Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Ruin Map: Destinations for Disaster Tourists, Urban Explorers and Soviet History Lovers

This article, written by Steven Hermans of Caravanistan, is republished with permission. Steven is very interested to add to this list of abandonned industrial sites in Central Asia. Please contact him directly.

Ruin porn, who can resist it? Our imagination gets sucked in by the crumbling walls, finding the memories of older lives carelessly abandoned on the floor. The ultimate demise of all that is, splayed out in front of us in an orgy of dust, cement and reinforced steel peeping through the cracks.

If I know anything about the Central Asia traveler, I know this much: she can appreciate a good ruin. Visiting ruins is a great way to learn about the recent history of the region, the Soviet program of industrialisation and collectivisation, the Lenin cult, Modernist architecture, etc. This map should get you on your way.


Smiling nomads in yurts and horses galloping on the jailoo? Perhaps. But in equal measure: abandoned mines, factories, collective farms and Lenins, and a couple of radioactive waste sites spreading like spilt milk.
    •    Ak-Tuz: Ore-dressing and processing enterprise. Now 4,7 millions cubic metres of radioactive waste is buried here.
    •    Inylchek: Top ghost town. Population from 15 000 down to 15. Impossible location. Permit needed.
    •    Min-Kush: Very depressing former uranium and coal mining town
    •    Jergalan: former coal mining town
    •    Mailuu-Suu: Uranium wastes buried in former mining town
    •    Balykchy: Former industrial port

central asian abandonned soviet industrial sites, central asian soviet relics, central asian history tours
Inylchek, Kyrgyzstan: Top ghost town. Population from 15 000 down to 15. Image: Yuri Boyanin


Ruins of collective farms can be seen all throughout the country, and unused factories can be found in pretty much every town and city, big or small. For ghost towns, the north of Kazakhstan is a treasure trove. We have listed some of the most famous objects like Alga, Balkhash-9, missile defense complex Argun and Baikonur Site 110 on the map.

Visiting military facilities is of course highly illegal, and buildings in disrepair are prone to collapse. Visit at your own risk.

For the Aral Sea: On the Kazakh side, there are still a few remains of ships in the desert at the Ship Graveyard, but most have been taken out. Visiting the Uzbek side is more cost-effective and perhaps more interesting/atmospheric/depressing.

Kurchatov and the surrounding Semipalatinsk Test Site are the sites of the atomic bomb tests of the Soviet Union. Possible to visit, with a permit.

central asian abandonned soviet industrial sites, central asian soviet relics, central asian history tours
Alga - another ghost town. Once a famous Soviet, chemical phosphate plant in Kazakhstan. Image: Red Fury Star


    •    Aral Sea: A few puddles remain on the Uzbek side, otherwise it’s desert everywhere.
    •    Angren: former coal mining town, now largely abandoned
    •    UzBum : former Soviet paper factory, in Tashkent. Possible to visit with special permission. Tours occasionally organised by X-Places.

central asian abandonned soviet industrial sites, central asian soviet relics, central asian history tours
UzBum - Tashkent's closed paper factory. Image: Eugene Panov

Related posts:
Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums 
Tashkent Nostalgie - Eugene Panov's Exhibition, Tashkent
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels 
Seismic Modernism - Architecture and Housing in Soviet Tashkent 
Lenin Still Points the Way in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Sumalak, Kyrgyzstan's Nowruz Treat for the Pure of Heart

novruz  nawruz navruz traditional new year, kyrgyzstan small group tours, kyrgyzstan art craft textile tours
A team from the folk group Sary-Ozon prepares the dish
Spring New Year - Nowruz - celebrated on 21 March, is Central Asia's biggest festival.

Families and neighbours come together for the festivities, that last several days.

This article, written by Danil Usmanov, was originally published by Eurasianet on 22 March and is republished with permission.

Sumalak, the gooey germinated wheat-based treat made to mark the spring equinox festival of Nowruz across Central Asia, is more than food.

It is an institution whose preparation is freighted with ceremony.

This year, people were invited from around Kyrgyzstan to attend a sumalak-cooking marathon in the Lenin district of Bishkek. Groups arrived on March 20 at the venue, set in an crumbling ethnographic park intended to serve as a center dedicated to the study of the national Manas epic poem.

Yurts were erected and holes dug up for the placement of kazan, the cauldrons in which the sumalak is prepared.

novruz  nawruz navruz traditional new year, kyrgyzstan small group tours, kyrgyzstan art craft textile tours
Women try the finished sumalak. Tradition dictates it be sampled by finger
and a wish be made.
The only basic ingredients are water and germinated wheat, which is grown to a few inches in height in the days and weeks before the festival.

Tradition states that only those pure of heart are able to grow the plant properly.

Cooking proceeded through the night, as passages of the Manas were read out aloud and musicians sang folk songs to the accompaniment of accordions and komuz, the national string instrument.

In the morning, when the sumalak was done, elderly women divined fortunes on the surface of the sticky brew. People lined up with bottles to claim their share of the sweet grain treat.

The rest of the day was reserved for musical performances.

Related posts:
Nowruz Spring Festival – Part #1
Nowruz Spring Festival – Part #2
Celebrating Nowruz - Spring New Year in Uzbekistan
Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and The Caucasus

novruz  nawruz navruz traditional new year, kyrgyzstan small group tours, kyrgyzstan art craft textile tours
The oldest woman in attendance reads patterns on the sumalak. Some believe the future
can be predicated by reading the surface of the finished dish.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Discovering Tashkent with X-Places

Canal running through old Tashkent. Image: Anastasiya Bondarenko
Tashkent residents are falling in love with their city again, thanks to the marvellous X-Places excursions.

Tashkent is often, and undeservedly, overlooked by tourists when they visit Uzbekistan.

The city's history is rich and complex. Not only was Tashkent a stop on the ancient Silk Road, it was the fourth most important city in the USSR, after Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev.

And today, as the most populous Central Asian nation, as well as being resources rich, it is forging its future as a regional leader.

Yet at a superficial glance, this wide-boulevarded and green city, can seem a little bland.

If you speak even a little Russian (or you are prepared to engage an interpreter for half a day) joining an X-places tour will make this city come alive.

X-places is the brainchild of Samarkand-born Rustam Khusanov who adores his adopted city. The trips are often led by Tashkent's foremost historian, Boris Golender, and open up Tashkent's magical spaces and stories. No one knows this city as does Mr. Golender. Throughout his commentary, he links literature, music, town planning, history and art. It is enthralling.

Wonderful Rustam Khusanov, who started X-Places
The excursions, usually 3 - 4 hours, are held on Saturdays and Sundays. Some are walking tours, others combine bus and walking as Tashkent is a spread out city.

These are some of the tours that I have thoroughly enjoyed:

Canals of Tashkent.

During this lovely afternoon the group explored the Anhor canal, in the city centre, and also the canals of the old city and suburbs.

This tour revealed that life along Tashkent's canals continues much as it has for centuries - tea houses, mud brick houses, gardens and families sitting on the tapchan (raised platforms) and enjoying a meal together.

Backstage at the Alisher Navoi Opera House

Opened in 1947 and recently re-opened after an extensive renovation, the opera house is a focal point for  classical performances.

And this tour is the only way to peek back stage. A highlight was the light-filled 6th floor, where artists were producing the stage scenery for a new production of Aida.

On the Sunny Side of the Street

This charming tour centred around the book of the same title by Dina Rubina, who grew up in sun-soaked Tashkent, where representatives of different cultures and ethnicities lived side by side.

We visited scenes from the book and the apartment building where she spent her teenage years.  While we were on the bus, Louise Armstrong's "Sunny Side of the Street" serenaded us.

Tashkent's Alisher Navoi Opera House - completed in 1947
Tashkent Places of Worship

This tour included the Armenian church, the Buddhist temple, the synagogue, the Catholic cathedral.

Constructivist Architecture in Tashkent

It was splendid to see these neighbourhoods - all of which survived the Tashkent earthquake of 1966 - and possibly soon to be demolished.

How to join a tour

Join the X-Places Facebook group. Note that these tours, about US$5 per person, fill up very quickly. Excursions are usually posted on Thursdays.

There are also occasional lectures on historical topics, such as The Great Game, which are well worth joining.

Related posts:
Tashkent: The Blacksmith and his Family Return 
Seismic Modernism - Architecture and Housing in Soviet Tashkent
Pushkin in Babur Park, Tashkent
Tashkent: A Stroll Along Anhor Canal
Solar Energy in Uzbekistan (X-Places has excursions to this solar furnace facility)
Tashkent: A City of Refuge