A Travellerspoint blog

All About Yurts

And Eagles

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May 8

At breakfast Rita said that had she had seen my blog, but it is only up to date to Amsterdam! Now I am in trouble. Well, not really, but I am now aware that my fellow tour group members will eventually read what I have to say about them. I better be nice. And I am having trouble keeping it up to date.

From the first time I did my travel blog, I considered it as something to write during a trip, a way of sharing my experiences with others, something that is current, a bit spontaneous, and by necessity a bit rough. These first days on the tour have been especially busy. I have been keeping notes and taking many photographs but have had no chance to put together coherent blog entries. I am now thinking about doing my blog once I get home.

The drive out of the Chon Kemin valley towards Issyk Kul was spectacular.


In Kyrgyzstan the graveyards are combinations of dissimilar traditions – shamanistic, Islamic, and communist. When their nomadic lifestyle had to be abandoned, the Kyrgyz began erecting monuments such as wrought iron yurt frames that reflected their previous way of life. Also, any literal representation of living things is contrary to Islamic teaching.


Today was all about yurts. The Kyrgyz people were traditionally nomads who used the yurt as their seasonal homes. They are warm and comfortable, but also quite portable, able to be taken down quickly and carried on horses or camels. Although the nomadic life was suppressed during Soviet times, yurts remain quite important to the people and are used for special occasions and for homes during the summer grazing. The Kyrgyz continue to move their animals between summer pastures in the mountains and winter grazing areas or settled farms in the valleys or lowlands. And the yurts are used for tourist accommodation. We will be staying at such a place tonight.

Our first stop was in Kyzyl Tuu at a small one-man factory where the man builds the frames. There are several such factories in the village. Yes, you can order one for your backyard.


There were some curious children.


There are monuments everywhere.


We went to Bokonbayevo where we learned about felt carpets. Our own Lynley showed off her skills. In the one photo you can see Begaim and Aijan (with the camera).


We had lunch in a private home. The food was delicious and again, quite plentiful.


We stopped for some shopping. Two boys came along and shook my hand. At the first store there was a selection of exactly one bottle of wine. I decided to look elsewhere, but Evonne bought it. I later had the chance to be the first one to try it. It was quite bad.

We were driving along Issyk Kul, which is the second-largest mountain lake in the world, after Titicaca. It is a slightly saline lake with no outlet. We were surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountains.

We were headed for Skazka or the Fairy Tale Canyon. We stopped just before at some interesting structures which were apparently built as some type of resort by one government but was never finished by the next.

We turned off at the road to the canyon. We were joined by a man with his young assistant and his eagle. The hunter first gave a talk. The most amazing thing we learned was that eagles can even kill a wolf.

The initial demonstration of hunting was a bit disconcerting if you like little bunnies. (And who doesn’t like little bunnies?). The eagle was taken to the top of the adjoining hill. They then brought out a live rabbit. It was rather docile, asleep or drugged or simply tame. It had no idea of what was about to happen. The rabbit was placed on the ground and a few moments later tackled by the eagle. The eagle got to keep the rabbit. There were a couple of other demonstrations where the eagle flew from the hill and landed on the handler and another using a decoy. Those were easier to watch. You can watch the video which has been edited to be good for all ages, including seniors who love bunnies.


At the end we were able to hold the eagle. She was heavy. I got to wear the Kalpak hat. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Westerners look quite silly in the hat. The eagle hunter looked better.


We then went the short distance to the entrance to the Skazka or The Fairy Tale Canyon where we took a short hike. The rock formations were amazing, but the best was the backdrop of the mountains and lake Issyk Kul. Besides being the second-largest mountain lake in the world, Issyk Kul is the seventh deepest, the tenth largest lake by volume and the second largest saline lake (after Caspian Sea). Issyk Kul means “warm lake” in Kyrgyz. It is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, but never freezes. But really all you need to know is that it is beautiful.


It was a short drive from there to our night’s accommodation in a yurt camp located in a little village named Tamga. It is in a beautiful spot, steps from the lake. Everyone had their own yurt (except our one couple). They are quite big, with three beds in each. Since we had learned all about the construction of yurts earlier in the day, it was fun to look at the parts and know how they all fit together.


I walked down by the lake and then into the village. My feet still hurt some, so I did not go very far. There were beach umbrellas and a gazebo to show that the beach might get busy when it is warmer.


We were the only guests. We had dinner in a separate building supplied with low tables and little stools. After dinner, Michael told us a great story about when he and his wife travelled to Lhasa, first trying to hitchhike and then taking a bus. In the middle of the story some of the group ran off for sunset photos. The rest of us enjoyed the finish and more so the teasing of Michael about him losing his audience.


We had Wi-Fi. I had not known at first that we had Wi-Fi in the van which worked off and on depending on our location. I was amazed that I could get a connection from where it was parked, five yurts away. I visualized a meter showing yurts. I later found out that Begaim had taken the portable unit into her yurt, so maybe it was only 2 or 3 yurts of power.

It was cold. I was having not pleasant flash backs to last year’s trip when I froze in my tent. I had thought that the yurt would be warmer. I was wrong. There were some separate shower units, but by the time we finished supper it was too cold for me. I decided to use my wet ones instead and jumped into bed. In addition to the heavy blanket already on the bed, there were some big blankets beside the door. I brought a couple over, thinking that I might use one. I ended up with both of them on top of me.

With the Wi-Fi I was able to talk to Po. She asked whether there were many stars. I said it was too cold to look. Then in the night I had to pee. That meant getting dressed and going across to the toilets. Yes, there were many stars. Then I had to do it again. Too much water and tea? I checked out the stars a second time.

Posted by Bob Brink 05:57 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged central_asia kalpak_travel issyk_kul yurts Comments (4)

On the Road in Kyrgyzstan

Touring the Chom-Kemin Valley

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May 7

I woke up about 4:30. After giving up on going back to sleep I worked on my photos for awhile. I went down for breakfast, of course another buffet. Although I have been eating way too much with the big lunches and suppers that they have been giving us, I am trying to take it easy at breakfast. I wanted to stay with my usual of cereal, fruit, and yoghurt. But all three have been a bit disappointing so far. Instead I have ended up trying out each hotel’s versions of croissants and crepes, so not my usual healthy breakfast. The crepes have been better than the croissants.

We checked out, loaded up the van, and headed down what once was the old silk road.


The fields were green or freshly plowed with a backdrop of the snow-capped mountains.


Our first stop was the Burana Tower. I was pleased with the little pain that I felt as we walked from the parking lot to the tower. It was the best I had felt for several days. It seemed that my surgery was a success. My feet still hurt, but not nearly as much.

The minaret was built in the 11th century in the medieval town of Balasagun, capital of the Karakhanid empire which in the 10 to 12th centuries was a great feudal state. It lasted only a few hundred years before losing to the Mongols. The tower was originally 45 m (148 ft) high, but an earthquake in the 15th Century took off the top half. It is now only 25 m (82 ft) high. The tower also had to survive the Russian immigrants in the early 1900’s using bricks for their own building purposes.

Begaim gave a talk at the little museum, and then some of us went to climb the tower. We were warned that it was steep and dark, with quite uneven stairs. I was the third in the door. I immediately stopped and backed out. With my transition lenses being dark and no lights, I could not see a thing. Begaim immediately took her phone and walked in front of me, coaxing me up the very narrow stairs. Besides the dark, the worst thing was the narrow tread, which seemed only big enough for your toes. There was no way to pass anyone. I had both my cameras, which I cradled against my chest with my right arm while I used my left to push myself along the stairs. I really wished that I had worn my backpack. Luckily, with the top of the tower long gone, it did not take that long to get to the top.


There was a great view of the surrounding fields with the mountains in the background. I asked Michael to take my photo with Begaim. She then helped me back down the stairs. I was quite grateful for her help.


I then visited the little stone monuments, or bal-bals, which are older than the tower. These were grave markers used by nomadic Turkic people. They date from the 6th century and were taken from around the Chui Valley. The bal-bals were designed to look like the person who had died.


We stopped in a small town to buy drinks for supper, since the guest house would not provide alcoholic beverages. It was fun buying the wine. We needed help to choose since we could not read the labels. It seems like Georgian wine is the best.

We drove into the Chon-Kemin Valley and found the Ashu Guesthouse. Although this was officially a step down in accommodation, the rooms were nice. There is a separate dining facility where we had lunch.


Afterwards we all went for a walk in the village. There was an optional horse-riding tour, but no one volunteered. I saw a man in his yard with two cows and two calves. He came over to say hello. Aijan translated as we talked. He owns three other cows. Everyday they are up in the hills for grazing. Two men with horses look after his cows as well as others. He seemed quite specific about the time that the men would be bringing the animals back down and that sounded like a great photo op. However, Aijan and Begaim suggested that the time might not be so exact, so I gave up that idea.


We walked down to the river. There was a rocky beach, just like at home. It was very beautiful.


After returning to the guesthouse I worked on photos a bit before heading to the to the restaurant for promised coffee and sweets. I brought my computer thinking that I was going to work on my blog. Begaim and Aijan were sitting on the shady side and invited me to sit with them. They had some stroopwafels, the Dutch treat that Dorothy had introduced to me before I left. We had a great visit. I have talked more with them in the last two days than I talked the entire 26 days with my driver/guide Sam last year in Namibia.

After they left, I sat on the other side in the sun. An American couple came in. They were looking at the upright refrigerator that contained the drinks, including the beer that Thomas had brought. I mentioned to the man that the beer was not likely available for purchase, that it belonged to other guests. He barely acknowledged that I had spoken. Later Thomas and Michael witnessed the two of them being extremely critical and rude and named the woman Ivanka.

The clouds were wonderful, so I took a few photos before supper.


We had another great meal. I have quite enjoyed our group so far. As I have mentioned, my travels do not compare with theirs. Being so well travelled seems to make everyone quite relaxed about things.

And I have been really impressed so far with the tour, the way it has been organized by Kalpak and our two guides. They have been extremely bright and enthusiastic about showing us their countries. Aijan was able to come along due to the last minute cancellation of two travellers. The rooms were already paid for. She and Luka are very hands on.

After supper the sky was even better.


That night I could hear Michael coughing in the room next door. Others in our group are also suffering. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t get anything.

Posted by Bob Brink 11:43 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged kyrgyzstan Comments (6)


Arrival in Kyrgyzstan, Stan Number 2

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May 6

I had asked Po for a wake up call. I had assumed that I would already be up since I usually have trouble sleeping when I have an early flight, waking up every hour or so to check the time. I also had my phone alarm set. But I had a great sleep, and Po phoned just before my alarm was to go off. It took me several seconds to even figure out how to answer the phone. I then had what seemed to be half of Pouch Cove talking to me. I doubt that I said anything that made sense.

That got me up. I finished my packing. When I got down to the lobby, I found most of our group already there. The hotel had made breakfast boxes for us, big boxes which everyone held in their laps.

I had to do something about my feet. Yesterday I had talked to Michael about my blisters, and he had given me a piece of moleskin. He said to just put it on top and leave it alone. But I think the piece that he gave me was too old and likely not big enough, so the now two pieces did not stay on. I mentioned the problem to Gaukhar so that I might be able to get something in Bishkek. Of course, I had been reading about blisters on various websites. The consensus there seemed to be to leave them alone, not to drain them. I was beginning to question that. (Sorry, this topic could get graphic.)

We arrived really early at the airport. I did not check my suitcase, which afterwards seemed a bit silly, since I was the only one with only a carry on, so it certainly would not save any time at the other end. We went to airport café where Gaukhar bought us all coffee to go with our box breakfasts. I called Po and put it on video so that I could show Bella to everyone. I doubt that they cared all that much, but I missed her (and Po).


I sat next to Rita on the plane. She is the traveller and travel planner in her family. She had travelled extensively over the years before she met Silvio. Now Silvio is a willing travel partner. She just tells him to be packed and ready to go. He has no idea where they are going. He appears to be the most laid-back traveller in history, not saying much and always smiling, as long as he can grab a smoke break now and again.

I took this photo as we left Astana, the very flat steppe.

We could see mountains as we approached Bishkek. We had left the steppe. It looked very beautiful, very green as well.


After clearing immigration, I was the first out the door, but Michael went left and met Begaim first, our guide for Kyrgyzstan and now tour leader. She will be with us to the end of the trip.

I looked over and saw that Thomas had a beer. It seems that beer is his normal breakfast.

Begaim had been told about my problems. We stopped at the little pharmacy in the airport where she bought me some tape and gauze.

Bishkek is very green. It is not like Astana at all (of course few places in the world are). There are many older buildings, dating back to “Soviet Times” as Begaim and Gaukhar call it. The mountains make for a beautiful backdrop.

We went straight to the Hotel Plaza. It was another great place. My room is big with a sitting area and a view of the mountains.

I had understood that we were eating in the hotel so appeared downstairs without my pack or even my camera. I was wrong. The restaurant was not far, but it was a short walk and from there we would do a walk in the town. It was obvious to everyone that I was not ready for the afternoon walk. I dutifully retreated to my room to get my pack. My feet were really hurting on the walk to restaurant.

The lunch was being hosted by Luca and Aijan, the owners of Kalpak Travel. They provided us with another amazing meal, great food and tons of it. They live in Switzerland during the winter and Bishkek the rest of the time. Luca is Swiss; Aijan is from here. We heard all about how they started the business, which started with arranging for his family to come to their wedding.

I think we are all overwhelmed with the service that has been provided by Kalpak. It all started with Luca replying to all our emails very promptly. He arranged our visas and put together customized trip itineraries with all the contact information. So far, our hotels and guides have been outstanding. Then there was the nice touch of a gift waiting for us in Astana.

After lunch we headed out for a walk in the centre of Bishkek. Aijan came along. One of my first photographs was of two men wearing Kalpak hats. We had all seen Luca in his hat. He, like all Westerners, look a bit silly in the hat, but the locals look great. (No offense, Luca, I have already posted a FB photo of me wearing the hat and holding an eagle. The hat got more comments.)


Ala Too Square was built in 1984 and originally had a large statue of Lenin and was known as Lenin Square. That was changed at independence in 1991. Lenin was moved in 2003.


The replacement statue was itself replaced by a statue of Manas. Manas is a heroic figure who fought to end the oppression of Kyrgyz and established their homeland.



The square was the site of protests in 2005 which forced Askar Akayev, Kyrgyzstan's first president, to flee the country and later resign from office. Kyrgyzstan’s history with presidents is totally unlike the other countries of Central Asia. In my Kazakhstan posts I had mentioned that Nursultan Nazarbayev had been the president since independence, only resigning a few months ago. Kyrgyzstan’s previous president, Atambaev, followed the constitution and left office due to a single six-year term limitation.

We will see that the Kazakhstan history is the model for the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.

We found Lenin.

We walked through Oak Park. I found that my feet hurt less when walking on the grass, so kept taking shortcuts to catch up to the group.


We reached Victory Square. There was an old Soviet truck beside the memorial. At first glance I thought the truck was part of the display.


We now had the option to keep walking or be taken back to the hotel. Lynley and I opted for the return, she to swim and go for a coffee. I just could not walk anymore. I went back to my room and took a short nap, reviewed my photos and called Po. I tried to go out and walk on my own but had to return. I was beyond frustrated.

Warning – Graphic Description I decided to go for surgery, which is what I said to Begaim when we met in the lobby before dinner. I planned to drain my blisters. Thomas was there when I told her. He offered his extra needle. He was surprised that I had not already done it. Begaim had bought some new band aids, better than the ones from the airport. I will still need those.

Luckily it was a short walk to the restaurant. Luca and Aijan hosted this meal as well. We were in a back room. Bread and salads were already on the table. We have learned that they are part of every meal. I really love the Boorsok, the deep fried bread. We ate our bread and salads and then lentil soup before our entertainment came in.


We had been expected our seventh member, Evonne. She arrived with an American couple she had been visiting. She was introduced. Her friends are living in Bishkek and are the parents of her son-in-law. Evonne is also Swiss from the German speaking part.

After the great music we were served lots of great food, spicy beef and chicken. We learned that the Kyrgyz custom is to have food on your plate at end of the meal. It shows that the host fed you well. There is also a tea preparation routine with tea poured into a cup and then back into the pot several times.

At the end we said goodbye to Luca. Aijan will come with us for the Kyrgyzstan portion.

When we got back to the hotel, Thomas went up to his room to get the needle. Begaim was really worried about my plans. She wanted to get me a lighter or matches for sterilization. The hotel had alcohol, which I already had. There were no matches or lighter, which I had no intention to use anyway.

I talked to Po, took a shower and then went to work. I had immediate relief. I was optimistic that walking would be better in the morning.

I debated whether to put any of the things about my feet in my blog. But, as I have all along, I included them, since it shows what was happening, the great and the mundane (and the pain) are all part of the travel experience.

Posted by Bob Brink 07:46 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged kyrgyzstan bishkek Comments (7)

Astana Tour

Day 1 of the 5 Stans

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May 5

With a bit more sleep I was able to get down to the buffet while there was still food. It made for a much better breakfast.

I met the rest of my tour group in the lobby. They had arrived on the same middle of the night flight that Michael and I took last night. Their plans were to get here a day earlier like we did, but due to missed connections at the new Istanbul airport, spent a night there instead.

The new folks are a couple from Switzerland (Rita and Silvio) and a German man (Thomas). They are all in their 50s complimenting the original three of us from yesterday, all in our 60s. I am really a travel virgin next to the rest of my group. Most of them are at over 100 countries visited. Thomas is at something like 150. Silvio does not have such a high number since he has only been travelling for about 11 years, since he started travelling with Rita. I will not yet be to 40 by the end of this trip. That’s what happens when you do not travel for 30 years.

Our tour today was in the new part of town which is a planned city. Prominent architects from around the world have designed the plan and the many prominent structures.

Our first stop was the National Museum of Kazakhstan. Some highlights were the Golden Man who dates from the Saka period 500 BC and a noblewoman, the Uzhar Princess, also dating back to the Saka period. I was impressed by the woman warrior.


I cannot remember what the lights were all about, but they were impressive.

The ex-president Nazarbayev was there.


While I was taking a short video, this guy decided to join the cast.

We then walked through Independence Square past the Kazak Eli monument.


Across the road is the Palace of Peace and Accord, a Norman Foster structure. We will soon hear more about him.

We stopped at the Palace of Independence where we were shown a giant model of the city, which is already out of date. There was also an impressive portrait of the ex-President receiving his honors in front of other world leaders. I do not think that they would remember that day.


Our final morning stop was at the Hazret Sultan Mosque. We were visiting during prayer times. Our female contingent had to use the provided wraps to cover themselves. Women had to stay on the sides. Men were allowed to walk in the middle. Like everything else in this part of the city, the mosque is new, having been opened in 2012.


Our lovely guide, Gaukhar, and our tour group ladies looking very stylish.


After a busy morning Gaukhar took us to a very colorful restaurant where we enjoyed a filling meal which included a traditional noodle dish.

After lunch we visited the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre. This strange structure was designed by British Architect Norman Foster. From what I have now read he should be referred to as Lord Foster, which of course really impresses me.

I took the following description from the Foster + partners website (I did take the liberty of fixing the punctuation since architects sometimes believe that design esthetics are more important, “To deal with Astana’s drastically polar climate (-35 degrees in the winter and +35 in the summer) the tent is made up of a tri-layer ETFE envelope that shelters the interiors while allowing daylight to wash in. To avoid the formation of ice on the inside of the envelope during the winter, a system is in place to monitor the interior temperature while warm air currents are directed up the inner surface of the fabric. During the summer, the vents at the top of the tents can be opened to encourage stack-effect ventilation. Low-level jets can also keep the temperature down by directing cool air across the space.”

Or, you could just call it the world’s biggest tent. Yes, it is impressive. There is a tropical beach at the top with sand imported from the Maldives. Michael and I went up to investigate but were told that we had to pay the admission fee to get in. We declined.

I have to admit to my bias. I avoid malls at all costs. I thought that it was a step up from the West Edmonton Mall, but it is still a shopping mall.
Of course, it has a Starbucks.

It did not take long to get the name changed here.

We then drove off to the site of Astana’s Expo 2017 where the highlight was visiting the futuristic post office and meeting a robot that can answer your postal questions but also is a great dancer.


After Expo we went to the center of all the development, Nurzhol Boulevard. We passed the Kazakhstan Concert Hall and then stopped in front the Ak Orda or “white horde” in Kazakh, which is the President’s residence. The presidential palace features 21 different types of marble, flown in from all over the world.


At that point there was a little miscommunication. In the distance we could see the imposing Baiterek Monument or Large Lollipop as locals like to call it. The sun was coming from that direction, so I wanted a photo from the other side. Had I known that we were actually going to be driven to there, and go to the top, I would have been happy to get a ride in the van. I was really suffering so that each step was painful.

Instead, greatly misjudging the distance, I suggested that we walk to the monument. That idea was quickly seconded by some of the others, and off we went, with me limping on every step. I think I enjoyed the walk. There were beautiful fountains and a few great photo opportunities.

Golden Towers (or the Beer Cans)

When the walking group arrived at the monument, we found Gaukhar and Lynley relaxing on a bench. I wanted to get far enough away to get the full tower in my photo, so I hobbled on. Meanwhile the group was ready to go up to the viewing area. Just as I got back from my photo taking, the elevator closed. There was an afternoon break. After a brief discussion we decided to just relax until the platform opened again.

We had a great view from up there, but it was through the yellow glass. At the top there is an impression of the right palm of the first President Nazarbayev expressing the bond between the state and citizens and peace, friendship and harmony. Everyone wants to get their photo taken with their own palm in his. I passed on that opportunity as well. So, I missed two of the top things, the beach and the President's palm.

Silvio did put his palm down. Rita took this photo.

The official information is that the shape of Baiterek represents a poplar tree holding a golden egg. The images come from a folktale of the tree of life, a central symbol in Turkic mythology, and Samruk, the legendary bird of happiness, who is said to have laid her egg between the branches of a poplar tree. According to the same official line, it was designed by the former President.


From there we walked (I limped) to our restaurant where we had a fabulous view. Our meal included horse meat and lots of food, very good food. So far, I have been extremely impressed with our guide, our accommodation, and especially the food.


After dinner we walked back to the hotel. Everything was quite amazing at night.


I had not had a chance to take a photograph of the Astana Opera which was next door. As we got closer, I debated whether I had the energy to walk over and get that photo. Then Michael said that he was going. Rita, the other keen photographer in our group, said she was on her way. So, I had to do it.


We had an early flight to catch. We were expected to be in the lobby by 5:15. I planned to be up by about 4:30, which I calculated would be about 9 pm back in Pouch Cove. I asked Po to call me at that time. She said that she would be at our friends for dinner. I said, fine, let everyone call me. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It had been a very busy first day of the tour.

Posted by Bob Brink 12:58 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged kazakhstan astana nur_sultan Comments (2)

Additional Thoughts on Kazakhstan

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This should have been part of my first post, but since I forgot to include it the first time, I will post it separately.

The Soviet Union used Kazakhstan as a convenient out of the way place to test nuclear weapons and launch rockets into space.

On the list of Historic Events and Loss of Kazakh people is a line that says, “1949-1989 Nuclear Testing on the Semipalatinsk range” with a loss of life of 23,500. The number is almost certainly understated as the tests were done in the open air.

From Wikipedia: “The general consensus of health studies conducted at the site since it was closed is that radioactive fallout from nuclear testing had a direct impact on the health of about 200,000 local residents. Specifically, scientists have linked higher rates of different types of cancer to post-irradiation effects. Likewise, several studies have explored the correlation between radiation exposure and thyroid abnormalities. A BBC program claimed in 2010 that in the worst affected locations one in 20 children born were with genetic defects.”


The Russian space program still operates out of The Baikonur Cosmodrome which is located in an area of southern Kazakhstan. With the sudden disolution of the Soviet Union, the location of the cosmodrome in the newly independent Kazakhstan was of great concern to both the Russian and US space programs. It is currently leased to Russia until 2050, although it has been a source of contention between the two governments. With the rockets travelling over land, there has been an environmental impact on the people and livestock living in the flight path, especially after some failed launch attempts which spilled toxic rocket fuel over Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is my first of the "5 Stans", newly independent states that were part of the Soviet Union for almost 70 years. Kazakhstan is lucky to have an abundance of oil and gas, but it still must get along with its giant neighbour, including allowing the continuation of the rocket launches.

Posted by Bob Brink 07:37 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged kazakhstan astana nur_sultan Comments (0)

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