Category Archives: central asia

holding hands

Kazakh_2004-08-05_Almaty_001Maybe this is what happened with Guka and me (reference to a previous post). On several occasions, I said more than she was comfortable with, and we lost respect for each other because of it. I know I disappointed her when I didn’t like Almaty. When I kept one foot in Bukhara during my visit. I tried, but Almaty is a very Soviet city (Russians call it Alma-Ata) infused with new oil money. It is what it is. It certainly wasn’t her.

But what happened with Guka is not the point. For years, I’ve wanted to explain something that happened there, when we went hiking in the mountains outside Almaty with a group of her friends. I’m not sure how many creative people feel this way, but I have so many photos sitting waiting to be edited and seen, so many stories unwritten, that I feel in some way I can’t move on creatively until they are tended. It makes me apprehensive. Apprehensive about jumping into more, though of course I have. Though in that, too, something feels unresolved, unworked through, unseen. Something I’ve wanted to process has been ignored.

Kazakh_2004-08-08_Chimbulak_008And so, in February of 2009, I began to go through 100s of old CDs full of digital photos. I love to clean, organize, and get rid of things (you don’t? Call me). I organized them down to a few DVDs, then decided to send off all my negs and chromes to India to be scanned. This I documented closely, as it was an endeavor. (It’s archived in the scancafe category.) When I got them back, I started archiving and tagging them in Lightrooom. It was amazing, cathartic, and tedious as hell. I also started uploading selects to Flickr, so they can be viewed.

Why? To make them conscious. So I know what’s there. Some of those images are printed. Most of them sit in archival boxes. Many are not, particularly the chromes. They are all but impossible to look at. So, I had them scanned. Why scan 7,000 old photos? So I know what’s there. And so others can see them if they desire. So they don’t sit in boxes in the back of my mind, like stories untold.

So finally, two and a half years later, I am uploading the 2004 selects to flickr. I will shut up, sit down, and finally write the story about that day at Chimbulak. Even though in words, it seems like nothing.

Chimbulak is a ski resort outside Almaty in the Tien Shan Mountains. We went there in the August for a hike and some fresh air. There were eight of us. It was an easy hike, but we were all at different levels, and two were kids. About half way to the top, at the base of the ski lift, the Soviet-built, terrifyingly-rickety ski lift, there was a resort where we stopped for lunch and some liquid courage (vodka). It was typical Russian fare. I enjoyed myself. We laughed and had fun.

Kazakh_2004-08-08_Chimbulak_067After the lift was a short climb. It wasn’t difficult, but we’d had plenty of vodka and were soon tired, but we pushed on. As we neared the top, we did something I’ve never seen in my years of hiking. Something Americans would never do. We linked hands. It wasn’t unusual to them in the least. We held hands and helped each other up the rest of the mountain. To the stubbornly independent American, it seemed not only strange, but not that helpful.

But it was. Even if you were toward the top of the chain, doing most of the work, the linking woke us up and brought us together. The last bit of the hike though the clouds was easy, coming together as one.

As we did this, my thoughts went, “What are you doing? That’s silly. This will impede everyone. What the hell? Keep your mouth shut. You are a guest here. Wait. Wait. How strange. This is nice. I’m being pulled, gently. I’m gently pulling. We are helping each other, and we are lighter, and faster, and efficient.”

Kazakh_2004-08-08_Chimbulak_112Nevermind that Guka wouldn’t take my hand.

It was not the way I was used to, but it worked. Magically. And with that realization, it hit me just how different Kazakh, and Central Asian, culture is. Yes, of course I knew it, understood it conceptually. But before this, I didn’t feel it or understand it on a cellular level. I didn’t feel it to be true. I just knew it intellectually.

And perhaps this seems simple, or obvious, or like nothing, but after fifteen years of foreign travel, I finally truly understood how some cultures rely on each other much more intrinsically than we do in the U.S. We frown up on it here, to the point that so many people are alienated and alone, with no idea how to truly connect to another person. We are afraid it means we are needy or weak, or will be trapped in some sort of needy abyss (ours or another’s). But it doesn’t mean any of this.

At the top, we sprawled out in the grass for a rest.


To see all the photos from the day at Chimbulak, go to flickr.

We don’t really go that far into other people, even when we think we do. We hardly ever go in and bring them out. We just stand at the jaws of the cave, and strike a match, and quickly ask if anybody’s there.    ~Martin Amis


kyzyl kum breakdown


I told the story of this particular tour the other day, in which Valery’s bus broke down. While tagging photos in Lightroom just now, this image popped up when I moused over its folder in the catalog. I love trucks. I love transport in general. Yesterday, I was talking to fellow photog, Arnis, about how distinctly cars date photos. Looking at my photo archive, I realize that it does vary vastly in different countries. I remember how amused I was by all the old American cars from the 70s driven in Iran in 2000.

I’m suffering a crisis of quantity over quality. I want less.


pontoon bridge, karakalpakstan


I’ve now archived (and keyworded) 1670 photos. My bum hurts from sitting. I’ve barely begun. I remembered and located an excel file full of info about my shoots in 1999-2000, so I have detailed dates. I love that, though it’s more info to key in. I took this photo ten years ago Thursday (May 6). This pontoon bridge leads up to (what remains of the) Aral Sea, from Urgench, in Uzbekistan. That’s where we were headed. The light there is always this harsh and flat. Oh, what a land.

an update from home

The taste of dill takes me straight back to Central Asia. Is that why I’m writing this? They use it heavily in their cuisine, but then, so do the Russians so perhaps it’s their influence.

I’m cooking beef bone soup today. It feels so good to cook in the winter, especially veggies and soups. It’s finally warmed up (44°F) but it’s gray. Just staring at the beautiful deep greens, oranges, reds, and purples toasts me up and puts me in a bit of a trance. The earth, all frozen outside, vibrates in my hands. Yum. I like winter. Especially the light.

After cleaning all the refuse, I stared at the remaining beets and decided to roast them up, since I’m in the kitchen anyway. How lovely to pretend I have time for all this.

And I sort of do. I refuse to do anymore schoolwork today and I’m not in at work until four. There’s plenty I could be doing and this is what I’ve chosen. The beef bone stock will last me probably the rest of winter so it’s time well spent. I can do some yoga before the beets are finished.

Speaking of, this is a good article on food. What should be obvious, but isn’t.

This is the update? This is the update. You want to know where I’ve been? Not out of the country since the last Central Asian trek in ’04. I’ve lived in the same building for 3½ years, the same neighborhood for almost five. Can you believe? I can. It’s nice.

I’ve traveled a bit in the States, but otherwise work, school, and yoga keep me tied to the city. Order of import: yoga, school, and work. Yoga is great fun. I do it every day, I teach it almost everyday. I’ll not wax poetic about it because I’m creating a yoga site for a class, for my students, and for the fun. I didn’t intend to fall in love with yoga, much less teach it, but, well, love is seldom about intent.

School is interesting enough. I was doing a program in south asian studies, but back-burnered that this semester for a health and behavioral studies/health education MA. Both obviously pertain to yoga, but the latter is more applicable to my life. “The ideal to the real,” said the Venerated Coconut. The programs are dramatically different. I like them both. And I still learn best by grabbing some books, taking off, and talking to people along the way.

Coming back to the classroom gave me a great respect for all I learned out there, fiddling about. I am really lucky for all that, hard as it was at times. And I’m lucky to be back here in the city, where I can travel the globe, meet its people, eat their food, and be home at the end of the day. What will I do with the degree/s when finished? I don’t know. I’ve got some ideas. As always, something will come.

Many thanks for checking in on me. It’s quite sweet.


Sit, be still, and listen,
because you’re drunk
and we’re at
the edge of the roof.

memories of victor: one last bulk

The news of Victor’s death finally reached me from Afghanistan via e-mail, twenty-three hours before a midterm and minutes before teaching a yoga class. When I skimmed the e-mail, “Oh, so that’s where he’s been,” flashed through my mind in that first split second. Then my heart crashed and I began to wail as I understood where he’s been.

My difficulty processing grief is well established, and Victor’s death poses a unique challenge in that I am far from his friends and family, from the places where we were. But I haven’t seen Vitya in years. We kept our friendship up online, as so many do these days, and that is where I have turned to grieve, to mourn this beautiful man and pay him the respects I owe so deeply.

viktor larin and polina Though he was a Samarqandi by birth, we worked together in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I was a tour guide and he was a hotel manager. Vitya taught and supported me in ways I will never repay, and I hope that under my arrogant, obnoxious façade that he knew how much I loved him.

I’d have preferred to—I’d have been honored to—go out and wail with the women, beat my chest and meet the intense, tamasic pain which the “strong” demand the impure live out for them. But I had a Hinduism midterm to prepare for and I was not about to ask out of it. Instead I treaded a middle ground. I studied as much as able, concentrating on the meaning and rituals of death because we’d recently covered it and that is where my mind was rooted. Alas, Yama [Hindu god of death] barely graced the midterm (he can be such a tease!), but I worked in what I’d learned as best I could, and now sit down to write. To wail.

And to acknowledge that it does not feel right to march on in polluted strength when there are tears denied and pains shooting through my rib cage on to my heart because Vitya, and another part of me, is dead. But how to grieve when there are no family and friends around to sit with and remember his warmth and beauty? In that, this electronic connection has bridged a painful separation.

Vitya loved to argue as much as I do and we debated endlessly, in his office, in the Taj restaurant on Chekhovskaya Ulitsa, and after I left, by e-mail. We offended each other daily, but he never gave up or shut me out. Instead, he explained himself, his culture and his way of seeing time and again, and encouraged me, ordered me, to keep interpreting it for those not willing or able to venture to Uzbekistan. And, of course, for the tourists who did. So now it’s time for me to sit and remember, to write the Victor I knew from my way of seeing him, which might be, please understand (as Vitya would have), quite different from your own.

victorlfamilyVictor was larger than life, almost mythological. He loved to take care of people and he lived for it, sometimes to his detriment, when he didn’t say no and others took advantage. He knew this and he had started to fight it around the time we met in 2000, perhaps before. But once identified, these habits are still tremendously hard to break. Hell, being a sexy hero has its merits. By the time of his death, Victor had two families to care for and an endless list of friends, lovers and business associates who counted on him in different ways.

In the last year, Victor and I stopped writing as much. Nothing he wrote was really meaty and interesting as our correspondence had been, and as that’s all I really respond to, I didn’t much respond (yeah, you aren’t alone). I’ve been enjoying my inward journey of late, minding my own nonsense, which is interesting to very few and annoying to the rest. I sensed it was annoying to Victor, not because he didn’t appreciate the inner-world, but because he was moving out (as I will too at some point), traveling and working madly, trying to establish the business in Afghanistan. So much for balance. I sigh in pain as it’s unlikely that I have to explain to you my take on workaholics, those who run in bright-fast circles to numb the pain of their existence, full force against a second’s rest to simply breathe the depth of life, its torments, and its fertile joys. What’s hell is that Victor knew it but fell anyway. For the year, with small exception, most of his emails looked like this:

My life here more and more become gypsy style. I stay in Kabul for not more than 3 nights a week and my knowledge of geography of Afghanistan is getting better and better. I’ve seen nice places on the north, east and south – on the way visits to Kandahar, Helman and Herat. Than Badahshan. As you see not enough time for something more than a couple of words to write. I’d like to write down some impressions, but I’m afraid I won’t. Anyway – good to know that you’ve been safely landed at home. And I’d like to see your central asian diaries published and signed for me.


Sorry for being silent for too long. Just owervhelmed with business issues and absolotely have not time due to the very tough travelling schedule. I’ve made around 2 thousand miles in the last couple of weeks(also on SUV, but just 14 years old Toyota Surf). I’ve been in Jalalabad, Wardak, Kunduz, Takhar, Saripul, Wardak and few more less prominent places. Tomorrow I’m leaving again to Shibirgan, day after I have to be in Kunduz, than one night in KAbul, then Jalalabad (to pick up my team) and then to Ghazni. After Ghazni I’d probaly have to go to Herat and Kandahar and somewhere in the meantime to visit Badahshan and Fayzabad. Few pictures were made, of course no comparison with your professional ones, but anyway reflecting unimaginable wonderful scenery of this country. I would like to get a bit more time to learn Dari finally. I’d like to get a bit more time to write down some of my road impressions. May be later.

lataband-008Belinda, a New Yorker to whom Vitya introduced me in Tashkent, who’s helped me immensely in this grief, had the same complaint. “He’d made a choice about where he wanted to put his time.” Belinda expressed her annoyance to him but I let go. He sent me boring emails (with some beautiful photos) and I didn’t reply. I just waited for this stage to pass.

Victor was forever pressing me about writing my stories down, which he knew all too well doesn’t happen much when you are trying to get the big life done. But the reason I stopped writing about him, and about much in Central Asia, was because I got too close and it got sticky. I cared about the people too much to write them simply, and didn’t feel I had it in me to explain my friends’ different decisions and different ways of life to folks back home.

In one of our last great debates, which always included a great misunderstanding, Victor showed me his vulnerability in a way he seldom did. He told me I’d hurt him, that I flattened him, made him two dimensional and poked easy fun at him in my comments about his life decisions. I don’t recall now what I’d said (I’m still unable to look back at those emails), but I can still feel the shock of pain in my heart when I read it. I immediately emailed him, “No no no, Victor, dorogoi! Please, no, that’s not what I meant, not how I feel!” I didn’t say that often, and certainly not enough. I’ve never felt that about anyone I’ve lost and it feels, it feels like my heart muscle has been stretched out like a rubber band and ZING snapped free, left to find it’s form somewhere new, somewhere again. We took for granted that “May be later.”

A little more than a year after I left Uzbekistan, Victor moved to Moscow because life in Tashkent is abysmal (much thanks to Karimov) and he eventually wanted to get his family out. He didn’t bring his family though, because it took awhile to find a job and set up. Ethnically Russian or not, being Uzbekistani did not make life in the big city easy for Victor and he didn’t like it there. Nevertheless, he fell for his landlady and married her. They had a daughter, Anastasia, in May of 2003. (Given the nature of time, I thought she was 18 months now, but she’s already two and a half.)

This involved leaving his Uzbek wife, which never totally happened as he was ever-dedicated to supporting his family. And now families. Victor thought that I judged this brand of heroic masculinity, and, yes, I did. Most Americans would, which is why I never told the story. I didn’t know how to do it without flattening him. Though it looked all the while like Vitya was building himself a heavy cage, one he simultaneously yearned and plotted to escape, he knew it and fought it. Beneath his heroic, manly mask there was poetry aching to break free. This made him human. And loveable.

byVityaI never told him that though, and he thought I looked down on him. I didn’t. How could I? When in Uzbekistan, I benefited from his generosity like any other. He watched my back, taught me without letting me know it, and never, ever once made me feel like he wanted something from me, physical or otherwise. We talked about relationships and sex, and he certainly had all sorts of lovers, but he never once let me feel that irksome pressure of fanciful expectation that most hetero friendships have now and again. Nor did he presume it of me. He was an excellent friend.

Yes, I was frustrated that he chose to work himself to the end—he must have had so much to say about his life there!—but we both thought it was just a stage. At least I did. I really did expect him in New York, my borderless city, one day. I’d take him about to my favorite Indian places, as I did in Tashkent. Yes, that’s what I thought.

I encouraged him to go to Afghanistan, because though he was working like mad and escaping his families, justified by trying to support them (a man’s man), he was also having the adventures he always wanted to have. Of course I understood his wanting to be somewhere else and we related heavily on that note. He loved my bulks and encouraged me to do more with them. I didn’t. But now, with Victor gone and so much left unsaid, this memorial is the very least I can do for him. The photos capture his beauty, at once his heroic, manly stance and his sad, searching eyes. Oh, beautiful Vitya, may you be happy and free. You are loved.

Photos in this post are by Victor and his friends and family.