Sights I've Seen in Central Asia
In the summer of 1998, I visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I had read in a travel guide that if I flew into Alma Ata (Almaty), then the capital of Kazakhstan, I could obtain a visa in the airport for $100. So I traveled by train from Beijing to Ürümqi, Xinjiang, in western China, and flew China Xinjiang Arilines from Ürümqi to Alma Ata. There, I learned that I had been deceived by the travel guide: there was no place in the airport to obtain a visa. The airport officials threatened to imprison me until China Xinjiang Airlines’ next flight back to Ürümqi, a week later. Fearful lest my money disappear when impounded, on my being taken into custody, I got permission from the officials to fly back to Beijing at my own expense.
Once back in Beijing, I proceeded in the usual way, by applying for visas at the embassies of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan had no embassy in China. When I had my visas, I boarded another Ürümqi-bound train, but it broke down in Qingshui, a town in Gansu Province, in north central China. I was the only non-Chinese among 1600 people left stranded.
In Qingshui, I boarded a bus that rattled and bounced over 800 miles of dirt road in the desert to reach Ürümqi. There I boarded a Kazakhstani bus to Alma Ata.
After a visit of a couple of weeks in Alma Ata, where I also obtained a visa for Uzbekistan, I went in a private car with a driver who drove at speeds up to 100 miles an hour to reach Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I spent a week.
Then I took a bus to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where I was robbed by the police immediately as I arrived. They haled me into the bus station on a pretext, undressed me and stole US$100 from me. Fortunately, they did not bother my other currencies or my travelers’ checks.
When I had visited Tashkent for a few days, I took a four-hour bus ride to fabled Samarkand, and this is what I saw:
Samarkand is the oldest city in the former USSR, dating from around 700 BCE. The ruins of the original site are called Afrosiyob (Afrasiab). Alexander the Great conquered Samarkand, then known as Maracanda, in 329 BCE. After that, the city was ruled by a number of Persian and Arab dynasties until the rise of the Mongols.
Prince Timur (1336-1405), the great Asiatic conqueror known as Tamerlane, had Samarkand as his capital. He claimed descent from Genghis Khan, and founded the Mughal (Moghul) dynasty of India, which was in power until the time of the British ascendancy, in the 19th century. ‘Mughal’ and ‘Moghul’ are the Persian and Indian equivalents of ‘Mongol’.
Timur built a palace, mausoleums and mosques in Samarkand, but the madrasas of the Registan were built after his death. Like many other buildings in Samarkand, they are completely covered with blue majolica tiles.
Monument to Price Timur,
In downtown Tashkent, there’s a museum called Amir Timur Museum, and across the street is a handsome park, with an equestrian statue of the Prince Timur, standing where once there stood a statue of Karl Marx. For me this park was a focus for my excursions about town. Tashkent’s Metro has a station right at that point, and this provided handy access for me. This Metro is the only Metro in Central Asia. At that time there were two lines, but a third line was being built. It is now complete. The stations were all very beautiful, but officious policemen lurked everywhere.
During my wild ride from Alma Ata to Bishkek, we stopped at a hamlet of yurts, where the nomads were barbecuing meat over an open fire in a hearth built into a rock formation. Yurts are made of felts and poles, and can hardly be warm enough for the arctic winters that befall the region. Over the door in the yurt pictured below is a sign in the Kazakh language, which is not related to Russian, but uses a modified Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet. Kazakh is a Turkic language related to Turkish, Azerbaijani, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and other languages of Asia. In Alma Ata, Russian is the usual language of commerce and discourse.
Yurt in Kazakhstan
The Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains of the Tian Shan range rise majestically near Alma Ata, presenting a truly commanding view. Talgar Peak, at 16,335 feet, is the tallest mountain in the range, but hardly the tallest mountain in Kazakhstan, with Khan Tengri, in southeastern Kazakhstan, at 22,999 feet.
Alma Ata, Kazakhstan
Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains
In downtown Alma Ata, there’s a park called Panfilov Park, in which stands Zenkov Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. During the Soviet period, the church was inoperative, but since Kazakh independence, it has been refurbished and restored to activity. Panfilov Park also has a war memorial, a merry-go-round and loudspeakers that play Russian music. Weddings take place on Saturdays, carriage rides are offered, and chess games are always in progress.
Alma Ata, Kazakhstan
I spent an uneventful week in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, pictured below. The lofty mountains in the background are by no means the tallest in this mountainous country. Jengish Chokosu, near Khan Tengri, rises to a height of 24,400. Bishkek is chockfull of greenery in the summer.
Kyrgyz Ala Too Mountains
Map of the Caucasus and Central Asia
Flags of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan:
Metro Station in Tashkent:
Yurt in Kazakhstan:
Alma Ata, Kazakhstan; Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains:
Zenkov Cathedral, Alma Ata:
Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan; Kyrgyz Ala Too:
Map of the Caucasus and Central Asia: