to the region’s spring beauty. We passed a narrow clear river snaking through a deep green gorge. With the sun out and the mountains still covered in snow, it was like being inside a very still snow dome.

But we also passed some of the ugly reminders of a nation that lost the support of a monolithic state like the Soviet Union. We passed a 10-story hotel, left unfinished for the last 30 years. We passed another long wall stretching half a kilometer with individual cabins shaped like Arabian tents. This proposed conference center has been empty for 20 years.

Alex made a point to say he didn’t want to talk politics. However, he did. He was 10 when Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian republic to gain independence. Unlike the European countries, which received more daily dosages of oppression than bread, Kyrgyzstan actually advanced under Soviet rule. In 1991, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, 88.7 percent voted to return the Soviet Union as a “renewed federation.” However, independence forces eventually won out. Nevertheless, in the center of Bishkek remains a statue of Vladimir Lenin.

A Soviet-era apartment house in Karakol.


“If the Soviet Union hadn’t come here, we’d be Afghanistan,” Alex said later, sitting in a brightly lit restaurant in Karakol, the base city for some of Kyrgyzstan’s best hiking. “They introduced us to everything: medicine, education. They built industry, infrastructure.

“Without them, we’d still be living in yurts, shitting in the back.”

***

I’ve stayed in yurts before. I spent 17 days in them in Mongolia. I preferred our accommodations: a modern two-story house run by a nice middle-aged couple where we had big rooms, modern showers and a hearty breakfast of bread, omelette, cheeses and meats.

The path up to Altyn-Arashan.


Karakol is a pleasant, lively, spotless town lined with a lot more adventure and outdoor stores than souvenir shops. I saw no other backpackers. I felt like I was the first hiker of the season. We picked up Alex’s colleague, Kirill Mashenin, a tall, rangy 29-year-old who came along for our hike to discuss summer plans with Alex. His apartment house was in a neighborhood that may as well have a giant sign outside reading, “MADE IN THE USSR.” The brown walls were caked black with soot. Windows were broken.

Another colleague, a dark-skinned ethnic Kyrgyz, drove us in his Russian-made Vaz four-wheel drive into the heart of the Ak-Suu region. It has numerous trails that lead everywhere from deep, green valleys to 5,000-meter mountains. The prime gem of this region is Ala-Kol lake, an all-day climb to 3,560 meters where you camp the night then climb down the other side. However, the snowline remains at 3,000 meters until July, limiting us to a long steady climb to Altyn-Arashan, a base camp surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks. My first hike of the year would be memorable on a gorgeous, clear, sunny, 60-degree day.

We followed the dirt road up a gentle path along a babbling brook that shepherded us into the valley. The grasses were as emerald as Ireland. Some patches could be fairways at Augusta. All the time we walked the snow-capped peaks before us got closer.

Just as in the days of Genghis Khan, who ran roughshod in this area 800 years ago, horses remain a major source of transportation.


We passed a sign reading in Kyrgyz, “Take care of nature. Forest is our home.” We saw no trash. We saw no other hikers. After about 90 minutes, a descending car stopped. It was Avtandil, a big, meaty Kyrgyz who runs the Altyn-Arashan. Kirill asked if Avtandil could take his backpack up to camp.

“You were probably hung over from last night’s party,” Avtandil said in Russian.

We crossed a crude wooden bridge over a cascading river, the white water and cool breeze coming down from the mountains was the perfect refresher on my growing layer of sweat.

After about three hours, we had reached the halfway point. We had passed exactly four hikers and two Asians on horseback. (“Our four-wheel drive,” Alex said with a smile.) That’s it. We sat on wooden benches forming a half circle by the river and ate cheese, dry biscuits and part of my ubiquitous stash of Clif Bars from the U.S.

One of the many beautiful views along the way.


Trails in Central Asia have no directional signs. Unlike Colorado and Central Europe, where the maze of trails sometimes looks more organized than the California freeway system, Central Asia relies on guides and guile. I have no guile. I relied on Alex to make sure I didn’t wind up in a forest eating berries for three days.

The trail grew much steeper after the break. Short, steep climbs of 100 meters were broken up by level ground. We went up steep switchbacks with views behind us of the valley and river. A huge flock of sheep engulfed us along with the cute dogs who guided them up the trail. We could see some of the 5,000-meter peaks through the tree-covered hills. After we leveled off, Kirill mumbled, “Little pass.”

“That was it?” I asked.

Alex caught up from behind.

“No,” he said. “It gets steeper this next section. But we’re almost there.”

Hiking season isn’t until July and August but Kyrgyzstan is plenty walkable in spring.


It was steep, so steep I stopped every 100 meters to catch my breath. For the first time I felt as if I was holding us up. For the first time I felt all of my 63 years. But in about 45 minutes of sweat, we reached the apex of the pass. Down below stood a deep valley dotted with white yurts, the finish line after a 14-kilometer hike and 900-meter elevation gain to 2,600 meters. In the background stood 5,020-meter Mt. Palatka, “tent” in Russian as it looks like one of those three-sided tents. It took my breath away. My smile broadened, my hopes were met.

This is why I came to Kyrgyzstan.

We descended toward camp as an eagle flew overhead, heralding our arrival. We walked right past the empty yurts where a Kyrgyz was chopping wood.

“We’re not staying there,” Alex said. “We have our own shelters. Yurts are freezing without heaters.”

Avtandil and his mutton knife.


I had my own longhouse with five hard twin beds, covered in a thick decorative blanket. Before dinner I walked to the back of the longhouse where Avtandil was cutting huge buckets of mutton meat. It looked like after waste from an obesity clinic. It was big blogs of white and pink flesh — mostly white from all the fat. He took one big handful of white goo and slapped it on the table. He hit his ass and said “sheep.” We’re going to eat sheep ass?

Mutton is the Elephant Man of the meat family. It is gross and disgusting and has no taste. I ate it nearly every day in Mongolia. That was 2011 and I’m still picking out bits of fat from my teeth.

Altyn-Arashan’s indoor thermal baths.


This guesthouse is special, however. It has five indoor thermal baths. They’re crude. The outside looks like the worst Third World outhouse. Inside is a gray concrete pool filled with steaming water. It didn’t have the sulphuric smell of rotten eggs, thank God. The pool was steaming hot. So hot, I had to ease my body in, splashing hot water on bare skin to get used to it. I finally settled against the back wall and let the near boiling water massage my surprisingly sore legs. I stayed in only about 10 minutes. Every time I moved a limb burned.

But it made for a nice pre-nap. The jet lag had caught up to me and I slept for an hour before a dinner I should’ve slept through. We had mutton soup. The meat wasn’t all fat but every bite took 15 minutes to chew small enough where I wouldn’t get lodged in my throat. Choking to death in a country no one can pronounce did not sound good on a tombstone. I ate the carrots and vegetables and ate only half the meat.

I went to bed in pitch blackness. the lone sound coming from the river below. Also, I thought I heard an eagle squawk.

The Kyrgyz and their after-dinner games of backgammon.

***

The next morning on the hike back down I had one of those quintessential traveler’s moments when everything seems aligned in the world, in a combination of bliss, nature and pure unadulterated luck.

I had a thermal bath and an eagle flew by.

In the outdoor thermal baths above the river.


It wasn’t like a total eclipse of the sun. Eagles and hot springs are all over the Altyn-Arashan area. But to have it happen at the same time became one of the most remarkable experiences in my 41 years traveling overseas.

We left camp at 10:30 in a slight mist with a cold breeze coming down from the mountains. We quickly cut off the trail and headed down a steep path toward the Ak-Suu river. At the end, about 30 feet above the river, a stone semicircle jutted out from the cliff. It was filled with hot, soothing water. Alex and I walked a little farther and set back inside the rocks was another bigger one, big enough for a family of four.

I peeled off my jogging suit to the swimsuit I strategically wore and dipped in. It wasn’t as painfully hot as the guesthouse’s. It was the perfect, soothing temperature. I sat back against the smooth rock wall and looked down at the river.

When Alex joined Karill in a planning session, I saw it. An eagle, with about a four-foot wingspan, soared by me almost at eye level. It was in no hurry. It probably didn’t even know where it was going. Like us, it was probably just out for a little cruise. But it went slow enough where I could see its eye. And then something remarkable happened.

It looked at me.

I swear, it turned its big head and his right eye looked at me. I should’ve winked or nodded or done some human gesture as an act of saying, Yes, I acknowledge you and respect you and will do you no harm. What I wanted to express is this:

In a world of chaos, folks, don’t underestimate Mother Nature’s little ironies.

***

After hiking 28 kilometers over the previous two days, I didn’t protest the next morning about driving into Karakol Valley, another 14-kilometer journey. Then I saw the road we drove over and thought hiking would’ve been easier.

This was simply the worst road I’ve ever been on, worse than the mud flats that entrapped our huge big-wheel people mover truck in Tanzania. Worse than the unpaved, unmarked roads in the Mongolian steppe.

This road was downright scary.

One of the smoother sections of the road up Karakol Valley.

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On the way out of Karakol we passed what looked like a factory abandoned by the Soviets in the ‘60s. It was a crumbling edifice with peeling paint and beat-up brick. It’s actually the heating facility still used in Karakol in the winter.

About 30 minutes south of town we passed a crude gate into the national park. The road was gravel and dirt, similar to the trek to Altyn-Arashan. No problem. I sat back and enjoyed being a lazy passenger listening to Top 40 hits on the radio.

Then the gravel got bigger. Soon they were big rocks. Eventually, the road became a sea of boulders, some of them three feet high. How in the hell would they fit under the chassis? Alex had to slow to a crawl to strategize his way around the rock traffic. Going no more than 2-3 kph, he managed to guide through his remarkable four-wheel drive Sequoia which now goes into my lexicon with man’s greatest invention alongside fire.

It got worse. When the road turned to dirt, we faced giant mud rivets two-feet deep. One false move and we’d be stuck. We saw no other people except two Polish backpackers near the gate.

“See how far we’ve developed Kyrgyzstan since the collapse Soviet Union?” Alex said sarcastically as he maneuvered the car through the dirt maze.

It went on like this for two or three hours. A sea of rocks followed by huge divots on a dirt road so narrow we couldn’t turn around. We’d have to go backwards all the way back to Karakol. If Genghis Khan tried to pass this way, his horses would’ve bucked him off. Marco Polo would’ve taken one look at it and said, “Fuck it! Let’s go back to Venice!”

I seriously wondered about food and water. I wasn’t told about Karakol Valley’s facilities so I brought one lone Clif Bar. I drank most of my water in town. I saw a dead pony along the side of the road. I wondered what baby horse tasted like.

Karakol Valley


However, the effort was worth it. We reached the valley, which is a gigantic bowl surrounded by Peak Karakol and the Ayu-Tor and Jeti Oguz gorges. To my right were two big mountains. The saddle between was the gateway to Ala-Kol lake, totally covered in ice and snow until late June. The grounds were beautiful. A huge expanse of green grass that could be a before picture of a golf course. Narrow pine trees pin pricked the hills. A small river flowed through it. The only other people we saw was a Jeep of Kyrgyz surveying the area.

We sat by an old, rickety wooden bridge and snacked on sweet ringed biscuits, mini Twix bars and freeze-dried peanut butter Karill brought. It was a nice day with temperature about 50 degrees.

Before we left we passed the Poles who were hiking to the base camp and then going to lake Ala-Kol and returning. I told Alex I thought you couldn’t go there in May.

“You can but I wouldn’t risk it,” he said, shaking his head. “By the lake are cliffs of snow and ice. You need more equipment than what we’ve got.”

Karakol Valley


Back in Karakol for the night, Alex took me to Dastorkon, a typical Kyrgyz restaurant with a menu the size of Denny’s. It had a whole page just for kabobs (called “shashlyks” here) and lagman, these thick Kyrgyz-style noodles about twice as long as Italian spaghetti. It was still Ramadan and we ate at 6 p.m. Sunset, and the end of the Islamic daily fast, wouldn’t occur for another two hours. Thus, we were the only people there.

On the way back to the guesthouse we stopped at a little store on the way back and picked up a bottle of Atalyk, wine from this area for all of 214 som (less than $3). We sat in the guest house kitchen and drank the whole bottle.

Alex told me the new Silk Road is still a freeway for drugs. And marijuana grows all along it. Yet if you get caught with a joint it’s years in prison.
Islam is growing here, too. “They’re building more mosques than schools,” he said. Many rural communities have put pressure on little stores like the one we visited and tried getting them to stop selling alcohol. Some buy every bottle on the shelves and then destroy them in front of the other villagers.

I also noticed something on the guest house’s refrigerator: a photo of Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s successor. Alex said many people in Central Asia still believe in the guy.

“But he was as bad as Hitler,” I said.

“They were two totally different ideals,” he said. “Hitler wanted to destroy every ethnic group and make the entire world aryan. Stalin was putting down uprisings to keep the system working.”

“He killed 60 million people,” I said.

“How many American Indians did you guys kill?” he said.

Touche.

***

The next day I met a wonderful local. It was one of those meetings that gets a red star in your notes and a lead in your journal. He was a shepherd named Taalaibek and one of about six people we saw during a three-hour drive through the beautiful, expansive Georgievka and Semenovka gorges. He was small, about 5-foot-6, with a smooth, deeply tanned face, Kyrgyz eyes and a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wore a decorative white ball cap and an expensive, heavy jacket over a gray turtleneck. Some friends had dropped him off from the village of Ak-Suu down below to tend to his animals. They’d gone farther up and he asked Alex for a ride back.

Taalaibek the shepherd.


We were in the middle of this massive valley staring out at a very cold- looking lake with some of the snowy Kaungey Ala-Too mountains above it. My first overcast day hid most of them but the beautiful, expansive gorges and our encounter made up for it.

He was a bright, funny, interesting guy. I asked for a photo and he said, “Why do you want my photo? I’m just a simple shepherd.”

I asked him how his life as a shepherd has changed since the fall of the USSR.

“It was a collective system,” he said in Russian through Alex. “On the one hand it’s better opportunities. You can develop and grow. And all have the equal opportunities. In Soviet times there were limitations. You could have five sheep and one cow. You couldn’t have a horse. Horses were collective.

Georgievka gorge


“It was different times. Everything was equal. Now it’s more business relationships which isn’t good sometimes. People are just concerned with their own income.”

I asked the ubiquitous question, “What do you think of Donald Trump?” He had a pained expression?

“I don’t pay attention to what our president is doing,” he said. “I don’t give a shit about Donald Trump.”

In the three years I’ve asked that question, from the bars of Iceland to the Buddhist temples of Laos, that’s by far the most positive thing I’ve ever heard a foreigner say about our Mango Mussolini.

A lone horse grazes in Georgievka gorge.


We made our slow return to Bishkek via the north shore of Issyk-Kol. We passed small towns lined with small stores with people mingling on street corners. Everyone was out in pleasant 60-degree weather.

Our breakfast had barely been digested before Alexei turned off the main road and up a dirt road to a fish farm. We went back behind a building and saw 17 pools, half of them filled with orange and brown-tinted fish, swimming around like koi. Alexei said there were no fishing limitations on the lake. Despite being the second-biggest alpine lake in the world, it nearly ran out of fish. About six years ago they instituted a fishing ban which explained why I never saw a boat anywhere on the lake, not even docked. At the same time they started fish farms such as this one.

Alex greeted the pretty cook and took me to one of the pools.

“Do you want golden trout or rainbow trout?” he asked.

Fish farm near Issyk Kul lake.


Golden trout is a real delicacy in Kyrgyzstan and the most expensive thing on any Bishkek menu. The restaurants all get their fish here.

A skinny man with a ball cap took a net to one of the pools and splashed the top of the water. Fish came swimming and instead of getting food one got caught. He picked it up, put in a dry bin and I watched it drown on the surface. Being a meat eater and wildlife lover has its conflicts. This was one of them. When the man took a lead pipe and cracked the skulls of four fish Alexei ordered, I turned away.

The golden trout.


But I quickly forgot my humanitarianism when the man brought out the fish. It was 1.2 kilos, butterflied and covering an entire plate. Even though flattened, the meat was thick, juicy with few bones. We devoured the entire thing. After I patted my belly, I realize the $20 pricetag, split between us, was a real bargain.

We spent the night in Cholpon-Ata, a lakeside resort town that every summer is teeming with the Bishkek rich and the Russian and Kazakh glitterati. The Panorama Hotel is spectacular. My room was huge, the size of my Rome living room with big windows and a balcony looking out over the lake. Issyk-Kol looks like a mild ocean. I could not see land on the other side. It was gray-blue, looking as cold as a melted glacier.

My room at the Panorama Hotel in Cholpon-Ata.


We had another fantastic meal. My opinion of Kyrgyz food skyrocketed since the shorpa (mutton soup) in Altyn-Arashan. I had this terrific “hunting salad” made up of beef, cheese, tomatoes, croutons a little mayonnaise. My chicken kabor, six big, juicy chunks of grilled chicken, melted in my mouth.

We were at Barashek (ship in Russian), one of the few Cholpon-Ata restaurants open year round. It’s big with white tablecloths and overstuffed chairs. Two disco balls over a dance floor gave it a Beijing feel to it. When we entered at about 8 p.m. most of the tables were filled with food on plates but no one ate. Islamic prayer played loud over a speaker. I thought an iman was praying somewhere.

When the sun finally set a little past 8, everyone starting eating. No wonder the three kids at the table next to us were crying. Soon a singer sang Russian pop tunes and all the Kyrgyz women got up to dance, nearly all wearing tennis shoes.

***

The next night it was time to say a grateful goodbye to Alex, a truly great guide, when he dropped me off at an apartment in Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan’s capital doesn’t have the glitter of other ex-communist capitals but it definitely has the memories of 73 years under Soviet rule. The main street Chuy prospektesi is lined with massive old Soviet buildings with giant flagpoles. Ala-Too Square is the epicenter of Bishkek and where you can still see goose stepping soldiers change guard.

My well-earned Kyrgyz beer in Bishkek’s Starry Edgar pub.


Instead of sightseeing, I spent an hour looking for Staryy Edgar, an old Bishkek watering hole hidden inside a leafy park along Chuy. It’s dark, tiny and kind of romantic with a dingy, Soviet feel to it. Fishing nets hung from the ceiling, A model boat hung on the wall. The only other people were three local girls dining on what looked like pretty good food. I ordered a beer simply labeled, in a throwback to old Soviet marketing, “Kyrgyz.” I paid all of $1.80 to a young, crew-cut Russian bartender who spoke no English. At about 7, a tall, suave Russian man in a black suit crooned Russian pop songs to the four of us with nothing else to do.

Thanks to Mother Nature, Kyrgyzstan has plenty to sing about.

Procida: Beauty and love in the Bay of Naples

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

(Director’s note: I’m traveling. Below is a re-posting of a blog from two years ago.)

PROCIDA, Italy — Italy has an innocence that can be forgotten when spending too much time in a city. Italy’s magic is in its sounds, colors and tastes. It’s not in its wealth or innovation, technology or military. It’s not the United States. It’s better, at least the lifestyle is.

Peel away the first layer of culture and see. Look past Rome and its monuments, Venice and its canals, Florence and its museums. You’ll see an Italy you dream about when you grind through your 10th straight day at the office or daydream after an old Italian romantic movie. It’s an Italy where villagers sit at sun-splashed outdoor cafes and talk about nothing, where fishermen mend nets on a quiet harbor, where boys play soccer in narrow, cobblestone alleys, where the smell of grilled fish and garlic permeate the air and where men have nothing better to do but fall in love.

It’s where I am right now.

The island of Procida doesn’t get much play outside Europe. The way it’s overshadowed by Capri 10 miles to the south, Capri might as well be Australia. But Procida (pronounced PRO-chee-duh) holds its own with Italians who see Capri as I do: an Italian theme park with better wine. Procida doesn’t have Capri’s vistas — and Capri’s do meet the hype — but it does have an Italian soul.

It’s why I took my girlfriend, the lovely and talented Marina Pascucci, to Procida for our two-year anniversary. She’s a Roman for Romans, a street-smart, third-generation Roman whom I can read like a Dante novel just by watching her hand gestures. But in Procida she softens. We both melted into the island culture like provolone on a pizza. Whether it was sitting on a marina sipping cold drinks or strolling the sandy beach or dining on ravioli so sensual we nearly forgot the gorgeous view of the harbor lights below us, Procida turned us into bit players in a romance novel.

Marina had never been to Procida. She’d only heard of it. She heard it was the anti-Capri, the place you go to get into Italy’s beauty without the crowds and remind yourself why you live in this gorgeous country.

There's not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci

There’s not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s shocking, really, that she was also on her maiden visit. Procida is so easy to reach from Rome. We took a 70-minute train ride to Naples, a short cab ride to the ferry dock and a 30-minute hydroplane to the island. Another taxi through the windy streets up Procida’s hill took us to a hotel right out of Italian Dreams magazine, if there was such a thing.

The four-star Albergo La Vigna is a combination spa, vineyard, garden and lookout over the beautiful Gulf of Naples. Our room opened up to a big courtyard with a little cocktail table and two chairs looking out over the sea. The courtyard abutted a big garden where paths lead under grape vineyards and past flowers of orange, yellow, pink and white. A short stroll leads to a fence with a spectacular sea view, made even more comfortable by the small table and two chairs, perfect for a bottle of wine at sunset.

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci


However, La Vigna’s big selling point is its spa. Twice we went to the front desk and blocked off an hour for ourselves to enjoy a private Jacuzzi and a Turkish steambath, topped with lounging on wicker lanais chairs and a cup of tea.

But we don’t travel to sit in hotels. It’s just that there isn’t a lot to do on Procida. That’s the point. The island is 1.6 square miles and has 12,000 people. You take in Procida from a seat on the sea. You drink it in as a chaser behind the Campania region’s delicious wines. After checking in and catching a breath after seeing the view from above, we descended the steep staircase from our village to Marina Corricella.

Couples can reserve La Vigna's spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Couples can reserve La Vigna’s spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci


For an idea of how idyllic Italian is this marina, they filmed “Il Postino” here. If you don’t know it, you should if you dream of Italy. It’s the 1994 film about a mailman (“postino” in Italian) named Mario who falls in love with a beautiful woman but doesn’t know how to get her to notice him. During his daily deliveries to the famed, exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, he asks him for the right words to say. The movie won the 1995 Oscar for Best Music and was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. Not Best Foreign Film. Best Picture.

The film is set in 1950 but today Procida looks pretty much the same. The pink building where Mario sits contemplating life without love is still there. Marina and I walked past it as we made our first stroll down the marina. It’s now a restaurant, christened La Locanda del Postino. It’s decorated inside with photos from the movie and star Massimo Troisi, who put off heart surgery to make the movie and after the last day of filming died of a heart attack. The building is one of a cascade of pastel buildings colored turquoise, green, yellow, white and orange. It’s like walking past a rainbow.

"Il Postino," starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Il Postino,” starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat at one of the many seaside restaurants with views of small boats bobbing up and down on the water. Fuego has red tablecloths and a touch of elegance but it’s definitely unpretentious, with pizzas priced at 4-8 euros. And it’s all Neapolitan-style pizza with the thicker crust featuring slightly burned edges from the wood-fire ovens that cook mankind’s favorite food to perfection. I had a lovely pizza of sausage, provolone cheese, cherry tomatoes, chili pepper and — and a first for me — a sprinkling of cream.

Next to us commandeering a long table were 26 Brits. They’ve worked for NATO in Naples for the last three years. Procida is their company getaway.

If food is big in Italy, it’s even bigger on the islands where seafood reigns supreme at cheap prices the cities can’t approach. In Procida, mussels fill entire soup bowls as appetizers. Calamari comes as thick as lobster tails. Shrimp pepper everything from salads to pasta. They’re on nearly every menu with interesting twists throughout the island, such as Crescenzo on the beach where I had the mezzo paccheri polpo and pecorino: thick, halved macaroni with octopus and pecorino cheese.

A night out in Procida.

A night out in Procida.


We had our first dinner at La Lampara, so romantic the tables should have blankets instead of napkins. It’s on the limestone cliff connecting the marina to the piazza above. Every table on the covered patio has a gorgeous view of the gently curving marina. The marina lights danced off the water, bathing the boats in soft gold.

La Lampara defies my theory that the better the view, the worse the food. My ravioli al sapore di mare (seafood ravioli) was ravioli stuffed with a ground mix of shrimp and ricotta cheese. It tasted like a tangy shrimp cocktail. It was simply the best ravioli I’ve had in a country that treats ravioli as works of art. Chased with a tiramisu sprinkled with lemon and a half carafe of local Falanghina Benevento red wine, La Lampara moved into my top five favorite restaurants in Italy.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.


After one day, I could see how Mario fell in love here. Procida drowns the senses with flavors and sights but also sounds. At one point in “Il Postino,” Mario records the sea lapping against the beach as part of a tape he makes of the sounds of Procida. I heard similar sounds the next day when we took a bus from the port to the long beach on the north end of the island. The bus took us through the heart of Procida few stop and experience. Little villages with names like L’Olmo and San Antonio and Centane had the same pastel colors lining the streets. Flowers were everywhere: on corners, on balconies, in windows.

We walked on the beach’s fine brown sand and I repelled Italian convention by walking into the dark blue sea in early May. Then I quickly walked out. It’s too cold to swim. Locals told me it’s swimmable from June through September. But the brilliant weather made it perfect for a completely suitable way to spend an afternoon in Italy: sitting on a beach towel and watching seagulls hunt for fish.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.


We walked along the boardwalk to the enclosed Marina Chiaiolella where we settled in at Chalet Vicidomini, a simple but romantic snack bar right on the marina. I had a cold beer and Marina had a bitter as we sat in the sun and stared out at the modest boats bobbing up and down in the water. This is the shoulder season, meaning the local joints are populated by Neapolitans, boat people and one couple from Rome: us.
Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida's Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida’s Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Locals say that Italy’s biggest recession since World War II hasn’t had an effect here. Advanced technology drove away its once-thriving shipbuilding industry in the 18th century and tourism has taken over what was once their biggest business: law enforcement. Hanging like a dead dragon nearly 300 feet up the cliff from Marina Corricella is an abandoned prison. Palazzo d’Avalos was built in 1500 for Cardinal Innico d’Avalos, but in 1830 it was converted into a prison and stayed active for more than 150 years. It finally closed in 1988 for the occasional guided tour but not before incarcerating tens of thousands of criminals and hundreds of guards.
This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The prison never appeared in “Il Postino” but looking at the boarded up prison windows, at least the prisoners had good views. You can’t miss its omnipresence as you climb the steep road to get the great views of the marina. But like the rest of the island, the prison is now at peace.

If you do come to Procida, here’s a tip: Return to Naples with enough time to eat at Da Michele. If you come to Italy merely to try authentic Italian pizza, Da Michele is a must. Started in 1870, it’s considered Italy’s first pizzeria. It’s also considered the best. Think about that. Think about how many pizzerias there are in Italy. That’s like being the best pub in Ireland.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.


I’d been there twice and wrote in my old traveling food column at The Denver Post that it was my favorite pizzeria in Italy. It still is. Just don’t expect ambiance or variety. Those left town generations ago. We arrived with our luggage after about a 15-minute walk from Naples’ ferry dock. As usual, a mob waited outside to get in. I took a number that had about 30 people ahead of us.
Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But the beauty of Da Michele is its simplicity. It only makes two pizzas: margherita (marinara sauce, provolone cheese and a sprig of basil) and marinara (marinara tomato sauce). That’s it. They’re 4-5 euros, depending on the size. Thus, it’s not like in the U.S. where they spend 15 minutes topping pizzas with everything from Sarawak pepper to a ‘67 Chevy. Our number was called in only 30 minutes.

We took a seat at the same table as another Italian couple. The waiters don’t even bother with menus. One came over and just said, “Margherita?” They came out in five minutes. While I love the healthy aspects of Italian pizza, with the thinner crusts, more natural ingredients, fewer toppings, I’m an American and I do like my meat. Sausage. Guanciale. Prosciutto. I like protein pizzas.

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But at Da Michele, less isn’t just more. It’s the most. The marinara sauce tasted like biting into garden tomatoes. The provolone cheese was so fresh I could’ve dipped bread in it. The best part? The bill for two giant pizzas and two beers in arguably the best pizzeria in Italy and, thus, the world?

Fourteen euros.

Da Michele is also only a 10-minute walk from Naples’ train station. Like Da Michele’s pizzas, life in Italy can be oh, so simple. And Procida is simply the best.

Cycling in Tuscany: Salute! to winery hopping on two wheels

(Director’s note: I’m currently traveling in Central Asia and am running a couple of old armchair travel blogs. This one is from May 2016.)

Few things go better with Tuscany than wine and cycling.

Few things go better with Tuscany than wine and cycling.


MONTERIGGIONI, Italy — I covered pro cycling for 10 years for The Denver Post and one question I asked pro cyclists when I first started was how much do they enjoy the scenery? Every cycling shot I see is of the cyclists cruising past fields filled with sunflowers or along an ocean beach or crisscrossing up a snowcapped mountain range. This is arguably the most beautiful sport in the world. Yet I usually got the same response.

“What scenery?”

Pro cyclists are too occupied jetting down mountains at 65 mph to gaze at green meadows. They’re too stressed trying to manage their final breakaway to ponder a sidewalk cafe in a French village.

We weekend hackers don’t have to worry about that. On my bike ride in Tuscany Tuesday, my biggest stress was which Chianti to buy.

Living in Rome is a cycler’s paradox. Rome is to cycling what Tehran is to nightclubs. It’s one of the least cycling friendly cities in the world. There are no bike paths. The cobblestones are brutal. The drivers are worse. I once wrote a blog about trying to cycle along the Tiber River to Ostia on the sea and wound up in a gypsy camp. Cycling in Phnom Penh is better. However, I’m only a short ride from some of the most beautiful cycling terrain in the world. It’s where grape vines flicker in the sun under emerald green hills. It’s where wildflowers of red, purple and orange line forest roads and lead to quaint villages where wine flows like water and the air smells of cheese and prosciutto.

The Giro d'Italia comes through Castellina in Chianti today.

The Giro d’Italia comes through Castellina in Chianti today.


Cycling in Tuscany is such a remarkable experience it’s almost a cliche. But like all overused terms, the core is truth. On Tuesday I took my first Tuscany bike ride. In Tuscany, cycling takes on a different quality. Wineries dot Tuscany like snowflakes on a ski slope. You can’t ride more than 30 minutes without seeing neat rows of grapevines behind an 18th century house teasing you with outdoor tables and a view of a meadow.

I went with a company called Bike Florence & Tuscany (www.bikeinflorence.com, info@bikeinflorence.com). Piero Didona and his wife, Elena Boscherini, started the company three years ago after Piero ran a bike shop for 20 years. They both have those lean, tanned bodies that are the committed cyclist’s calling cards. This isn’t just a business to them. Cycling is their passion. Piero told me when he’s not leading tours, he’s riding, sometimes up to 100 miles in a day. Riding in Tuscany always appealed to me. But one thought haunted me as I took the dawn train ride 90 minutes from Rome to Florence.

I haven’t even sat on a bike in three years.

This was my first time on a bike in three years.

This was my first time on a bike in three years.


I wrote about cycling but I’m not a cyclist. I always thought cycling is how you go to a 7-Eleven when your car breaks down. Part of my problem stems from riding the same bike I received as my high school graduation present in 1974: a 10-speed Raleigh Grand Prix that weighed just slightly less than my Honda Accord. The bike lock alone could shackle most minimum-security prisons.

Piero told me not to worry. It isn’t difficult. He did offer a pseudo warning.

“You have to be fit,” he said. “Tuscany isn’t flat. Some people think they’re fit because they bike 150 miles per week but they’re riding in Florida. It’s very flat. After the first hill they about die: ‘We don’t have this at home.’”

I wasn’t concerned. After all, if we’re cycling to Tuscan wineries, I’ll find that extra gear.

Florence in the morning mist with the Duomo on the right and the tower in the Palazzo di Vecchio on the left.

Florence in the morning mist with the Duomo on the right and the tower in the Palazzo di Vecchio on the left.


Elena met me at the train station and immediately took me to a spot in Florence I’ve never seen. Piazzale Michelangelo offers a spectacular view of one of the world’s prettiest cities. Florence’s famed brick-domed Duomo stood out through the morning haze over a quilt of red-tiled roofs.To the left was the tower of Palazzo di Vecchio and running below was the Arno River, looking as fresh as a mountain brook in Colorado compared to the filthy Tiber. Florence is so overrun with tourists all year it’s hard to find a quiet spot in the city.

This is one of them.

A young couple from New York met us and we drove up the winding hills to the town of San Donato where we met Piero and a family of five from Chicago. This is where we would start our adventure. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. The trip is basically a wine tasting with cycling thrown in. We covered only 13 miles, mostly downhill. We started at 1,800 feet and ended at 600. You do the math.

The view from San Donato.

The view from San Donato.


I didn’t feel bad dressed like I, indeed, was going to the 7-Eleven because my car broke down: baggy beach shorts, red T-shirt and Nikes. Not one of us eight riders had a stitch of Lycra. If you’re into wine and need an excuse to ride a bike again, this is the trip to take.

The entire trip is done in the famed Chianti region which spreads like a wine stain over nearly half of Tuscany. One of the major things I took away from this trip — along with two terrific bottles of wine — is the difference in Chiantis. The Chianti region covers several overlapping areas designated as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). To be labeled a Chianti, a wine must consist of at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes. And the grapes must come from these regions to guarantee this important DOC or DOCG label on the bottle. If you buy a Chianti without one of those on the label, save it for cooking or your cat.
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Chianti is the pride of Tuscany and one of the prides of Italy. And it is massively popular around the world. Every year this small region produces 8 million cases of wine. Not all are the same. Pay attention and impress your friends at your next dinner party:

Chianti: A simple Chianti is a blend or consists of some grapes found outside the designated regions.

Chianti Classico: The grapes come only from a Chianti sub-region in Chianti’s heartland. Only Chianti from this area can use the black rooster seal (the gallo nero) on the neck of the bottle.

Chianti Reserva: Is aged at least 38 months instead of the usual four to seven. At least one year must be stored in wood.

Chianti Gran Selezione: Made with the very best grapes from the same vineyard as a reserva and stored at least 18 months.

San Donato

San Donato


San Donato is a good place to start. At 1,800 feet, it felt cool despite the beaming sunshine. I strolled through the village which was about 100 meters long. I heard roosters crowing. I saw old men chat in front of a cafe. I looked down from the height over an array of purple wildflowers and saw vineyards and meadows and forests. All I needed was a glass of wine.

The bikes loaned to us were high-end Specialized, the American bike company that’s the top selling bike in Italy. Mine was a 27-gear hybrid that felt like a Maserati after 40 years on my Raleigh. We wheeled down the hill, going just slow enough to take in the incredible green panorama below us. With so few hills, it was like riding through Tuscany in a convertible and at the end of a 20-minute ride one of the best glasses of wine in the world waited for us, not to mention Simone, their assistant, handing out wet towelettes.

The departure from San Donato.

The departure from San Donato.


We came into the town of Castellina in Chianti. Its one main drag is lined with Italian specialty shops ranging from espresso makers to dried risotto to leather belts. A souvenir shop sold Lycra cycling jerseys labeled Chianti Classico in Chianti’s purple color in honor of the Giro d’Italia bike race that’s coming through town today. An underground street has a cozy enoteca and the back entrance to our first wine tasting. I looked at my watch. It was 11 a.m.

“You can’t drink all day if you don’t drink in the morning,” deadpanned one of the riders.

Aleandro , owner of Enoteca Le Volte in Castellina in Chianti.

Aleandro , owner of Enoteca Le Volte in Castellina in Chianti.


Aleandro opened Le Volte Enoteca in 1960 and is still running around the store in his wine apron to this day. The brick, arched store smelled of cheese and cinghiale, the wild boar that are as plentiful in Chianti as corkscrews. Le Volte is such a fine store, it serves a bottle of balsamic vinegar from Modena on a gold pillow in a wooden case for 145 euros.

Aleandro’s burly French assistant, Gilles Kehren, started us off with a Vernaccia, the famed white wine from San Gimignano, the Tuscan town known worldwide for its massive towers. It’s as good a white wine produced in Tuscany and one overlooked by those drowning themselves in Chiantis and Montepulcianos.

Gilles Kehren and the Vernaccia.

Gilles Kehren and the Vernaccia.


I fell for a wine I’d never heard of: the Bolgheri. The Bolgheri Superiore is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It’s deep, rich and full bodied and well worth the 31.50 euro retail. Giles plied us with slivers of cinghiale and pork sausage on bread and we were ready to head back down the hill.

We wound down the hill over some lovely long stretches of flat road where each turn offered new villages in the distance to see. We could even see San Donato high above us but just below us around the next turn was our destination.

The road to Monteriggioni.

The road to Monteriggioni.


Lornano is a winery/agriturismo outside the town of Monteriggioni. An agriturismo is like a villa but in a farmhouse. I took one look after walking down the gravel path and immediately wanted a reservation for June. A sparkling turquoise swimming pool overlooked the rolling green Tuscan countryside. A small cast iron table and two chairs stood on a patio lined with vines, shrubs and white flowers. The stone buildings housing the rooms looked like something Leonardo Da Vinci may have stayed in while resting from painting Madonnas.

And inside the main quarters were barrels upon barrels of some of the best wine in the world.

The pool at Lornano argriturismo and winery.

The pool at Lornano argriturismo and winery.


Angioletta took us into the crispy cool storage areas where she explained the fermentation process. She showed us a glass designed by Michelangelo that takes the excess gas from the wine barrels. We had tastings of a whole array of Chiantis which became extraordinarily educational for someone like me who has made wine one of my four major food groups. Living in Rome, Chianti has become the table wine I get when I don’t want to spend money on something better.
Chianti Classico at Lornano.

Chianti Classico at Lornano.


But in Tuscany, especially at Lornano, I re-fell in love with Chianti. The first Chianti Classico I had, a 2012, was 100 percent Sangiovese and absolutely terrific. Rich enough to serve with spicy Italian sausage but light enough to drink with crackers and cheese. It was an absolute steal at 19 euros.

I tried the Chianti Gran Selezione. Its classy gold label well represented its 62-euro price tag but I’m not discriminatory enough — or rich enough — to tell much of a difference. All I could think of was sipping that bottle of Chianti Classico in June, poolside with my girlfriend, Marina, looking down at rural Tuscany.

I had to wake from my daydreaming to get back on my bike for our last stretch. This one consisted of three little hills that wouldn’t rate a Category 5 on the Giro’s Cat 1-5 mountain chart (5 being the easiest) but did rate a warning from Piero that anyone not feeling up for it can ride in the chase car. One woman did. The rest plowed along. As I rested at the top of the rise after barely breathing hard — more from the ease of the three climbs on my two-wheeled Maserati than any fitness — two women were walking their bikes uphill.

Piazza in Monteriggioni.

Piazza in Monteriggioni.


They managed to make it to the village of Monteriggioni, a medieval walled town founded in 1215 and mentioned in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” It’s still populated by only 42 people. Its piazza, inside 1,870 feet of walls, houses a gargantuan Romanesque church and Antico Travaglio, a cute trattoria where we sat in an enclosed courtyard. Over a bowl of papperdelle cinghiale, one of the trademark dishes of Tuscany, I asked Piero about the massive popularity of cycling in Tuscany. It is as romantic as it sounds.
Pappardelle cinghiale.

Pappardelle cinghiale.


“Now cycling is becoming more popular,” he said. “More people are looking for beautiful places to express themselves. More tourists are bikers.” His company runs bike tours 12 months a year and have all levels of routes, including some similar to the Giro stages for the serious masochists.

We went upstairs to our last wine tasting. Monte Chiaro Terre della Grigia is in the first building in town, built nearly 1,000 years ago. Seila Bruschi is a wildly enthusiastic blonde sales manager who gave us the rundown. “See that church?” she said pointing to the one across the street before pointing around the store. “This is my church.”

Seila Bruschi with the Malvesia Nera.

Seila Bruschi with the Malvesia Nera.


She had me try a Malvesia Nera. It’s 100 percent Pinot Noir, exactly the same as my native Oregon which boasts — and I agree — the best Pinot in the world. The Malvasia was damn close. Adding chunks of Chianti-induced pecorino, I knew what I’d have on my terrace the next time I got home.

Cycling in Tuscany. It was more fun exercise than a workout but the views were only surpassed by the wines. The biggest surprise wasn’t the ease of the cycling but the reasonable prices of the world-renowned wines. Next time I see a pro cyclist I know what I’m going to tell him.

You have no idea what you’ve been missing.