Monthly Archives: August 2004

kalyan minaret girls

Cranky and annoyed, I left the guesthouse after snapping at Ulugbek and went off to see my Kalyan girls for a last sunset shoot. When I stepped into the alley I realized I’m behaving exactly as poorly as I did last month when it grew time to leave Bukhara. I laughed, chagrined that grinning Ulug realized my trouble before I did.

I’ve yet to mention the Kalyan Girls because I want to introduce them properly. Three hours before I leave Bukhara for Tashkent is probably not the best time, but I want. They are ten or so girls who sell souvenirs on the street by the Kalyan Minaret, a structure so grand Ghengis Khan decided to spare it (though little if anything else in Central Asia). By talking to tourists they have learned to speak English remarkably well, as well as some French, German, Italian and Japanese. They speak with an ease that book-learners can’t manage and attack Australian tourists with, “Goood’ay Mate!” Americans with “What’s up?” and so on. Years back, we initally met common ground with our need for making fun of the tourists.

The photo of me on my info page from 2000 is with the baby cousin of one of the girls, with the Kalyan complex in the background.

My first night back in Bukhara, I planted myself on the curb near the minaret and tried to catch up on the past years. We settled in and they braided my hair and asked personal questions. I answered and asked some of them. This pastime of just sitting, relaxing and watching at their sidewalk shops in the shade of the madrassa, is one of my favorites in Bukhara. They fill me up and I feel connected.

My last night, I went to shoot some last photos, collect birthdays, and to buy something from everyone’s shop. Yes, shopping again. I loath it, but they helped. Of course, the original twelve kids became thirteen, then brothers with shops popped up, and mothers and fathers. I cut it off at sixteen, said goodbye and carried my loot (your souvenir presents) back to the hotel with me. I didn’t bring enough cash but they made me take and come back with the money in the morning. When I left to meet Maryam for dinner, tears welled up and I stared through them at beautiful, dusty old Bukhara at sunset. I’ve no idea what God is, but it is positively, definitely present to me in this city.

Their slideshow is better viewed after reading the bulk, I suppose. (Kalyan is transliterated a number of ways. I’ve used both Kalyan & Kalon to help searchers.)

maybe he’s hurt

Almatys Arasan Bathhouse

Sunday night I saw perhaps the most bizarre thing I have ever seen in Central Asia. I went to the baths around dusk to take photos of the odd building. It was a good place to go, as it’s by the park and all Almaty was out enjoying the Sunday evening. I arrived at the baths around eight and they were busy.

As I moved away from the baths to get a better angle and I noticed a man in the bushes across from the baths with his pants undone. “Oh lovely, he’s taking a leak,” I thought, and quickly moved on. Then, a woman popped up. Oh good god it’s a prostitute, and they’ve just finished behind the bushes across from the bathhouse. Oh lovely. I rounded the shrubbery and took another look. He handed her some money. Oy—they weren’t finishing, they were starting. She was going down on him. Reflexively, I grabbed my camera and snapped a shot.

I was in full view, and pretended to take photos of the bathhouse when I noticed someone else watching them: a policemen. He wasn’t doing a thing, just watching. I wanted a photo of him, but was terrified he might take my camera. I snapped anyway. He’s overexposed. A few minutes later, the lovelies straighten up and left the shrubbery, handing the policemen some bills as they went.

Do you believe? I barely did. Guka definitely didn’t. She insisted, even while looking at the photos, “No, it can’t be! It can’t be! It must be something else. Maybe he is hurt.”

Militsia/Police guy

Well, I saw what I saw. Perhaps this speaks more to my own perversion. Hell—perhaps he was hurt. Or maybe she was helping him shoot up. Maybe Guka didn’t want me to think such things went on in her city. “It can’t be. There are places—hotels—for things like this. This is right in the open.” It isn’t as if my own city is above such happenings, for which we also have hotels. This certainly doesn’t stop anyone from going on in a park or a stairwell.

I’m back in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, now, which has somehow lived up to my tremendous memories of last month. The pics of the events in the shrubbery are back in Tashkent. I’ll post them later [pics since posted!].

the beach at issyk kul

I’ve an unexpected morning in Bishkek to type out my thoughts. It’s overwhelming. Where to start? Perhaps with a correction on the Bishparmak statement in the last post. Many Kazakhs do love their national dish, and were horrified to hear that anyone felt otherwise. Though it’s popular here in Kyrgyzstan as well, I’ve still yet to try it. My friend here, Jamilya, explained that perhaps I haven’t had it because it is only made for big celebrations and a horse or sheep must be slaughtered for the dish. Trying it in a restaurant (entirely possible) just isn’t the same.

I left Kazakhstan on the 14th for Kyrgyzstan, and spent a few days at Issyk-kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world (after Titicaca in Peru). The fresh air was quite a treat. I went from night bus (not my choice of travel, but I took it for Guka. A mistake that snapped our friendship, strained from communicating poorly and being together too much. A painful lesson learned, is being learned, here) to soviet four-person bunk room with Guka, Nadilya, and her two kids. Then I met up with Jamilya at a lovely guesthouse in the next town, unfortunately overrun by an obnoxiously loud family, replete with drunken, obstreperous, egotistical father and screaming, miserable child. They left the dining area and bathrooms an obscene mess. The family was so uncouth that I’d no idea they were of the new rich. Only when we walked back to the guesthouse and Jamilya pointed out the obnoxious father’s giant black Mitsubishi SUV did I realize that this unbearable family is of the new wealthy class—and also Kazakh. There seems to be some animosity from the Kyrgyz toward the wealthier Kazakhs. Jamilya said of the man and the new rich, “Yes, of course he is! They are all loud and intolerable and terribly full of themselves. It’s unbearable”

View from Aunt's Flat, Issyl Kul
View from Aunt’s Flat, Issyl Kul

It is understood in the ’Stans that if someone is wealthy, he is wildly unscrupulous. Especially if he joins the ranks of his impudent, SUV-driving comrades. Unfortunately, this is usually true. The resort town of Cholpon-Ata was overrun by such people and the vibe was unpleasant.

Like beach towns in the West, Soviet resort towns all have a similar feel. Open-air cafes line the streets, each crowded with plastic tables and chairs shaded by umbrellas emblazoned with cigarette ads. TVs for Karaoke blast head-splitting pop music. People stroll along in beachwear drinking beer, eating ice cream and relaxing. From Baltic and Black Sea beaches to the shores of Issyk-kul, on to the Pacific coasts of the Russian Far East, it is more or less the same scene. Generally people are quite easygoing, but here in Cholpon-Ata, everyone had something to prove, or show off.

Those with new money strut about in tight, gaudy bright-colored clothing (this isn’t fashionable Moscow) and sport a scowl that screams of their boredom and superiority. It seems a thin veneer over a wretched, lonely misery of never, ever enough. Of “Do they have more than me and if so can I hide it ’til I get it too? How do I get it too? Am I enough? What is wrong?” It won’t be long until Prozac arrives here, if it hasn’t already.

After a night at the guesthouse, Jamilya, her mother, sister, and I left for their aunt’s flat a few towns east. Quiet! No hot water, but clean and quiet, and a kitchen to cook in. Much better for the yoga retreat: morning and afternoon sessions on the beach. Tuesday, a giant rainbow passed over the lake as we practiced. Wednesday, I moved again for a photo project at elderly centers in Balykchi, and then onto Bishkek, where I stayed at Jamilya’s house with her father, who was alone for the week while the family vacationed at the lake.

While I hugely appreciate Guka and Jamilya’s hospitality, it overwhelms me. I was relieved to be on my own for a bit.

Uyghur circumcision

kazan of plov
kazan of plov

For over two weeks I’ve been back in Central Asia and still yet to eat p’lov, the national dish of the ‘Stans. Though the Kazakh national dish is bishparmak, which means ‘five fingers’ and is made usually of horse meat and noodles, no one seems to like it much, so they too celebrate p’lov. The Kazakhs I’ve met, anyway.

The complete set of pics are up on Flickr.

I’ve not had manti, samsa, or shashlik, either. I usually don’t order for myself, and everyone keeps feeding me chicken. Or lamb. Had lamb’s head yesterday, in fact, and they placed the head smack in front of me such that I kept glancing at the nose, which looked quite like it was still capable of smelling the feast. Yes, again veggie thoughts. And though the fat-streaked meat looked a gruesome color that suggested it hadn’t met with refrigeration, I admit it tasted quite good.

Today, at long last, I ate p’lov. Uyghur p’lov, at that. I went to the Sundet Toy of Gulnara’s friend’s son. It was just what I needed, as Kazakhs in Almaty aren’t traditional in the least, and I’ve been missing the cultural charm of Uzbekistan. Yeah, who’d guess? So, Gulnara, Nadilya and I took a taxi to Issyk, about an hour east of Almaty, to celebrate the circumcision of Rasul, the son of Gulistan, Guka’s Uyghur friend. Uyghurs are a Muslim, Turkic-language speaking Central Asian people from Xinjiang, now a province of western China. The Chinese government is not traditionally kind, and in the last hundred and some years about half a million Uyghurs have left their homes in Xinjiang for the ’Stans. Guka loves Uyghurs. She claims they are more open, happier, have better food, and are all-around more fun than the other Central Asians. Well, what better way to find out than a circumcision party?

Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts
Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts

We got a late start because Nadilya ran a snag behind. Nadilya has an organization called the Chi Center where I teach yoga. She looks like a Kazakh Susan Sarandon, and I spent the night we met trying to remember the name of the film, Thelma and Louise, which no one had seen anyway.

Nadilya, the Kazakh Susan Sarandon, & Guka. The matching scarves are circumcision party gifts

Once we made it to Issyk, the driver took us to the proper street and let us off. We couldn’t find the street number 119A (it was an urban planning disaster of the ‘street ends for a field and begins again on the other side’ ilk) and spent the next forty minutes searching it out. I was delighted to have my camera because between plucking apples, plums and nectarines off trees and sucking them down, and odd things that popped up on Sadovaya Street, it was a photogenic 40 minutes: view a slide show (click F11 if the verticals aren’t fully viewable). And because without it to entertain me, I would have been really annoyed.

Unfortunately, we arrived after the mullah gave the blessing. The men were sitting outside at a table in the courtyard somberly awaiting dinner, and the women sat at a table inside. Apparently Uyghur women and men sit separately at such events. Gulistan kissed and hugged me hello (we’d never met), and took us in to meet her newly circumcised son. ‘Last night, it happened last night,’ she explained.

The first question I asked Guka when she invited me to the event was how old is the boy? I’ve been to a briss or two, and it’s quite low key as the baby is so new. But I had a Muslim boyfriend from Malaysia who was circumcised at 13 and, well, it seemed a traumatic endeavor for him. Was Rasul 13? Would I be feeling his pain?

Rasul is seven
Rasul is seven

He was lying in bed playing a video game with a bunch of other Uyghur boys who sat on the floor. A bag full of money was next to him on the bed. Each of us put about 200 tenge (about USD $1.50) in it. Gulistan introduced us, and then raised her eyebrows and asked if I’d like to see. “Does it interest you?” she asked.

“Well, yes, it does,” I answered, always interested in a new cultural experience. With that, Gulistan removed the white sheet and a scarf that covered her son and pointed to his bloody, bandaged member.

“Oh good god that’s, that’s not just the tip,” I thought. The blood was thick and scabbing about mid-penis and a not-very-modern bandage of sorts was wrapped just below that, allowing his nipped head to peek out from the bottom.


No one else seemed to be concerned about infection, and Gulistan explained that the doctor was the best (‘it’s always nice to have the mullah do it, but weren’t sure of his expertise, so went for the doctor’), so I let my worries subside. We Westerners are much too bacteria-phobic anyway.

I refrained from snapping pictures, though his cousin was next to the wall videotaping the Amerikanka gawking at her cousin’s genitals. That’ll be some nice footage.

Days later, when Kuki’s (Guka’s brother) fiancé told me that at their wedding, tradition mandates that everyone will pay her to lift her veil so they may view her face, I wondered if that bag of tenge I dropped a bill in before seeing Rasul was not simply a gift but the fee to view his circumcision. I asked Guka for clarification and indeed, the 200 tenge was a viewer’s fee. At long last, I’ve found some tradition in Kazakhstan.

We went to the Topchan (a bench-table, like an Uzbek homtakhta) in the next room for dinner, starting with flat, Uyghur lepyoshka and tasty soup.

I asked Guka why we weren’t sitting with the rest of the women and she explained that we asked to sit separately.

“Oh. Why did we ask to do that?” I wondered.

“Because they are old. All babushki,” she explained.

This meant because we’d have to behave, which meant something different to the babushki than to the otherwise overly well-behaved Almaty girls.

Gulistan and her sisters ran around preparing and serving the food all day. One sister, Gulmira, stood washing dishes and laughing the entire four hours we were there.

Each sister individually pulled me aside and told me that she was interested in the moment after the cleric and peripheral guests left when they would set out more desserts, tea and bread, and finally…she flicked her neck twice with her thumb and forefinger. In the land of the once-Soviet Union, this means to get drunk. It seemed that Guka was right. These Uyghurs are a joyous bunch. They gave the impression that they were up to something, and I liked it.

After the soup I was directed into the room with the babushki to take photos of the recording of gifts. In the custom of the Sundet Toy, there are gifts of two sorts; gifts for Gulistan and Rasul (mother and son), which are recorded and paid back, and gifts to Gulistan’s mother, the hostess, which are not paid back.

Most of the gifts to the mother and son are sweets which are divvied up, packaged in plastic bags and sent home with the guests, though there are also gifts of clothes and money, which are also recorded. Most of the gifts to the grandmother are cash.

Someone plopped a hundred dollar bill down on the grandmother’s lap, which is quite a sum in these parts. The average salary is Issyk is about nine hundred and sixty USD per year (source: Guka).

Back to the topchan, where Gulistan served us chicken, cold cuts and salads. She asked us if we wanted to drink. Guka and Nadilka said ‘no no no.’ Soon after, Gulistan’s sister, Makhrinur, came by and asked us if we wanted to drink. Again, a resolute no.

Back into the room of babushki: P’lov had been served.

When I came back to the topchan, Makinur had brought out a bottle of cognac after our p’lov and was pouring heartily, to the chagrin of Guka and Nadilya. She’d caught a gleam in my eye on her last offer and brought the bottle despite the resistance. Gulistan grabbed me and took me outside to introduce me about and photograph the p’lov festivities. First we walked down the street,

p’lov in hand.

and delivered some to her neighbor (another tradition).

She then took me back into the courtyard to the vat (properly called a kazan) where the p’lov is cooked (see first pic of post) and on to the giant samovar, which keeps tea eveready

By the time the watermelon had come out

the older guys had loosened up and wanted to be photographed.

Back inside on the topchan, the Almaty girls were finally relaxing into the festivities.
on the topchan, left to right: Uzbyetchka, Nadilka, Me, Guka, Gulistan

Finally the sisters’ moment came. Makinur (the sister who introduced the cognac) insisted it was time to dance.

Everyone agreed

Almost everyone.

After dancing (slide show: hit F11 if verticles not fully visable) we sat a bit for with the family, ate more sweets and refused more alcohol, then readied to leave. We said our goodbyes to Rasul. It was obviously a sensitive subject but because he was already on his cousin’s film, for the sake of documentation I made myself ask Gulistan if I could photograph Rasul. Specifically, Rasul’s sundet toy. ‘Of course, why not?’ she said, but Rasul wasn’t into it.

No way: Rasul and his money bag.

Slightly relieved, I quickly interjected that it wasn’t necessary. Gulistan kept on.

“If she gives you money will you let her?” she pried on, Uygur tradition in mind.

He looked horrified, and I insisted I didn’t want to bother him. I couldn’t help but recall a bit I’d read in a guidebook about how one shouldn’t pay people to take their photo. How would this situation fly? It’s tradition! Oy.

We finished our goodbyes and Gulistan took us to the Issyk bus station.

Gulistan said she’ll be distraught without us

Guka assured, “no, no, we’ll go dancing next week in Almaty.”

And we do.


I’m still sitting at Guka’s trying to catch up to date with the writing. Thank heavens things have slowed down so that I can scratch down my thoughts, though Guka is quite tired of Bukhara. When will you get to Almaty? When will your spirit catch up to your body? is what she means. I’m trying, Guka. I am.

Guka in her remodeled Soviet flat, Almaty

I backdate as I post, so that everything will in chronological order. Peek at the July-dated blogs to see if they are new to you as I added a bunch.

I sit and write at the other side of the table. This was taken with my point & shoot, rather than the fantastic SLR. This blog format doesn’t allow me to dictate resolution or size (hence the huge photo of the feet below), so the fabulous image quality isn’t coming across on the web. I can’t post these to my site instead of a blog, as I will get lost in the fun of it and get nothing done.

afterthought:  Guka’s Columbia t-shirt wasn’t a gift from me. I know her from NYC. She got her masters at Columbia on a Soros fellowship. We studied together at Butler Library. A lot.