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Moyindau at Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan, (from left to right) Susanna Mendlow (cello), Ryan Ptasnik (drums), Alex Kreger (piano), Kevin Bene (sax)

Listen to our music!

August 26, 2011


Once again I apologize for not updating this very frequently.   I´m settled in Vienna now, taking intensive German class every morning, practicing every afternoon and trying to get back into a routine with playing my instrument.  It´s refreshing to have easy access to a piano now, but also frustrating because I have some catching up to do before I can practice as much as I´d like.  Tomorrow Ryan´s coming back to Vienna for a few days before flying home.  Then the trip will be officially complete.  Right now he´s in Italy hanging with a cymbal maker.  I´m looking forward to seeing him again.

I miss Central Asia but I´m usually too busy to notice.  Our last days we spent in Almaty with Kenny, our fantastic couchsurfing host, who hosted 7 people simultaneously with ease--James, the Germans and the four of us.  James is an American who had biked to Kazakhstan from Amsterdam.  He had been through record-setting snowstorms in Holland and had gotten hit by a car in Atyrau (western KZ) just days before we met him.  His nose was bandaged up, but he said it was to win sympathy points at the Tajik embassy.  He had traveled in the northern Caucasus in southern Russia, and in Nagorno-Karabakh, places where few travelers ever set foot, but where he encountered only very kind people.  He told us stories from his travels; some of them were hilarious and I think I laughed harder than I ever had the whole trip.

We arrived in Shymkent on the morning of Aug 4, Kevin, Susanna, Ryan and I, on a night bus from Bishkek.  Aina met us at the station and took us back to her home, where we met her family: her father, mother, older brother, his wife and two kids...and Abhishka, an Indian guy from MSU who was traveling around KZ at the same time as we were and who would turn up again and again, unannounced, in Astana and Almaty...always moving his two giant suitcases from one friend´s house to another´s.  That night we went to the summer camp for the children at the orphanages...I think there were 4 orphanages total, one of which was where Sabyrbek the poet was raised (more on him later).  It was so hot, so Aina´s mother gave us all hats; Kevin wore his hat at all the shows (see youtube video below).  I personally enjoyed wearing my hat, because having had long hair for so many years I didn´t wear hats (so with short hair it´s easier, I guess).  When we got to the camp, about 45 minutes outside of Shymkent alongside a peaceful river that runs through some small mountains, Kevin discovered that he´d lost his mouthpiece, probably in the Fergana Valley but really we don´t know where.  So we did one improv at the show where Kevin played without a mouthpiece, and he sounded amazing and the kids loved it.  And otherwise he sat in the audience with his hat on, surrounded by Kazakh kids vying for his attention.  Susanna premiered my solo cello piece "Maddoh/Mado" based on Sufi religious music from Badakhshan...for the first time in its entirety, with an extensive vocal part in the last section.  The kids were chanting, "Susanna, Susanna, Susanna..."  She sounded beautiful on this pretty rough cello that they gave her (I thought the instrument fit the music well, though).  Then immediately after our performance they transitioned into a dance party, blasting the Russian pop music that we had somehow come to enjoy through giant speakers, and all of these middle/high school Kazakh kids were trying to get us to dance with them.  I was exhausted, we got back in the car and drove, I was falling asleep but we stopped anyway at a chaikhana for shashlyk and kvas, and I fell asleep on the mats at the chaikhana as well.  Ahh, now I miss the chaikhanas...there was a song that we listened to in the van driving from Sary Tash to Osh with all the NGO volunteers called "Chaikhona", it was their favorite song and they all sang along and debated on which Central Asian country it was from, some suggested Tajikistan because it was pronounced "chaikhona" not "chaikhana" and that "o" is a Persian thing...  The song is about a (Tajik?) guy who´s living abroad, and he describes how much he misses the chaikhona and how great it is.  And we had just stopped at a chaikhana ourselves, gotten to know the NGO/development folks a bit better, and they were all really cool, nice people with insipiring stories.  And then when we arrived in Osh and were parked in the driveway of the NGO (same NGO, by the way, as the one with which Bactria Cultural Center in Dushanbe is affiliated), they blasted this song and had a little dance party, while meanwhile our driver was trying to charge extra and arguing with our leader from LA who they called a "fountain of knowledge" because he knew so much about the region, the Aga Khan Foundation, Ismaili Islam, etc...

Our second day in Shymkent we played a concert at the Opera and Ballet Theater, a nice big hall with a nice big grand piano and a sound they were even able to mic the piano which was great for me.  We spent much of the day at the venue, it was ridiculously hot outside.  Kevin and Ryan and I had a fun little session in a sweltering dressing room, where we played Turkish pop songs and sang the melodies (without words, we haven´t memorized the Turkish words).  The concert was a wonderful experience.  It was great to play the songs with Aina again and it sank in that we were finally in Kazakhstan, completing the circle of the collaboration that had started almost two years ago in East Lansing.  Sabyrbek Nurmanuly, the poet whose words I set to music including "Moyindau" ("acknowledgement")--which was now a word I´d spoken and heard spoken a thousand times--came to the stage to address the audience and we met for the first time.  And I have to say that in real life he totally defied the image I had formed of him!  (We were laughing about that afterwards...)  Kevin found a mouthpiece, we were all given flowers in the end, and then we hurried to get everything packed up and get out of the venue...  Afterwards we were invited to Aina´s sister´s house for an amazing dinner and a swim in their pool...we left with new traditional Kazakh hats and baby camels, known for their beautiful eyes...  We were all so happy, it was a beautiful experience.

The next morning Susanna woke up sick.  We were supposed to leave that day but we didn´t.  Instead we sat around Aina´s house and did absolutely nothing.  Once again it was oppressively hot.  We ate besh barmak for dinner--that´s horsemeat with noodles and some vegetables that you´re supposed to eat with your hands (besh barmak means "five fingers").  Susanna was getting worse, so we called some doctors, who arrived and prescribed some diet for her to get better.  We were sitting outside, it had cooled now, watching Kazakh news on TV with it´s epic jingle that plays before all the commercial breaks.

Kevin and I left the next day on a 24-hr bus to Astana.  After having had so many opportunities to practice, I had by this point significantly improved my sleeping on buses skills, so I slept, and when I woke up we were in Balkash north of Almaty, a town that lies on a giant lake that´s half saltwater, half freshwater.  We ate ice cream for breakfast.  By 6pm or so we were in Astana.  The sun was setting and the weather was cool...I put on my red sweater that was given to me by the Kurdish family in Tuzluca 2 months earlier.  Meirgul, a classmate of mine from my Turkish class freshman year, met us at Congress Hall and took us to our apartment: for 7,000 tenge ($33) we rented a beautiful apartment with kitchen, balcony, living room, bathroom, bedroom, and NICE furniture.  The next night we downgraded to a slightly less luxurious place for 5,000 tenge, still a great deal...

The Kazakh girls had arranged everything for us.  Gaukhar, another MSU student who´d just graduated, was going to meet Ryan and Susanna at the train station the next morning (they opted for the more comfortable "kupe" on a night train from Shymkent).  So Kevin and I slept in and everyone met at our place the next morning, where we cooked breakfast and made some Chinese tea!  There had been some talk of having a show that day, but it didn´t turn out, so we met up with a large group of Gaukhar´s friends at night and went to a delicious Uyghur restaurant (which made me wish even more that I´d spent more time in Xinjiang).  Afterwards we went walking along the river, which divides the old and new city (the new city being built entirely within the past 10 years, since the capital of Kazakhstan was moved from Almaty to Astana).  Astana was cool, quiet, new, clean...a "northern" city and very different from anywhere else in Central Asia I´d been.  Yet it´s the capital of Kazakhstan, and I realized how much I like these big countries like Kazakhstan, China, Turkey, and the US...because you can travel for 24 hours without leaving the country and be some place with a totally different vibe but same (or similar) culture...language, food, habits...although these change a little bit too, but because people move around in their own country there´s a lot of mixing...and people in one part of the country will always refer to another part far away, like the family we met in Tuzluca talking about going to Istanbul, or in China the migrant workers coming from all over to the big cities like Beijing and doing construction work.

The next day was our performance at the National Library in Astana, in the heart of the new city, on the end of a long square, where if you look up the sky looks big like it does in Wyoming, and where you realize that you are in the middle of the giant steppe.  We arrived there around 5:30pm, and by that time the clouds that had hung over the city all day long were gone and the sky was blue and beautiful.  I went with Kevin and Susanna, Ryan was picking up a snare drum to play sitting cross-legged on the floor with his two hi-hats from Kadıköy, because the guy wanted too much money for the whole set.  And after looking all afternoon for a cello, we had finally resigned to play trio because we could not find one, until at the last moment one of the super friendly, helpful volunteers exclaimed that we had a cello, and it was the Public Affairs officers´ daughter´s practice instrument, for when she would come to visit, I think.  So it all worked out fantastically, and we had a little question and answer session beforehand and then played, and the audience was so curious and appreciative that it was really an honor.  Afterwards people told me that although we couldn´t really know "the Kazakh soul" or what it is to be Kazakh, we had grasped it with our music...

We also met Boris at the library.  Boris is a young man not much older than Ryan, born in Kiev, studied at Arizona State University, lived in New York for awhile, and then decided to visit his brother in Astana for three days.  Then he extended his ticket for a week, met his wife, and stayed; he´s been there a few years now I think.  Anyway Boris suggested that he could get us a gig the next night in Astana, if not at the Guns & Roses Pub/Grill, then at the Amerikansky bar.  We had planned to leave for Almaty the next day, but we said ok and stayed, because we didn´t have any gig planned for that first night in Almaty.  But the next day we went to talk to all the places and none of them could host us, because it was simply too late of notice and the Hawaiian theme party was going on that night.  So we drank tea in the Turkish restaurant and watched the Turkish music videos...they all knew us in that place by now.  And we arranged our bus tickets to Almaty for the next evening at 9pm.

The bus ride seemed quick from Astana to Almaty, only 19 hours.  By that time Ryan and I had already done 26 hours standing on a train in China, 24+ hours from Dushanbe-Khorog twice, and Kevin and I had done 24 hours from Shymkent.  And I was now relatively comfortable with sleeping in buses.  We got pulled over at a police checkpoint not far from Astana and the cop came all the way to the back of the bus where we were sitting and asked for our passports.  Ryan and I were fine, Susanna was sitting in the corner so the cop didn´t notice her, but Kevin had to go outside and negotiate to get his passport back, because he hadn´t registered (you´re supposed to register with the local authorities within 5 days of entering KZ, but for some reason the KZ embassy in Bishkek had automatically registered Ryan and I, otherwise we´d have been in the same boat).  In the end he had to pay a $20 bribe (and in the end, when Kevin and Susanna crossed the border leaving Kazakhstan, there were no problems, no fines).  

Almaty is nice, with the mountains just a 15 minute drive outside the city, where you can hike over the pass to Issyk-Kol in Kyrgyzstan (takes 4 days I think).  Aina picked us up at the bus station, we met our host Kenny at the Eiffel Tower, dropped our stuff off at his place, went back to meet Kazbek at the Eiffel Tower, and he took us to his family´s estate up in the hills on the outskirts of town.  His father, Tagir, was a patient of a friend of a friend of Susanna´s mother, or something like that, in Seattle.  So they prepared a delicious dinner for us, and we sat and talked for several hours, and then Tagir suggested we go together to the mountains the next morning.  So the next morning we went to the mountains, and by the time we came back we already had to start finding instruments, because we had a show that night at Ultra´s Cafe/Bar, a 3-story place with a rooftop garden that brews its own beer.  We needed a keyboard and a saxophone, because Kevin´s saxophone had mysteriously broken sometime in Shymkent or Astana, and he had lost his mouthpiece anyway.  We found a saxophone for $40, and a keyboard for free, but it was smallish with non-weighted keys.  So we had everything ready to go, and the time came for Moyindau´s last show (for awhile at least).

Everyone sounded great, Kevin nailed this arrangment of "Mashq-e Javanan", a Tajik song with a lot of repeated notes that´s pretty difficult.  We were able to loosen up on Moyindau and Senim, the songs that we performed with Aina, and she began to interact more with the band, improvising and making music together.  It was a memorable experience.  And afterwards a local pianist came up and played some standards with Ryan and Kevin and killed it...and you could see on their faces how good it felt...and after that there was a digeridoo/drums and jaw harp duo, and Susanna and Kevin sat in and improvised over their pulsating, trancelike groove.  And late in the evening, Abhishka walked in with his suitcase and "KAZAKHSTAN" t-shirt.

The day before Ryan and I left Almaty ourselves, we said goodbye to Kevin and Susanna at the bus station.  They took a marshrutka to Bishkek and flew home from there. The last few days in Almaty were almost as if from a dream...the summer of traveling was over, I was on the verge of moving to Vienna, leaving Central Asia, and we had such a wonderful, peaceful, happy atmosphere at Kenny´s place, where we´d sit in the sunny kitchen for hours and share stories with James.  And then Kalman arrived, the Hungarian with whom I hitchhiked around Turkey two summers ago, he was cutting across Eurasia towards Hong Kong to catch a flight from there to Indonesia where he´d gotten a scholarship to study Indonesian language for a year.  He overstayed his Kazakh visa because everyone wanted to wrestle him in every small town he got stuck in while hitchhiking...he cursed these people, but he managed to get a visa extension for $6 when they´d wanted $100.  And on our last night, we met my friend Nargiz also from my Turkish class, and she took us to one last dinner of shashlyk, drove us to the airport and saw us off, and by this time I had done that thing so many times, said goodbye to people so many times, and I knew so well that the next morning I would be in Vienna, but that at that time I was still in Almaty, and the night was warm because the days were quite hot.  Nargiz mentioned airport sadness, seeing friends off at the airport, and I thought about the song that Brad Mehldau wrote called "Airport Sadness".  Our flight was delayed and we barely made our connection in Kiev.

And now I´m in Vienna, feeling a bit of longing for Central Asia after writing this long post, and also a bit of longing for the US and the people I left behind there.  But I´m working towards some things here, and I´m excited for the next adventures.  Thank you to everybody who reads this, my long run-on sentences...  Thank you for supporting our project and our desire to get to know our home (the world) a bit better.  I´ll post some pictures soon.  Wishing everyone all the best...

Moyindau in Astana:

Moyindau on the news in Shymkent:

August 2, 2011

Quartet in Kyrgyzstan

The quartet (Kevin, Susanna, Ryan and I) has been together for about five days now in Kyrgyzstan.  Thursday morning Ryan and I picked the others up at the airport and blasted 10 hours straight to Osh; we arrived at 5pm or so and then got in another taxi bound for Sary Tash, where we finally pulled in just after nightfall, 10,400 feet above sea level.  It was cold and rainy.  The next morning we hitched down the road to Tajikistan; just before the border is a town called Kashka Suu where we had to hire a jeep to drive us across the barren valley to Achik Tash and the Peak Lenin base camp, where the At Chabysh (Kyrgyz Horse) festival was held. 

At the festival we observed some pretty interesting sports played on horseback, including one where a man must try to kiss a woman as they're racing side by side.  If he's unsuccesful, the woman has the chance to try to beat him with a whip.  At night we slept in yurts, and our meals were prepared by the local Kyrgyz villagers.  It was cold; on our last morning there (July 31), we woke up to find a thin layer of snow covering the valley.  We performed once, a short 10 minute set because it was so cold, on a stage constructed from two pickup trucks backed into one another.  The festival audience seemed appreciative of our different kind of music, and afterwards quite a few Kyrgyz guys wanted to try Kevin's saxophone.  Susanna, unable to get a cello in Bishkek for the journey, sang instead.  As it turned out, a cello wouldn't have fared well in the below freezing temperatures of Achik Tash.  The view of the mountain from the festival site is incredible, I've never seen anything like it.

After two days at the festival, we made our way back to Bishkek, hitching with a Chinese truck back to the crossroads at Sary Tash (he was headed to Kashgar, in Xinjiang, and I was so tempted to continue with him across the Irkeshtam Pass back into China, because I still had an entry left on my visa, but now our time is short, and we needed to get back to Bishkek because tomorrow we're leaving for Kazakhstan, and we'll have a busy schedule full of shows and hopefully some masterclass-type stuff as well).  So we got off in Sary Tash, waited for a few hours as the wind whipped our faces and I tried to hide my forehead from the sun with my hood, even though it was cold and the sun felt good.  And then two vans full of young NGO development workers pulled up; we had met some of them at the festival and they happily agreed to take us with them to Osh.  We squeezed into the cars, and on the way I learned so much about the world of international development and NGOs and all the career paths open to people interested in such things, and also about Central Asian politics, the situation in Osh, Kyrgyzstan (last summer when the riots occurred and the Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic tension), the Aga Khan Foundation, and other things that I've been curious about the whole time I've been traveling here.  I was inspired by their passion, their love of the local culture and commitment to learning the language and interacting with the peoples among which they lived and traveled.  I felt more connected with them than with most of the backpackers I've met.  In Osh we had dinner together (the best shashlyk I've had in Central Asia), and they took us to a hotel and arranged a cheap room for us.  The hours we spent in Sary Tash, turning down the bids of persistent taxi drivers, had paid off.

July 27, 2011

More pictures

Ryan with CSer Nuriya after exchanging money at a children's toy store, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Musi (right) with his sister Anisa (middle) and cousin (left), Dasht village, Tajikistan

Trying to catch up...

In just about 12 hours we'll pick up Kevin and Susanna from Manas airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and head south to Osh.  Right now, they're waiting in Moscow for their connecting flight.  Ryan and I have been hanging out in Bishkek for the past four days.  There is nothing to do here, except sleep, eat, catch up on blog posts, apply for Kazakh visas, and walk around enjoying the beautiful weather (sunny but not too hot or humid).  I like the absence of tourist attractions; it was usually a pain anyway to decide whether or not we should go to them, and then if you don't (we usually didn't) you feel a bit guilty for going all the way to Xi'an and not seeing the terra cotta warriors, or spending 5 days in Beijing without visiting the Forbidden City or the Great Wall.  In Istanbul our host Jim (who's getting married this weekend, by the way, we wish him and his wife all the best) gave Ryan and Mette a hard time for leaving Istanbul without ever having been to the Aya Sofya, or the Blue the end though everyone experiences a place in their own personal way, and the things that I remember most are not the tourist sites but the wonderful people we met, the food, music, nature, cities...  Just to walk out on the street in Beijing was enough of an experience for me that I didn't feel the desire to see all the temples (we did go to one, the Lama Temple, interesting and beautiful but I didn't enjoy it as much as the subway ride we took during rush hour to get there, packed body to body and sometimes we didn't even get into the train because there were too many people and we had to wait for the next one, and when we transferred it took almost an hour because we had to walk through tunnels and wait in lines and go up and down stairs).  I liked the big, crazy cities, Beijing more than Shanghai, a cultural and political center rather than an economic and commercial one.  We stayed with Antonio, an Italian living in China for 3 years now, he spoke Chinese well, and he lived on the 11th floor of the 9th apartment building in a complex with innumerable high rises that looked the same as all the other compounds where millions of Beijing's residents live.  An American guy we met at a couchsurfing meeting said he took an adventure one day, and rode the subway as far south as possible just to see what it would look like down there, and he got out and it looked just the same...apartment complexes...he said he had expected the city to taper out a little bit out there, at the end of the line, but not in China.  The construction workers flock to the city from the provinces, work 24 hours a day building new subway lines (in Xi'an the first line will open at the end of the year, and in Shenzhen the line we took to get from the airport to meet Yaoyue at the bus station was just finished June 15), and then move on to the next project because there is always more building to be done.  There are so many people in China, it is impossible to book a seat on a train a day or two in advance, so we ended up standing for 26 hours from Guangzhou to Xi'an, because we couldn't buy tickets in Zhongshan, the smaller city south of Guangzhou where my friend Yaoyue from my old piano studio at MSU lives, and where we stayed for 4 days, eating, drinking tea, watching Chinese dramas, showering 3 times a day because it was so humid...

When we returned to Central Asia from China, we had acquired a familiarity with certain things, such as getting ripped off by taxi drivers even when you know the fair price and bargain hard for it (the marshrutka from Manas airport into Bishkek cost us 100 som per person, not the usual 30 som; the driver's excuse was that we paid extra for our bags, which he stuffed roughly behind the backseat, slamming the door shut before they fell out).  It didn't frustrate me as much as it used to, though now I'm preparing myself to bargain for the taxi ride to Osh tomorrow, hoping we can get a driver to pick up Kevin and Susanna at the airport...

I haven't updated the blog since Khiva, Uzbekistan, where I was suffering in the heat and anticipating the excitement and novelty of arriving in China, a place I'd never planned to go and hadn't spent almost a year researching.  So from Khiva we worked our way back to Tashkent, where our flight left from.  First was a 8 or so hour ride through the desert to Bukhara, in a black car, with a taxi driver who liked to listen to very bad music, very loud.  He was the wild type, who when we make a pit stop for food wants you to eat this pastry instead of that ice cream, and then shepherds you back to the car yelling "hey, hey!"...he guessed that the temperature reached 50 degrees celsius in the desert that day.  When we arrived in Bukhara he demanded an extra 5000 som from us because we wanted to go to the train station to buy our tickets for onward travel; then, he refused to take us to the train station, insisting that we were better off going the next day, but sure enough when we tried to get tickets the next day all the trains were sold out, and they don't sell standing room tickets like in China, and there were no buses, so we took yet another shared taxi that sped through the night at 160 km per hour to reach Tashkent in just 7 hours (we left at 5:30pm and arrived just after midnight, and we had expected it to be an overnight ride...).  But our friend Khoorshid offered us the floor at his place, and we hung out the next day and met our couchsurfing friend Nuriya once more, and they took us to the airport and saw us off as the next phase in our journey began, unplanned and determined only weeks before, when we were sitting in Khorog Central Park and talking about how much we missed playing our instruments, and the thought that no more shows lay ahead of us for more than a month...  But China temporarily took my mind off that, exposing me to an entirely new set of experiences that were not coupled with or colored by expectations or anticipations of Central Asia that had been growing for over a year.  And I think Ryan and I both agree that we made a good decision that day in the park in Khorog.

July 25, 2011


Sorry everybody for the long delay in posting.  Blogspot is inaccesible in China, and I thought also in Kyrgyzstan, but today I found an internet cafe where I could access it!  So here are a few pictures, and a more lengthy post will follow shortly.  Greetings from Bishkek!

 Ryan playing volleyball with locals in Dasht village, Badakhshan, Tajikistan

Ryan with flypaper at our guesthouse, Moynaq, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan

Ryan, Beijing subway

 Outside 798 Art District, Beijing

July 5, 2011

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

So that day in the park in Khorog we decided to go to China.  So we booked a pair of tickets to Beijing, and we're going to work our way back west towards Central Asia to meet up with Susanna and Kevin in Kyrgyzstan on July 30.  We fly out of Tashkent on Friday.

After booking the flights, we hired a driver to take us to the Wakhan Valley.  The entire route follows the Pyanj River, which delineates the border with Afghanistan.  At times the valley is so narrow that there is room only for the road and the raging river between two giant faces of rock.  Other times the valley widens and the river spreads out and the water appears to stand still, and when you look across you can barely see the massive Hindu Kush because of all the dust in the air, which turns the sky a greenish brownish gray color at dusk when the wind blows into your eyes and blows the tall skinny trees that grow along the side of the road.  Families, dressed in red, sit by the roadside and smile as we pass.  Our final destination is Vrang, our driver's village, but we broke our journey and spent a night at a homestay at the top of one of the mountains.  I got sick that night, but the squat toilet was in quite good condition and our host family was kind so I still enjoyed myself.  The next day we continued to Vrang, stopping at some hot springs, a museum of a Sufi musician at Yamg village, and a Buddhist stupa at Vrang.  In Vrang we had planned to stay for free at our driver's house, but it turned out to be all the way at the top of a mountain, a two hour hike, and so we payed for another homestay instead, because our driver insisted that we needed to leave at 5am the next morning in order for him to find enough passengers who wanted to share the ride to Dushanbe.

We woke up at 5am the next morning and said goodbye to Eric, our friend from Colorado who we had met at the US embassy's event for us in Dushanbe, and then again later in Khorog at a guesthouse.  We decided to travel together to share stories; he was a guitarist and interested in jazz, but didn't take the time or make the decision to pursue it professionally, or to the extent that we had.  And I was interested in his travels, he had started in January in Hong Kong, spent 3 months in China, biked through Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, all with his guitar, onto which he had carved the phrase "you reap what you sow" in Chinese, Russian and Farsi.  He made his own phrase books and taught himself the language of each country he visited.  Before we parted ways he made us a Chinese phrase book from memory, quite extensive and impressive considering he had taught it all to himself.

The drive back to Dushanbe took more than 24 hours.  We were glad to make it back to Kirill's place, where Goulya, the children's caretaker, welcomed us back and made our beds for us and offered us food.  The next day we met Munira Shahidi and discussed further plans for exploring the relationship between Sufi traditions, poetry and music, and contemporary Western music, improvisation and techniques...focusing in particular on Tajikistan as a meeting place of these two spheres.  She gave me a collection of Shahidi's songs arranged for piano and vocal, as well as a CD that had just been published--with a booklet of liner notes that, I realized, were the same paragraphs she had sent me earlier this spring to edit!  We discussed possibilties for a concert/series of lectures in London later this year or early next year.  It was an exciting conversation and I left thinking about many ideas for future projects and exploration.

That night Kirill and Bactria in collaboration with the French embassy put on a wonderful outdoor concert in front of the Opera Theater.  It was fun to see live music again and they had a wonderful turnout.  Afterwards we went out for dinner with Siyma at a Ukrainian restaurant.  I felt that I could stay a few more days in Dushanbe, I had made some friends there.  But we had to go so that we could spend some time in Uzbekistan.  The next morning we met a young Dutch couple at the Rudaki statue to share a taxi to the Uzbek border.  We had met them earlier at a Khorog guesthouse and ran into them by chance at an Internet Cafe in Dushanbe (while I was typing the last blog post).  We continued together to Tashkent, where we spent the night at what Lonely Planet described as "the darkest hole in all of Central Asia".  It wasn't so bad.

The border crossing was relatively painless.  They searched my entire bag, and had me play two songs when they discovered I had a mini keyboard.  They asked me two questions: "Why are you so white?" and "Why don't you have a girlfriend?"  Then they laughed and joked when I put sunscreen on before heading out into Uzbekistan...we were in the valley now, you could barely see mountains, and the sun was hot.

The next day in Tashkent we went early to the Chinese embassy to apply for our visa.  We got one in a day, but it was expensive...somehow Americans seem to get the worst price for every visa.  In the evening we met couchsurfers Nuriya and Khoorshid (whose nickname was Mega).  They were so kind and took us to the train station to help us buy tickets to Nukus.  Then we changed money (in Uzbekistan, almost anybody is a currency exchanger...this time our taxi driver pulled out a bag of bills from the trunk to trade for our hundred dollar bill).  One US dollar is equal to approximately 2450 Uzbek som on the black market, and the smallest som bill is 1000.  So we stashed a giant wad of cash in our bags, and each time we go to a restaurant we count out more than 20 1000 som bills to pay.  I think people in Uzbekistan actually waste a significant amount of time counting bills.

Nuriya and Khoorshid treated us to a wonderful dinner and then saw us off on the train, 21 hours across the desert to Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, where the langauge, Karakalpak, shares more in common with Kazakh than Uzbek.  It was my first overnight train ride, and for a pretty fair price we got a comfortable bed on the top bunk, where we slept and then lounged all day long, watching the bleak desert speed past us and wondering if it would be so unforgiving at the place where we would be getting off.  And as it turned out, it was, but we still had a great experience in Karakalpakstan.

Now we are in Khiva, waiting for the midday heat to subside before we check out the ancient walled city.  Next blog post I'll describe the rest of our week in Uzbekistan, before we head east yet again. 

June 29, 2011

"Tajikistan is easy"

Describing the complexities of the Uzbekistan visa application process in comparison to Tajikistan's, I told our host Jim in Istanbul, "Tajikistan is easy."  He laughed and it became a sort of joke that was brought up again and again.  "Just remember that when things go wrong, etc," he said, and I tried to imagine what could go wrong--any number of things.  Now, getting ready to leave Dushanbe and head to Uzbekistan tomorrow, I can say that we had plenty of difficulties, but they didn't come close to overshadowing the many wonderful experiences we've had here.

Our flight arrived in Dushanbe at 3:30am and we waited in line to apply for our visas, but it was the wrong line, so then we entered a room where foreigners were applying for visas, and we had read up on the requirements beforehand so we were prepared.  Even still the process didn't go as planned--the consul officer wanted to know why we didn't have a letter of invitation from the US embassy if they were funding our trip (we had one from the Shahidi Museum instead).  He tried calling the embassy and Munira Shahidi but of course at 4am he didn't get through.  So he made us wait longer, questioned us as to our reasons for visiting Tajikistan and asked Ryan three consecutive times if he had been in the military, to which Ryan replied 'no' each time.  Finally he issued us "service" visas for almost double the cost of a tourist visa.  We later found out that we had to register these visas, which was an additional $50 each.  Luckily we were getting support from the embassy.  Our host Kirill was waiting for us after this whole process and he drove us back to his place, where we found our beds and crashed.

Dushanbe is hot.  We spent a lot of time just hanging out at Kirill's place, in the garden.  His house is actually two separate buildings, with a beautiful garden space in between.  Ryan and I had one of the buildings to ourselves, and there was a piano in our bedroom so I practiced and we rehearsed as a group there.  Mette stayed in her own room in the main building.  Kirill is from Tashkent, but he's lived in Dushanbe for the past few years, bringing great music to the city through his job as music director of the Bactria Cultural Center.  Bactria is a wonderful organization that offers language courses in English, French and German, and organizes film screenings, concerts and other events that bring international culture to Dushanbe.  In addition to organizing our concert, they've collaborated with the French embassy to bring a French jazz group to town.  They will perform tonight outside of the opera house--I'm excited to see it.  Kirill's wife Siyma is from Istanbul and works for UNICEF in Dushanbe.  They have two kids, Asya (4) and Pamir (2 I think).  Asya speaks Russian, Turkish and English and wants to learn Tajik...I'm impressed!  The nannies that take care of the children during the day are also super nice and I try to practice speaking Russian with them. 

Our first event in Dushanbe was an informal concert/party organized by the US embassy at James Callahan's house (temporary public affairs officer).  Mette got sick that day (probably food allergies, unfortunately), so we went to play as a duo.  Many Tajik musicians came, and a drum teacher from a local music school brought a few of his students.  I had fun playing with each of them, and one of them challenged me to improvise Tajik dance music in 7/8 while everyone danced.  Ryan and I played "Sitorai Man", a beautiful melody by Ziyodullo Shahidi that has turned out to be a really excellent vehicle for improvisation.  Later on that night I met a lot of foreigners living in Dushanbe--one British student who had been learning Farsi in Tehran for 3 months before the Iranian government kicked him out and he relocated to Tajikistan, an Iranian filmmaker who was finishing up a documentary on Dushanbe's heavy metal scene before he planned to move to Berlin, and an American backpacker who had begun his trip in China in January and who we'd meet later on at a hostel in Khorog.

The next day we played the big concert at Bactria Cultural Center.  Mette was feeling better, but Ryan had gotten sick with a stomach bug.  We played some new compositions and arrangements for the first time--"Shunidam" and "Sitorai Man" by Ziyodullo Shahidi and a folk song called "Kashkarchay Savti Chorgokh" that I'd transcribed from a youtube clip that's since been removed.  Everyone sounded great.  I learned a lot about my own playing, and saw many possibilities for future directions.  Hopefully someday we'll have time to work through more music with this group.  The fifty or so people in the audience, mostly local Tajiks, received it very well.  We recorded it, so those of you who chose the "CD of live Central Asian performances" reward on kickstarter will get to hear it (as will everyone else...I'll put a track up on here as soon as I can).

The next day was our show at the Ziyodullo Shahidi Museum.  I had been corresponding via email with Munira Shahidi, the daughter of the famous composer, since December, and it was great to finally meet her, as well as her daughter who is also a fine composer living in Montreal.  Unfortunately, Munira's husband had passed away only two weeks earlier, and instead of presenting a concert we were invited to perform at his memorial service.  Several people spoke, and Tajik musicians presented some of Shahidi's songs (including Shunidam!).  Everyone brought their memories and their sadness, and I was moved by the beautiful music that within this family was so personal, yet also spoke for an entire country of people, and had spoken to me back in America.  We did our best to respect the atmosphere and offer our own, honest musical contribution.  Mette came and played the melodies with such care and tenderness even though she was once again sick and had been lying in bed all day.  Just this evening I met again with Munira and we discussed hopes for future projects involving Tajik and Sufi music, the songs of Shahidi, and contemporary/improvised music.

The next day we left for Khorog, in Badakhshan.  It took a full 24 hours to get there, with frequent stops for meals, car breakdowns and repairs, and even random roadside dance parties.  When we finally pulled in to Khorog, Ryan and I wandered down the main street until we discovered a poster with our pictures on it!  Two Tajiks were examining it and we walked up to join them.  They glanced at us, and back and the poster; recognizing it was us, they smiled.  One of them lent us his phone so we could call our contact, while the other offered us a place to stay.  We went to the theater and set up, having given up hope of sleeping before the concert.  Then we waited--the show began more than an hour late.  We had a good, very enthusiastic crowd of 150 people or so.  They cheered wildly when the curtain was opened, and during the performance whenever we did something flashy or in unison.  The sound engineers turned the volume way up.  Ryan was playing the only drumset in Badakhshan, and I was playing a 60-something key keyboard without weighted keys, and with no pedal.  So musically, it was far from ideal, but we managed to present our music and the audience enjoyed it.

The following three days we spent in Dasht, a small village just outside of Khorog, surrounded by mountains.  Just adjacent to town is the future site of one of three University of Central Asia campuses (the other two are in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).  Right now it is just an empty plot of land, but soon it promises to be one of the most beautiful university campuses in the world.  Our host in Dasht was Musi, a 20 year old English student at Khorog State University.  His father was a driver in the Pamirs, and he has a younger sister Anisa, in 8th grade.  His family adopted us, fed us, and we got to experience their daily life in Dasht village.  On our first morning there, I felt sick, but a bunch of kids from the village came over and we played music together with my keyboard and Ryan's cymbals.  The young kids taught me some Pamiri rhythms, some of which are quite challenging.  Later that day we saw a rehearsal for a holiday celebration that would occur the following day, honoring the Aga Khan, the Ismaili people's Swiss-born spiritual leader, or imam.  The efforts of the Aga Khan Foundation pretty much single-handedly saved Badakhshan from starvation during the Tajik Civil War of 1993-97, and since 1995 they have been devoted to him.  In every Pamiri house there is a picture of the Aga Khan that they recognize and honor upon entering.

That evening we played volleyball with the village kids.  It seems that volleyball is the game of choice, at least in Dasht, and some of the kids were very good at it.  The younger ones watched and cheered from the sidelines.  Musi told us that they played volleyball like this every evening from 5 or 6 until dark.  We noticed that their volleyball was deflated and broken so we decided to go to the store the next day to buy them a new one.  It turned out to be pretty cheap (by our standards) so we bought a soccer ball too!  In the evening then we got to see the holiday celebration, all the children in their traditional dress, the dances, and little skits that the kids had worked out that delighted the audience with jokes and parodies.  As we walked back to the house that night, the starts shone brightly in the sky and illuminated the mountains on all sides of the village, which was completely black--we had to use a flashlight to show the way.

The next day Ryan and I said goodbye to Musi and his family and sat in Khorog's Central Park to discuss our past experiences and future plans.  We were starting to miss having daily contact with our instruments, and we were both hungry to work out new ideas and challenges.  By the end of the day we had made some big decisions...but I'll have to write more about that later because I'm tired right now and tomorrow we are leaving for Uzbekistan!