The tower and the citadel ruins in the background
My first venture outside of the city limits of Bishkek (airport excluded) was to the historical Burana Tower. I hadn't planned on going here, but it offered a pleasant diversion to another day of walking in the cold from cafe to cafe. I hopped in a minivan bound for the city of Tokmak, about 65 kilometers east of Bishkek on the main highway. From there I quickly discovered that there was no other transportation to the tower site, so I agreed to an expensive journey with the same driver, Nuri, for an excursion to the site and back, waiting time included.
About seven kilometers from a turn-off about three kilometers south of town, we drove through the village of Burana, no more than a cluster of houses, a school and a cemetery with unusual mausolea sprouting around the grounds.
Atop the tower, with a view to the north
About a kilometer further we came to a T-junction where a gate proclaimed the entrance to the Burana historical complex. Besides the tower, there was a museum, two foundations of former mausolea, a mound that must have been the old city walls, and a small "garden" filled with unusual carved rocks. The main feature--the tower--was actually a reconstructed version of the original 11th century tower. The ancient city was called Balasagun and was the Sogdian capital of Karakhan, but only excavated about 40 years ago.
The steep, dark climb to the top of the tower revealed pristine views of the snowcapped mountains on either side of the valley as well as tidy farmland and the nearby village. Nuri followed along as well, climbing the tower with me and visiting the museum and the rocks.
Detail of rock carving or "balbal"
He was more agitated that he forgot his cigarettes than with having to trudge through the mud. The museum was small, but contained several artifacts found in the area, including some petroglyphs. The were about 100 meters behind the museum, adjacent to one of the remainig citadel wall ruins. The various and sundry rock carvings, called balbals
, were arranged intermittantly and according to the type of carving. The first group featured carvings of men and women, most of them resembling slender Santa Clauses. Other rocks featured Buddhist and Arabic inscriptions and others had animals. Along the side path were large millstones, water troughs and other round implements carved from stone. The scene was Kyrgyzstan's version of Easter Island.
The balbal "garden" at Burana
We probably stayed about an hour before heading back to town. Nuri was eager to take me back to Bishkek as well, but I wanted to have lunch and explore Tokmak a little so he was kind enough to drive me into town and drop me off at a cafe across from the government building. I promised I would ride back with him if he was at the taxi stand when I left, and I waved goodbye and headed into have a cheap, filling lunch of borsch and crab salad (imitation of course). I strolled through a park and past a golden statue of Lenin, at the base of which were teenagers posing for pictures they were taking of each other when I interrupted. The weather was very mild, probably about 48 degrees, and sunny. A large airplane dominated the roundabout at the entrance to the downtown, next to a park with a large ferris wheel.
The gilded Lenin
I also spotted a TOEFL English learning center with an American flag pasted on the front door. I stopped by and was greeted warmly by Natalia, who was very surprised to see an American wandering the streets of her town. The director of the center came by and together the three of us took a tour of the center, which was impressive considering the size of the town. I headed back to the main entrance to town with another roundabout and a few propagandist billboards, but I didn't see Nuri so I caught a taxi with another guy back to Bishkek.
The evening flew by and after picking up my clean laundry and saying goodbye to Alexandra and her roommates, I went across the street to meet Dustin. We served in the Peace Corps together on opposite sides of the country.
Ready for takeoff
He now works at the US embassy, a fact that I must have known at one point but forgot when I got to town. Having lived in Central Asia and the Caucasus pretty much since we finished our service, he had mastered the art of Central Asian driving. We went back to his nice apartment near the train station, where I met their dog Bubba and dropped my stuff in the guest room. The apartment was probably the nicest I've ever seen anywhere and very tastefully decorated with beautiful carpets and souvenirs mostly from the region. I learned that his wife, Cori, was back in Atlanta and he was to join her soon as they were expecting their first child.
For dinner we went to a Lebanese restaurant in a western part of town not mentioned in my guidebook. We shared a mezza platter of all sorts of Middle Eastern foods like hummus, falafel, tabouleh, meat-filled pastries and a thick yogurt paste, along with mugs of beer.
A little behind in Tokmok
It was good to catch up on each other's goings on as well as other people we knew. When we got back to the apartment, he offered the use of his washer and dryer as well. We did have a moment trying to figure out the German-language washing machine that was quite different from the machines I was used to, but the next morning I had perfectly washed clothes and was even able to put on hot-from-the-dryer pants! Dustin really was generous to me, offering for me a warm comfortable place to stay, picking up the tab at dinner, laundry, a hot shower and even dropping me off at the bus station in the morning to name a few. Thanks ever so much, Dustin, and I hope someday I can repay the favor.