TSS Status 2016

•December 4, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I’m not dead, readers, although it might look like it from the blogging side of things. It’s been a hell of a year in pop culture deaths and geopolitical upheavals, but for me personally it’s also been a chaotic ride, punctuated by instability and recurring crises in my lovelife and career.

This year I’ve been a full time student, freelance writer, translator and unlikely startup guru. Not that some of that hasn’t been good blog fodder, but it was tough to find moments where I could sit and write everything down. Good news is, now I’m writing full time for a living.

Five days a week I’m in the office writing about videogames for nowloading.co. It’s fun, it’s engaging and it’s been really great both for tapping my gaming habit as  vein for creativity, and getting to dig deeper into the industry and culture of gaming as a whole.

I haven’t given much of an indication of my nerdy side on this blog, but it’s very evident on powerwordkill, theserpentscircle’s geeky little brother.

Thing is, between work, freelance projects, non-blog writing and actually having a life, it’s tough not feel too burned out to post here on TSS when I find myself having the time.

I’m keeping TSS up for those times when I feel like I really, really need to sound off about something that isn’t going to get published professionally.

Hopefully when I get settled into a new routine in 2017, we’ll see a return to more frequent updates on here.

 

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Nordkiez after the battle of Dorfplatz

•August 15, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Well…’battle’ is kind of a strong word, but there’s no denying that the violence that broke out this summer in Rigaer Street in Berlin Friedrichshain highlights just how broken the current situation is here. Some readers might remember my reporting on the Gefahrengebiet, or ‘Danger Zone’ situation in my Berlin neighbourhood earlier this year. The February demonstration which I urged for in that article was a great success on the day, accomplished peacefully despite a heavy police escort and met with solidarity from across the neighbourhood. It was not so successful, however, in making an impact on the decision makers at the top. Although the residents of the area had made their discontent plain (and we are talking about the residents, these were not 4000 card-carrying anarchists), Interior Minister Henkel (the CDU ‘Law and Order’ champion who has made this issue his personal Vietnam) held to his hard line, and heavy handed police patrols and controls remained the order of the day.

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Photos courtesy of Saturnex

In May, my girlfriend and I were walking down the street and we popped into the bar of our nearest house project for shots (we were celebrating her birthday), when a van pulls up on the corner and we’re surrounded by eight burly officers, armed and armoured and demanding our papers. We were frisked, groped and escorted to our apartment where we could produce our passports (important to note that the officers separated us, and came in without being invited). In hindsight, I’m ashamed that I didn’t put up more of a fight, since intimidation was used to push the boundaries and enter our home unlawfully.

Some might dismiss this as a minor inconvenience, an unwelcome interruption of a birthday celebration and a bit of a bummer, but not much to complain about when, say, racist killings by police are going on in the US. Germany is a very bureaucratic country, and residents are required to register their place of residency with the local council and keep these records up to date. Presumably law enforcement could access this information through the proper bureaucratic channels. But aside from feeling less free to walk around the street, there could be more sinister consequences to these controls. At least one police document containing the details of  a mass control of a house-project was leaked to a Neo-Nazi group.

That’s not the only indicator of something rotten in the police dept. One of the less sympathetic aspects of the autonomous scene’s activities (and the one that gets them the most negative PR with regards to the general public), is their burning of luxury cars in retaliation for raids on the house-projects. While the left-autonomous scene is far from a monolithic entity, they have stood by these attacks through various online mouthpieces. Nonetheless at least one captured arsonist-activist is alleged to be an undercover police provocateur, associated with the right-wing anti immigrant group PEGIDA. The police disavows this, of course, while left-leaning media sources insist, whatever the truth, it’s clear that we’re in the middle of a dirty fight.

This year has seen a redoubled effort from the autonomous scene in the house projects to build solidarity with the other residents of the area. Regular meetings and round tables are held to discuss not only the Gefahrengebiet, but the issue of rising rents, property development, and gentrification. Momentum appears to be steadily building to a more united front as the consequences are more visible on the street level. The CG-Gruppe, property developers with a plan to renovate the neighbourhood with luxury apartments, increasingly make their presence felt, and the demolishing of several old buldings (some area of which had been used as a community art space) on a prominent street, has served as a wake up call to those that are seeing the landscape change. Posters and graffiti protesting these changes abound, and neighbours bleakly trade jokes about when they’ll be forced to move to the city outskirts.

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Photo by SATURNEX

 

Gentrification and authoritarianism go hand in hand. Now we come to the aforementioned ‘battle’. Police officials coordinated their actions with the owner of the Rigaer 94, a faceless British investment firm based in Caribbean tax havens, and raided the R94 once more on July 22nd, totally destroying the public space. Only July 9th, a street protest in ‘dorfplatz’ (the crossroads of Rigaerstr. and Leibigstr., where two prominent house-projects are based) collapsed into violence when the protesters were kettled by police. At this time, I was on holiday far away from the action, but friends and neighbours who had expected a peaceful protest along the lines of what happened in February were bruised and frightened – the lack of meaningful dialogue and action for a peaceful resolution between the two sides over the last few months had incubated and intensified a festering resentment and siege mentality . Since I was too busy being many miles away on the beach to be a street warrior, I’d like to direct you to this local blogger for a thoughtful perspective on the July 9 protest and consequences.

From where I can see, the pendulum appears to have swung to the side of the streets. The issue of the June 22 raid was taken to court, which decided that the raid and eviction on R94 was unlawful, and use of the premises has returned to the residents. The lawyer for the British homeowner company claimed that he did not turn up to court because he was intimidated by a burning car on his street, this still didn’t seem to garner him much sympathy for his case. As much as we immigrants love to complain about German bureaucracy, we can be grateful that the police are not immune to censure for failing to follow correct procedure in their actions. Politically, the situation has turned against Henkel and his aggressive stance, with the Pirate and Green parties standing with the Rigaerstr. residents, and representatives of more mainstream parties at least making noises about opening a dialogue and seeking a peaceful solution.

A peaceful solution is going to depend on leadership and persuasive action from those on both sides who would like to leave the arsons and leaks to Nazi groups far in the distance. The message of February 6 was ignored, with authorities trusting in their own power or people’s complacency. July 9 can’t afford to be ignored or dismissed the same way. It’s election season in Berlin, and many official political posters up on the street (especially in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg area) are directly referencing these issues, particularly those of the Pirate Party (a young, progressive party with a focus on social issues and technology). Interior Minister Henkel has staked his reputation on treating the left wing scene with contempt and crushing street resistance with force, but in the light of his failure in court and political opposition, his gamble has the potential to fail spectacularly. While city elections are one side of the fight, grassroots activism continues. Community meetings are held every week where residents of regular rented housing and those of the house projects meet and discuss the issues effecting their lives. People are being encouraged to come forward and report the details of the abuses that took place in the Gefahrengebiet. For now, the iron first has relaxed its grip but still hovers over the streets. Controls on the street have stopped or declined, but large police vans still patrol much more regularly in the supposed ‘danger-zone’ than in nearby high-crime areas.

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Will this see a new surge of Berlin’s progressive, freedom-loving post-wall spirit in the mainstream? One can only hope so, since many battles between social factions are decided by how the more numerous, generally passive, neutral majority decide to swing. Nordkiez residents must struggle to win the battle of hearts and minds before the next battle of clubs and stones.

To Berliners living outside Nordkiez, I would urge you not to forget your neighbours when you vote or otherwise engage politically. Berlin’s autonomous spaces are a big party of what makes the city stand out from other, more homogenised and sanitised capitals, where such expressions of community and creativity have been driven out and appropriated by capital. Nowadays, these spaces are not made new in the city, the freedom that enabled their genesis does not exist, the ideology of people over profit is scorned, they can only hold the line against the capitalist wrecking machine. Should they fall, their loss will be permanent, and be felt most keenly by the poorer communities in the city.

 

 

 

Kazakhstan part 6 – checking out

•July 6, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Previous in this series:

Part 1 – Arrival

Part 2- Almaty

Part 3- Charyn

Part 4- Hiking and horses

Part 5-Altyn Emel

 

My trip to Kazakhstan was an overwhelmingly positive and life-enriching experience in many ways, one that opened up for me an interest in Central Asia that I hope to explore further in the future. That said, it wasn’t all sunshine and shubat. Kazakhstan gives the impression of being something of a police state, with police and military officials highly visible and plenty of checkpoints. Other travellers had told us stories of intimidation at the hands of bribe-hungry officers but we had largely managed to avoid getting into trouble, despite having our belongings looking over a couple of times when going to use public transport. Still, as if our experience of the local culture would not be complete without at least some officious harassment from the authorities, we ran afoul of the customs officials on our way out at the airport.

Because of my rockstar look and rare (Gibraltar) passport, I’m used to hassle at border checkpoints but I actually was waved though after a cursory inspection. I waited for my girlfriend to join me on the other side of the checkpoint, but it looked like she was being subject to a much longer inspection. The officer had taken her passport and left the booth, leaving a very worried and stressed Spanish girl across the border from me. Naturally, when it was noticed that I was waiting for her, my passport was also taken for another look over. The officer that had checked my girlfriend had a triumphant look in her eyes and a gloating smile, confident that she’d caught some kind of criminal – ‘fake passport!’ was the only communication in English that we could get out of her. Thankfully another customs officer with a nicer attitude and good English came over to play good cop and ask us some questions. She seemed particularly interested in whether we had visited any neighbouring countries, particularly Kyrgyzstan (we hadn’t been, but we’d heard it wasn’t so uncommon, but just as a tip to fellow travellers, this is something that the authorities apparently have a problem with). All the while a group of officers huddled around both our passports in one booth, apparently in discussion about this. Tense and nervous, we waited for nearly half an hour while they deliberated our fate. Luckily reason won out and we were handed our passports and told to get on our way, the original lady shooting daggers at us from her eyes. Suffice to say that the atmosphere in the departure lounge wasn’t super good for us for the remainder of our time in Kazakhstan.

We had a similar obstruction transferring through Borispol airport in Kiev. A flight delay had made us late for our connection and we were hurried through security to catch our plane. By the time we had arrived, there was no line at the gate, but after my passport was checked by the airline clerk, it was snatched from her by a brawny, ogrish looking man who proceeded to subject it to an intense, prolonged troglodytic squint as he incessantly flicked the photo page with his sausage-like digit. This person seemed to be unaffiliated with the airline and completely unresponsive to my protests, but the airline clerk, seeing me flip out within 3 minutes of missing my flight, placated him with an exasperated look before I ended up stranded in the Ukraine.

My girlfriend wrote to her consulate, and they confirmed that it was likely that the officials at Almaty were holding out for a bribe. How exactly we got out of that I’m not sure (we definitely don’t look flush with cash), but it’s something I’d caution other travellers to be wary of. Coming back was a stress, but it hasn’t been enough to discourage the possibility of more visits to Central Asia in my mind.

 

 

 

The EU referendum has clipped our wings

•June 24, 2016 • 1 Comment

This is a sad, self-indulgent post about some of my feelings about the UK referendum ‘leave’ result. It’s emotional and not about the economy or politics, and I know that the Brexit will be long and complicated and no one is sure exactly how bad it will be. Just feels I wanted to get out, ok?

I was born on the edge of Europe, and grew up under a battle-scarred Rock that had sheltered many peoples from the storms of war. A fortress that has sheltered many peoples when the Great Powers raged, and known many kings. It has heard many languages and known many gods. I grew up in a fortress that we had turned into a peaceful city, of enviable prosperity and freedoms for its citizens. Multi-coloured, multi-lingual. We spoke two languages and a half, words from one tongue spilling over the other like the conflux of two great rivers.We were a people made of castoffs from the Mediterranean, sailors, whores, merchants and the servants of soldiers. Some of us were darker, and some were lighter. It was generally acknowledged that at some point, everyone had come from ‘somewhere else’, but we were one people now, with one home. Once we had been Spanish, Genoese, Maltese, English, Irish, Scottish, Indian, Pakistani, Moroccan. Now we were in some sense all those things, but the main thing was that we were Gibraltarian. But it’s not enough to ‘just’ be Gibraltarian in a wider world. We were British, by our allegiance to the United Kingdom, and we were proud of it.

Our neighbours across the border were both our friends and family and somehow also barbarians who wished for our destruction. When you showed your passport and walked into Spain, you were in a different country, even if you could still see your house from the frontier, and understand everyone around you. In my teens I ran, drank and laughed with young Linenses, haltingly at first in my Spanish mixed with English, but soon without reservation as we would embrace and share our adolescent anxieties, our hopes and fears. I knew from then that it wasn’t people who made the borders and enemies. These frontiers and hostilities were hangovers from the wars of our ancestors, and everywhere else in Europe old borders had come down after the fall of the Iron Curtain. I had little doubt in my mind at the time that our frontier would also fall, not because Spain would conquer us, but because this growth of tolerance and freedom was obviously the destiny of the world, and eventually we would be accepted by the other side not as subjects or enemies, but for who we were. This experience is key to my feelings about the Brexit result. We could be friends and brothers in our individual relationships on both sides of the border, but as long as officially and legally we were not, people suffered, suspicion and hostility waited and festered.

The UK had an almost mythological place in our culture. It was like some distant father. Wise, cultured, strong and always benevolent. Our teacher and protector. I grew up primarily reading British writers, watching British TV, listening to British music. These stories and images from miles and miles away, shaped my mind, honed my  ambitions and broke my heart. My passport was British but living under two straight weeks of rain was unimaginable, as I watched the tv dramas of a culture that was my own in a land that was not. When I went to study in the UK I was in for a bit of a nasty shock within the first couple of weeks, being punched in a bus stop for my tanned skin and mediterranean features – ‘You’re not even English, are you?’ was the question that came before the fist. I wasn’t given time to explain myself. These moments aside, my time in UK was fantastic for me, and I’ll always cherish  the friendships and experiences from the 5 years I spent there. A big part of my longing to move from my small country and be part of the wider world was fulfilled there. But I’ll always remember that there were people there eager to lash out at anyone not like themselves, even fellow Brits who didn’t meet their narrow criteria of Englishness.

Since then I’ve lived and worked and travelled in mainland Europe without much hassle by virtue of my British passport. Europeans from Finland to Slovenia have been my friends, colleagues, housemates, lovers. We talked and laughed and wept and sang and danced and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and embraced. We lent each other the books and records that had inspired us, we cooked each other meals, taunted each other to down our nations’ strongest liquors. We shared our love like we shared our lands. We gathered in cities and trekked through the mountains, we gathered at music festivals like an army for love and marched through the squares against austerity, Europeans (and others together), because a victory in one country would be a victory for all of us. I’ve had so many offers to visit friends in their native countries, and sadly taken too few of them up, but I knew that it would be easy when I decided to. I’ve been in groups of friends, or even an office, where 5 different languages are spoken in the same room.

I was Gibraltarian fundamentally, and British, but I was also European. I could be a little bit French, German, or Greek, and so on, when I wanted to. There would be no shortage of people to help me. We were from different countries but we shared the same future. Ours was Greek philosophy, French wine, English humour, Dutch painters and all the myriad treasures of Europe. I met young people from the former Eastern bloc that had migrated west, full of hope and energy and optimism and ready to seize the opportunities in a free Europe that their parents never had.

Today I live in Berlin, a multicultural city, bright and ‘bunt’ as it lifts itself from the shadow of a history of war and division. Reminders of suffering and repression under the Nazis and the Cold War are everywhere. The dead are gone but their shadows linger on the wall. Just like London felt more European than the rest of the UK, Berlin feels more European than German. British expats/immigrants aren’t the only ones feeling the pain here. Plenty of Germans and other Europeans with friends in Britain are sad and disappointed, offering their condolences and good wishes.

Can we still be friends, and live and work in each other’s countries? Of course, laws will not suddenly change the way I feel about the people I know or transform my personal relationships. But just like my experience with my Spanish friends as a teen was shadowed by our consciousness of the border and political hostility that we had to overcome, these legal rulings have an impact. For the British, leaving the EU sends a message that they will not be making their future as part of Europe, that they are turning away form solidarity, that they are not going to share. Those of us who still want a relationship with the EU will see that relationship change on a conceptual level, as the mistrust unleashed in the country is projected onto us. We will no longer be part of the family, but outsiders, albeit perhaps honoured guests, part of that intimacy and solidarity afforded to family will atrophy.

I understand that the majority of British people we not excited about being European, didn’t care about the opportunities offered to them, or about their role in building a future, for, and with the continent and its peoples. But for those of us who are, who like me enjoyed their youth as a European among many, working, laughing, dancing, wandering, struggling and suffering together, and believed in making a future together, it feels like a profound blow.

The music fades, the lights grow dim and the sad dancer’s limbs slow and stiffen. The party’s over, the good times are gone. Europe doesn’t belong to us anymore, we have to beg for it. It’s as if, high up in their towers, the wicked sorcerers Farage, Gove and Johnson have worked a dark ritual to steal some part of our souls. Suddenly, we are stricken with an invisible affliction that blights our senses, hobbles our feet, clips our wings. Maybe we can still move through Europe, at a crawl. But we will remember that we could fly. That’s where the pain will come from. From our phantom wings.

 

 

 

 

 

Kazakhstan part 5 – Altyn Emel

•June 22, 2016 • 2 Comments

In this series:

Part 1 – Arrival

Part 2- Almaty

Part 3- Charyn

Part 4- Hiking and horses

Part 6- Homecoming

Altyn Emel was The Big One for us, by all the metrics of length, distance, excitement and expense. It was a bit tricky to arrange a head of time. Kazakhstan’s tourist industry is a little underdeveloped and mainly oriented towards Russian-speakers. The few options for online booking were decidedly high-end package affairs that we couldn’t afford, and which were aimed at large groups rather than a pair of travellers. Still we, decided to try our luck emailing a few of the English language options and were surprised to get an offer of a bespoke trip to Altyn Emel for two days, tent included. Because this hadn’t been offered anywhere online, and our correspondant’s English wasn’t so great, we couldn’t get many details about our deal before arrival, and a misunderstanding almost lost us the whole thing.

When they day came to set off, we were still kind of nervous. After the four wheel drive pulled in to pick us up, our guide seemed to find us amusingly ill-prepared, looking over our scant amount of supplies with an incredulous eye. Our driver was a jovial middle-aged Russian man with a wry sense of humour and a readiness to discuss the history and geography of Kazakhstan. We got along in conversation with some recourses to google translate on his smartphone. While we were talking, some of the mystery about our special deal was cleared up. Our guide was not Konstantin, professional explorer and adventure tourism guide (with whom we had arranged the excursion over email), but instead was Konstantin the engineer and nature photography enthusiast, who made the trip to Altyn Emel about once every couple of years, and who had agreed to take us along as a favour to his friend, who was busy with a larger and no doubt more profitable group of travellers.

Much like the journey to Charyn Canyon, it was a long, bumpy ride for hours down poorly-maintained roads, though the impressive scenery of the surrounding steppes and mountains made it easy on the yes for a time, at least. Cemeteries, abandoned bus stations and animal herds punctuated the roadside, and we had a glimpse of a military barracks and a slice of small-town Kazakh life when we stopped to buy some fuel and snacks. One of the weirder side-shows was a city that appeared to consist only of garish casinos and luxury automobiles right in the middle of a great desert, the Las Vegas of Central Asia. This island of consumerism and excess in an ocean of majestic barrenness is apparently very popular with Arab sheiks and Russian oligarchs, according to our guide.

Altyn Emel is one of the more impressive sites I’ve ever seen, but tourism there seems practically non-existent. We were the only people present getting passes from the park authorities and Konstantin got us sorted out with paperwork pretty quickly. Over two days in the national park, we barely saw another soul. At one point, a small caravan with some tiny people in the distance. Part of this is the massive size of the area, the favourite comparison for locals being that it’s ‘four times the size of Hong Kong’, but it definitely feels like we had found an underappreciated gem. Certainly, it’s an expansive, tranquil place, completely free from bustle. We got around on the four-wheel drive, occasionally stopping to rouse a park ranger (few and far between) from their cabin to let us through a barrier. The rangers were cheerful and easy-going, and slow to respond, giving the impression that they don’t get many visitors at all.

first impressions

first impressions

 

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the facilities

Our first destination in Altyn Emel were the famous Singing Dunes. These were impressively tall sand dunes constantly shifting under pressure from a powerful wind. Their ‘song’ could be heard as a kind of low moan to anyone who paused to listen. A sombre song indeed. We agreed that we had to climb the dune. Bear in mind that Konstantin had never been here before, and I’ve only ever conquered sandcastles.

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ok here we go

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It turned out to be a hell of a lot harder than we imagined. Our feet sank deep into the dunes, which contained hidden weak points, all the while sand flew into our eyes, making it really difficult to see where we were going. There were quite a few moments when I thought I would just stagger blindly off the dune and into a steep fall to a nasty end. At one point a shoe and a pair of sunglasses was sucked into the sand. My hardly heroic ascent was punctuated by plenty of pauses and shouting to regain my purchase and get my bearings. At the top of the dunes the sand whipped at my back and shoulders like a stinging lash, and I enjoyed my victory for a few scant seconds before ducking down behind a ridge for shelter.

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Aaaaagh my eyes!

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view from the edge

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footprints in the sand

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Despite the struggle, it was an epic feeling to climb all the way up and over the Singing Dunes and back again. After a brief rest we set off to another area. Although apparently populated by ibex, wolves and bird-eating spiders, we saw relatively few animals in Altyn Emel (although their presence was evident here and there by the occasional sighting of remains, such as a cracked horned skull or some gnawed bones), and the only decent photo we could get of one was actually in a tiny farm along the way to our camping site.

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sorry

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base camp

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view from the hut

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welcome to Mars

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The stark barrenness and desolation of this expansive landscape lent it some kind of awe-inspiring stillness. The three of us were here without any other humans for miles around, and the great cracked and furrowed hills suggested a wild, alien surface. Dried up rivers glittered with minerals and the old stones bore proud scars in many colours. I felt like I had stepped onto a virgin planet.

Konstantin was chatty in the evening as we drank beer and vodka and swapped travel stories. We pitched up our tents as the desert warmth fled for the night, checking under every stone for scorpions at Konstantin’s repeated insistence. The night sky was rich with bright stars in that way that only manifests when the onlooker is far, far away from artificial light pollution. Sadly a whole night of stargazing was not possible, not just because of the aforementioned scorpions (and potential wolves) but because the cold and wind quickly stepped up to intolerable levels. Too intolerable, in fact, for our rickety tent, which flapped relentlessly and collapsed four times before my girlfriend and I just gave up and woke up a snoring Konstantin so we could sleep in the car.

The next day was the most physically hardcore and visually rewarding. Fortunately we had enough coffee to perk us up again after our lack of sleep. Much less fortunately, by now our camera had run out of battery and we were unable to recharge it, which means that end of Altyn Emel pictures for this blog. We spent the second day hiking, climbing and sliding up and down the mountains and canyons of Altyn Emel. The layered plateaus and mix of hard stone and soft earth led to a few dicey moments. Often we’d be walking along a narrow ridge with a short drop or gentle slope to a flat-ish surface on one side, but a very steep, high fall onto nasty looking rocks revealed on the other side. Although one could generally walk, there were a couple of times I had to climb with my hands and feet, hoping for dear life that the earth wouldn’t give way underneath me. Our guide was enthusiastic to a fault, often surging ahead and out of sight to get some good photographs, leaving us to play catch-up. I’ll never forget the time he did double back to check on us, when I was climbing up to a ledge –

‘Hey, you’re climbing on the wrong part, that’s dangerous, the rock can fall!’

I start reversing my climb.

‘Nooo, don’t go backwards on there, now just try to finish it’.

Yay, adventure.

The occasional fright aside, the whole experience was really something to cherish in the memories, especially since we couldn’t take photographs home. Throughout the whole ordeal we saw not a single human soul (although we found some tracks from a previous expedition), and had fantastic views of a genuinely beautiful natural landscape. I would’ve gladly spent another cramped night in the four wheel drive for another day of exploring, but our budget only allowed for two days and in the evening we had to take our dusty, exhausted and immensely satisfied selves back to Almaty.

 

 

Kazakhstan Part 4 – Hiking and Horses

•June 11, 2016 • 2 Comments

Series Links:

Part 1 – Arrival

Part 2- Almaty

Part 3- Charyn

Part 5-Altyn Emel

Part 6- Homecoming

Another picture heavy, words-light post before the next adventure story. A small hike up the mountains by Almaty got off to a slow start thanks to the opacity of the city bus lines. But just before you get to the Medeu ski resort area, there’s a hiking path up though hilly countryside area that makes me envy the city’s residents, living as they do in a metropolis with such quick access (once you know which bus to take anyway) to some lovely scenery.

The way is almost all uphill, all the time, but there’s always a place to rest, we spent half a day walking up this mountain and back the way we came, along the way we saw young people picnicking, some artists sketching, and quite a few loggers, either sitting around on their break or driving trucks full of lumber down to the city. And of course, plenty of animals, especially horses.

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Kazakhstan Part 3 – Charyn Canyon

•June 7, 2016 • 2 Comments

Series Links:

Part 1 – Arrival

Part 2- Almaty

Part 4- Hiking and horses

Part 5-Altyn Emel

Part 6- Homecoming

As promised in part 2, here’s the story of our adventures out on the mountains and steppes of Kazakhstan. Our first trip was to Charyn Canyon, a 90 km canyon just outside Almaty (bear in mind that in a country this big, ‘just outside’ means driving for 5 hours or longer. I had fun telling some Kazakhs that my own home country can be comfortably walked around in less time than that. The outskirts of Almaty are dominated by huge markets and ramshackle shopping centres that go on for several blocks in every direction we can see, with throngs of people going in and out and queuing for buses Even the majestic emptiness of a flat expanse of steppe under a brilliant blue sky can become tedious scenery when you’re in a car for that long. My better half has the enviable talent of being able to sleep soundly in a moving vehicle, which I’ve always found difficult. I kept my eyes open and spotted some small cairns which were indicators of the graves of Scythian warriors, muslim cemeteries that looked like miniature cities in the distance, with their domes, nomadic herders with sheep, goats, or horses, and the occasional decaying soviet statue or ruined outpost. My nerdy imagination conjured phantoms of Mad Max style post-apocalyptic raiders. The roadside villages we passed on this trip and others were fascinating, though and made me wish we’d been able to stop longer at them and get a feel for what life was like for Kazakhs out in the country. As it was, we stopped only long enough to use the rudimentary lavatory services and buy some fruits and the best meat-and-onion pastries ever. Life in these villages seemed somewhat chaotic, with animals, children and small fires going unattended, some people working at the stalls but plenty of others just relaxing in the hot weather. I was reminded once more of Mad Max when we passed through one small settlement, where some creative youths passed us on a 2 horse-drawn chariot, the carriage of which was made from welded car parts!

Charyn canyon itself is really quite something:

the descent begins

the descent begins

 

Ahead a glimpse of civilisation as the first bin is spotted

Ahead a glimpse of civilisation as the first bin is spotted

 

the road warrior

the road warrior

Along the way, we found a few critters hopping around burrows at the foot of the canyon walls

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author shown here for scale

author shown here for scale

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Despite being in one of the more famous tourist attractions in the region, we hardly saw another soul along the long trek down the canyon (about 1.5-2hrs to get from the hiker’s entrance to the river at its end). At one point, I saw a photo shoot a model in Native American costume and a single photographer, evidently trying to pass Charyn off as the Grand Canyon. Later, we ran into a small group of Chinese tourists, whose guide had lived in Kazakhstan and spoke perfect US-style English. We chatted for a while and learned that we were really close to the border with China and Mongolia, and that it was considered good luck in China to have your photo taken with a western European person (and I thought they had just found me really charming).

Chinese fellow travellers

Chinese fellow travellers

 

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one of the ‘castles’ of Charyn

There’s a tiny ‘eco-village’ at the end of the hikers trails, where they’ve set up some bungalows and yurts by the side of a river. There we met a group of Australian retirees who were travelling from East to West, all the way to Portugal, still in the early stages of their journey. It’s an inspiring goal, and I can only hope that in my 60s I’ll be similarly undaunted by such feats myself.

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wild horses on the other side

wild horses on the other side

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yurt

yurt

 

couple selfie

couple selfie

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The Charyn trek is hard going in the hot weather, and wasteland warrior fantasies aside, I really regretted bringing my leather jacket. Still wasn’t tired enough to nap on the way back though, and managed to snap some passing cattle in the evening.

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This post was originally intended to have more words and less pictures, and include more locations but honestly, Charyn was just too photogenic and it was hard not to upload damn near every single photo. It’s also far from the only sweet spot of unspoilt nature we managed to reach on this trip, but since pictures tell a thousand words, I’m way over my limit and you’ll need to wait til the next instalment, which I promise will follow shortly.