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Week Four Chapter - 22 ~ 28 May 2007 - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

National Flag of Turkmenistan National Flag of Turkmenistan

"Marriage is the only adventure open to the cowardly." - Voltaire (1694 - 1778)

"Adventure is just bad planning." - Roald Amundsen

Starting location for this week: Mary, Turkmenistan
Ending location for this week: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Planned mileage for this week: 888 miles (1,420 kilometers)

Salam aleykum - "Hello" in Turkmen
Salaam aleikhem - "Hello" in Uzbek
Asalom u alaykhum - "Hello" in Uzbek

As you'll see in this week's stories, there are seven 'Stans, and we've visited four of them. So far, the count is Globeriders, one sheep, one bird, three police cars, but the 'Stans haven't got anything on us, other than continued history, culture, vistas, and pot holes too numerous to count.

We've had heat, wind, rain, rocks, dirt, and kilometers of endless nothing - people actually pay for this<g>?

Along with the many miles, many smiles, far off places, new faces, break-downs, flats, leaks, loose parts, and all the other joys and travails of being "On the Road" (a Silk one in this case).

Istanbul seems both far away, and only yesterday. Our final border crossing happens shortly, and we'll leave Cental Asia for the Middle Kingdom, now following a highway that is actually called The Silk Road.

Welcome to Week Four of the Silk Road!

Mike, Your Webmeister

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To find out what time it is there (or anywhere!), visit The World Clock.

To see where they are now, visit the Navigation Technology Chapter.

For more information about the countries in this week's leg of the Silk Road, please visit the resources listed below:

- The World Factbook, maintained by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States

- The Consular Information Sheets, provided by the Department of State of the United States

- The web-based, free-content encyclopedia entries at Wikipedia, maintained by "GlobeWriters" everywhere

Day 25 - 25 May 2007 - Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Crossing the Caspian: The Sea below sea level

As a kid, I use to read the stories of world travelers sailing to exotic destinations on tramp steamers. The romance of the high seas, and the luxury of having the world slide by while listening to the lull of the waves washing around the hull was always a dream. Because of that, I have always enjoyed loading my bike on a ferry and gliding away to an exotic destination, eagerly waiting to see what lies over the horizon. So our planned 175 mile crossing of the Caspian Sea brought a great amount of excitement to me. Besides, after the three weeks of crossing Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, I looked forward to the idea of having half a day to just to sit, relax and do nothing too!

All good things come with a price though, and the price of crossing the Caspian was the uncertainty of the departure times. The ferry that would carry the GlobeRiders to Turkmenistan was not your normal ferry, instead it was a cargo ferry for the transport of rail cars between the two nations. Armed with the knowledge that this ferry did not run on a regular schedule, everyone was prepared to spend most of the day at the port, waiting to load. Unfortunately we were soon to discover what “not on a regular schedule” meant. As it turned out for us, it meant the ferry would not arrive until the following day, necessitating an extra day stay in Baku. With good nature and relaxed attitudes, the GlobeRiders group left our bikes secured at the port and boarded a bus that would take us to our new hotel for the night.

The next morning we were at the port bright and early, and were happy to see not one, but two ferries docked and waiting to unload. It was fascinating to watch the choreography of twin train engines operated in tandem, slowly removing the railcars from the ship, then loading their replacements for the return. In all we watched 28 fully loaded rail cars slowly slide into the cavernous mouth of the ship before we were finally called to load. Cavernous is a fair description because these ferries were so large that they actually had sidings inside to split the rail cars onto four separate rail lines. I marveled at the timing and precision of the loading process because to engines worked two rail lines, side by side, needing to load simultaneously to keep the balance of the ship. Parallel processes on a moving platform. It was very impressive.

Our loading was no less workmanlike - riding up the rough, uneven planks of the dock, between rails with gaps big enough to swallow tires, and into the bowels of the ship. Tying down the bikes amongst the chains and huge loading devices for the trains, we were dwarfed by their size. Then it was off to load our personal gear and find our "luxury" accommodations. I felt like a sailor departing on a long deployment as I walked up the gangplank hanging off the side of the ship, carrying all my personal gear.

The ship was vast, and practically empty. Except for a young Norwegian couple backpacking, a couple of other locals, we were the only other passengers on the ship. Lunch (which we brought with us) was served picnic-style on the aft deck, and dinner was served just off the crew galley. In between was 13 hours to relax, nap, talk, write in journals, watch DVDs, or do nothing at all. Many chose to watch the oil platforms glide by on the glass-like sea, while others (like me) opened the port holes in their cabin and took a luxurious nap in the cool breezes wafting in from the water. It was heaven to have nothing to do and all day to do it.

Before we knew it, we had to get to bed because the arrival in Turkmenistan was scheduled for 02:00 a.m. in the morning. We were excited to be crossing to Turkmenistan, but we knew the Customs process might be a long one, and then we still had hundreds of miles to ride across the Kora-Kum Desert once we did clear. We were soon to learn the joys of Turkmenistan Customs, but that is another story…..

Oh, as for the title? When we were sitting at the docks, someone noticed on their GPS that we were over 100 feet below sea level. Yes, the Caspian Sea is BELOW sea level. Now that little bit of knowledge should win some bar bets!

Jeff Munn

Day 27 - Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Well, I guess it’s time to write for the Live!Journal seeing as we are about at the half-way mark in this trip in terms of time. I could talk about various things like the sights, the riding, the local cultures, the food, the politics, police, border crossings, break-downs, etc., but even though these are all interesting and would be good stories, there are two things that stand out for me far more. One I will talk about in this journal entry is how well our group, give its diversity, interacts with each other.

We have an age span of 30 plus years between the various members, we come from all sorts of social and economic backgrounds, and of course different countries as well. Yet despite these differences, we get along amazingly well. There is a mutual respect and caring for each other. You see it in the way we help each other, be it helping work on the bikes, or sharing parts, or paying for each other’s drinks, sharing computers, satellite phones, money etc. You see each other pitching in when anything needs to be done, like loading a broken bike into the chase vehicle. You see it in the way we joke with each other.

The other day, we met two riders who were traveling by themselves. At first, Some of us thought this would be great, if not even better than a group ride like ours. I thought about this for a while, and decided for several reasons that I preferred our group ride. One of the main reasons is that you get to meet all these new people, share this great experience together, and develop friendships. This made me think more about our group and what it is that brings us together; why it is so enjoyable, fun and interesting.

One thing that brings us together is obviously our common interest in motorcycle touring. It is also that we are sharing an adventure together. It is also because, with the exception of one women (and a very special one at that affectionately nicknamed “Tiger Lily”) we are all males - this is really an awesome “guy thing” to do. We jump all over anyone’s idiosyncrasies or screw-ups and slag the heck out of each other, take no prisoners, no holds barred, where men are men and the sheep are nervous, (right Jack!).

With such a mixed group sharing a common interest, you are bound to learn something from everyone. Our conversations can run the gamut from economics, politics, religion, motorcycle riding, relationships, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, Doctor Phil to, well, let’s just say things you would be more likely to hear in a locker room. Just think about it for a second - a bunch of men without their significant others, away from work or business, getting together to ride motorcycles through foreign countries, with all sorts of risk and adventures, and at the end of the day, for those of us who indulge over whiskey and cigars, share our day’s riding adventures. You can feel the testosterone (or better yet, smell it when the riding boots come off).

Having our own motorcycles, as opposed to rentals, I believe also adds to the tightness of the group. There is something about having your own ride that is different, maybe because it reflects, in part, who you are.

Also, the way GlobeRiders understands riders - they know we like to be on our own, to do our own “thing”, so they whenever they can, they provide the opportunity for us to ride single or in small groups. That said, there are places where we are required to ride in convoy which at first, to most riders, would seem to be a drag, but it too has its own uniqueness. For example, the impact you can see it has on people when twenty bike, all lined up, ride through their small communities. You see all the people waving at this long parade of motorcycles, something I am sure many have never seen before. You can see the increased effect when the whole group stops for a break at some local café; we get swamped with people wanting to see us, see our bikes and find out where we are from and what we are doing.

Put all this together and, as they say, the total is greater than the sum of the parts. What you get from this is one heck of an experience and friendships. Experiences and friendships that will be remembered for a long time. Experiences and friendships they may even be life-changing.


Day 28 - 28 May 2007 - Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Mothers’ Day in Armenia

Written on May 13, 2007
Tblisi, Georgia

Last night at dinner several of us decided that we would take an early morning day-trip to Armenia. My ancestors’ land-locked country was only 65 km away from Tblisi, Georgia and is predominantly surrounded by Islamic neighbors. Unfortunately for us, we had to ride in the van because our local guide, Nino (aka “No-No”), was convinced that we would be unable to successfully cross the border on our motorcycles.

Armenians are an interesting crew, they refer to themselves as ‘Hai’ and believe that they are directly descended from Noah’s grandson, Haik.

At the Armenian border, I was able to put my native tongue to use by convincing the Armenian Custom’s Official that we were not journalists. Once we finally crossed the border into Armenia, I called my mother in California and wished her a happy Mothers’ Day.

To be clear, although many of the countries that we are riding through have better cellular coverage than the Bay Area in Northern California, they still would be classified as developing or emerging. However, in all frankness, Armenia would best be described as a regressing country. The decay, neglect and complete disregard for the environment rank it as one of the most depressing countries that I have ever visited. Yet, despite the decomposing waste along the river, and the vacant, abandoned Soviet-era factories, I was curiously pleased to actually be on Armenian soil.

Our mission for the day was to score some Armenian cognac, have a cup of tea or coffee, then return to Tblisi by noon. After stopping at the first village we spotted from the road, it quickly became apparent that there were no functioning business establishments other than the ‘walk-in closet’ grocery stores. The majority of the uninhabited buildings would be condemned if they were located in the States, and many of the men loitering along the pot-holed, scarred road looked a bit off-center.

As luck would have it, one of the tired-looking fellows responded to my request for assistance in locating a place to have tea or coffee. His name was Edig and I wasn’t surprised by the alcohol on his breath or his willingness to assist us. He jumped into our van and led our driver to a shack by the side of the river that followed the main road.

Upon pulling off the road, a very large woman came out to greet us. She was Edig’s wife, Sophie, and she insisted that we stay for lunch. While we relaxed outside by the river, Sophie and Edig prepared a delicious lunch of lamb kebobs and vegetables. Their genuine hospitality and kindness washed over all of us, and the despair and hopelessness that I had expected was nowhere to be found. Instead, laughter, smiles and jokes were the course for the day. We all enjoyed our lunch and their company.

Overall, my impression of Armenia is that it is a dysfunctional, disorganized and depressing place inhabited by some very proud people who have hearts of gold and an incredible tolerance for suffering great hardship. I hope that their future will be brighter than their past.


Day 28 - 28 May 2007 - Tashkent, Uzbekistan

An Embarrassment of "Riches"

This far into our journey, riders have become experts at the daily routine of packing. Whether they simply stuff their luggage with wild abandon, or adhere to the principles of everything has a place, everything in its place, there is a personal discipline of sorts that insures they know where their stuff is.

This ain't no luxury tour.  It's GlobeRiders' policy that all riders carry all of their gear on their bikes for most riding days. One might assume that we've cleverly divested ourselves from the drudgery of being bell hops for our clients.  But there is a more compelling reason - this is an adventure, and anything can happen.  Should a rider become separated from the group, or delayed en route, we want to insure they have all their tools, communications equipment, and road essentials with them. We also need to make sure the chase vehicle has sufficient room to recover a disabled motorcycle.  Space it at a premium for everyone.

Space it so tight that it's a joy to finally use up a bar of soap. Riders give away parts and supplies with glee, as it means less weight, more space, less gear to keep track of.

Thus, it was with considerable dismay that we dealt with our first "inflated" foreign exchange transaction, trading US Dollars or Euro for Turkmeni Manat.  There is the official exchange rate of around 5,200.00 Manat to 1.00 US Dollar, but the "wink wink, nudge, nudge" black market rate is nearly double that. Exchanging $50.00 US resulted in the 700-page paperback novel thick stack of bills in the first photo to the right.  And as you can see, neither Jeff nor Jason fared any better. . . .

Where to put it all? It certainly won't fit in any wallet. Stuffing it in your pant pocket results in a "Hi sailor, new in town" bulge that is clearly discernable from across the street.  Having to reallocate our precious "space" when packing simply to find somewhere to stash the cash was a novel experience for many.

The problem was excacerbated by the cost of essentials. In Turkmenistan, although we incurred a fuel surcharge for our tourist visa, we only paid about $0.50 US for 9 GALLONS of fuel. How to spend all that money? Charitable riders all, the game quickly became paying for everyone else's drink, just to get rid of the bills. A few clever individuals hit upon the tactic of offering twice the black market rate for "hard currency".


Day 28 - 28 May 2007 - Tashkent, Uzbekistan

We are now halfway through our adventure, and it is hard to believe that we have been traveling for 25 days and have covered nearly ,000 miles already. During this time we have had wonderful experiences, met beautiful people and have had our share of challenges and difficulties.

At this point there are only a handful of people who have not gotten sick from the water or food (a condition that some of us have come to call the “Silk Road Squirts”). Fortunately for most of us, this has hit us on days that we have not been riding our motorcycles, and we have been in close proximity to proper toilets and that wonderful, precious and sometimes scares commodity of toilet paper.

Border crossing have been another significant challenge and have tested us all on how much patience we have “packed” for this trip. I am discovering that, oddly enough, it generally takes us more time to get out of a country than it does to get in. Sometimes border officials want to go through our luggage, sometimes they want to check our cameras to see what photographs we have taken. Mostly is just seems to be a game for processing a copious amount of paperwork and going through the motions. Fortunately, our guides know the process and help push things along, however, it can still take 4 to 6 hours to make these crossing (coming up in a few days we actually have two border crossings in one day – Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan and then Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, that should make for a very interesting day!!).

At this stage of the journey we are all learning and appreciating the different “characters” that we are traveling with. The process of assigning nicknames to various travel partners has begun, some have been very easy to come up with, others have yet to be identified, none the less, the short list at this time is:

Rupert – “The Earl of Sandwich”. Rupert is rather fond of making a sandwich from the items offered at our breakfast. This sandwich is then stuffed away for a mid-morning snack. We all make fun of our favorite Bloke from England, but quite frankly, when we are in the middle of nowhere stopped on the side of the road and he is stuffing his face, we wish we had been so wise.

Dan Moore has been affectionately named “Dan Garmin”. Garmin is the brand of GPS units that we all use. The company tag line is – “Get a Garmin or get lost”. In Dan’s case, this motto has been changed to “Get a Garmin and get lost anyways!!! When we all first met in Turkey and removed our motorcycles from the container, we asked Dan why he had put a 10 gallon fuel tank on his motorcycle (most of our tanks are 6-8 gallons). His response was – “I get lost ----- a lot!!!

At the time we thought he was kidding, but now know that this rings true on nearly a daily basis. This became very apparent on the day we made the border crossing from Georgia to Azerbaijan. We were all at the border crossing and wondered where Dan was. Well, it turned out he was also at the Georgia-Azerbaijan border crossing, it just happened to be one that was more than 50 miles away. Dan realized he was not at the right crossing when he was in Azerbaijan, his motorcycle was still in Georgia and the officials asked for his documents. Fortunately, a call to our guides quickly got the whole mess sorted out, and Dan joined us at the correct border crossing an hour or two later.

Roger “Pannier” Hansen (Pronounced - Roejé Panyé Hansen - spoken with a heavy French accent as by Inspector Clousseau in “The Pink Panther”). Panniers are the large metal boxes that hang on the sides of our motorcycles, to hold our luggage, tools, spare parts, etc. We have discovered that there is a law of Physics called “Hansen’s Law of Attraction”. This law states that “Panniers that are in motion tend to stay in motion, Panniers that are at rest tend to stay at rest, and Those that are at rest have an extremely strong attraction for those that are in motion”. This law of Physics has been put to the test and proven several times on this adventure, at times nearly creating international conflict.

[Editor’s Note: Some background – on two separate occasions, in the traffic chaos that swirls around us, Roger had the misfortune of smacking panniers with our French-speaking riders, Yves G. and Yves S. On both occasions, Roger’s Touratech panniers won, tearing the mounting points off of the BMW System Cases. Roger reimbursed both. Adding salt to the wounds, early in the trip, both of Roger’s pannier lids came off during a ride, unnoticed until later in the day. So, in addition to the purchase of his original boxes, Roger has since purchased two others that he will never own, and had to incur the very considerable expense of air-freighting new lids for his own.]

That’s all for now from this roadside reporter, more stories and adventures to come!!

Joe Laumer

Day 28 - 28 May - Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistanian Dreams

Sometimes fear and bizarre rules are the result of the strangest series of events. We have discovered many unusual traditions or customs on the trip, but the weirdest one of all was here in Uzbekistan. It seems (according to the rumors we’ve been told) that the president of Uzbekistan had a dream. In this dream he was assassinated by someone on a motorcycle. His answer? Simple. He banned motorcycles in all major cities of Uzbekistan, and they have practically disappeared throughout the country because of this.

So when we showed up at the Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan border with a massive group of huge motorcycles, the Uzbek government decided that we had to be controlled at all times. They required us to ride in convoy wherever we went, with a police car front and rear, and when we stopped for the night, it had to be at a controlled/secured parking lot outside of the city limits. No motorcycles are to be allowed inside any city. Bummer. The motorcycle itself is the definition of freedom, and they were taking that freedom away from us. With this bunch of riders, that did not sit well, as you can imagine.

But the indomitable spirit of this group chose to shine thru the bureaucratical mindset of the Uzbek authorities. Subtly and quietly, we devised a plan to regain as much freedom as we could, while technically still abiding by the rules imposed on us. Independence, stubbornness, free-thinking, resistance to authoritarian control? Aren’t these traits that most American’s possess? This is true, but our French, Canadian, Irish, Greek, English and Swiss riders joined right in too.

It must be a motorcycle thing.

The plan? I was to ride at the head of the convoy, and basically harass, cajole, or embarrass the lead police vehicle into going as fast as we could get it going. We employed such subtle techniques as having Vince pull a wheelie beside the police car, riding alongside and pretending to race, or the simple technique of shouting and waving our arms as if we were policemen waving someone thru an intersection. Usually, the poor policeman would get caught up in the excitement and start driving faster, with lights and sirens going. We knew it was infectious and being manly men, we knew the police really wanted to go fast too. It never failed us.

The second part of the fiendish plan was to have those at the back start to go a little slower, stretching out the convoy over a mile or more. Then everyone was basically riding on their own, within sight of each other, but not in a side-by-side convoy.

The unexpected consequence? We will probably be presented with a bill for the repair of three police car engines before we depart Uzbekistan. The first three police cars they chose to lead us with were totally unable to keep up with our sustained speeds. One actually had to shut off its engine and coast over to the side of the road because we had him pegged at 110 kph for 15 miles, which caused his engine to overheat. They finally found a late model Volvo sedan with police markings on it, and it became our lead vehicle. Boy did he (and we) have fun after that.

So basically, our lock-step, side-by-side, controlled convoy ride turned into a 70 mph romp across Uzbekistan with a full police escort, sirens and lights. We never had to stop at any traffic control point, never had to obey a traffic signal, and at every intersection the policeman on duty stopped all traffic and snapped to attention when we roared by. It was like being in the President’s own parade. I was grinning from ear to ear the entire day, waving to people and kids who rushed out to the road to see what the sirens were for. They didn’t know who we were, but obviously we were important!

The only unfortunate incident of the entire ride was when two sheep decided to jump the concrete barrier between the divided highways, and land right in the middle of our group. The first one made it, the second one didn’t. Jack T-boned the poor sheep at speed. Fortunately the 900 lbs of man, motorcycle and gear carried enough inertia to keep going, and Jack had enough experience and skill to ride thru the incident without losing control. The only damage to the bike was a cracked front fender and loosened driving light. The sheep became someone’s dinner. An animal-strike incident usually ends with some type of compensation to the owner, but this time we were told to keep moving once the bike was assessed as ride able. Who were we to argue with the police?

All in all it was a very fun day of riding because somehow, the group managed to take a very irritating limitation on our travel, and turn it into a sport-like romp across the country. Police cars, sirens, parades, waving to adoring crowds, driving straight thru cities with all the intersections controlled just for you, AND never having to worry about a speeding ticket? That sounds like a dream day of riding to me. It is amazing how one bizarre dream can lead to another with entirely different results. I am grinning just dreaming of our ride to Tashkent tomorrow.

Jeff Munn

Day 30 - 30 May 2007 - Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Where in the Freaking ‘Stan Am I?

Every morning when I wake up, I try to figure out where I am – which hotel in what city and country – and where I was the day before – and I love trying to figure it out – that’s when you know you love to travel.

When you’re traveling as quickly as I feel we are through these countries, it's easy to get confused. Since Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, we crossed the Caspian Sea to spend 4 days in Turkmenistan, 6 days in Uzbekistan, traveled through Kazakhstan to get to Kyrgyzstan (where we spent 3 days), and then back to Kazakhstan where we are now (for 3 days) before heading to China. See, I told you it’s confusing!

About the “Stans” – The quotes below are from a really informative National Geographic article (February 2002). There are 7 ‘Stans in this part of the world - we went to 4 of them. We missed Afghanistan “The Neediest”, Tajikistan “The Weakest”, and Pakistan “The Most Volatile”.

Turkmenistan – “The Most Despotic” – “One-man Stan – A president wields kinglike powers, shackles freedoms, and splurges on luxuries.” That about says it all. We spent the most time in the capital, Ashkhabad, which was a city of white (empty?) buildings and monuments to the president. I’m absolutely sure the planning committee for Ashkhabad consisted of the kings of Las Vegas, the Wizard of Oz, Walt Disney, and Big Brother (of the George Orwell 1984 kind – not that seriously stupid reality show). The country is four-fifths desert and has huge reserves of oil and natural gas reserves. However, the average person hasn’t seen much of the wealth.

But like any good tourists, we didn’t let the politics ruin our travels. We enjoyed our rides through the desert where we saw our first camels – awesome. Camels are domesticated here; these camels had one hump and later I would see the two humped camels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (Anisa, guess which one I’m bringing back for you?). We also experienced the Sunday Tolkuchka Bazaar (which included camel and other livestock trading that the Ortegas would die for), a folklore concert and fashion show (right up Angie’s alley), city tours, and ancient ruins in Merv (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). A few of us also rode to as close to Iran as we could get before getting turned around by the military.

Then onto “The Most Repressive” – Uzbekistan – “Ministry of fear – Following old Soviet ways, the government keeps an ironclad grip on the press and political foes.” That’s an understatement. Our motorcycle group was required to have a police escort through the entire country, and if that wasn’t enough to dampen everyone’s spirits, we had to park the motorcycles outside of each of the 3 cities we visited and take a bus in. We heard varying stories as to why this was required – safety, president’s son died on a motorcycle, attempted assassination by a motorcyclist – none of which made sense to us – but then, we enjoy freedoms that people would die for – oh, wait a minute – people did die for the freedoms we have and so it was particularly moving for me that we spent Memorial Day in Uzbekistan. Thank you to those who died serving our nation.

Along the Silk Road we are spending time in cities that were major cultural and trade centers of Central Asia, such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent in Uzbekistan. That translates into lots of shopping and sightseeing for us – more colorful bazaars, impressive architecture, lively plazas, interesting madrassahs (Islamic cultural and educational centers), mausoleums, and beautiful mosques. The evening of May 24 we were treated with great local music and belly dancing. It was most memorable for me, because it was my debut as a belly dancer – a surprise to all (except for Mike M. who helped me get up enough nerve to dance in front of everyone). Thanks also to Sasha (our local guide) for arranging it; the musicians easily understood my piece of music and the “real” belly dancers provided me with a “real” outfit. I was introduced by Sasha as “Tiger Lily” (Tiger because of Mike’s Triumph Tiger, get it?); yes, the nickname has stuck. I guess I did fairly well because Dan didn’t know it was me until halfway through my performance – but then, if you knew Dan that wouldn’t surprise you.

One could feel everyone’s relief and change of spirits as we got rid of the Uzbekistan police escort and rode through Kazakhstan to get to scenic, splendid Kyrgyzstan – “The Most Traditional”. “Strong Roots – A rural legacy endures in this mountain-encircled land, posing a challenge to a leader trying to modernize.” Three highlights: 1) staying on and strolling around the beach of Lake Issyk-Kul; 2) visiting the horseriders in a gorgeous high mountain setting where we watched (and for some, participated in) traditional horse games and had lunch in a traditional gher (yurt); and 3) riding through changing landscapes – we went through Nebraska’s rich agricultural fields, Colorado’s mountains, Utah’s canyon lands, and the wind-swept plains of Wyoming all in one day. The roads might have been rough, but everyone thought it was a great ride.

I like taking pictures of cemeteries – don’t ask me why – I don’t think I know. I’ve attached one picture – “Ghosts of communism rest eternal in eastern Kyrgyzstan. Under Soviet rule religion was repressed. But Muslims displayed crude sickles that also evoke the crescent moon – symbol of Islam.”

And finally, Kazakhstan, “The Wealthiest.” “Rich Future – Deposits of oil and gas – if combined with wise government – promise immense wealth.” That’s a pretty big “IF”. The wealth is here, but the average Kazakhstan hasn’t seen much of it – didn’t I already say that about another ‘Stan? Funny what greed does. Common with all the other ‘Stans, Kazakhstan is struggling with slow economic development, corruption, poverty, drought, rigid ex-Soviet ways, and human rights issues.

In spite of their difficult circumstances and unpredictable future, the people we personally met in all these countries remain hopeful and positive. They have been incredibly gracious hosts to all of us – whether it be the local tour guide, a family that opens their door for tea, or people in the markets and on the street. Of course, there are exceptions (like the money changers and a few other nefarious characters), but overall, our lives have been enriched by the wonderful “exchanges” we’ve had with local people. “Exchanges” – communication via words, hand signals, calculators, drawings, and best of all, smiles, handshakes, hugs, and a right hand to the heart.

Here’s my right hand to my heart to you all,

Love, Linda

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