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Friday, September 17, 2010

Coming Soon: photos from Kyrgyzstan

Our only realistic option for getting into and out of Kyrgyzstan in the required time-frame was via Tashkent. Among seasoned travellers in Central Asia, Tashkent International Airport has a well-deserved reputation for being pretty awful. Some readers of this space have been there in the past and they will be delighted to know that the facility has lost little of its distinctive charm over time: hundreds of people stuffed into narrow hallways awaiting passport control, unintelligible speaker systems, no information posted anywhere, officials who fondle their pistols a little too much, and so on. Whiners and prima-donnas are advised to stay home.

"The heirs of Tamerlane and Stalin apologize to NO ONE, bitches!"

For travellers in certain former communist airports, this sort of thing is pretty much old hat. But even Kyrgyz people cringe at this place.

Among the Central Asian states, it is relevant to mention here that Uzbekistan has the most vicious reputation. About 7 years ago, Craig Murray, the British ambassador, publicized the fact that he'd been presented with photographic evidence that the regime of Islom Karimov had boiled some of its opponents to death, like something out of the dungeons of Uzbeg Khan himself. (Just to underscore that no good deed goes unpunished in the realm of secret renditions and Realpolitik, the UK Foreign Ministry promptly sacked Murray for exceeding his authority and imperiling relations with an anti-Taliban bulwark.) That's also not the kind of thing that you'd want to talk about too loudly while you're there.

Before leaving Bishkek, we had our checked luggage locked and taped-up in thick plastic sheeting to deter would-be thieves. It also helps to sew any large denominations you have into the lining of your clothes. The four of us brought provisions and our senses of humor; we managed to avoid shake-downs from the notoriously corrupt staff and got through it all fairly unscathed. (A co-worker got about $200 confiscated the year before because he'd failed to properly declare how much currency he was taking-out of the country; I think we got-off pretty light.)

So, yes, 11 hours in the transit lounge. When the crack security team decided it was time to play backgammon, I surrepitiously took some video with a cloth concealing the camera. Enjoy:

Monday, September 6, 2010

Heading to Kyrgyzstan Soon

Hopefully, all will go well. For trips like this, the only thing one can expect is the unexpected.
On the way back, I'm going to have a 10-hour layover in Uzbekistan.
Who wouldn't look forward to that?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Journey to Seoul #2

I wanted to mention something about Seoul as a modern city, because there's really a lot of interesting stuff going on there; in some ways, it's on the cutting edge of technology and urban development.

For example, in the mid-1990s, the Republic of Korea made it a national priority to maximize the number of people who could access the Internet. This involved not only a massive investment in infrastructure and a revamping of the telecom regulatory system, but also included training programs aimed at connecting the elderly and people on the margins. That, coupled with a highly dense urban population, means that the country has the highest broadband penetration rate in the world, with connections being faster and cheaper than the world average. There are definite lessons here for further broadening Internet access in the U.S. (By the same token, the insatiable demand for online games has brought a problem of Internet addiction in Korea, which is something that necessarily comes with the territory.)

Anyway, down the street from the hotel was the starting-point of Cheonggye stream, which is a 6-km long park going through the downtown section.

The story is that in the 1970s, an elevated roadway was built over this route and the stream was pretty much paved-over. In 2003, the mayor of Seoul came into office and thought that the roadway was something of a ratty-looking eyesore that needlessly divided the downtown. He initated a project to rip it up and turn it into a greenspace. Since the stream had basically been destroyed, getting the "original" flow of water wasn't possible, so what you see up there has to be piped-in from elsewhere. But today, the resulting park is something of a hit with the residents and it's a nice place when it gets lit-up at night.

The mayor who did it? Lee Myung-bak, who is somewhat more prominent in international news nowadays.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Journey to Seoul #1

Visiting Seoul was really enjoyable for me; I found myself wishing that I had a bit more time than three days and four nights. Additionally, the weather didn't cooperate every day due to a typhoon which had the temerity to pass-through the Tsushima strait on the morning we'd arrived. Seoul was worth the trip, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you've already seen the larger and grander historical sights which can be had in Beijing and Kyoto.

The hotel location was hard to beat. We were located one block north of the square facing city hall and a short walk south of Gwanghwamun plaza and Cheonggye stream, which are two of the city's major beautification projects of the past decade. Gwanghwamun plaza is the closest thing Seoul has to a public square and it is there that one can see statues devoted to the two big guns of the Jeoson Dynasty: Sejong the Great, he who commissioned and promoted the Hangul writing system, and Admiral Yi Sunsin who arguably rivals Horatio Nelson as the biggest naval genius of all time. (If that sounds like hyperbole, try to find another naval commander who won 23 out of 23 engagements, one of which he was outnumbered at least 10 to 1 in.)

(In case it's of any interest, the second building on the right is the U.S. embassy.)

Gwanghwamun is the name of the southernmost gate of Gyeongbukgong palace, the largest of Seoul's royal complexes. This gate had been under restoration for the past few years and was scheduled to be officially opened the day after we left, which helps to give some sense of how much work (both historical and beautification) is being done.

Inside, they put-on a little reenactment of the changing of the guard and I happened to be experimenting with the video function on the camera. I had to elbow a few people in the head to get this, so you'd better enjoy it...