Friday, August 28, 2015

Turkey | Istanbul | Iconic Photos

 The iconic Süleymaniye Mosque above the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul (click on photos for enlargements)
Another view of Süleymaniye Mosque, with Rustem Pasha Mosque in foreground, lower right
Süleymaniye Mosque
Courtyard of Süleymaniye Mosque
Roses at the tomb of Sultan Süleyman
 The likewise iconic Hagia Sophia, originally a church, then a mosque, now a museum.
Another view of Hagia Sophia
Interior of Hagia Sophia. 
Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a.k. a. Blue Mosque
Another view of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Entrance to  Sultanahmed Mosque
Entrance to Sultanahmed Mosque
Courtyard of Sultanahmed Mosque
 Interior of Sultanahmed Mosque

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mongolia | Aral Sea | Turkey | Istanbul

Threw my Airbook, Kindle, and a camera into a bag and wandered off to Istanbul. I figured I could buy toiletries and whatever extra clothes I needed when I arrived in the city. The Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-900 ER lifted off from Chingis Khan Airport in Ulaanbaatar at exactly 12:49 p.m. The flight was completely sold out. I always enjoy the flight from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul via Bishkek. The flight path follows much the same route as the old Silk Road and passes over numerous Silk Road cities that I have had the privilege of visiting. On clear days the flier is presented with a fascinating  panorama of the deserts and mountains of Inner Asia. 

Unfortunately I would not be seeing much today. We encountered cloud cover just outside of Ulaanbaatar that stayed with us until the approaches to Bishkek.  I was disappointed that I could not see the Tian Shan, to my mind the most noble of all the world’s mountain ranges. Oh, I know that some people rave on about the Himalayas, the Karakorams, and the Pamirs, and even the Alps in Europe, the Andes in South America, and the lowly Rockies in North America have their partisans, but for me the Tian Shan represent the ideal of mountains. They are the mountains of my dreams. I mean this quite literally. I first time I ever saw them looming about the deserts of the Zungarian Basin I realized that I had in fact seen them many times before in my dreams dating back to when I was a small boy .

We touched down in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, at 4:49 p.m. UB time, exactly four hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar. Passengers are required to get off the plane and take all their carry-on luggage with them while the plane is refueled. The transit lounge is a long hallway lined with duty free shops, with heavy emphasis on hooch and perfume. Perhaps of most interesting thing for sale is what purports to be Kyrgyzstan honey. Now we are the only flight in transit. On the return leg of the Istanbul–Ulaanbaatar flight, when the plane stops at Bishkek at around three in the morning, the transit lounge is a beehive of activity with passengers from all over Inner Asia waiting for their forward flights. 

The plane lifts off from Bishkek at 6:03 p.m UB time, for a layover of one hour and fourteen minutes.  It’s another 2337 miles to Istanbul, with an estimated flight time five hours and fifteen minutes. Although there had been clear skies on the approaches to Bishkek we soon encountered cloud cover again. After two hours or so the clouds suddenly disappeared, and down below, just off to the south could be seen the remnants of the Aral Sea. 
 Our flight path over the Aral Sea shown in red. The southern shore what is now the Northern Aral Sea could be seen directly below as we flew over. When this photo was taken when the eastern lobe of the Southern Aral Sea (in light green-blue) still appears to have some water in it.

Fed by the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, two the greatest rivers of Inner Asia, the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest inland sea, or lake, in the world ((26,300 square miles), after the Caspian Sea (saline), Lake Superior (fresh water), and Lake Victoria (fresh water).  Starting in the 1950s huge amount of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya were siphoned off for irrigation projects in what was then the Soviet Union. The lake began shrinking and by the first decade of the twentieth century it had been reduced to about one-tenth of its original size. Some have termed this the biggest ecological disaster in recorded history, although because it occurred in a part of the world that relatively few people knew or cared about it has not received a lot of publicity. 
Map of the Aral Sea dating to 1853
After water levels dropped the Aral Sea split into four separate lakes: the north Aral Sea; two separate basins of what was once the southern part of the Aral Sea, and a small lake between the north and south portions.  In August 2014 it was recorded that for the first time in modern history the eastern basin of the southern part of the sea had completely dried up, leaving only three lakes. This now dry eastern basin is now called the Aralkum Desert. See Aral Sea's Eastern Basin Is Dry for First Time in 600 Years.
Before and after satellite photos of the Aral Sea. The photo on the right, taken recently, appears to show the eastern lobe of the Southern Aral Sea completely dried up. 
 We fly right over the southern shore of the northern lake. Off to the south can clearly be seen the elongated western lobe and the now dry eastern lobe of what was once was once the Southern Aral Sea. Several Mongolians pulled out smart phones and iPads and began taking pictures of what remains of this once great sea. It is indeed a sobering sight. The drainage system of the Aral Sea—the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya—ranks with the valley of the Nile and Mesopotamia as the birthplaces of civilization. Egypt and Iraq remain in the headlines, but the drainage of the Aral Sea, the core of Inner Asia, has in large part been forgotten. It remains the linchpin between China and Europe, however, and could play an ever-increasing role in world affairs as the twenty-first century progresses. The Wild Card is Global Warming, and what effect it might have on the already fragile water resources of the region. See Central Asia Must Unite to Revive the Aral Sea.

Usually this flight goes right over the middle of the Caspian Sea, the largest land-locked sea or lake in the world, but for some reason we now fly directly over its northern shore. I try in vain to spot Astrakhan, certainly one of the most charming cities in Russia, located on the Volga River near where it flows into the Caspian Sea. 

Soon we encountered cloud cover again and it did not clear until we were over the Black Sea about an hour out of Istanbul. The plane soon veered south over the eastern end of Anatolia and out over the Sea of Marmara, where the Prince Islands could be seen directly below. We touched down in Istanbul at 11:20 p.m. UB time (5:20 p.m. Istanbul time), for a total flight time of ten hours and thirty-one minutes. The distance was 5728 miles. There was no one in line at the Express Immigration Lane (I was flying Business, which allowed me to use the Express Lane), and I had to wait only thirty seconds for the train to the Zeytinburnu metro station where I caught the M1 Metro to the downtown area.  Soon the Theodosian Walls loomed up on ahead. As the incomparable John Julius Norwich points out in Volume 1 of his magisterial three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantium: The Early Centuries:
It is one of the clichés of Constantinople [Istanbul] that it should, ideally, be approached by the sea. Only then, we are told, can the uniqueness of its geographical position be properly appreciated, to say nothing of that famous skyline of dome and minaret which has symbolized, for as long as any of us can remember, the Mysterious East. With this opinion we cannot easily disagree; but, for those of us on whom Byzantium will always cast a more powerful spell than Islam, there is another approach every bit as satisfying and very nearly as spectacular. No one, surely, whose first arrival has been by road from Edirne, can ever forget that first astonishing sight of the Land Walls, looming up from the surrounding plain . . . 
Theodosian Land Walls near Topkapi Gate
Being a land man myself I tend to agree with Viscount Norwich. The three mile-long Theodosian Land Walls, built in the fifth century, are one of the world’s great historical monuments, and I always experience a certain frisson of excitement when seeing them again after an absence of several months. Anyhow, my hotel is just inside the land walls. I got ready to get off at the Pazartekke metro stop, the closest to my hotel, but inexplicably the train just went by the stop without stopping. What fresh hell was this? I wondered. Surely the train driver could not have just forgotten to stop. I got off at the next stop and took the metro back the same way. Again we whizzed by the Pazartekke stop, but this time I noticed yellow tape blocking the entrances. Apparently it was closed for some reason. So I get off at the first metro station outside the walls and start hoofing it back. A four-lane freeway runs parallel to the land walls, but fortunately there is a pedestrian overpass leading directly to the Topkapi Gate. So I am able to enter Istanbul on foot via the historic Topkapi Gate instead of via the more mundane metro line. Attila the Hun (r. 434–453) once tried to enter Constantinople (Istanbul) via this gate, but was repulsed and finally had to give up altogether his investment of the city.
The historic Topkapi Gate
I receive a friendlier welcome. Just inside the gate the proprietor of a tea shop waves at me. I often have tea here in the morning when I stay in this neighborhood. Further down the street two shopkeepers greet me. A man on the street stops and stays in English, “Welcome back!” The waiter at the corner restaurant, where I often eat, is outside having a smoke and he gives me a polite nod. I feel like Jason returning from the Wars. 

The receptionist at my hotel doesn’t speak English (it’s one reason I stay at this place); he just smiles and hands me the key to my room, which is the same room I have had the last ten or more times I stayed here. I pay in cash and he doesn’t bother asking for ID. So I am back in Istanbul.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mongolia | Ulaanbaatar | Camel Statues

The other day my pal Saka and I went shopping. As we were sitting in a line of traffic backed behind the traffic light at the intersection of Chingis Khan Avenue and the Zaisan Tolgoi road I noticed looming above the tops of cars in front of us a statue of a camel that had recently been installed in a traffic island in middle of the avenue. From our angle only the head of what I thought was one of two camels was visible.

“Did you see the statues of the two camels?” I asked Saka. “That’s a great idea. I wonder who is responsible for them?” 
“There is only one camel, replied Saka.
“No,” I replied, “there are two camels. You just can’t see the other one from here. I hope they install a whole string of them.” 
“I just drove by there on my way to your apartment, and there is only one camel there,” she insisted.
“There are two,” said I, “do you want to bet on it? 
“I don’t bet, but you are wrong; there is only one.” 
“No sorry, you are wrong.”

The light changed and we drove by the traffic island. There was only one camel. Saka almost peed her pants laughing (she’s easily amused). “And you wanted to bet! Hahahaha (or khikhikhikhi, as Mongolians write it). I should have bet you a hundred dollars! I could buy a new handbag!”

I was completely flummoxed. The bus I take to town goes right by this traffic island and I had noticed when they had installed the first camel. I said to myself, “wouldn’t it be a great idea to install a whole string of camels.” Then about a week ago I took a bus to town and we got struck in line of cars right in front of the traffic island. I could not help but notice that another statue had been installed. Now there were two of them. We sat there for at least five minutes in the traffic jam and I stared at the two camels the whole time. The image of two camels was indelibly imprinted in my mind.  I also thought, “Since there are now two camels maybe they are going to install a whole string of them. I certainly hope so.” Now, inexplicably, there was only one camel. Had I hallucinated the second camel? It seemed unlikely.

Five days later I took the bus to town again. Now there was indeed a string of camel statues on the traffic island; in fact, five of them. Instead of going straight into town I got out at the nearest bus stop and took photos of all five camel statues before any of them could disappear.
Three of the string of five camel statues (click on photos for enlargements)
One of the camel statues
I don’t know who is responsible for the camel statues, but they should be heaped knee deep in laurels to this wonderful tribute to the Most Noble Of All Four-Legged Animals. The statues serve to remind not only residents of the city but visitors who will drive right by them when arriving from the airport that Ulaanbaatar was once the nexus of numerous caravan routes running south to Beijing and Lhasa and other cities in China; west to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, China; from hence to Samarkand, Bukhara, Tabriz, and other great cites of the Silk Road; and north to Irkutsk in Siberia, which was once the northern terminus of the Tea Road between China and Russia. Camels were the main mode of transportation on all of these routes.
As I stood by the camel statues I could not help but think of the great Buryat lama Agvan Dorzhiev, who made the fastest recorded trip from Ulaanbaatar (then called Ikh Khüree [Их Хүрээ] = “Great Settlement”, or Örgöö [Өргөө] = “Palace”) to Lhasa by camel. Leaving the city on December 5, 1900 on an urgent diplomatic mission to the 13th Dalai Lama, Dorzhiev and his party had traveled day and night and arrived in Lhasa seventy-two days later. Normal caravans took four or five months. What I wouldn’t give to have been on that trip!
Agvan Dorzhiev (1854–1938)
I was also reminded of a ensemble of camel statues I had seen on Lyab-i-Haus square in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The Bukhara Ensemble also honors the caravan men who accompanied the camels. Shouldn’t the caravan men be likewise honored in Ulaanbaatar?
Camel Ensemble in Bukhara
 Camel in Bukhara
Camel Man in Bukhara
Anyhow, I stick by my claim that there were at one time two camels standing alone on the traffic island in Ulaanbaatar. I think one was installed, then the second one, but for some reason this second one was temporarily removed—maybe it had been damaged. Then it and three more statues were installed for a total of five. Either that, or while I was sitting in the bus that day in a traffic jam in front of the statues I entered a time warp into a future where there were two camels, but then returned to the mundane time-space continuum where my friend Saka and I later saw only camel. Those are the only two possible explanations.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Uzbekistan | Qarshi | Chingis Khan | Sufi Tombs

We all know that Chingis Khan finally conquered the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand on March 19, 1220. He then dispatched his two middle sons Chagaadai and Ögödei west to Khwarezm with orders to take the city of Gurganj. His two Hounds, Jebe and Sübedei, were sicced on the Khwarezmshah, the erstwhile ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, who had fled from the Mongols across the Amu Darya into what is now Afghanistan. Jebe had earlier tracked down and brought to bay the Naiman Adventurer Khüchüleg, After spending a few weeks in the Samarkand area enjoying the fruits of his conquest, Chingis Khan himself and a contingent of troops proceeded to the Nasaf region, centered upon the city of Nasaf (current-day Qarshi) about sixty miles southwest of Samarkand. This area, watered by the 230-mile long Kashka Darya River, which begins in the outliers of the Tian Shan Mountains to the east, was celebrated for its lush pasture lands. (Cultivated in Russian colonial and Soviet times, the region was and is a big producer of cotton and wheat and has become known as the breadbasket of Uzbekistan). Here Chingis Khan and his men spent the summer resting and fattening their horses.

While relaxing in these rich grasslands Chingis Khan may have had occasion to meet with some Sufis who were living in the area. Throughout his career Chingis had always shown an interest in “holy men”, be they Buddhists, Christians, Muslims or Taoists, although of course he never actually professed to any of their teachings. Now at leisure near Nasaf, he met with two prominent Sufis, the brothers Khazrati Qussam Sheikh (1192-1338) and Djabbar Shoji, the grandsons of Akhmet Yassavi (1093–1166). Yassavi, born in Sayram in what is now Kazakhstan, is widely believed to have founded the first Turkic Sufi order, the Yassaviyya, and some credit him with being the first Turkic poet to write poetry in a Turkic dialect. Indeed, People Today In Bukhara are still making books using his poetry. 

Khazrati Qussam Sheikh and Djabbar Khoji, it may be assumed, were members of the Yasaviyya Sufi order. Just what these two worthies discussed with Chingis Khan, assuming this story is just not apocryphal, is unrecorded. At some point, however, Djabbar Khoji must have done something to earn Chingis’s ire. According to local legend, Chingis Khan ordered his execution. The tombs of Khazrati Qussam Sheikh and numerous of his relatives can still be seen in his large mausoleum complex just east of Qarshi. There is even a legend that Ögödei Khan, son of Chingis Khan, is buried in this mausoleum, although there is no proof of this assertion. Where Ögödei is buried, if anywhere, is somewhat of a mystery. There are three very elaborate tombs in the mausoleum not belonging to Khazrati Qussam Sheikh’s family. Even the otherwise very well informed director of the mausoleum claims not know who is entombed in them.
 The Mausoleum of Khazrati Qussam Sheikh (click on photos for enlargements)
The tomb of Khazrati Qussam Sheikh
 The tombs of Khazrati Qussam Sheikh’s relatives
 One of the three elaborate tombs in the mausoleum. Tales that Ögödei Khan, son of Chingis Khan, is buried in one of them are apparently apocryphal. No one seems to know who is buried in the tombs. 
Arabic lettering on the tombs
 Courtyard of the Mausoleum
 Graybeard who guards the Mausoleum
Graybeard
Djabbar Khoji, the brother allegedly executed by Chingis Khan, has his own mausoleum deep in the Kyzyl Kum Desert 65 miles west of Qarshi. Although quite isolated, it is an very popular pilgrim destination. The imam in charge of the complex is quick to tell  visitors, quite unbidden, that Djabbar Khoji was killed by order of the great Chingis Khan from Mongolia. 
Mausoleum of Djabbar Khoji
Tomb of Djabbar Khoji
 Tomb of Djabbar Khoji

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mongolia | Mongol Empire Era Carpet

Christies, the big international art auction house, is selling what is “thought to be the sole surviving example of a Mongol Empire carpet.” See ‘An Extraordinary Survivor’: A Rare Carpet From The Mongol Empire. I would love to have this grace the floor of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, but it is slightly out of my price range (($747,000–$1,045,800 estimate). It may well be within the range of a certain well-heeled carpet collector in Richmond, Virginia, however. She might want to snap it up while it is still available. 
Mongol era carpet; perhaps more properly called a kilim, since it is flat-woven (click on photos for enlargements)
Detail of Mongol era carpet

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Kosh Madrassas

The Kosh Madrassas (kosh = twin, pair, double, etc.) are not identical, but they do face each other across a square.
Ubdullah Khan Madrassa, left center, and Modari Madrassa, right center (click on photos for enlargements)
Both were built by Abdullah Khan II, the last Shaybanid Dynasty Khan of Bukhara (r. 1583–1598)
Abdullah Khan II 
The Modari  (mother,  in Persian) Madrassa was built in 1566 in honor of Abdullah Khan’s mother.
 Another view of the Modari Madrassa
Interior of the Modari Madrassa
The  Abdullah Khan Madrassa, facing the Modari Madrassa, was built by Abdullah Khan in the years 1588-90.
 Abdullah Khan Madrassa
 Courtyard of  Abdullah Khan Madrassa
 Ceiling of Abdullah Khan Madrassa

Friday, August 7, 2015

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Darkhad Depression #5

We head down the left bank of the Buural Gol through thick taiga to its confluence with the Ulaan Ongo Gol. The source of the Ulaan Ongo, seven or eight miles upstream from here, is only about a mile and a half from the source of the Khoogiin Gol, where we are headed, but Batmönkh says the head of the Ulaan Ongo Gol dead ends in impassable cliffs, making it impossible to reach the Khoogiin Gol from there. Instead we will head farther down the Buural and follow a small tributary of the Buural to a pass leading to the Khoogiin. The trail meanders through thick stands of willows and larch. At places the Buural Gol flows under ten-foot thick-football field-sized slabs of ice which Batmönkh says never melt during the summer.

Soon we come to the small unnamed tributary tumbling down a deep ravine to the left. We turn off and follow a vague trail up the right side of the ravine up through a thick larch forest. The misting rain slowly builds into a steady shower. Up ahead, through the mists and clouds, we can make out the snow already falling on the pass.

The trail gets steeper and steeper and we have to make many detours around fallen timber. On one particularly steep section Batmönkh, who is riding right behind me, shouts, “your girth strap has come loose.” He no sooner says this than my horse lunges upward over the steep trail. I feel the saddle sliding beneath me and I topple off the right side of the horse. The horse, with the saddle dangling underneath its belly by the front strap, goes berserk, bucking like a rodeo bronco. Hanging onto the lead rope I am dragging a couple of yards before the horse makes a final lunge and jerks the rope out of my hand. The horse promptly starts trotting back down the trail the way we come. Bayarkhüü rides off in hot pursuit. This is not good. After running off like this horses are notoriously hard to catch again, and especially by one person, like Bayarkhüü, on the thickly-forested side of a ravine. Batmönkh finds the saddle and inspecting it discovers that the girth strap had broken off where it attaches to the saddle. It is not clear, however, if this happened before or after the saddle came off.

After a half an hour Bayarkhüü appears with my horse in tow. My opinion of his horse-handling skills, already high, soars. Batmönkh jerry-rigs the strap back onto the saddle with a scrap of rope—some essential part, I can’t make out what, is missing—and soon we are back on the trail. Another half hour later we emerge from the taiga onto the tundra leading to the pass.
On the tundra below the pass (click on photos for enlargements)
Looking back the way we came
As we approach 8356-foot Khushit Khem Pass it starts snowing in earnest, big wet flakes which quickly soak through the deels of the horsemen, who have no rain gear. They hurry on across the pass. I linger behind with Nergui, who has no raingear either, but seems oblivious to the snow.
Nergui at 8356-foot Khushit Khem Pass. This is in the middle of June.