Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Other duties are calling us, so we're behind. But last week was Jani, the Latvian midsummer celebration.

We were lucky enough to finagle an invitation with a friend to celebrate in the Latvian manner, by heading to the countryside with several pounds of meat for the barbecue, several cases of beer, and a desire to generally eat and drink from noon until noon again. Or thereabouts. Above, your correspondents pictured in the traditional flower wreath worn by women named Liga, but often worn by any woman who digs flowers; and the traditional oak wreath worm by mean named Janis, but loaned to your correspondent in order to take his picture with an oak wreath on his head. More about Jani and Ligo in the coming days.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sunset in Riga

Hey! We're in St. Petersburg with the Staff Parents-in-Law. So here's a picture of Riga. It won a contest for best photo by an Embassy employee out of, perhaps, multiple entries.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: People in Big Medrassah Archways

We are not actually close to being out of pictures we like from Uzbekistan.

But we may be ready to move on soon.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Juice

My amateur analysis is that these things are filled with some sort of juice concentrate, or some other magic and intensely colored fluid, and then mixed with fizzy water on demand. Or maybe they just use the colorful tubes to get people to come over and then sell them a bottle of Fanta. I never actually saw one in operation.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Suzani Sellers

I met this woman serving plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan, in a market where women sold gold jewelry from identical little red velvet cushions. This woman cooked plov in the back of the market area and her daughter ran around delivering it to the various jewelry-selling stalls. She was nice, and the food was plov-ilicious.

The next day, I happened upon her and her husband walking elsewhere in town. They walked right up to me, so I don't know if they had orchestrated our chance meeting or not. In any case, they invited me to visit their house. This was very kind of them, but of course also had the motive that the woman spends her evenings doing traditional Uzbek embroidery work and they wanted to sell me a piece of her handiwork. Or maybe they just buy the stuff and then convince gullible tourists that the woman made it herself so people like me who weren't totally sure they needed a piece of traditional Uzbek embroidery feel guilty and buy one. Anyway, I bought one. I think it's nice. I think they were also nice, and clearly had a clever sales ploy, but also served me tea and apricots in their home, so they deserved something for their kindness/entrepreneurial zeal.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Mosque Day

Overflow crowd of men praying at a historic mosque in Bukhara. The younger guys mostly show up, do their prayers, and then head out. The older guys show up early, sit in the shade of a tree chatting, and then hang out for a while to continue the conversation afterward.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: There's Gold in Them Thar Desert Wastelands

After our side-trip to the mountains some cousin of my host family took me, along with the unmarried son of the family, down to Bukhara, which was probably a four-hour trip by car. We made a couple stops along the way, including one spot out in the middle of nowhere where people were mining for gold by hand, pictured above. They had dug out tunnels by hand in the desert floor, bringing up buckets of dirt which they ran through a little sluice and then used a pan to sift out the gold flakes. It was technologically the equivalent of 1849 in California, except for the motorcycle.

We eventually made it to Bukhara, after stopping at every road junction along the way to ask someone which road went to Bukhara. And we eventually made it to my hotel by asking someone for directions every fifty feet in the town and still going the wrong way half the time.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Another Weekend Photo Bonus!

They have some great hats in Uzbekistan. And some older guys who look like they are right out of central casting to add local color for the next Indiana Jones movie.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Three Buckets of Cheese and One Ton of Hay

Hiking in the mountains was nice. It's kind of difficult to really do much hiking in Latvia. To your correspondent, you can't really go "hiking" unless you have some mountains or at least hills. I suppose walking through a scenic forest could be hiking, but even though there are plenty of forests in Latvia there don't seem to be many trails. Or maybe we just don't know where to look.

Anyway, it was great to go hiking. I went with one other tourist in the area - a Ukrainian guy -- and one of the young men from the family I was staying with, who served as guide, rode on a donkey while we walked, and borrowed my camera to take a picture of me in front of every tree and bush along the way (none of those pictures are being posted). He also helped us find some cool old petroglyphs of a stick figure with a spear chasing a bunch of bighorn sheep. Along the way we passed homes of other villagers (and their pack animals carrying hay to wherever it is you take hay, as below). The girls above (looking at my Ukrainian hiking companion as we each took a picture of them) thanked us for showing them their picture on the digital camera LCD by offering us each several of the bite-size cheese balls they were carrying in their buckets. I've never had anything like them - they cheese, but hard as a rock. They were also one of the few local foods I had in Uzbekistan that turned out to be not delicious. It was ridiculously kind of the girls to give them to us, but I carried the cheese balls around in a pocket for a day and then left them behind in my next hotel room.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Nurata

The Uzbek stuff just doesn't stop! I think this is better than the way we used to do things, where we would have written a single very long report on the trip, with links to some pictures. Feel free to let me know if you disagree.

Anyway, a couple pictures today from the Nurata mountains. It was beautiful. I was worried that a little range of mountains in the middle of the desert would be more like hills than real mountains. But there were actual jagged peaks. They were not very tall in the grand scheme of things - certainly nothing compared to the neighboring mountains in Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. But the weather was great, the rolling green of the lower elevations was fine for hiking, and the taller rocky outcroppings made for good scenery. At the very least, they were a lot more mountain than anyone will ever see in Latvia. And, since it was the middle of nowhere, it was a good place to do another shot of the stars moving above the mud-walled home of the family I was staying with (above, obvsly).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: A Girl, a Boy, and a Bird.

My home for one night in the Nurata mountains was a guesthouse in the village of Hayat. This is part of a program that some development agencies started to try to use sustainable tourism to support the villagers in the mountain valleys. On a select few families' land, the development program had built a simple structure for housing a few guests. The one where I stayed even had a basic shower.

The family was courteous, and served me ridiculous amounts of food, all of it tasty. But they weren't really friendly, per se. The women served meals and cleaned up, as seems to be the role for women in Uzbekistan generally. The men did some work with the livestock and in the garden, and spent a fair amount of time drinking tea. The unmarried son was clearly assigned to be social with the guests, and sat with me at meals, and sat near me even when I was just leaning against a tree, reading a book and enjoying the fresh air. He also seemed to be assigned to trying to sell me additional services, such as a motorcycle trip to see some ancient petroglyphs, or renting a donkey to ride rather than hiking, or visiting a traditional Uzbek sauna. (In another halting conversation mixing my few words of Russian and his few words of English, it took some time to become clear that the "sauna" was maybe not the right word, and that "brothel" was maybe closer to the truth.)

This left the grandchildren of the family, pictured here, who were too small to have too much assigned work, and seemed to really enjoy hanging around and staring at me while I ate or read or whatever. They were more than willing photo subjects. I don't know why the girl's head was shaved. A lot of young girls had extremely short haircuts. The boys usually didn't, which makes me doubt it was lice-related, but it's hard to be sure. There was also the bird at the top of this entry, in a small wooden cage hanging from a tree -- I think more pet than food source. It may or may not have been a willing photo subject, but it didn't really have much choice.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: The Sticks

Uzbekistan is all kind of remote, as the world goes. But when your correspondent happened upon a chance to get off the tourist trail, it got seriously middle-of-nowhere remote. As unusual a destination as Uzbekistan is for American travelers, there are actually a fair number of relatively adventurous types there to see the sights. The standard trip would take you to the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Your correspondent decided to cut off Khiva from the end of his trip and spend a couple days heading out to the Nurata Mountains. The trip out there involved three or four hours' journey by car, including a side-trip to see Lake Aydarkul. The side trip took our little taxi out over gravel roads, turning into bumpy dirt roads, turning into double-track path through the grassland, with nothing in sight except the (very) occasional goatherd. Pictured above is a makeshift tent, I think only a sun shelter, but maybe actually a home, seen in said middle of nowhere. Below, an ancient Soviet bus, of the kind that still plies some of the less popular routes in the country.

Other than the desolate landscape, the driver was particularly nice. He spoke Tajik, Uzbek, Russian, and one or two other languages, but not English or Spanish or Latvian(!?). So our conversations were limited by my 25-word Russian vocabulary. Nevertheless, he invited me over for a delicious home-cooked meal at his house, since we were passing by anyway, either because he was hungry or friendly or both. I pulled out my Russian phrasebook and we managed to have a halting conversation about his home and his family.

He also had an assistant who rode along in the backseat, although it was never clear why. The only thing I can tell that he did on the trip was this: At one point some sort of big flying insect -- vaguely cicada-like -- flew into one of the windows of the car. The assistant captured it, and then held it by the wings so that the driver and I could watch it struggle and wriggle its legs. After some discussion in Uzbek (or Tajik), they agreed to dump out a bar of soap that was still in its little cardboard box (I'm not sure why it was in the car at all), put the insect in the box, and shake it around a bit. I thought maybe they were trying to keep it as a pet or a totem or something. But a few moments later, the assistant rolled down his window and dumped the bug out of the box back into the wild. Why? Unfortunately, my 25 words of Russian did not allow me to ask, and the Russian phrasebook didn't have an entry for "Why are you using a soapbox to torture that grasshopper?", so I returned to enjoying the scenery speed by.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Market Day

We spent a morning at a market in the small town of Urgut, not too far away from Samarkand. We've done a lot of markets around the world, and always enjoy them. The staff photographer, like many photographers, loves the variety of sights and people doing interesting things in public markets. Of course, in a lot of markets (e.g. Guatemala), there are a lot of people who are not excited about having their picture taken, whether due to general principle or exhaustion from so many tourists wanting to take a picture of the colorful vegetables and the equally colorful local person.

When digital photography first became affordable, stories abounded of how excited those colorful locals were to be able to see themselves on the little digital camera screen. Your correspondent had dismissed these tales as largely apocryphal. But, wonder of wonders, in Urgut, lots of people really wanted their picture taken. I was wandering the market with a Swiss guy I had met at the guest house in Samarkand. We each had big obvious cameras with us. And the number of people who would say "Hey Mister" and then pantomime taking a picture was really surprising. Kids in particular were excited to see their miniature LCD-screen portraits, but even adults seemed to get a real kick out of it. The guy below, in particular, wanted a picture of himself talking on his mobile phone. Maybe he figured it made him look like rather than selling rice by the pound, he was selling grain futures on the world market.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Bonus Sunday Photo

Just because we have a lot of pictures we want to share. Seen in Urgut, near Samarkand. I look at this and think they look like a gang of dangerous characters wandering into some movie's one-horse town, ready to cause trouble.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: The Mighty Lada

There are some Ladas still on the road in Latvia. Few enough that you still notice them, but not so few that you stop and stare.

In Uzbekistan, there are a lot of Ladas on the road. They come in all variety of colors that we don't really use for cars anymore, like vibrant purple and pumpkin orange. A lot of them are being used as taxis, but your correspondent only rode in one Lada taxi - it seemed that whenever I needed a taxi some crummy modern Daewoo was right there. An equal number, however, were being used as pickup trucks. Or at least, used to haul furniture, lumber, appliances, you name it, which I think of as pickup appropriate tasks. This is the best picture I got, but not even close to the biggest stack of stuff seen on top of a Lada. I did not see any of them hauling cattle trailers like you would in a Ford pickup ad, but they still haul a pretty impressive load for such a funny little car.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Seeds for sale!

Things in this picture:

A guy in one of those cool Uzbek caps and his (perhaps) granddaughter selling some kind of seeds as a snack from a wheelbarrow of sorts.

The remains of the Aksaray Palace, the top of which was the site of yesterday's photo.

A big statue of Timur/Tamerlane - he's everywhere in Uzbekistan. Don't worry, it's just the perspective that makes it look like maybe it's bigger than the palace. It just normal big.

Ferris wheel, one of several rides you probably could not have paid me to ride on at the fair for the last day of school.

Not sure why the black-and-white seems to be working for a lot of the Uzbekistan pictures. It was at times a fairly colorful place.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Graduation

This picture is from the top of the remains of a centuries-old castle in Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan. Shahrisabz was home to Tamerlane, the Uzbeks' great conqueror and now national hero. Which is sort of like declaring Attila the Hun your national hero, under the philosophy: "He may have been a cruel tyrant, but he was our cruel tyrant." In any case, Tamerlane built an amazing palace in Shahrisabz, parts of which still stand and are amazing.

The day we were there turned out to be the last day of school for the students of Shahrisabz Unified School District. It seemed that thousands of them descended on the park surrounding the ancient palace for a modest carnival and the possibility of climbing to the top of the tower, and if not, enjoying the biggest graduation party in town down at ground level. To the best of our reckoning, the new graduates all wore sashes to mark their accomplishments. Many of the young women, graduates or not, were dressed as pictured above, poofy pony-tail holders and all, as apparently is the fashion in Shahrisabz these days.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: The Registan

One of the undoubted highlights of Uzbekistan is the Registan. It is a complex of three madrassahs (Islamic seminaries, sort of) built from the 1400's to the 1600's. They are pretty spectacular. Each of them has a similar style a massive arched door, with a courtyard behind, surrounded by what would have been the dorms and classrooms. Nowadays, each of the little study rooms has been converted into a souvenir shop. It's a shame. Similarly, they have "restored" the medrassahs to such a shiny new state that they look like they might as well have been built yesterday. The buildings are still amazing, but you don't get the feeling of awe you might if they were a little bit crumbling and not packed with people selling kitsch versions of national crafts to tourists.

Oh, well.

On the flip side, there are a series of minarets (picture of what the whole place looks like found below), each with a tiny spiral staircase inside. For an appropriate additional fee to the security guards, they will let you climb up to the top of the minaret for a pretty impressive view. I'm sure the "minaret fee," like the "camera fee" and a variety of other negotiable charges at tourist sites, was appropriately turned over by the guard to the administrators of the site in order to fund future restoration efforts.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Special Election Edition!

We have more pictures of Uzbekistan than we know what to do with. So here is a picture of the roof at the Registan - about which more later.

We had an interesting weekend here, but the staff photographer didn't come along. Elections swept across Europe, and your correspondent, wearing his diplomat hat, was an observer here in Riga. We zipped around the city, stopping in at various polling places, checking in, looking around, and then zipping off again. There are places in the world where foreign election observers have a decent chance of running into someone stuffing a ballot box or threatening violence against people who vote the wrong way. Those of us lucky enough to be posted to EU capitals are somewhat less likely to run into these problems. Not that there is no corruption to be found in Latvia, but this observer did not witness anyone being paid for their votes. Mostly, it was similar to what you might see in the U.S.: Some polling places were pretty empty; some had lines; some had more voters than they had apparently expected and the election commission worker in charge seemed to be on the edge of a breakdown trying to handle the requests coming from all angles - not least of which some random people from an embassy stopping by, necessitating further filling out of forms and signing of documents. Hopefully nobody dumped out the ballot box while we were inadvertently distracting her.

Of course we did note some interesting trends and could expound on the meanings of the election results, but reporting on that would border uncomfortably on our day job, so you'll just have to go read the extensive international news coverage of the Latvian elections to learn more.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Potatoes and Prints

These pictures are from the main market area in Tashkent. There is a big and somewhat organized farmer's market section, with thousands of pounds of potatoes and onions, and then a sprawling collection of tarp-shaded stalls selling household goods and clothes.

The traditional women's attire is of particular note. Most of the women of a certain age wear a suit that looks like pajama pants and a muumuu of matching fabric, and then a scarf around their hair of an often entirely different fabric. Most popular are prints, and the crazier and louder the better. Traditional Uzbek weaving patterns are not exactly subdued. Your correspondent assumes that the advent of synthetics and their even more vibrant colors and elaborate prints were adopted in place of the kind of hippie-looking hand-woven patterns of the olden days. The fact that no effort is apparently made to match the headscarf and the main garment leads to some striking combinations of patterns. A small assortment of fabrics for sale is seen below.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Tree Whackers and Washroom Attendant

Today, two pictures of interesting people your correspondent briefly met in Uzbekistan. We happened upon a local guide (of sorts) who helped us translate some basic conversations. Above, a grandfather-and-son team. The older guy with the long plank was using it to shake berries off the branches of this tree, just off the side of a big broad street. His young assistant gathered into his plastic tub any of the berries that fell on the tarp. They let us try a few of the berries, which were shaped sort of like raspberries but were a pale waxy yellow. They were sweet and tasty. (That's the limit of either our palate or our vocabulary in describing food.)

The second picture is a guy who we met at one of the small neighborhood mosques. He wanted it known that while the mosque pictured in yesterday's post may be bigger and more famous, this small mosque boasts a washroom (for washing oneself, particularly the feet, before entering the mosque) unparalleled in Tashkent. He's squinting in the sun in this picture, which makes it hard to see he only has one eye. In any case, both pictures are worth looking at bigger if you have a seocnd, to see all the expressions on the faces.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: Thermometers and Fistfights

This is perhaps not the most striking example of the architecture of Uzbekistan, but it is the first one the photo editor came across in chronologically sorting through the pictures. This is in Tashkent. The first impressions of Tashkent, upon arriving at 1:30 in the morning because that's when all the flights get there, were these:

One disembarks from the plane, like at a crappy European airports, by taking stairs down to the tarmac to get on a bus. The bus takes you to the terminal. Then, unlike at any European airport I know of, you line up and before you can get into the terminal you are greeted by a nurse in a funny hat and a surgical mask who reaches into your shirt to put a thermometer under your armpit. You then walk thirty paces to the next station, where a doctor takes the thermometer and checks to see if it has climbed to an unsafe level during your short walk, and if not, allows you to proceed to passport control. I hear this is a temporary swine flue measure.

The second impression was in the car from the airport to my hotel, at 2:30 in the morning, cruising down one of the six-lane boulevards that is the hallmark of a Soviet-planned city. At this hour, there is no traffic at all. But then I noticed something in the street ahead... the driver shifted from the middle to the left lane to avoid what turned out to be two guys laying on the ground, wrestling and punching each other, in the very middle of a darkened major street, oblivious to the minimal traffic, with a woman watching them and occasionally stepping in to land a quick punch on one or maybe both of the combatants. It seemed weird - even surreal - but I suppose it's something one could come across in any city in America that happens to sell alcohol.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Of Uzbekistan: The Big Wad of Bills

OK, so once again this isn't the most amazing picture, but it is illustrative. The first things one does as a tourist in any country is acquire a bit of the local currency. The above photo represents the stack of money you get if you change about $150 into Uzbek sum. The biggest note they have is 1000 sum, which is about 65 cents. So US$200 = 300,000 Uzbek sum = a stack of 300 ratty notes that one has to find space for in their luggage. The other result is that you walk around as a tourist with a stack of 1000 sum notes in your pocket and therefore, tourist-area vendors being smart people, no price for anything is ever less than 1000 sum, which is fine because you really get to feel that you have a bottomless supply of 1000 sum notes to throw around. And when you have to pay for something expensive -- like $13 expensive -- you feel like you're in a gangster movie, pulling out a giant wad of bills and counting off 20 of them to hand over. Thinking of which - maybe there is tourist appeal in the tiny banknotes, after all.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Of Uzbekistan

Your correspondent went to Uzbekistan. For vacation. On purpose. It was great. We hope you want to read things about Uzbekistan, because the staff photographer took well over a thousand pictures -- digital photography can do that to you. Anyway, despite the fact that the majority of items published here are about our travel adventures, we are painfully aware that as a rule, reading about other peoples' travel adventures is really, really boring. A great travel story is one thing. A recounting of "and then" on top of "and then" is a sure cure for insomnia, and we've all been forced to sit through more vacation pictures than we're interested in on at least one occasion. So, despite our current excitement about Uzbekistan, we will attempt to narrow things down to just a few choice stories and a few exceptional photographs. If we all hang in there together, we can get through this.

As an introduction fitting the general travel theme (and because we haven't had a chance to really edit our thousand pictures down to the promised handful of keepers) we present today pictures from inside and outside an Uzbekistan Airways flight from Bukhara to Tashkent. Your correspondent traveled this route on a Soviet-era Antonov AN-24 aircraft. It did not crash while I was on it. It turns out I wasn't supposed to take pictures at the airport, I guess for general airport security reasons, or because they are worried about someone stealing the highly prized Antonov AN-24 airplane technology. We may never know.