Sunday, February 28, 2010


Photo courtesy

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Into the Mountains - Part One - Pictures

Zofia ready for a trip up the mountain

The village we came up from (and the rain clouds)

Shepherd's House

We had to hike over that hill

Friday, February 19, 2010

Into the Mountains – Part One

Crossing into Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan was one of those experiences that make you realize how much of a pain in the ass you are to the locals trying to go about their daily lives. For them, all that is needed to transit back and forth between the two countries is an ID card. Foreigners, on the other hand, need to go through a separate line and, at the Kyrgyz customs, into a separate room. All the while, the people on our minibus are waiting impatiently for you to get your documents in order.

At one point during the process, a Kyrgyz border officer asked me if I was an alpinist. “After all,” he said, “most foreigners come to Kyrgyzstan for the mountains.” He makes a good point. Unless you’re coming for the post Soviet charm, there isn’t all that much else to do.

After a couple of days in Bishkek, meeting Zofia at the airport in the wee hours of the morning, and going around the city collecting supplies, we decided to head out to the mountains. We ignored all offers for guided tours and figured it was probably just best to get to a point and then start walking up. Our goal was a lake, Son kul, which is Issyk Kul’s (the most famous lake in the country) much less famous and smaller cousin.

Are destination was roughly due south of Bishkek. Probably only a few hundred kilometres as the crow flies. Unfortunately, the road to the area requires you to go east for 200 kilometres, then loop around a mountain range into another valley before heading west for another 200 kilometres. The journey was made a whole lot better by the food stop we made. Nothing like fried dumplings to keep you going.

Eventually we converged on the starting point for our trek. It was nothing more than a village with one shop. This wasn’t exactly how I envisioned the starting point for a fairly popular trek. As it turned out, the path up was the one used by shepherds, not foreigners. At least the traffic would be light.

Somewhere along the way, rain clouds descended over the valley. This did not bode well for our cause. Nor did the fact that the local shop and next to no canned goods. All we could muster was some smoked fish, corn, and fizzy water. We would be dining gourmet on this night.

With our packs organized, the ladies in the shop flabbergasted (if not happy that most of their stock had just been sold), a solid chance of inclement weather, and a handful of polite refusals for fermented mares’ milk, we started towards the mountain. This was going to be a solid pull.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Seen Around Town

Just fits right in, doesn't it?


A Working Man's Automobile

Breaking in to my own car.

Almost there.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Lada Legend: Tumultuous First Day

What was supposed to be a glorious day filled with Lada driving turned out to be one of those days that makes you realize that buying a 1980 Lada is as much a crapshoot as it is a wise investment.

It all started when we first showed up to get the keys and take the Lada away. First the door wouldn’t open, so I had to unlock the passenger door (the car was parked 6 inches from a cement wall), wedge myself between the wall and the car to roll down the window, and then climb through said window into the passenger seat. Good thing we got photo evidence of that.

Thankfully the car started without any problems and we were away. Needless to say, cruising in a Lada is everything it is made out to be: awesome. We stopped, took some customary pictures, parked the car outside my apartment building, and went upstairs.

Then the fateful decision to give Evan a ride home was made. We made it to the agreed drop off point with problems, but it was on the way back, going up a hill, that the news no driver or passenger ever wants to hear: the gas tank is empty. Immediately the car shut down and I had to let it roll back in neutral to get it to the side of the road. A quick call to Evan with the bad news sent him on his way back up the hill.

We needed gas, but the closest station was a kilometre and a half away and we had no container. So we marched back to my place to get none other than a 5L water jug to put the gas in. Safety is always first in Azerbaijan.

At the gas station, the standard seven or eight attendants that wait around for cars to pull up (no one pumps their own gas here) were laughing hysterically. Apparently there is something funny about two foreigners saying that they need gas for the Lada they just purchased.

With the sweet smell of petrol in tow, we headed back down to the car, pried open the gas tank door (or whatever it’s called), and put as much gas as we could in. Then the moment of truth. Would the car start? I turned the key, heard the whir of the engine trying to start, but it would not start. Damn. We tried a couple of more times and decided that because we were on a hill, the gas wasn’t able to get to the carburetor. What we needed was other flat ground or a downhill slope.

Even after trying both of those options, still nothing. We even tried a rolling start, but to no avail. Finally, at about 2 AM, we realized it was about time to find a parking spot for the car. Right after we started pushing, a guy came up who immediately started trying to help us. His friend soon joined along with another, older taxi driver. For the next 30 minutes, we pushed the car up and down the street trying to get the car started. All for nothing.

Logic told us that the problem was simply that fuel was not being pumped from the gas tank to the carburetor. And as we would find out the next day, 1980 Ladas have a mechanical fuel pump, not an electrical one. That means you have to pump the little level on the fuel pump to get the gas flowing. Not only that, but when you do run out of gas, you are supposed to blow on the fuel hose so as to re-create the vacuum between the tank and the pump.

The downside to all those attempted starts was that the battery was drained of the power necessary to start the engine (it was also unusually cold in Baku). It took boosts on two separate occasions to get the car back to my apartment.

In the end, we got the car to the mechanic and I learned a lot about the fuel system.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Lada Legend: It’s Official

The Crucial Key Exchange


In a few short hours, barring a blizzard or some other catastrophe, the Lada will officially be in my possession. First order of business: an oil change. Let’s see, I remember helping my Dad change the oil once or twice. Did I actually have to get under the car? No. It seems the only thing I remember from that experience was not to lie directly beneath where the oil comes out when you’re about to start the draining process. Perhaps I should’ve been more attentive.

I think it’s about time to befriend a local mechanic. He, the worldly Lada guru, will surely be able to teach us everything there is to know about oil changes, brake pads, and what to do if you get locked in the trunk. Hopefully he’ll let us keep the car in his yard while transition of knowledge is taking place. If not, passersby are going to wonder why two foreigners are: 1. underneath a Lada trying to figure out what’s going on, and 2. underneath a Lada.

To get to this point, a few steps had to be taken. Here they are in brief:
  1. Find the car (it was conveniently parked along my route to work)

  2. Negotiate terms (the woman in the above picture drove a hard bargain)

  3. Find investors (we ended up with four)

  4. Determine the registration process (there were many possibilities)

  5. Pay half as a gesture of goodwill (and so no one else would buy the car)

  6. Get the ownership rights to the car transferred to my name (I can do whatever I want with the car for 30 years)

  7. Pay the final half (important)

  8. Buy mandatory third party liability insurance (it’s only 12 US, so not too bad)

Aside from the oil change, I have to give permission to other people so they can drive the thing. Interestingly, this happens at a notary instead of an insurance company or DMV.

“The Lada Legend” should be a fairly consistent blogment in the coming months. Who knows what kinds of mischief we will get ourselves into.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bishkek in Pictures

No idea what this building is. Culture palace or something.

Entrance to the beef kebab-filled world of Osh Bazaar

Gorgeous Architecture

The Box-like National Museum

The Agricultural Board with the mountains in the background

Four storey buildings that line most of the streets

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


What do St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod (Lower New City), Volgograd, and Bishkek have in common? They each had a different name during Soviet times. In fact, they were all named after Soviet-era heroes: Leningrad, Gorky, Stalingrad, and Frunze, respectively. You’re probably thinking, “Okay, I’ve heard of the first three guys, but who on earth is Frunze?”

It seems clear that Mikhail Frunze knew exactly what he needed to do to get a city named after him. That is to say, be born in Kyrgyzstan, befriend Lenin, join the Bolsheviks, and lead many a Red Army campaign. But then he made the crucial mistake of crossing Stalin. To quote the Wikipedia entry on Mikhail Frunze:

Frunze died of chloroform poisoning during his surgery on 31 October 1925; the operation was considered very simple and routine even by the standards of medicine in existence at the time. It has therefore been speculated that Stalin arranged his death, but there is no hard evidence to support this.[8] However, Frunze had been administrated a chloroform dose that many times exceeded the dose normally applied for narcosis.

Frunze was buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. All four doctors who had operated on him (Martynov, Grekov, Rozanov and Get'e) died one by one in 1934.

Is there anything more conspiratorial than a controversial Halloween death?

Like Ulaanbaatar, there wasn’t much to Frunze at the onset of Soviet rule. Most would argue this was bad news for both those cities. Once you let the Soviet architects loose on a empty canvas, who really knew what you would end up with. In Frunze’s case: brilliant architecture. Khrushchev and his concrete abominations are eerily absent from the cityscape. Instead you have four and five story apartment blocks lining the wide boulevards and a box-shaped national museum that would rival the world’s greatest mausoleums. The only the missing is a metro. It is said that Frunze was never big enough to justify a metro system.

1991 brought with it the independence of Kyrgyzstan and the change of the capital from Frunze to Bishkek. Bishkek is an ancient hero who is rumored to be buried in the area. The Soviet footprint is still largely intact; you can stroll down Kyrgyz SSR street or get of the bus at the Soviet street stop. Four blocks away from the organization and tree-lined streets is the chaotic Osh Bazaar. It’s a magical place with succulent beef kebab and fragrant spices. All those exotic stories you heard about Central Asia probably came from places like Osh Bazaar.

What the tourists come for, however, are the mountains. Bishkek has a beautiful mountain backdrop, however not quite as nice as Almaty. The next post should detail my foray into said mountains.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Right Now in Baku

Monday, February 01, 2010

Seen in Sofia

Great ad in the train station

Soviet era "Weight Control" at the bazaar

Picking up some tickets

Lineup outside a butcher shop, I believe. If I didn't know any better, I'd think it was a bread line.