Almaty (Kazakistan), Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Hi dear readers! After the Indian subcontinent the journey continues in Central Asia, the region that includes five states of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (where, however, I will not go because it is too complicated have a visa).

These states, whose names are not familiar to us because they were created by the Soviet Union when they were already incorporated into it, were previously inhabited largely by nomadic or semi-nomadic populations that had no real borders.
At the collapse of the Soviet Union they became independent and since then their history is quite similar. Excluding Kyrgyzstan, they have all been led for decades by some already well-known leader of the local communist party, who has changed the name of the party and promoted a cult of personality that in the case of Turkmenistan has reached the ridiculous, with golden statues of the mother of Niyazov dictator scattered everywhere.
Almost everywhere, any political opposition has been silenced with fierce repression, torture and murder, and almost everywhere ethnic and religious conflicts have exploded (in Tajikistan shortly after independence there was even a civil war that caused over 60,000 dead, in Kyrgyzstan in 1990, already before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then in 2010 there were ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that caused at least a thousand deaths, especially among the Uzbeks).
Repression and violations of human rights have sometimes reached chilling levels, such as the Andijon massacre in Uzbekistan on May 13, 2005, when a largely peaceful demonstration was smothered in blood, leaving almost 1000 civilians dead.
This news usually does not have much space in the Western media because don’t match with the story of the states of the former Soviet Union finally free, happy, prosperous and democratic, and also because the United States had always preferred to turn a blind eye to these continuous violations of human rights in exchange for logistical and strategic support for the war in Afghanistan, plus the usual economic interests.

In contrast, however, the atmosphere is very quiet and the people very hospitable. The only real problem for travelers is that few people speak English and therefore to move around is a bit difficult. For vegetarians (like me) it is sometimes a bit complicated to order something to eat in the Cyrillic menus, especially since the local cuisine makes great use of meat.

I put the photos and I tell you in the meanwhile.

From Delhi I flew to Almaty in Kazakhstan. The flight had to last only 3 hours, but lasted more than 7 hours due to the blockage of the airspace with Pakistan for the usual skirmishes regarding the Kashmir. The plane had to make a very wide circle all around.
Kazakhstan is a very vast nation, famous especially for being the pseudo-homeland of Borat. In reality at least Almaty is very different from the descriptions of Borat. It is a modern and lively city. New buildings are replacing the Soviet ones and the main streets are full of bars and clubs. Although it is no longer the capital since 1997 it remains the main economic and cultural center. It is the only city I visited in Kazakhstan.


Inside an orthodox church, next to the Ascension Cathedral. The majority of the population in Kazakhstan is Muslim while about a quarter are Orthodox Christians because of the Russian community.


A war monument with the Ascension Orthodox cathedral in the background. During the Second World War much of the war production was moved to these regions, far from the front. Here were quickly and secretly built many of the tanks that will after carry out the counteroffensive that will free Europe from the Nazi domination.


From Almaty I arrived by land in Kyrgyzstan, which is located just to the south. The Kyrgyzstan is a largely mountainous country and when traveling you often encounter spectacular scenery, snowy mountain ranges, rivers and lakes.


A cemetery.


After visiting the capital, Bishkek, where there is not much to see, I did a three-day horseback tour to reach Lake Song Kul. Besides me there was an American man, the girl who organized the tour and the guide. On the first night we stopped in a farmers’ house.


Inside the house. Their economy is very essential. The cooking stove also serves to heat the house. Most of what they eat is produced directly by them.


The second day of the tour was very hard, especially for the cold. Actually I had read that in April it is still too cold for that tour but the girl who organized it had assured me. If at least she had told me the truth I would have been better prepared. Instead, I found myself at 3400 meters without even gloves and scarf. The most dramatic moment was when, as we passed on a ridge, the organizer’s horse stopped walking and sat on his legs and the guide decided it was too dangerous to continue riding in that point because we were next to the precipice. So we continued on foot and because it had snowed a lot in some places the snow reached my knees. I was wearing sneakers and jeans, which of course got soaked. That dorsal seemed never ending, I was really on the edge of strength, a little more and I would have saw a yeti. But even after I got back on the horse it was not easy because the snow sometimes reached its belly and therefore it had difficulty on walking, often slipped, jumped and it was a stressful situation.


Finally we arrived at the Lake Song-Kul, which is just over 3,000 meters and was still completely frozen. The weather was a little warmer and there was no longer that icy wind.


Home Sweet Home! The yurt, the typical house in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Here we slept the second night. Yurts are usually made up of a single tent. In this case the central tent served as a kitchen and living room and the other two as bedrooms.


The scenery around.


Another yurt.


The night before I had a sore throat and I had chills, I think because of the fever since the yurt was very hot inside. Since we had to go through the ridge again at 3400 meters I was worried about getting there in those conditions, especially if it would have been again very cold. But luckily the next day I was already well and it was a relatively warm day. This is part of the ridge of the day before, the snow was much lower.




A distinguished old man on horseback.


Men playing chess at the market of Osh, the second largest city in Krygistan. This market has been here for over 2000 years and was one of the major markets of the Silk Road, the network of commercial paths from China to Rome, with branches up to India, Arabia, East Africa and Southeast Asia, of which this region was the heart.


People at the market. I guess you have noticed the typical hat of this place.


People pray on the path that runs alongside the Sulaiman-Too, a mountain that overlooks the city and is considered sacred since unmemorable time. It is also according to many historians the “Stone Tower” which marked the central point of the Silk Road.
In this photo people was praying in front of a small low cave. Women went in and out the cave almost crawling because they believe brings good luck for the motherhood. At another point of the route, people was slipping on a smooth rock hoping for a good health.


Scattered in the caves of the Sulayman mountain are petroglyphs that date back to the Bronze Age. This is located just inside the Sulaiman-Too museum, created by digging a cave inside the rock.


Mother and daughter.


From Kyrgyzstan I went by land to Khujand in Tajikistan, the poorest and smallest of the five nations. It is a very mountainous country, on average above 3000 meters. The man in the picture is the current president since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But let’s not say that there is no democracy. It is difficult to do 200 meters in a street without finding a picture of him.


From Khujand I arrived to the capital Dushanbe, with a collective taxi (the vehicle I am using most often in these parts) through a mountain road as spectacular as dangerous.
This is the National Library. In the last 10 years many buildings have been built on the main street of the city and in the park around. Although sometimes a bit kitsch, they are in general beautiful and it is very pleasant and relaxing to walk around its center.
All the Central Asia countries are having an economic recovery in these years, after the collapse suffered in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are starting to exploit the various natural resources of which they are rich. In the case of Tajikistan it is mainly the water.


Women making bread.


Hisor, a town that was an important landmark on the Silk Road.


Dushanbe market colors.


At the market a Lady looked at me in a strange way. But I know who she is. She is the Death and she came for me. Now I take the fastest horse (mhm, not so sure about that) and run away from her to…
I don’t know if you have understood which story I am referring to, but I will talk about it in the next post. In the meantime I do some superstitious gestures because I don’t want to bring bad luck to myself.

Varanasi (India)

Hello friends! This time I tell you about Varanasi, the most sacred city of Hindus. It is also known as Kashi or Benares and is one of the oldest cities in the world.
Although it has been destroyed several times and almost all the visible buildings are no more than a few centuries old, millenary rites has survived, passed down until today. And indeed the magic of the city lies in this and it is certainly among the places that remain most impressed in the memory, even if at times you may find ourselves in situations a little disturbing, as for example when you walk by funeral pyres. It is also hard for a claustrophobic traffic with a perpetual horn sound.
The city overlooks the west bank of the Ganges through the so-called “ghats”, the steps that lead to the river. There are a total of 88 ghats and each has its own characteristic that makes it different from the others.


Let’s start with the more “disturbing” ghat , the one were there are the cremation pyres burning 24 hours a day.
For Hindus it is propitious to be cremated in Varanasi and for this reason many dead are brought here. Furthermore, it is believed that who dies in Varanasi obtains the “moksha”, the escape from cycle of rebirth, and for this reason many elderly people from all over India move to Varanasi waiting for death.


The Ghat is called Manikarnika and was among the first I visited, unintentionally. So I suddenly found myself between the pyres for cremation. From near you can clearly see the bodies so it was a little shocking. Other bodies waiting to be cremated are on the staircase, covered with garlands of orange flowers.
I couldn’t take pictures (unless I was giving a really high donation), but anyway I didn’t feel comfortable doing them. I did the photos later from a boat.


A pyre. I cut the right side of the picture because there was a part of the body and it was therefore a bit disturbing, other than perhaps disrespectful.


The higher the caste of the deceased, the higher the pyre is positioned.


Varanasi is the city of Shiva, probably the oldest and most popular Hindu god. The members of some Shaivism sects go around naked or half-naked, covered only with a gray-blue ash.


An holy man.


Sometimes they are completely naked.


If in the rest of India sacredness can be felt everywhere and often you find ourselves in the middle of ceremonies or celebrations, in Varanasi it is practically daily life. The city has over 700 temples, but the most revered place is the river Ganges. Since the rising of the sun the believers go to the shore to pray and bathe in its waters, considered sacred. Every evening, after sunset, there are two ceremonies with fire, called Aarti, in honor of the river. And every time there is a big audience, also because Varanasi is a pilgrimage destination for Hindus, who feel the duty to visit it at least once in their life.


This is the aarti ceremony at the Assi Ghat, the last Ghat to the south.
After the ceremony we all went to greet “Mother Ganga”, some drinking its water, some (like also me) offering a little flame that floated away among other flames in the night.


This is instead the cermony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, where there was a bigger audience, most of them on the boats in front of the ghat.


I loaded a short video on Youtube of this ceremony: Video of Aarti ceremony


The Jain ghat, with the Jain symbol of the swastika. Varanasi is also one of the most sacred cities for Jainism.


The Munshighat, where since few years that building on the left has been converted into a luxury hotel.


People on a ghat.


The Kedar ghat, on top of which is a Hindu temple.


People walking. It is not easy to move around the city because there is always a lot of traffic and often even when walking you need to be in trafficated street. I uploaded another short video on Youtube that shows the traffic: Video Varanasi traffic.




Muslim little girl.






In the narrow streets of the old city.


People in the old city.


The typical cow that walks through Indian streets, in this case also narrow.


About ten kilometers from Varanasi, that is one of the most sacred places for Hindus and Jains, there is also one of the most sacred places for Buddhists: Sarnath . It is at the Sarnath deer park, where there is now that big stupa, that Buddha gave in 527 BC his first sermon to his five friends and followers, shortly after he reached enlightenment. That sutra is the basis of all Buddhist philosophy and explains the four noble truths, namely that there is pain, there is a reason why there is pain (that is the desire and attachment), it is possible to overcome pain eliminating desire and attachment and finally how to do it (with the noble eightfold path).
Already a few centuries after the death of Buddha this place became very important, with several Buddhist monasteries and temples of which only ruins remain today. It is here that was found the capital with the four lions that became the symbol of India.


And finally, you have recognized it, the Taj Mahal in Agra. I had already visited it twenty-three years ago… ehhh time passes!
One of the greatest architectural masterpieces in the world, it is a marble mausoleum built between 1632 and 1653 at the request of the Mughal Shah Jahan for his beloved Persian wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. About 20,000 people worked on its construction.


There are other photos of the Taj Mahal and of Delhi, where I am now, but I stop here. Cheers from the Indian subcontinent and see you in two or three weeks for something completely different…