Menorca: Mallorca’s little brother is the ideal birthday getaway from Rome — or anywhere else

Cala Santa Galdana is just one of the beautiful beaches on Menorca. Photo by Marina Pascucci

SAN LLUIS, Spain — For the last couple of years Marina and I have tossed around a plan to live half the year on an island and half the year in Rome. If there is a more heavenly existence than that, it’s in a religion I don’t believe in. We focused on the Caribbean. I leaned toward Tobago; she favored Antigua. We discussed doing recon missions every summer to scout new islands.

That plan got scuttled when we saw the airlines fleece Italians going to the Caribbean every August, the most extended vacation time Italians have under their society’s Soviet-era work schedule. Every flight was more than 1,000 euros. We also didn’t want to spend our half year in Rome worrying every hurricane season if our newly acquired island flat would wind up kindling in Venezuela.

Then last winter I asked Marina where she wanted me to take her for her birthday in June. We’ve gone all over. Nice. Berlin. Oslo. Her answer surprised me.

“Minorca,” she said.


Wait, I told her. I’m not going to Mallorca. The place is a tourist trap, lined with crowded beaches and drunk Englishmen. (Does Mallorca really have fish ‘n chips shops on the beach?) I’ve never been there and don’t normally judge anyplace until visiting it first. But Mallorca sounds like tripe: I don’t need to taste it to know I probably won’t like it.

“No,” she said. “MINN-orca.”

As it turns out, Mallorca’s little sister, which had avoided my rapidly shrinking bucket list for my 63 years, is one of the true pearls of the Mediterranean. I hadn’t heard of it because the Menorcans kind of want to keep it that way.

Located 155 miles southeast of Barcelona, Menorca (English spelling) has a population of 94,000 and is about a 10th the size of Mallorca (pop. 895,000) 80 miles to the southwest. Ibiza, one of the other major islands in the Balearic Islands chain and 190 miles south of Menorca, has 133,000 people and, I hear, almost as many clubs.

A couple on the beach of Punta Prima with the Illa de l’Aire lighthouse in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Abhorring clubs and drunks with equal vitriol, I thought Menorca would be as nice a present to me as Marina. Yet when we landed — it’s only a 90-minute flight from Rome — I knew I’d made one big mistake in my homework. We walked by the car rental desks and each one had at least 10 people in line. We went to the taxi stand and the drivers were doing crossword puzzles. We were the only passengers.

You need a car on Menorca. But this isn’t like you need a car in California. With 270 square miles, Menorca is about the size of El Paso. You can drive the lone main road of ME-1 30 miles from one end to the other in about 40 minutes. Small roads snake off ME-1 to various golden sand beaches, lonely coves and quaint villages.

Menorca, a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1993, has no scenic coast road. Instead, it has Cami de Cavalls (Bridal Path), a 115-mile walking path that circumvents the island broken into 20 handy hiking sections. Visitors don’t dance the night away in Menorca.

The walk the day away.

The view from our balcony at the PortBlue Hotel San Luis. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Correcting my brain lock was no problem. Our PortBlue Hotel San Luis, part of the PortBlue Spanish chain, arranged for a car to be delivered the following morning. The 133-euro charge for three days began a trend of surprisingly cheap prices for our entire stay.

The hotel is in S’Algar, an unincorporated coastal resort area in Sant Lluis, so named for King Louis IX when France ran the island in the 18th century. The PortBlue is one of the few buildings on the island more than three stories as Menorca’s government put the kibosh on construction for a recent three-year period.

Yes, this is MEN-orca and not MY-orca.

The PortBlue Hotel pool.

The PortBlue isn’t on a beach. But we had a huge swimming pool ringed with comfy lounge chairs, a big air-conditioned room with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean less than a mile away. The breakfast buffet, Marina’s find-or-your-life-is-over travel requirement, had more variety than Denny’s.

The PortBlue is one of those all-inclusive resorts where visitors can eat every meal and drink every drink and only leave if the grounds are invaded by cobras. One hotel source said a British couple has been coming here twice a year for the last 45 years. I wonder if they’ve ever seen a beach.

We did not do the all-inclusive. We only did breakfasts, allowing us to explore the island every day for four days. The beaches were atop our list as the island is ringed with rock-free beaches and the kind of secluded coves you dream about while working your 10th straight day at your computer.

We drove to Ferrerias, in the center of the island, and took a left down a well-paved two-lane road to a huge gravel parking lot just above the sea. We walked down a wide, dirt path through a forest for 15 minutes before it emptied out to Cala Mitjana, recommended by our hotel.

Marina and I gasped. We were astonished by the beauty of this small beach on a narrow cove lined with cliffs for diving beneath a forest of trees. The mix of turquoise and blue-green sea looked like a water color on a museum wall. We were also astonished by the crowd. It was packed, towel-to-towel flesh and not a lounge chair in sight. This is called savage where you pack in your own chair and umbrella.

Being spoiled by Italian beaches, which make up for what they lack in barren simplicity with modern comforts, we stayed only 90 minutes and returned to the car. Getting directions from a woman handing out restaurant fliers, we walked out of the parking lot and descended a steep staircase. In five minutes we were at Cala Santa Galdana.

The water at Cala Santa Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Oh, my God!” Marina said in her soft Italian accent.

We had found Spanish Nirvana.

Cala Santa Galdana is a wide, gently curving beach about a kilometer long with fine, white sand and big shady trees scattered along the beach. Each comfy lounge chair had its own thatched umbrella. A couple of restaurants serve fresh fish and beach bars sling cold mugs of underrated Spanish beer.

I was definitely at peace on Cala Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We ignored the plethora of screaming children and fat, pasty English tourists and had a lovely two days on the sea. The Mediterranean was crystal clear and just cool enough to ward off dry, mid-80s temperatures. Between the comfy lounge chairs, a good English novel, the occasional cold beer and Marina under the umbrella, I think I saw a glimpse of our future part-time home.

Galdana isn’t even Menorca’s best beach. Cala en Turqueta, about three miles west as the seagull flies, is so popular a sign in the junction town of Ciutadella indicates if Turqueta’s parking lot is full. It always is by 10 a.m.

Menorca’s many outdoor cafes are perfect places for Estrella beer breaks. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The beauty of Menorca is the towns and villages all have their own individual character, fleshed out after a violent history. Formerly part of the Roman Empire, Menorca was also a target of pirates who raided rich Roman establishments. Then came the Vandals, Moors, Catalans, Turks and, presumably, Real Madrid. This is an island that over a 100-year period came under English, French and Spanish rule. The Spanish loved Menorca’s port to launch its naval wars and to begin the slave trade.

Sitting on Sant Lluis’ Carrer de Sant Lluis street, it’s hard to imagine the hardship suffered in a village so quaint. San Lluis is a collection of whitewashed buildings on quiet streets. A 40-foot flour windmill, built in 1792 and operational until 1942, dominates the landscape. An 18th century water well is nearby.

The 18th century windmill in Sant Lluis was operational until 1942. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The narrow road is cut off to cars on weekends but on weekdays not many come, either. We took an outdoor seat at Divinum, a wine bar that has five Menorcan wines in its collection from around the world. Owner Rachel Fletcher, a tall, statuesque wine connoisseur, came to Menorca when she was 9 after her father remarried and fell in love with the island on his honeymoon. He went back to England and brought the kids.

Forty years later, she’s still here. Over a glass of local Binifadet red wine with soft Spanish jazz playing in the background, I asked her what Menorca was like back when she was a kid.

“There was nothing,” she said. “It was wonderful. When we came over, there were four English families. We were one of them. That’s it. The port, the harbor, was all brick. If you moved over too much you’d be in the water. And it was real narrow.”

I told her it seems like Menorca has kept its culture. The island government’s restrictions on building have worked.

Carrer de San Lluis street in San Luis.

“Yes, Ibiza and Palma (Mallorca’s capital) have grown a lot more and they’ve got more hotels,” she said. “Here we’ve tried to maintain or keep the architecture. You don’t see huge hotels everywhere.”

Some in Menorca claim they’ve kept growth down too much. Tourism this year is down 30 percent. They blame excessive airport taxes that have made flights here more expensive than to Mallorca. A sample flight from Rome to Menorca on July 26 and returning a week later was 244 euros this week. To Mallorca on the same dates is 172 and with many more times from which to choose.

That’s fine with me. We were able to stroll the lovely city of Ciutadella, Menorca’s largest town with only 29,000 people, without ever running into a tour group in headphones. On the far western tip of Menorca, Ciutadella has quiet streets lined with maple trees, plazas filled with outdoor cafes and people strolling in the summer sun.

The pastel buildings on Ciutadella’s Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We took a seat in a quiet courtyard with two facing outdoor cafes. I ordered an ice-cold Estrella from inside where old Spanish women played video poker while young women in stylish shorts walked their dogs past our table. People of all ages biked down bike lanes with palm trees providing shade in the median.

We walked down Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis, an alley lined with small houses of beige and yellow and pink and blue. Pots with blooming flowers sat on window sills. And the town was spotless. In fact, all of Menorca was clean. We nary saw a cigarette butt. Coming from Rome, the filthiest capital in Europe, I almost felt as if I should take off my shoes.

Ciutadella’s harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“They are very recycling friendly,” said Vanesa Rodriguez, our hotel manager. “Everybody on the island is very responsible with the nature.”

At the end of the alley we saw Ciutadella’s beautiful harbor, a narrow inlet lined with pleasure craft bobbing up and down on cobalt blue water.

It made us want to jump in. So we did. I got us on a 3 ½-hour catamaran cruise out of Fornells, the major port town in the north. We joined about eight others from Sweden and Germany on a 40-foot boat under cloudless skies and pleasant wind.

Marina and I in front of Ciutadella’s 19th century city hall.

Few expensive pleasures are better than a sailboat ride on a perfect day. Spray over the bouncing bow cooled us off as we sunbathed on deck. When I gathered enough energy, I raised my head 12 inches and saw the high cliffs showing the geological marks dating back to the Jurassic Period. Due to the dryness, Menorca isn’t beautiful from sea. We passed barren land mass as we skirted around the west end of the island.

Snorkeling revealed remarkable visibility of about 60 feet. That’s South Pacific level for Europe where I’ve always avoided scuba diving despite being certified for 36 years. A school of a local seabream called an oblada circled around my fins before being served up in local restaurants later that week.

I came

The 40-foot catamaran even had a windsurfing board. Photo by Marina Pascucci

aboard and the captain greeted me with a pomada, an addictingly sweet local drink made from Menorca gin and lemon soda. With a little ice, it is what a Spritz is to Italy or a martini to Manhattan.

Besides the beaches, the tranquility and the villages, our other draw to Menorca was food. While Italy has the best food in the world (Shut up, you French. Tartare sucks.), Spain is certainly in the top 10. The fresh seafood along its 3,000-mile coastline, combined with its national dish of paella, its tapas and variety of grilled meats make dining out anywhere in Spain a gastro kaleidoscope.

Our paella at La Oveja Negra on Punta Prima. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We started out with seafood paella, Spain’s big sloppy skillet filled with brown rice, clams, mussels and octopus all swimming in a thick sauce. We found it La Oveja Negra, part of the string of casual, open-air restaurants lining Punta Prima, the beach just south of S’Algar. La Oveja Negra (The Black Sheep) has a sign listing all its different paellas, ranging from lobster to chicken and artichokes. It’s one of the heartiest dishes in Europe and the perfect fuel for a walk along the quiet beach in the moonlight.

At Meson El Gallo.

We ventured further afield to Meson El Gallo, a long one-story converted house in a garden covered with shady tree branches along the road to Cala Santa Galdana. A giant cactus stood in the parking lot, giving it the feel of a hacienda in rural Arizona. The waiters all wore jeans and T-shirts. If it was any more casual it would be a beach bar. But I had a terrific, lean steak in cheese sauce and a glass of Rioja, Spain’s internationally famous red wine that can’t match Italy’s gems but on a Spanish island in the middle of summer no other world wine is a better match.

But if Spain doesn’t have a law requiring every visitor to try tapas, it should. Tapas are Spanish hors d’oeuvres. These are not chips and dip or celery sticks. These are handcrafted snacks, usually hot, using everything from fresh fish to spicy sausage.

Salud to Menorca. We will return. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We returned to Carere Sant Lluis and took an outdoor seat at S’Olivera, next door to Divinum. From an entire page of tapas, we ordered little plates of croquetas de endivia (a breadcrumbed green vegetable native to Menorca), tiras de pollo (chicken fingers with salsa curry and mango sauce), camembert con jalea de moras (goat cheese with blueberry jam) and good ol’ fashioned fish ‘n chips. It was just the right amount of food and with a glass of wine each, the total bill was all of 33 euros.

About 80 percent of Menorca’s businesses close from about Oct. 1 to April 30. Still, that leaves about five months of pure island bliss, away from Rome’s heat during the tourist season and its growing garbage all year round.

Living in Menorca is a long way off but as this long weekend proved, it’s not just the destination. It’s the journey that’s the most fun.

Uzbekistan: Following in the footsteps of Marco Polo as the world discovers the old Silk Road

Islom Hoja Medressa and its minaret in Khiva’s Ichon-Qala.

(Last of a four-part series on my three-week journey through Central Asia)

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — The Silk Road stretched from eastern China to what is now western Turkey, a 4,000-mile highway of transported goods that connected East with West like no time ever before. It was the 2nd century’s version of Genghis Khan did his best to destroy it; Marco Polo did his best to revive it.

Sitting in the middle of the old Silk Road, like a hub of a subway network, is Uzbekistan. No place in Central Asia do the riches and glory of the Silk Road’s commercialization come through more than here. Giant mosques look like museums. Mausoleums could pass for summer homes. Gardens and pools and castles dot cities like ancient country clubs. From the 6th to the 12th century, Uzbekistan was the place to go if you were a trader, traveler or dreamer.

Today, it is a country in positive transition. A new president has softened its rough edges and the food and architecture are from another world. The New York Times listed it as one of its places to visit in 2019.

I’ve done many overland border crossings alone. Kenya-Tanzania. Thailand-Malaysia. Brazil-Uruguay. I never had a problem. I’d read Uzbekistan was manic about forms, kind of like the USSR in the ‘60s. Strict registration rules made you collect forms from every hotel you stay at and every money transaction you make. A homestay required a visit to a local office of Visas & Registration. I expected I’d be tied up at the border filling out documents and giving itineraries.

However, I also read that Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president elected in 2016 to replace the old communist hand, Islam Karimov, had loosened restrictions to increase tourism. As a U.S. citizen, I didn’t even need a visa.

Mirzioyoyev’s gentler hand was in evidence when I broached the 100 yards between the Tajik and Uzbek border patrol buildings. I approached the Uzbek building with “O’ZBEKISTON REPUBLIKASI” sign and a beaming Uzbek soldier said, “Welcome to Uzbekistan!” I’ve never had a border patrol soldier even smile at me before.

Uzekistan-Tajikistan border.

I walked in alone. No one else followed me. This was not Tijuana-San Diego. I showed my passport and visa and was out the door in five minutes. No form to fill out, no money to declare. I was free.

Then I wasn’t.

About 20 cab drivers descended on me. I said, “Samarkand” and they all shouted “FIVE DOLLAR!” “FIVE DOLLAR!” A young man in a clean white dress shirt cut me out of the crowd and led me to a parking lot. I agreed to $5 or 50,000 som. When I reached his car, a burly man started yelling at me. “HE NO TAXI! HE NO TAXI! I OFFICIAL TAXI!” He showed me his car. A sign read “TURIST TAXI.” Whether it was real or not, it looked more official than this guy’s sedan. I got in the older man’s back seat and the young guy sat in the front trying to get me to leave, speaking in Tajik, which is spoken in southern Uzbekistan, as if I’d hear something to convince me. The older guy came, pulled him away and pushed him. The young man laughed. They acted as if they were old friends.

The old guy got in and we started to leave. About five minutes from the border, he pointed at his empty front seat.

“FIFTY!” he said. He pointed at me.

“FIFTY!” He then said “SAD!” No, he wasn’t unhappy. “Sad” is the Tajik word for 100. I was unhappy.

“ONE HUNDRED?!” I said. “No!” I motioned to go back. He stopped the cab. He made it clear I’d have to pay for the empty seat. Since I waited 15 minutes for him to find another passenger and at the time thought of paying extra to leave without one, I agreed. My anger subsided when I forgot I was in the middle of a desert and put it in perspective. I was paying 100,000 som (about $10) for nearly an hour cab ride.

Here’s a look at my week in Uzbekistan one step at a time:

The roof of the Tilla-Kari Medressa in Registan is actually an optical illusion.

SAMARKAND. I once had a list of the top man-made structures I’ve seen. I always had the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, St. Peter’s and the Colosseum. In Samarkand I added a fifth.


I’d never heard of it until I planned this trip. In fact, I didn’t think much about it during my first two weeks. But when I left my lovely hotel here and walked down the street, Registan stopped me in my tracks, like when the Taj Mahal emerges through the streets of Agra. Registan is three massive mosques on three sides of an enormous square. Two nearly identical mosques face each other with the third, slightly smaller, in the middle. Busy Registon ko’chasi street is lined with photographers. I returned at night and the scene had changed. The mosques exploded in blue and yellow. The blue onion dome, built by the Russians in the 19th century after an earthquake, looked like a flying saucer.

I just stood there, my mouth agape. I caught myself saying, “Fuck!” “Holy shit!” “Mother of God!” After 105 countries, it takes a lot for me to mutter “Mother of God.”

Sher Dor Medressa

Samarkand and Burkhara were the halfway points for many traders from Baghdad and Aleppo in the south to meet traders from Kasgar and Yarkand in the north. A number of rabat or caravan lodgings were set up along the route and with lots of horses and camels to trade here, this area became real wealthy.

The Sogdians, an Iranian civilization that ruled this area in the from the 6th to 11th century, used the money to dress up their cities. Samerkand got a good share of the booty as my visit proved this place was one of the wealthier areas in the Muslim world in the 13th century.

Registan’s three mosques are eye popping. The Sher Don Medress has a gorgeous portal of lions (they’re supposed to be tigers) chasing deer. The architect, Shaybanid Emir Yalngtsh, put these strange, large eyes on the lions’ backs to signify Islam’s law against depicting animals.

The middle mosque, Tili-Kari, has an optical illusion inside. The ceiling, covered in gorgeous, bright gold leaf representing Samarkand’s wealth, looks like a dome. However, because the leaves get smaller as they reach the center, it’s actually a flat ceiling.

The left mosque, Ulugbek, is the most original. It took only three years to build and inside were classrooms where such subjects as astronomy, math and theology were taught.

The story behind the Bibi-Khanym mosque is of romance and blood.

The most interesting story behind a mosque was about 300 meters northeast of Registan. The Bibi-Khanym Mosque isn’t all that beautiful. It’s more known for being one of Islam’s tallest mosques with a dome 41 meters high. It collapsed in an 1897 earthquake and refurbished in the 1970s and also during independence in the ‘90s. But today it’s more known for its legend.

Timur was a 14th century Pesian conqueror who ruled much of this area during the Persian Empire. He had a Chinese wife named Bibi-Khanym. She had the mosque built to surprise him when he came home from raping and pillaging. However, the architect fell in love with her and refused to finish the job unless she kissed him. Then Timur found out.


He executed the architect and ordered all women must wear veils entering the mosque so as not to tempt other men. Women adhere to that still today.

My hotel, Jahongir B&B, is a real oasis with a great buffet. It’s a series of rooms wrapped around a big garden-like courtyard. The manager, a tall handsome Uzbek, lived in Fort Myers, Florida, for six years and had an American sense of humor.

“I lived in Florida — unfortunately,” he said.

I had my first good meal in many days. Uzbek food is fantastic, the queen of Central Asian cuisine. Entire menu pages are devoted to healthy, fresh salads that became my daily appetizer. The kabobs sizzle in beautiful displays and the plov, Central Asia’s rice pilaf with a big pile of rice, lots of veggies, garbanzo beans and usually meat, is nowhere better than it is in Uzbekistan.

I took Lonely Planet’s recommendation and went to Besh Chinor, a modest local diner with a pretty indoor courtyard. On a perfect 70-degree night, the waitress brought two massive trays of sample salads. I chose the tomato-green onion-yogurt and the pickled cucumbers. Then came two long sizzling chicken kabobs, so tender I cut them with a fork. That and a big Pulsar local beer, the total bill was 37,400 som, about $4.

Uzbek plov, Central Asia’s version of rice pilaf..

I took my hotel’s advice and went for the best plov in town. It was a place oddly named Plov Sentr. The cab driver picked up two other passengers and we drove to the north end of town, far away from any tourists or even any Roman-letter signage. We passed smart, obviously modernized government buildings and streets lined with cheap retail stores.
After about 40 minutes he finally stopped on a narrow street in front of an open-air shop with a sign in cyrillic. I saw some cooking equipment inside. I showed a man standing at the door the note. He nodded.

This is the place.

Plov Sentr is a classic Uzbek businessman’s lunch place. I sat down under a fan to chase away the 90-degree heat and a woman immediately brought out a steaming pile of plov and a salad with sour cream dressing and a big, doughy chunk of Uzbek bread. The plov was great, clean, fresh, hot. The walls had paintings of everything from waterfalls to giraffes and deer by a lake.

A view from Hazrat-Hizr, Samarkand’s prettiest mosque.

Fat and happy, I took another cab to Shahi-Zinda, still considered one of the most beautiful places in Islam. It’s a long corridor of mausoleums. It’s the prettiest place of death I’ve ever seen. Many of the mausoleums have unnamed people in tombs that sit in the middle of the floor like furniture. The most beautiful, filled with bright tile work, is of Shodi Mulk Oko, built in 1372 and home to the sister and niece of Timur. One of the tombs allegedly holds Qusam Ibn-Abbas who was said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century.

The mausoleum Shahi-Zinda has tombs dating back to the 13th century.

The tilework is exquisite. It’s all bright blue as if painted yesterday. In fact, most of it nearly was. The oldest date to the 14th and 15th centuries but much of it was restored in 2005. Still, the colors exploded in the heavy sun.

Bukhara’s Kalon Mosque can hold 10,000 people.

BUKHARA. This is Central Asia’s holiest city, once part of the axis of the old Silk Road although a bit later than Samarkand. I could see the middlemen during these 300 years of dealing made a damn fortune. Both cities have enduring landmarks that are spectacular. Samarkand looks like a iman’s wet dream, full of giant mosques and gorgeous mausoleums.

Bukhara is more subtle. The center of Bukhara is Lyabi-Hauz. Bukhara thrived in the 16th century, after getting poleaxed by Genghis Khan in 1220 (after he did the same to Samarkand) and Samarkand’s Timur in 1370. For 400 years, 200 stone pools called hauz watered the city. They were also used by the people to bathe and socialize. They were like the old Roman baths but 1,500 years earlier the Romans had the good taste, not to mention hygiene, of changing the water. In Bukhara they didn’t.

Thus, the average life expectancy of a local was 32. The only big hauz that has survived is Lyabi-Hauz, in the heart of the city next to the main drag. It’s a big square Olympic-sized pool surrounded by tables, shady trees, bars and ice cream stands. Tourists sit around drinking cold draft beer and watching ducks float around.

Lyabi-Hauz is the last of the 200 pools built during Bukhara’s heyday. It’s touristy but the beer is cheap.

I wanted to avoid it. It looked like a tourist trap but then, nothing in Uzbekistan is real expensive, not even tourist traps. Tired, hot and thirsty from a short walk, I asked how much a beer was: 20,000. About 2 euros.

I love Uzbekistan.

I sat down under a tree and drank a big bottle of Sarbast, one of the best beers I’ve had in Central Asia. I had a group of women take my photo with the pool in the background. The four middle-aged ladies were part of the Italian group. They were 40 of them from Northern Italy all cruising around Uzbekistan for a week on a tour bus. We tortured each other with what Italian food we missed. (I would’ve killed for a gorgonzola and sausage pizza at my C’era Una Volta pizzeria) and for a good glass of wine.

One of the narrow alleys of Bukhara’s Old Town.

My Arabon Hotel is a pleasant, simple two-story hotel where I wrote in the courtyard, listening to birds chirp in the large vines coming down from the second floor. It’s in the middle of Old Town, a warren of narrow alleys that haven’t changed in thousands of years. But it’s changing soon. The whole neighborhood is under construction. Rubble has joined the dust on the streets. Construction workers were everywhere. I had to take detours around scaffolding to get to the Lyabi-Hauz. It’s always a good sign when a city has enough money for construction, but I don’t think Rudaki, the great Central Asian poet who lived here for years, had to listen to pounding hammers while he pounded out poems.

The food continues to lift Uzbekistan up from its Central Asian neighbors. I took the advice of the hotel manager and went to Chinar Chaikhana, a two-story open-air restaurant specializing in Uzbek cuisine. It’s remarkably casual. I entered and asked the manager if they had plov. He yelled to the kitchen, in Tajik, “Do we have plov now?”

An indecipherable comment returned.

“We have plov.”

I hadn’t even sat down yet. I ordered plov and a Russian beer then read in Lonely Planet that its kabobs are the best in town. I leaned over the staircase and said, “Excuse me! Can I change my order to a meat and chicken kabob?”

He ran back to the kitchen. The kabobs were fantastic, sizzling and fresh and tender. The beer was ice cold and the breeze through the open air terrace cooled my sweating body.

Children in the streets behind Bukhara’s Ark.

At night, Bukhara is famous for … nothing. I stopped by a modern bar called Ecko Bar. Small, dark with a hip vibe, it has a big screen and a bar filled with spirits. They said they’d have the Chelsea-Arsenal Europa League title game at midnight. When I returned at 11:30 p.m., four guys sat around a table drinking Coke and fruit juice. One young guy smoked a hookah. The guy who confirmed the game said, “We’re sorry. The TV doesn’t work. No game.”

“OK,” I said walking to the bar. “I’ll take a beer. You have Sarbast?”

“No beer. Ramadan. You can go to the grocery store and buy some and take it to Lyabi-Hauz.”

I went home through the pitch black alleys of the old town, the pounding hammers long gone silent.

The 47-meter Kalon Minaret is one of the few structures Genghis Khan didn’t level.

The next morning I explored Bukhara under overcast skies and was as impressed as Genghis Khan was. He took one look at the 47-meter tall Kalon Minaret (1172) and let it stand. Maybe it reminded him of his penis. But even more impressive than its size is its design. Each panel is individually carved. It stands between two facing mosques, Kalon Mosque, which replaced the one Genghis leveled, and the Mir-i-Arab Medressa, with blue domes you can see from all over.

I ventured farther afield to the Ark. It’s a castle inhabited from the 5th century to 1920. I walked through the ceremonial grounds where they honor the old Bukhara emirs, saw the apartments where visiting heads of state stayed — not too far, not coincidentally, from the mint and harem. I saw portraits. The area where the stables were is still an open area with the remains of three horse-drawn carts parked along the edge.

The Bug Pit where a British military officer spent the last three years of his life.

Speaking of which I went to the Zindon (Tajik for “prison”) where a British military officer named Charles Stoddart spent three years for the audacious offense of not bearing gifts or a letter from Queen Victoria when he visited. He spent much of his time in the Bug Pit, a 6 1/2-meter pit with a cage over it and only accessible by rope. He spent it down there with lice, scorpions and other disgusting creatures. In the pit today is a dummy sitting on a dirt lump with various som notes scattered around from morbid tourists. Another British soldier, Arthur Connolly, came trying to appease the emir and release his buddy. It did not go well. They were both beheaded in front of the Ark.

For dinner I succumbed to the tourist trail and went to Lyabi-Hauz, a restaurant that wraps its way around the Lyabi-Haus pool. I sat uncomfortably on a low-slung table meant for sitting Indian style and stared at the packed restaurant filled with Russian tourists. It really was a lovely night, though, with the sun setting and water glistening. Russian love songs played while I ate some fantastic plov with black grapes and a fitness salad.

My evening view of Lyabi-Hauz.

As I finished my beer, an old man, stooped and looking ready to die, walked slowly, with his head down and sat awkwardly on the bench opposite me. My waiter brought him some leavened bread and put his hand on it to show where it was.

He was blind.

The waiter later brought a bowl and poured in some meaty soup for him. A nice touch in a city known for so much violence.

The Juma Mosque in Khiva is supported by 218 wooden columns, a half dozen dating to the 10th century.

KHIVA. I had a fleeting tour of Khiva. Too bad. It’s the first time I’ve ever stayed in the middle of a perfectly preserved medieval city. Khiva was a mere fort along the old Spice Road before the Khorezm Empire in this northwest part of Uzbekistan grew from the 10th to the 14th century when the capital was moved from Old Urgench in what is now Turkmenistan to Khiva.

The Khorezm built a massive walled city called Ichon-Qala filled with sandstone structures connected by dusty streets. Ichon-Qala remains to this day, almost identical. The taxi from Urgench after a long, six-hour taxi ride from Bukhara, drove through what looked like a castle gate, complete with ramparts. We stopped at my B&B, the Mirzoboshi, which has a big, open-air teahouse and a building of simple single rooms behind it.

I dropped my bags and looked around. All around me were towering minarets and blue-domed mosques. It was like an Islamic theme park. The Uzbek government had long ago banned the call to prayer. What a shame. To hear a mosque blaring out an iman’s voice in the air filled with towering Islamic architecture would be a cultural orgasm.

I was beat after bouncing along a lousy Uzbek highway for six hours. I sat down with the owner, a husky, round-faced Russian man named Makhnud Baltaev. I told him how much I loved Uzbekistan, the food, the people, the freedom. It wasn’t nearly the police state I read about. He said the fall election and getting Mirziyoyev as the new president after the old commie hand died helped a lot.

Kalta Minor Minaret

“It’s changed 30-40 percent,” he said as he dug into an impressive pile of plov. “Before you couldn’t say anything. Now the president has a website where you can write complaints. If he can help, he does.”

Baltaev, however, wouldn’t bad mouth Karimov, the predecessor. When you’re sitting in the sun, sipping cold beer and looking at mountains or minarets, you forget you’re bordering on some major war zones. Afghanistan borders Tajikistan; Iran borders Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan, a short drive from Khavi, is no Cancun, either.

“Central Asia has a big problem with ISIS,” he said. “He really kept the border safe.”

Khiva is called the Museum City and no city is more appropriately named. The old buildings, from the medrasses to the mosques, have been turned into museums. A map showed 52. I first went into its Ark. The castle has two beautiful mosques with spectacular blue tile still glistening on a cloudy day. Out front is an open courtyard where they performed executions. The adjacent jail was closed but I can imagine what it was like being on death row and hearing an ax chop off a head outside.


The beauty of Khiva is astounding. Everywhere I turned a bright blue dome towered above me. The two giant minarets serve as twin peaks holding the city together.

I walked 10 minutes along the Ark’s big West Wall to the North Wall. I walked back toward the West Wall where Khiva’s fascinating skyline got closer. By the time I got to the middle of the West Wall, two mosques and a minaret were right in my picture frame. The sun had dipped from under a cloud and bathed the monuments in brilliant sunlight.

A couple atop their hotel enjoying the view.

Satisfied with my photos, I started walking back. But about 50 yards away, I had my, literally, Kodak moment. A couple had climbed to the roof of their hotel. They were sipping beer, staring off at the same view as I did. I got behind them and shot the couple staring out at a bright blue mosque and mausoleum.

A lover’s view set forever in a timeless city.

You can eat like a king in Uzbekistan, such as my last meal at Alfarso in Tashkent.

TASHKENT. I polished off my Central Asian adventure by polishing off two bottles of wine and three beers in Uzbekistan’s lovely capital. It was a good way to end an otherwise exasperating last day. When I woke up in Khiva the day before, I had no cash. None. And I needed about 80,000 som to get to the airport.

I wolfed down a breakfast of cheese and bread. I had 15 minutes to get cash before the taxi left. Every cash machine I tried kicked back the same message, in English: “Your bank has no response.”

I raced back to the B&B, using the minaret as my compass. The driver was there with the assistant manager. I told him my dilemma. I suggested Makhnud pay him later and I’d send him money through PayPal. PayPal? I might as well have said use money from Mars.

The assistant manager said, “Don’t worry. He’ll take you for nothing.”

I was too grateful and desperate to argue. I just blurted out a promise to save his life whenever he needed and hopped in the car.

When I arrived in Tashkent, my driver was a husky 40ish man with some decent English hired by my B&B, also called Jahongir. I asked if a cash machine was near the hotel. He mentioned one. Knowing my card was on a bad run of luck I suggested he stop on the way. Thus began a city tour not found in guide books.

We stopped at a luxury hotel. No. It was out of money. I went to a long row of bank machines. Nope. They wouldn’t take my Visa debit card. Another bank machine would only dispense dollars and would give nothing less than $100, way too much for one night in Uzbekistan. Finally, at the sixth stop, a machine allowed me to change the dollar amount. I got $40 U.S. and was set for the day.

I checked into my B&B and had a horrible welcome wagon. Not only was my room barely big enough for a bed and a backpack but they wouldn’t accept Visa. It cost $25 plus $10 for the two airport shuttles. I needed $5 more dollars in som.

So instead of going to one of Tashkent’s famous museums or visiting its beautiful Russian orthodox church with the gold onion domes, I went on a mad dash around its highly disappointing Old Town looking for money.

I was desperate. I thought I’d be stuck in my room dining on my three remaining Clif Bars. A woman in another bank suggested KapitolBank, whose machines had mocked me from Khiva to Tashkent.

It was 3 p.m. and broiling. I still had on jeans and my black cotton India long-sleeve shirt that was plastered to my body with sweat. One of the many nice Uzbeks I met told me to cross the street and walk. It was on the right.

I tried the cash machine and left before it even declined me. I went to the bank teller. I tried not to clench my fists. While I talked to her a short man in a position of authority took me outside.

“You’re using the wrong machine,” he said. “Let me show you.”

We went around the side to an identical machine. I put in my debit card, punched in my numbers and — wah-LA! — out came
400,000 som.

At Alfarso, I had a lovely meal of chuchvara (dumpling soup) and fried pelmeni (meat-filled pockets) sitting outside on a perfect evening on a busy Tashkent street. I then went next door to The Irish Pub where I met an Uzbek journalist for the Champions League title match.

Bach Hoosier is a husky, bespectacled journalist who has written under communist and democratic regimes. He had articles “prohibited” before but still has an interesting outlook about working here from a journalist’s perspective.

“When my younger colleagues ask me, ‘What about press freedoms?’ nobody tells you, Do not write this,” Hoosier said. “You have freedom in your heart. Open your mind. If you have balls, you can write whatever you want.”

We drank beer and talked politics as Liverpool kicked the daylights out of Tottenham Hotspurs on a big screen in front of us. It was the last night of a momentous three weeks in an underappreciated part of the world. Fantastic mountains. Great food. Incredible history. Lovely people. Two millenniums after this region started its transcontinental, cross-cultural shopping bazaar, one thing became very clear to me.

The Silk Road will never die.

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 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 ( 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.

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.



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.