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Silk Road in Stereo: slideshow photograph 2
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Adventures in Roadside Camping

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In which our convoy makes Mongolian friends and learns why not to start conspicuous campfires by the side of the road.  Kick your feet up for 20 minutes while we tell our story.

 

Mongolia Day 2-3: To bridge, or not to bridge (August 25, 2011)

Words are no longer very useful. Mongolia is a land of vast silence. Except for the (increasingly frequent) moments when you find yourself at an impasse.

Sometimes there are no bridges.

first river crossing 2 from Kara Van Malssen on Vimeo.

Sometimes there might as well not be a bridge.

first scary bridge crossing from Kara Van Malssen on Vimeo.

More highlights can be found in the images below. Including the part when we finally met an eagle hunter, the part where we found another rally car whose tires had been shredded by some rocks, and the part where we had a nice, relaxing time at a ger camp in Khovd. The audio is from the latter.

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Mongolia Day 1: After a night spent in the border compound (August 24, 2011)

We arrived at the Mongolian border shortly before closing time. Although we managed to pass immigration as individuals before the doors shut for the night, the car didn’t. We were locked inside the gates of the Mongolian border compound, and told to pitch our tents where ever we’d like. They would process the vehicles, which were now officially being imported, in the morning. There was a small patch of dirt in the middle of the grounds that a few of us took advantage of; others gave it a go in the parking area. Fortunately, we were first in line in the morning, and were out of there within a few hours. We were now in Mongolia, with 1800 km to go to the finish line. We had absolutely no idea what was in store, starting with the fact that there are virtually no roads in the entire country.

8 days of driving through a country with no roads, no signs, few functioning bridges, and no sign of human life for 400 km stretches is a hard story to put into words. So we’ll focus on the sounds and images (still and moving) for this portion of the tale, with a few of the exciting, scary, and hillarious stories mixed in.

To start, this is what it’s like driving in Mongolia. Needless to say, it was going to be a very long, slow and bumpy ride.

Mongolian rocky roads from Kara Van Malssen on Vimeo.

And here are some shots from our first day. The scenery is quite stunning.

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Russia Part II, aka we finally made it to Mongolia (August 21-23, 2011)

Although it seems like it should be possible, there is no way to cross directly from Eastern Kazakhstan to Western Mongolia.  A 1200 km drive through Siberian Russia is required.  With our double-entry Russian visas close to expiration, we forged ahead toward Mongolia.


View Semey to Mongolia in a larger map

We found ourselves rejoicing almost the instant we crossed into Russia.  Good roads! Petrol stations that accept credit cards! ATM machines!!! It had been weeks since we had consistently seen any of these things.  We realized that we really love Russia after all.  And our trip over the next few days through the Altai Mountain region of Siberia certainly reinforced that.

We stopped for the evening in the rather bustling metropolis of Barnaul (Prounced like “barn owl”? In my mind it is.) and grabbed a few rooms at the comfortable Hotel Barnaul.  There were three things I especially loved at this hotel: the 24 hour guarded parking lot, the homemade food at the canteen, and this Soviet-era radio mounted on the wall in our rooms, pumping out Russian pop hits from the 80s, 90s, and today!

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After a good night’s rest (two in a row!), we hit the road early, and enjoyed a little rain shower, which we hadn’t experienced in weeks.

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With the team now all back in good health, we decided stop at a little roadside cafe and risk our first shashlik for lunch since our disaster in Uzbekistan about a week earlier.  It was fantastic.

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By the afternoon we were beginning to pass through some stunning mountain scenery. The area was crowded with Russian tourists enjoying the therapeutic waters of the mountain streams, hiking, and relaxing.  Wishing we could just stop for a few days and join them, we reminded ourselves of the visa expiration deadline coming up in a day or two, and pushed on.

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We found a nice spot to set up camp by the river.

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This rainbow was an excellent touch at the end of the day.

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The next day, the drive just got better.

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We had one of the better car-hood lunches of the trip.

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We were in good spirits.

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The scenery changed rather abruptly, and before we knew it, the lush greenery was gone, and we were back in the desert. Mongolia was just around the corner. As we approached the border, we stopped for petrol and to use what was probably the smelliest outhouse of the trip. Something must have died in there.

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Our car was signed one last time in Russia by a couple of cute kids at the border.

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And we set off into the no-mans land between Russia and Mongolia, an unusual 30km between the two borders. We had finally made it to Mongolia.

Kazakhstan Part II – Almaty to Semey (August 18-20, 2011)

We didn’t have nearly enough time in Kyrgyzstan, and I think we all agree that of all the places we passed through, it’s the first place we would go back to.  Now, to get to Mongolia we had to cut north through eastern Kazakhstan and east across southern Siberia.  We had to do it fast too because one of the Aussies in our convoy was racing to cross the Mongolian border before his Russian visa expired.

We entered Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan early in the evening and had about 200 km to drive to get to Almaty, the commerce hub of Central Asia. In general, we tried as much as possible to avoid driving at night, but we didn’t have much choice here.  The roads were good, but single lane and poorly marked with a lot of aggressive passing.  It was stressful, but we finally made it to a comfortable, if strange, motel at around midnight.

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We were up early the next morning in search of cash and food.  We found both at a fancy, air conditioned mall where we  grabbed some greasy fast food and pick n’ mix, then got on the road early in the afternoon.  Almaty, like a lot of cities we passed through, was like quicksand where traffic and creature comforts sucked away whatever early momentum we thought we had.

We finally escaped and made good time through the vast, empty countryside on good Kazakh roads.  We stopped for a snack at a busy food stand selling fantastic mutton-filled pastries, kurut (sour dried-yogurt balls) and kumiz, the fermented mare’s milk we struggled to keep down in Kyrgyzstan.  Everyone seemed to be sipping on bowls of the stuff here, so we decided to give it another shot.  It turns out that if the kumiz is really fresh, it’s pretty good, basically a creamy yogurt drink.

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As evening approached, our convoy met up with another convoy that was slightly ahead of us, and we found a hidden spot to camp on the banks of a creek a few hundred yards off the road.  It seemed like a great find, and we had plenty of time to set up, cook some dinner and relax.  We got to bed early knowing that we had a mammoth drive ahead of us the next day.  I woke up few hours later to an electrical wind and sand storm that looked and sounded like the end times from the confines of my flimsy tent, whose stakes had a precarious hold in the stony ground.  The wind tore them loose a few minutes later, and the tent collapsed around me.  I crawled out groggy and grumpy and dragged my sleeping bag to the car, where I managed to sleep until the sun came up a couple of hours later.   When I climbed back down to the creek, I learned that my tent had come completely loose and blown away.  Luckily someone noticed and rescued it so I wasn’t stuck sleeping in the car the rest of the trip.

The storm had us up and on the road early, and we managed to log the nearly 500 miles to Semey, near the Russian border.  As we drove through the middle of nowhere, approaching the grey, desolate, post-Soviet town of Ayagoz, we kept seeing roadside vendors holding what appeared to be big flat dead fish.  We stopped at one to see what it was all about and got ourselves a big flat dried fish to share. Not bad.

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The roads were awful over the last 60 miles to Semey and we finally got there an hour or so after sunset, found the fanciest hotel in town and spent the evening drinking beer and watching judo at a tavern down the street.  It was our last night in Central Asia and we spent it in style.

Sounds of the Tavern in Semey

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No eagle hunting, but a private concert by the members of Kut (August 18, 2011)

We had been invited to a Yurt Camp on the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan before leaving on our trip.  At that time, we estimated our arrival to be around August 15.  The Yurt Camp regularly holds events and performances by musicians from around the region and the world.  Upon our arrival on the 18th of August, we found out that we had missed a performance by a master musician from Kazakhstan, which had been arranged just for us on the 15th. We were devastated.

Regardless, we enjoyed a wonderful stay at the Yurt Camp, with its delicious vegetarian meals, peaceful surroundings, and friendly people.  A tai chi master was there conducting a workshop, and we watched their graceful movements as the sun set over the lake.  The evenings there are quiet and relaxing.  It was a much needed rest stop.

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The next morning we set out determined to find an eagle hunter. The region is famous for its expert eagle trainers who take the birds into the high desert to hunt marmot and other small mammals. There was an eagle hunter festival coming up in about a week. We figured there had to be a few bird men around.

The Lonely Planet Central Asia noted that a famous eagle hunter lived on the lake, and pointed us to a small town just off the main road. After driving around for what felt like hours, asking everyone we came across in the tiny town if they knew where the eagle hunter lived and having no luck, we were about to leave. Finally, someone pointed us to the end of a street where the eagle hunter did in fact live. His wife was home, but unfortunately the man and the eagle were out with a group of tourists and wouldn’t be back for several hours. She introduced us to a baby eagle he was training. The “baby” was already huge, about the size of a 4-year-old child.

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Before we could become too overwhelmed with disappointment at having missed out once again, we were informed that a family of musicians lived next door, and asked if we would like to meet them. The head of the household was teaching music at the local school, but he would come home to tell us about Kyrgyz music and maybe play us a few songs. Why, yes, we would love to!

We were invited into the comfortable home of the family band Kut. Everyone in the family is also in the band: father, mother, three sons and a daughter-in-law. We were fortunate that day to have met all but one son, who is in demand worldwide, and was off performing. Akylbek Serkebaev, the father and master of several instruments, performed for us for over an hour, bringing in his middle son Adilet Serkebaev for a few songs, and his wife Anara Serkebaeva. His daughter-in-law also gave a magnificent solo performance on the komuz, a national symbol of the country, which they all play expertly. Their songs are those of traditional Kyrgyzstan and its nomadic people.

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Here’s a video of couple of songs they played for us on the komuz. The first, Song for a Young Girl like a Flower, was performed by Akylbek Serkebaev. In the second he is accompanied by his son for an acrobatic feat of coordinated string playing (look how excited the youngest son is when he finds out they are going to play this one, letting out a “yesssssss”). Watch:

Song for a Young Girl Like a Flower by Kut from Kara Van Malssen on Vimeo.

Riding a Horse by Kut from Kara Van Malssen on Vimeo.

We have lots more video and more audio tracks. Check out a few on SoundCloud. And if you enjoyed watching these and want us to post more video, let us know!


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The Kyrgyz Podcast – Komuz Together

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We selected many of these tracks from CD-Rs we bought from a particularly grumpy-looking vendor at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek.  Others are from a CD given to us by KUT, a family of incredible musicians we visited at their home on Lake Issyk Kul.
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You’ll hear a lot of komuz in this podcast.  The ancient Central Asian lute is a Kyrgyz national symbol and even made its way onto the 1 som note.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tracks 2, 3, 4, 7 and 11 came from two compilations of traditional music that were included on one of the CD-Rs.  We know nothing about them apart from the track titles, and unfortunately, we don’t even have that for the final track.

Tracks 5 and 10 are from Добр (Dobr), a popular MC who incorporates traditional sounds into his beats, and track 6 is from Тата Улан (Tata Ulan), an odd pop singer/rapper who wears a mask as part of his schtick.

Finally, tracks 1, 8 and 9 are by KUT.

 

TRACK LIST

1. (-48:25) Artist - KUT

                     Track TitleSari-Oi  - Yellow Valley

                     Album - Nasyikat

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2. (-46:02) Artist - Unknown                     

                     Track title - Аргымакты жаман деп – Argymakty Zhaman Dep

                     Compilation-дасандар – Dasandar

 

3. (-42:45) Artist - К Орозов – K. Orozov

                     Track title -Кара озгой исп ав – Kara Ozgoyi Isp Av

                     Compilation -күүлорү:комуз – Kyylory: Komuz

 

4. (-39:11) Artist - Unknown

                    Track title -Атаке – Atake

                    Compilation-дасандар – Dasandar

 

5. (-34:10) Artist - Добр – Dobr

                     Track title - Baktyluu bol (Komuz)

                     Album -нукура кыргыз бала – Nukura Kyrgyz Bala


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. (-29:53)  Artist - Тата Улан – Tata Ulan

                      Track title - Кыргызстан – Kyrgyzstan

                      Album -зтно акын – Ztno Akyn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. (-25:49) Artist - Unknown                    

                     Track title -Булбулум об соз Э Иманалиев - Bulbulum Ob Soz E Imanaliev

                     Compilation-дасандар – Dasandar

 

8. (-21:28) Artist - KUT

                      Track Title - Nasyikat  - Heritage

                      Album - Nasyikat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. (-17:25) Artist - KUT

                     Track Title - Boz Uido – Yurt/Home

                     Album - Nasyikat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. (-15:24) Artist - Добр – Dobr

                       Track title - Salam (Remix)

                       Album -нукура кыргыз бала – Nukura Kyrgyz Bala

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11. (-12:13) Artist - Unknown                    

                      Track title -Булбулум об соз Э Иманалиев - Bulbulum Ob Soz E Imanaliev

                      Compilation-дасандар – Dasandar

How to wear a Kyrgyz hat

Many of our backers will be receiving new hats in a few days. Once these packages arrive, the recipients will likely be wondering, “What is this funny hat?”

The hat is known as a kalpak, and is traditionally made of four panels of felt or sheepskin, embroidered with lovely patterns. It is worn primarily by men in Kyrgyzstan and is considered to be a symbol of the nation.

The next question you may ask yourself is, “How do I wear it?”

First, fold the bottom up about an inch to an inch and a half (2.5 to 3.5 cm). Next, unfold the front (where the embroidery is) a little bit, while raising the back a little higher. Play with it until you find the look you like. Some people like the front lowered all the way, and others like the front and back to be level. And voila! You look smashing!

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Don’t look so skeptical, this is exactly how the locals wear it to the market!

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And while you are here, why not have a listen to the sounds of the bazaar. (Please note that the F-word can be heard in this recording, when we discovered this table of meat covered in carnivorous wasps. Ew.)

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I’m happy to report that there was a much more sanitary meat stand a little further up the way.

And for those of you who received tea as part of your reward, please meet your wise vendor. She had cures for every ailment. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand what any of them were.

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For those of you who received spices, your spice master (center) and friends are below. The spices are his homemade mix. Unfortunately, we have no idea what is in it. I actually took it to one of NYC’s largest spice shops to see if they could shed some light on the mix, and they basically told me they didn’t have a clue, “…chili powder, some herbs, and I have no idea what this thing is…” So it’s a mystery!

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We’d love to see pictures of you in the hats, try your recipes using the spices, and learn what ailments the tea helped to cure! Post them to our Facebook page!

If there is one country I would return to in a heartbeat…

…it would be Kyrgyzstan. This small, mountainous country had us completely enamored from just about the moment we crossed the border from Uzbekistan (which, though we have much love for, we were ready to leave). The beautiful landscape, friendly people, and easily accessible ATMs were welcoming and comforting. Here, let me show you:

Shortly after our arrival, we noticed the landscape was becoming hilly.
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We camped by the river our first night, just next to a necropolis. As we have been known to do.
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There was some good stone skipping action.
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The next day was one awesome mountain ride across the country from our campsite near Kara-kul to the capital, Bishkek.

View Karakul to Bishkek in a larger map
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We met some cool kids on cool bikes while we stopped for gas, money and food
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We ate a nice lunch
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Then we were back on the road, climbing a big mountain (approx 3500 meters)
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We saw how the mountain people live
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And tried some of the local kumis, fermented mare’s milk.
Mmmm...fermented mare's milk....

The reactions were mixed
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Before we knew it, we were approaching the chaotic capital of Bishkek.
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It had been one of the best driving days of the trip.

New record label from a Russian town we passed through

We have fond memories of getting completely lost trying to navigate our way through the southern Russian city of Krasnodar after we crossed over from the Crimea and plodded along toward western Kazakhstan. Definitely one of our navigational FAIL moments, we probably lost 2 hours trying to figure out how to get back to the right road once we found ourselves heading toward Moskow instead of Astrakhan. The whole thing probably would have been much less stressful if we had access to some of these soothing electronic tunes from new Krasnodar label, Sub Amp.

Our favorite audio blog covering all parts of the former USSR, Far From Moscow reports on the new label, and have posted a number of excellent tracks for your listening pleasure on their site. Enjoy.

In the meantime, we are putting the finishing touches on our Kickstarter backer rewards, and starting to drop those into the mail this week (though this may take time considering the hundreds of backers we had. and we love you all). We’ll be back soon with a new podcast from Kyrgyzstan, and some fresh blog posts.

Happy listening, and drive carefully!