When Genghis Khan’s army emerged from the Mongolian steppe back in the 13th century, one of the keys to his success was an equine postal system that enabled messages to travel across his vast and growing empire in a matter of days. He oversaw the establishment of a network of horse stations that allowed riders to exchange their exhausted steeds for fresh mounts and keep on moving.
Now, following in the hoof steps of the Khan’s hordes comes a modern-day take on the 13th-century's information superhighway – the Mongol Derby. Billed as the world's longest horse race, this grueling 1,000-kilometer marathon will retrace ancient routes across the rolling steppe with 25 horse stations set up at 40-kilometer intervals.
This year, the race, which has been held annually since 2009, gets underway on August 10. Competitors aim to complete the course on semi-wild mounts in an exhausting seven to ten days. The event aims to raise money for economic development charity work in Mongolia. It’s the brainchild of The Adventurists, the group that is also behind the annual Mongol Rally, a race from London to Ulaanbaatar in a vehicle with an engine size of one liter or less.
For the riders in this extreme equine test, the keyword is “adventure.” There's no route as such: It's up to participants to make their way between the horse stations as quickly as they can. At the stations each must pick up fresh horses. Accommodation is basic: Competitors either share a ger, a round felt tent, with a nomadic family or sleep under the stars in the wilderness.
Team Kazakhstan hasn’t bothered with anything but gold at the London Olympics, doubling its haul of first-place medals over the weekend to place fifth in number of gold medals per capita.
Former husband-and-wife team Ilya Ilin and Svetlana Podobedova triumphed in the weightlifting arena. Ilin set a new world record when he hefted 418 kilograms, a 12-kilo improvement on his gold-winning lift in Beijing in 2008. The two-time Olympic champion attributed his success to the supplies of kazy – smoked horsemeat sausage – that Kazakhstan brought to London.
Podobedova triumphed in the 75-kilogram division for her adopted country. She left her native Russia in 2007 after she was cut from the national weightlifting team for a doping offense. The Russian authorities refused to allow her to compete for Kazakhstan in the 2008 games, but now she has gotten revenge by narrowly beating Russia's Natalya Zabolotnaya to take the gold.
The London Olympics have offered mixed successes for Central Asia in their first week.
Kazakhstan got off to a great start, meeting its target of three gold medals in the first four days of competition. Uzbekistan has picked up a bronze and also the dubious distinction of seeing a gymnast kicked out for failing a drug test. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have yet to trouble the winner's podium.
Kazakhstan's weightlifting sensations Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Maiya Maneza struck gold on July 29 and July 31, after cyclist Alexander Vinokourov sped to victory on July 28.
The victories were not without controversy, however. Chinshanlo and Maneza's roots were called into question, as some years previously they had been part of China's weightlifting set-up. A Kazakh official refuted charges the athletes had no right to represent Kazakhstan.
“We led them to this victory for a whole Olympic cycle, and before that they were already members of our national team,” Aleksey Kryuchkov, acting head of the sporting body in charge of Kazakhstan's national teams, told KTK television.
It's been a busy games for Kryuchkov, who also had a kit malfunction to deal with. Some weightlifters from Kazakhstan were shown in competition wearing uniforms reading “Kzakhstan.” An investigation revealed five or six rogue, misspelled T-shirts.
A Tashkent advertisement for “Your favorite soft drinks.”
A family of Soviet-era soft drinks has suddenly reappeared this summer to quench the thirst of Central Asians.
In Almaty's upmarket Samal district, a retro vending machine is offering a choice of plain fizzy water or three old, syrupy favorites. And in Tashkent, a billboard has popped up around town featuring a matronly Slavic woman standing by an old-fashioned soda fountain.
The Almaty dispenser is a throwback to the carbonated-water dispensers that were found on many a street corner in Soviet times. After the collapse of the USSR these machines largely disappeared or fell into disuse (some still languish, rusting and forlorn, in the occasional back alley or small-town bus station), unable to compete with imported sodas such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
But now the familiar flavors are fighting back, almost literally. The Almaty dispenser is decorated with the figure of a Bolshevik revolutionary on a striking red background. For 40 tenge ($0.30) you can have a Buratino, a caramel-colored concoction named after Russia’s indigenous Pinocchio. A radioactive-green, tarragon-flavored Tarkhun will set you back 50 tenge ($0.35), while a flowery, pear-inspired Duchess costs 60 tenge ($0.40).
Tashkent's "Diplomatic Shop": Where prices are secrets.
In Uzbekistan, it’s sometimes like the Soviet Union never really went away.
Walking around downtown Tashkent recently, I spotted a store advertising itself in English as a “Diplomatic Shop.”
In the USSR, state-run Beriozka stores sold imported wares and hard-to-find local goods to foreigners in exchange for hard currency to supplement state coffers. Could it be that this Soviet institution had made a comeback in Uzbekistan, some 20 years after the collapse of the Union?
Like it’s predecessor, the Diplomatic Shop had well-stocked shelves lined with imported premium-brand liquor and perfume. Payment was accepted in hard currency or by credit card only. But there was a catch – a notice on the door said the goods were only for sale to diplomats or those with Foreign Ministry accreditation to live and work in Uzbekistan (that’s more than just a business visa).
Playing the dumb foreigner, I entered the store anyway. The assistant immediately asked to see my diplomatic ID or accreditation card. I came clean, admitting I had no such documents, and asked if I could have a look around.
“That's not possible,” replied the assistant.
“Could you, for instance, tell me the price of a bottle of wine?” I enquired.
“That's a secret.”
The question was relevant as Uzbekistan applies notoriously high taxes on imported wine and liquor. An average bottle of foreign wine starts at around 60,000 som ($35) in a shop and about double that in a restaurant.
These CFCs won’t punch a hole in the ozone layer, but the Colonel would still be horrified.
A little bit of Kentucky has landed in Central Asia’s largest city.
The logo and the overall design may look familiar – yes that's Colonel Sanders looking out from the center of the billboard – but welcome to Champions Fried Chicken (CFC) Uzbekistan's homegrown response to the restaurant formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Fans of fried chicken in Tashkent had hoped for a taste of Colonel Sander's secret recipe when advertisements appeared on a downtown development last fall promising a KFC franchise would open soon. The billboard has since disappeared and the KFC never materialized, but Tashkent has struck back with its own fried chicken emporium.
Located in the new Poytaxt shopping mall on the pedestrianized Sailgokh Street (better known to locals as “Broadway”) CFC is providing Uzbeks an alternative to plov, the national rice and meat dish, by introducing its customers to the wonderful world of “finger lickin' good” chicken.
In the heart of Central Asia, the KFC-Colonel connection may be lost on some. But the founders of CFC likely had another marketing opportunity in mind.
Chelsea Football Club, owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, is wildly popular in Uzbekistan. Chelsea is the current holder of the Champions League title. And so Tashkent's CFC puts the champions into fried chicken in more ways than one.
Falcon populations in Kazakhstan are about to get a welcome boost. A rescue center in the United Arab Emirates is preparing to introduce 66 falcons back into their natural habitat in the Central Asian nation, where the birds of prey have traditionally been used for hunting.
The to-be-released raptors are wild birds that had been injured and handed over to the Falcon Hospital Abu Dhabi (FHAD) within the past year. The rescues are a boon to endangered species such as the Saker falcon, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years as a result of illegal poaching and habitat destruction.
The UAE shares a common avian hunting heritage with the Central Asian countries. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the trade in illegally procured birds has flourished in the Gulf states, with poachers smuggling young birds out of Central Asia. To counter this underground trade, in 1995 Emirati authorities introduced falcon passports and three-year licenses that allow hunters from the UAE to move their falcons across international borders and home again.
The passports seem to be working: “Definitely, the numbers of confiscated wild falcons are going down year after year,” FHAD head Dr Margit Muller told Abu Dhabi's Khaleej Times. The repatriation of these endangered falcons and the tighter controls on their trade should go some way to helping ensure the sport's long-term future.
Authorities in Kazakhstan appear to have finally found a sense of humor.
Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov says fictional Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev’s slapstick tour of America in the 2006 film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” had increased visa applications to the Central Asian nation ten-fold since its release.
“It was a great triumph for us and I am grateful to Borat for helping to attract tourists to Kazakhstan,” Kazykhanov told lawmakers in Astana on April 23.
For years, Astana had no patience for Sasha Baron Cohen’s spoof hack, but now they see he’s helped put Kazakhstan on the tourism map.
The film was banned from screens in Kazakhstan when it was released. In the subsequent years, Borat has repeatedly hit the headlines – usually to the irritation of Kazakh authorities – most recently at a sports competition in Kuwait last month when the parody version of Kazakhstan’s national anthem, which featured in the film, was played in error.
On the heels of a police operation to clean up Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, by cracking down on unwashed vehicles, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has outlined plans to deal with a growing crime wave in the city.
At an April 11 discussion on the future development of the city, the president bemoaned the fact that the crime rate in his dream capital is rising. He said crime in Astana is 1.7 times the national average, while detection rates are the lowest in the country.
The Leader of the Nation singled out a proliferation of bookmakers and gambling halls as a root cause of the growing problem. He urged police to focus on the problem of petty crime in Astana, instructing them not to overlook simple misdemeanors such as leaving chewing gum at street crossings. He suggested that the punishment for such an infraction should include fines and up to three days in jail. His hope is that cracking down hard on petty crime will lead to reductions in more serious crimes.
Traffic police in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, have launched a campaign sure to put fear in the hearts of the city's drivers. Were they targeting the unruly drag racing on Astana's dangerous streets, or the widespread drunk driving? Nope, the cops were concentrating on a more serious problem—unwashed vehicles.
Over the weekend of April 7-8, police handed out 1,067 tickets to drivers of dirty cars, inform.kz reports. The campaign was good for revenue, netting around $60,000—each ticket carrying a fixed penalty of 8,090 tenge ($55). With the spring thaw finally coming to Astana, targeting dirty vehicles is a certain source of revenue since it’s impossible to keep things clean at this time of year. The sweep also netted 41 intoxicated motorists, 45 cars parked illegally and 17 people driving without documents.
Traffic police in Kazakhstan’s gleaming new capital are fighting around the clock to keep order on the city's streets. Over one weekend in Astana earlier this year, 601 offenders were caught for violations including drunk driving, speeding, using a cell phone and driving into oncoming traffic.
But the gaishniki are not having much effect on safety. In 2010, officials registered 12,008 road accidents, which resulted in 2,797 deaths in Kazakhstan. (By comparison, Western Europe suffers roughly half the number of traffic-related deaths per capita).
It remains to be seen if washing the spring mud off car bumpers results in fewer traffic deaths.