Tag Archives: almaty

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


no way to make a living

“Do you know what intelligence is? It is the capacity, surely, to think freely, without fear, without a formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true; but if you are frightened, you will never be intelligent.” – Krishnamurti

I’m settling back into New York and not sure what to make of myself. A good trip does that, I suppose. I’m not sure what to make of the images and thoughts from the trip, either. Anything? I’ve a strong desire to let it all go. What do I do this for?

Something else pushes me toward working with the Kalon girls material. I’ve been drawn toward them since July. I’m not inspired to write out, day by day, the highlights and events of the trip as I’d attempted and intended to along the way. In some ways, the trip can be boiled down to three points. The first: I no longer want to be a full-time photographer. I knew this. Now I know better. Now I know and I don’t mind, don’t think I’m giving up something I shouldn’t.

I set up shoots with NGOs because I wanted a connection and purpose in Central Asia, especially in Almaty, because I intended to scout it out as a place to live. I wanted to insure that I’d do something other than visit Guka and depend on her for the connection. Well, that took an interesting turn when I learned that Guka, who works for an NGO, knew someone at every organization I’d planned to work with. What happened with Guka in Almaty was, if not complicated, than too long a story and unrelated to my point (I don’t want to be a photographer) to go into here.

There were a few places I ended up working with in Kazakhstan, and the work is decent but not brilliant. I realized that if I don’t really get to know a subject and click, I’m not really interested and can’t be bothered to carry the lenses, the flashes, the heavy stuff. My external flash broke anyway, which meant a lot of slow sync indoors (the intentionally blurry indoor photos you’ve seen. The alternative, basic full on flash, is just miserable). Oddly enough, I didn’t much care. I was emotionally invested with a project in Bukhara and wanted to work on it, but couldn’t cancel the rest of the trip and go back. What if something wonderful and new awaited? What kind of traveler would call off the places she hadn’t been for a place she had, many times? So, I walked through the rest of my planned itinerary, making the shoots that came through (many didn’t, thanks to the scratchy NGO world and their August vacations). In the end, I did leave Almaty a bit early to go back to Bukhara.

If I am not emotionally invested in a project, I don’t want to shoot it.

This is no way to make a living. Not in photography anyway, as I am not emotionally invested in auto adverts or underfed girls with fake boobs.

The second: I’ve a new understanding of human connection and can now feel cultural difference, rather than simply understand the theoretical concept of it. This was quite a revelation, which made me happy I didn’t pursue anthropology. Culture, on some level, must be FELT (the big signifiers of culture—language, foods, many customs, etc.—are, after all, usually the responsibility of the women to pass down. Forgive, please, my suggestion that women feel more than men) and this doesn’t translate well, if at all, to academics. However much I enjoy theories, I now don’t believe culture can honestly or accurately be jammed into them. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be, it’s just not for me.

This clicked for me in the mountains outside Almaty, after I’d been a few weeks staying with three, very different, Central Asian families. This I will write about.


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.

VERY tasty almaty

I left Tashkent the day before the bombings and was teaching yoga last night in Almaty when they occurred. What can I say? The Uzbek government is nasty, nasty and you too might blow yourself up if you lived under it. No, I do not condone the events but I certainly fathom them.

almaty kitchenI’m sitting at Guka’s in her remodeled Soviet flat. A boy is walking around outside yelling into a megaphone: “Apples, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, VERY tasty!” Guka is off with her brother to introduce him to his fiancé’s family. Her high-pressure day affords me some time to finally sit and write and maybe edit the Bukhara photos. Yes, again Bukhara. I cannot understand, much less explain, how I love this city.

An aside: I like to tell New Yorkers about the Bukharan Barber Shop phenomenon (offhand, I recall one in the 50th St. 1,9 station, one in the Columbus Circle station, and another on 18th St. just off Union Square West), which was even more prevalent in Manhattan in the 60s. I came across a recent article about it in the Washington Post while researching the embassy bombings. A Jewish Bukharan shoemaker fixed my camera bag on Thursday and handed me a copy of Time Out Tashkent to read as I waited (I used to work for Time Out). I couldn’t believe it! Too funny. I hadn’t seen it before and Ulugbek had never heard of it. It’s a rip off, of course, and the copy is horrible, but I was entertained and the shoemaker was happy to impress. He didn’t know where to get one, as it was a gift. Like everyone else in Bukhara, he wouldn’t let me pay him for his work, but asked that I come back to visit when I’m back in town. I will, with pleasure. What began with horror when my new (& I trusted Domke®) camera bag crashed to the ground after the strap loop unglued (it was glued?) in the heat somehow became yet another lovely Bukhara moment.

Such gushing kindness does not greet me everywhere. I want more.

most alive and at peace

lyabi haus, bukhara

It was a fairly traumatic mistake to put Bukhara at the front of my trip. This town has always been my favorite, a place where I can relax and simply be. Maybe it’s my place that we travelers somehow look for when we head off once and again, the place I feel most alive and at peace. But these few days have felt more like visiting an old boyfriend, the perfect one who slipped away only because I didn’t recognize that his imperfections were my own and because I didn’t yet truly want what was offered. Was coming back even right? And if it’s so damn lovely, if it’s here and now, and I know, then what’s wrong? What is wrong is that I have to leave in three days. I feel as if I’d be perfectly content to nix the whole trip, sit here, and be. Sunday morning I arrived by train from Tashkent and as early as mid-Monday the thought of leaving Bukhara made me ill. My stomach rumbled.

I scheduled a fairly quick trip through Uzbekistan, before flying on to Kazakhstan. Even before I’d landed in UZ, I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

On the flight from New York, I was in the back of the plane all too near the line for the toilets. Mid-flight, standing a few seats down was an attractive middle-aged Tajik man who looked kind of familiar. At least, I hoped he did. I squinted at him and he smiled and squinted back at me. When he made it to my row, I asked him where he was from. He answered with requisite pride: “Bukhara.”

I explained, “Oh. You remind me of a ceramicist from Gizhduvan.” Gizhduvan is a town near Bukhara. I once took the tourists there.

At that, his face lit up and he grabbed my hand, “Yes, that is me!”

I’ve no idea how I recognized him after four years, but I did. I invited him to sit down and we chatted for a bit. He was returning from a festival in Santa Fe, which he quite loved. He said the city is much like Bukhara. I’m obviously going to have to get there, as I’ve never visited the American Southwest—ridiculous, as much as I love the desert.

For the remainder of the flight, Alisher took great care of me. He moved me to a middle aisle so I could spread out and sleep and gave me extra pillows and blankets. He also left me alone at times, which I quite appreciated. I do love my personal space, and we both needed a break from conversing in my miserable Russian. Before the flight was over he invited me to his home in Gizhduvan and said I should take the train to Bukhara with him the next night. I’d planned on taking a car the next day, but a train didn’t sound like a bad idea. I adore trains.

After we landed in Tashkent, he and his son waited for me amidst the taxi hawks outside the airport and made certain that Gulnara’s son Rufshan was there to retrieve me. I promised to call the next day, and Rufshan and I made our way to Gulnara’s.