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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Still, from the outside? Oh, that body!

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The hammock and dining areas at Qamaq.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

… fermented camel’s milk.

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Best corn I ever had.

Kislichka, Kyrgyzstan’s roadside vegetable.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A Soviet-era apartment house in Karakol.


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

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

***

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

The path up to Altyn-Arashan.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

One of the many beautiful views along the way.


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

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

“That was it?” I asked.

Alex caught up from behind.

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

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


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

This is why I came to Kyrgyzstan.

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

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

Avtandil and his mutton knife.


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

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

Altyn-Arashan’s indoor thermal baths.


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

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

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

The Kyrgyz and their after-dinner games of backgammon.

***

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

I had a thermal bath and an eagle flew by.

In the outdoor thermal baths above the river.


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

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

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

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

It looked at me.

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

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

***

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

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

This road was downright scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karakol Valley


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

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

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

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

Karakol Valley


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

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

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

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

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

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

“He killed 60 million people,” I said.

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

Touche.

***

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

Taalaibek the shepherd.


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

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

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

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

Georgievka gorge


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

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

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

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

A lone horse grazes in Georgievka gorge.


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

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

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

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

Fish farm near Issyk Kul lake.


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

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

The golden trout.


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

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

My room at the Panorama Hotel in Cholpon-Ata.


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

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

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

***

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

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


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

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

Procida: Beauty and love in the Bay of Naples

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

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

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

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

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

It’s where I am right now.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A night out in Procida.

A night out in Procida.


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

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

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.


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

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

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.


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

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


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

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


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

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

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.


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

Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci


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

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

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

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


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

Fourteen euros.

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

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

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

Few things go better with Tuscany than wine and cycling.

Few things go better with Tuscany than wine and cycling.


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

“What scenery?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

This is one of them.

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

The view from San Donato.

The view from San Donato.


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

The entire trip is done in the famed Chianti region which spreads like a wine stain over nearly half of Tuscany. One of the major things I took away from this trip — along with two terrific bottles of wine — is the difference in Chiantis. The Chianti region covers several overlapping areas designated as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). To be labeled a Chianti, a wine must consist of at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes. And the grapes must come from these regions to guarantee this important DOC or DOCG label on the bottle. If you buy a Chianti without one of those on the label, save it for cooking or your cat.
IMG_4945
Chianti is the pride of Tuscany and one of the prides of Italy. And it is massively popular around the world. Every year this small region produces 8 million cases of wine. Not all are the same. Pay attention and impress your friends at your next dinner party:

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

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

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

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

San Donato

San Donato


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

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

The departure from San Donato.

The departure from San Donato.


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

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

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

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


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

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

Gilles Kehren and the Vernaccia.

Gilles Kehren and the Vernaccia.


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

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

The road to Monteriggioni.

The road to Monteriggioni.


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

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

The pool at Lornano argriturismo and winery.

The pool at Lornano argriturismo and winery.


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

Chianti Classico at Lornano.


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

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

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

Piazza in Monteriggioni.

Piazza in Monteriggioni.


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

Pappardelle cinghiale.


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

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

Seila Bruschi with the Malvesia Nera.

Seila Bruschi with the Malvesia Nera.


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

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

You have no idea what you’ve been missing.

Nephew’s visit to Roma-Juventus adds perspective to U.S. soccer woes

Me and my nephew, Spencer Treffry, the Oregon High School Soccer Player of the Year in 2008, at Sunday’s Roma-Juventus match in Olympic Stadium.


My nephew from California and his girlfriend are staying at my place in Rome for a week, mixing in some wine, pasta and art with his passion for soccer. His first European soccer match was Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals May 1 and then the couple joined Marina and me for Roma’s 2-0 win over evil Juventus Sunday night. He has nearly worn out his cell video of Lionel Messi’s epic free kick goal. I think he may have slept Sunday night wearing his new AS Roma scarf.

We both quasi represent the world’s two biggest soccer disappointments. Neither the United States nor Italy qualified for last year’s World Cup, ending a string of 21 combined straight appearances. However, Italy has won four World Cups. Last year’s pratfall is considered a blip on its historical radar.

But the U.S. remains a sport-wide mystery. Despite 325 million people, a rich federation, a successful pro league and a sport that has exploded at the youth level since the 1970s, the U.S. has only gone as far as the World Cup quarterfinals once. Last year, it didn’t even qualify despite playing in CONCACAF, world soccer’s equivalent to a sunset stroll.

My nephew, Spencer Treffry, has qualified insight into the problem. At 28, he was a product of the U.S.’ elite Olympic Development Program and saw first hand the problems the U.S. has had and why it hasn’t caught up with Europe’s elite. He started playing in kindergarten, made traveling teams when he became old enough and developed into the Oregon State Player of the Year in 2008, leading Eugene’s Churchill High to the state title. Deemed too thin (he was a wispy 5-foot-10, 120 pounds) for a college scholarship, he continued playing club ball at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and continues playing city league soccer today around their home in Pismo Beach, California.

As he grew up, I tweaked his interest in world soccer by sending him jerseys during my various travels, from the Brazil national team to Zenit of St. Petersburg, Russia. He even has one from Togo, bought in Munich when I covered the 2006 World Cup. His Palermo jersey was always one of his most popular, due to its pink color and his security in his own manhood.

The U.S.’ biggest problem, he says, isn’t at the national level where it is on its fourth coach in three years. It’s at the youth level where he saw first hand the differences between the American and European approaches.

“I was lucky to have some good coaches growing up, but most people don’t,” he said. “Most youth coaches in the U.S. are just dads. They played baseball, football, basketball and their second grader needs a soccer coach. So they’re out there running kids around and making sure everyone’s having fun, but they have no idea how to play the game.”

Growing up in Eugene, his first club coaches were English, he had another from Germany and one American who played professionally in Costa Rica. They knew what they were doing and did more than just roll out the balls. The American introduced them to futsal, soccer played on a miniature field, forcing you to develop skills in tighter spaces. It’s very popular in South America.

“He brought little goals out on the tennis court, brought speakers out and played samba music,” he said. “Bounce to the rhythm and go have fun. You see it in the way Barcelona plays, the way they ping the ball. It’s very natural, very flowy.”

I don’t agree that the problem is too much competition from other sports. The U.S. has the population. When I worked in suburban Seattle I wrote a story about how youth soccer numbers had passed baseball’s in the state of Washington. I quoted officials saying it shows the U.S. would someday be the world’s greatest soccer power.

I wrote that story in 1979.

Even today, 2.5 million boys play youth soccer in the U.S., almost as many as the 3 million who play youth baseball. Croatia made last year’s World Cup finals and its entire population is only 4.1 million. The problem is just because American youths like to play soccer, they don’t necessarily like to watch it.

Spencer didn’t start watching soccer until he reached college.

“I started watching it and my game immediately elevated, absolutely,” he said. “When we were in Florence we were talking to the guy who owned our B&B who’s an artist. He was talking about you immerse yourself in this art community that is Florence and go look at and watch what the masters did and then you go back and try to apply that in your apartment. I always draw these metaphors back to soccer. It’s the same thing. You watch somebody do something and get a spark of an idea and then you go back and apply it.”

The situation in the U.S. is changing. The MLS’ average attendance last year of 21,876 is nearly on a par with Serie A’s 24,767. It has expanded to 24 teams and each club must now have its own youth academy. Even the national team has gone 3 wins, 1 tie and no losses in friendlies under new coach Gregg Berhalter.

NBC has the English Premier League contract but even in Spencer’s soccer-crazed area of California’s Central Coast, he couldn’t find the Real Madrid-Barcelona game on TV at noon California time.

Unfortunately, he did find last year’s United States-Trinidad & Tobago match in which the U.S. only had to tie in a half-empty Caribbean stadium where a good portion of the fans were American. They lost, 2-1, and combined with Honduras’ win over Mexico, the U.S. was sent home as well as coach Bruce Arena.

“Totally uninspired, uncreative soccer,” Spencer said. “I am optimistic now that we’ve basically had a change of guard. This last World Cup with that result basically said bye-bye to the players entrenched for the last 10 years. We’re not going to see (Michael) Bradley in the starting lineup anymore. (Jozy) Altidore is probably out the door. (Tim) Howard. (Clint) Dempsey, all these guys who were good players when they were young.

“The U.S. wasn’t terrible on the world stage. They just didn’t turn over any new talent for 10 years. It’s always hard for me to watch the U.S. men’s soccer team and believe those are the 11 best players in the country.

Spencer is a growing romanista in California.


***

He was about to see the best player in the world and arguably in history. After seeing Messi light up Liverpool (before, of course, Barcelona folded like a lawn chair in the second leg), Spencer was going to see Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo. Every country in the world has sports bars debating whether Messi or Ronaldo deserve the crown and then they throw in Pele and Maradona in the GOAT argument.

Marina is a third-generation Roman who has plied me with AS Roma gifts for four years. She is a romanista but too much of a fashionista to wear anything with a logo depicting a nursing she-wolf. I bought her a generic AS Roma ballcap for the game.

“John,” she said as she reluctantly put it on for the walk to the stadium, “this is love.”

The game had plenty of drama. With three games left, sixth-place Roma stood four points behind Inter Milan, which won Saturday, for next season’s fourth and final Champions League spot and three behind AC Milan. After Sunday, two games remain in the season although Milan has three.

Considering the mess Roma has been in, it’s a remarkable achievement. It fired its coach after getting bounced from this season’s Champions League and the current one is caretaker and Rome’s native son Claudio Ranieri. The sporting director quit in protest of the firing, and the goalie got benched. The best player the last month has probably been new goalkeeper Antonio Mirante who’s about my age.

Olympic Stadium was packed with 50,000 people to watch Roma try and save its season against a Juventus team that clinched its unprecedented eighth straight Serie A title by about Easter. I was hoping Juventus showed up wearing little pointy party hats or Ronaldo hung over. Nope. He doesn’t drink.

Juventus played its top lineup and previewed its next season’s uniform, a sharp black-and-white checked number that Juve fans have destroyed on social media. Juve played loose and free and was gunning from all angles. Mirante made a brilliant save in the sixth minute on a one-on-one encounter and then stopped Ronaldo 10 minutes later.

I’ve watched enough soccer to know the biggest gap between the U.S. and the soccer powers is the creativity in shot making. U.S. players don’t play on the streets or beaches. You don’t see the shots you see in Europe, or even the first 16 minutes Sunday night.

Spencer agreed.

Before the game, from left, Marina Pascucci, me, Kelsey Weber, Spencer.


“It’s the touch before the shot,” he said. “Give yourself an opportunity to take a controlled shot, to curl a ball into the far post or put it inside the near post. You’re not reaching for it. You’re not stretching or off balance.

“(These guys) land on their feet after they take a shot. You watch a lot of American players and they’re just swinging for a ball and they fall over afterwards because they’re off balance.”

It’s 0-0 at halftime and the second half the Roma ultras in Curva Sud are in full throttle as they greet an injured Juventus player with, “DEVI MORIRE! DEVI MORIRE!” (YOU MUST DIE! YOU MUST DIE!).

Ronaldo piqued Spencer’s dream as he scored on a beautiful one on one breakaway but was called offsides. Both teams were pretty sloppy until Alessandro Florenzi, the Roma captain who grew up in the heart of Centro Storico, looped a ball over ex-Roma goalie Wojciech Szczesny for a 1-0 lead in the 80th minute. Edin Dzeko, Roma’s up-and-down star striker, scored on a 3-on-1 in stoppage time for a desperately needed 2-0 win.

Marina screamed like a season ticket holder. We all high fived. We stuck around to listen to the 50,000 fans sway together singing “Grazie, Roma.” After a long walk to the subway and post-game beer, I asked Spencer what he, an American soccer fanatic who knows the game, thought of the atmosphere in Europe.

“It’s awesome for me to get to watch professional soccer at this level,” he said. “To have a fan section that really knows the game, watching. Even the people in front of us: father, son, younger son, all leaning forward watching the game.

“We need that kind of passion and education.”