Sunday, January 14, 2018


Kazakhstan and Russia share 4,254 miles of border, so it is no wonder that there has been a strong Russian presence in Kazakhstan for centuries, long before what is called the "Soviet period" began in about 1920.

Although Kazakhstan was and is predominantly Muslim, Christianity spread throughout the country with the Russians who immigrated during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1907, a Russian Orthodox Church was built in Almaty, not the first such church in Kazakhstan, but perhaps the most unique and most beautiful.

Unfortunately for us, it was being renovated when we were there:

To understand its construction, it is important to know that because Almaty is located at the edge of the magnificent Tian Shan mountain range, it is prone to earthquakes. After a magnitude 7.3 earthquake brought down many of the buildings in Almaty in 1887, most of the new construction was wood instead of brick, including the new Russian Orthodox Ascension Cathedral, also known as the Zenkov Cathedral (Zenkov was the engineer), which was begun in 1904 and finished in 1907. It is built entirely of Tian Shan spruce and held together not with nails but with iron bolts (I'm not sure what the difference is). Wooden beams were fastened together with rolling brackets, giving it a unique kind of flexibility that miraculously saved it from almost any damage in the magnitude 7.7 earthquake that hit Almaty in 1911 and again destroyed most of the city.

With its 184-foot-tall spire, the Ascension Cathedral claims to be the second tallest all-wooden building in the world.

The fencing around the renovation areas shows pictures of the cathedral in the early 20th century and in the present day:

It looks a lot like the cathedrals of St. Petersburg, Russia:
Photo from here

Friday, January 12, 2018



Our bus took us out of the city of Almaty, up a winding mountain road, and through some breathtaking scenery. It was October 5th, and the first snow of the season had already fallen the previous day. 

The buses parked in a lot next to the Medeu Skating Rink, the highest Olympic-sized skating rink in the world. It is situated at 5,548 feet above sea level, making it a great place for high-altitude training:

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


We flew from Urumqi to Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday, October 4, 2017. I was a little anxious about what we might find in the uncharted territory (for us) of the Stans. 

Almaty, located near the Kyrgyzstan border and not far from the China border, is the largest city in the country. There are 1.7 million people in Almaty, which is 9% of the entire country's population. Almaty also served as the capital during the time Kazakhstan was part of the USSR (1929-1997). The capital was moved north to Astana in December of 1997. Note that Kazakhstan's largest border is with Russia:
Map from here
And there I had a significant Aha! moment: The Stans were part of the USSR! I'm sure I knew that at one time--or did I? I couldn't have even placed them on the map prior to this trip, which is crazy considering that Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, area wise. I could place every other country in the top ten list on a map before this trip, so why not Kazakhstan?
#1: Russia
#2: Canada
#3: United States of America
#4: China
#5: Brazil
#6: Australia
#7: India
#8: Argentina
#9: Kazakhstan
#10: Algeria

Maybe it's because although Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources, the US has never had access to those resources. Maybe it's because there has been almost no US tourism to this region until recently. Maybe it's because out of the ten countries on the above list, Kazakhstan has the smallest population (17.8 million). The United States is about four times larger than Kazakhstan, but has seventeen times the population, which gives you an idea of how sparsely populated Kazakhstan is. Why should we care about them, right?
Map from the CIA website
Anyway, Kazakhstan was the last of the Stans to sign the resolution to withdraw from the USSR. They were understandably concerned about economics. These days Kazakhstan appears to have good relations with other countries in the area. They have strong economic ties to the European Union, China, and Russia, in that order, showing that they have successfully broken away from Russia. In addition, they are gradually shifting from the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet to the Latin alphabet (what we use).

After we arrived in Almaty, we went straight to the Royal Tulip Hotel, one of the best hotels of our trip. Yes, it was very Dutch.

Sunday, December 31, 2017


We didn't have a lot of time left in Urumqi after we visited the museum because we had to catch a plane to Kazakhstan, but there was enough time to spend an hour in the "International Grand Bazaar Urumqi." Opened in 2003, it has lots of booths and stalls selling clothing, jewelry, pottery, nuts, fruit, local cuisine, rugs, musical instruments, and just about everything you can imagine, so an hour was not nearly enough time, especially because Bob was On A Mission to find and eat some horse meat.

There are some very distinct things about this market that set it apart from other Asian markets we've been to. The first and most obvious is the Islamic architecture.

There is a grand entrance that includes a huge tower and a mosque.

First, the mosque. It was beautiful and extremely photogenic, but unfortunately we didn't have time to go inside:

The tower near the entrance looks like some of the centuries-old minarets we had seen in other places, but it's only fourteen years old. Tourists can pay $7-$8 to climb the stairs to the observation deck at the top, but unfortunately we didn't have time to go inside:

Saturday, December 30, 2017


Our last stop in China before we headed off to the Stans was Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region and a major stop on the Silk Road. Another HUGE city by U.S. standards, it has a population of about 3.5 million, which makes it the largest city in Central Asia. In the Untied States, only New York City and Los Angeles have larger populations, and yet I had never heard of Urumqi before we began getting ready for this trip. Perhaps part of the reason for its lack of recognition is that it is pretty darn remote. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records says at 1,600 miles from the nearest seaport, Urumqi is the most remote major city (at least in terms of distance from the sea) in the world.

Urumqi's location is marked by red in the map of China below. The Xinjiang Region is the orange area:
Map from Wikipedia

As hard as it is to get there, Urumqi has some amazing things to see. We spent a few hours at the Xinjiang Regional Museum, famous for its mummy collection (known in this museum as "dried corpses").

A limited number of guests are allowed in the museum at intervals throughout the day in an attempt to control the crowds.

There was plenty of English on the signage, but not all of it was intelligible, such as this sign that invites guest to a "Whirling dance at the fingertips skills contributing to a craftsmanship."

Sunday, December 17, 2017


We dreaded the three-hour drive from Turpan to our next destination, Urumqi. It looks like a tiny hop on the map below, but it is 120 miles on roads that wind up into the Tian Shan Mountains:

We weren't on a high speed train this time, but a regular Chinese bus:

However, we were fortunate to have Michael Wilcox, the lecturer brought along by our tour company, on board our bus. Michael earned a PhD from the University of Colorado and for many years taught at the LDS Institute of Religion at the University of Utah. This is the third tour we have taken with him as our lecturer (the first being a trip to Russia and cruise through the Baltic Sea, and the second being a trip to Israel and Egypt). On all three trips, I particularly appreciated how Michael encouraged us to look with new eyes at what we were seeing and to embrace the goodness of people, cultures, and doctrines in diverse places.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Pre-Travel-to-Western-China-Me assumed that China is pretty much Buddhist Confucian, or Taoist, the latter two really being philosophies rather than religions. In reality, most Chinese are either non-religious or believe in a folk religion (no clergy or canonical scriptures, practices and beliefs handed down over time, etc.).

I was also surprised to learn that there is a strong Muslim community in Western China that makes up somewhere between 1-4% of the total population of the country, with most of the Chinese Muslims being Sunnis. In the autonomous region of Xinjiang where we spent the majority of our time when we were in China, most of the population is from the Turkic ethnic group Uyghur (pronounced wee-gur), and most of them are Muslims. When we continued our journey into the predominantly Muslim Stan countries later on this trip, it began to make sense why Western China, which borders many Muslim countries, has a strong Muslim population.

That said, I did not get the sense that it is a particularly devout Muslim population, probably due, at least in part, to the repressive Chinese government. Our guide AJ told us that he is Muslim, but that he doesn't practice, but maybe he will when he is old. Good ol' death-bed repentance--it bridges all faiths.

We stopped for a visit at the tallest minaret in China, the Emin Minaret. Built in a single year at about the time the Revolutionary War was ramping up in the United States (1777-1778), this architectural marvel stands 144 feet tall. Its base is 33 feet wide, and it tapers to an area about 10 feet wide topped by a small dome.

I would have loved to climb the interior stairs to the top, but the tower is closed to tourists.

We have seen many minarets gilded with precious metals and covered with tiles, but this is the first monochromatic minaret that I can recall seeing, and in some ways it is one of the most unique. A complex network of fifteen different geometric and floral shapes, occurring in bands that ring the tower, is created by carefully positioned clay bricks: