Local graffiti

Our paths cross several mornings a week as I walk up Borges Street toward the subway, dodging the errant streams of water as people hose down their sidewalks, resisting the call of the bakery’s  mountain of sugary croissants, and sighing – again – about that once-beautiful neoclassical corner house that’s made the sad transition from faded elegance to just junky and shabby.

The man is kind of short with a belly, sports a thick mop of jet-black hair and exudes an amazing sense of calm even though he’s the critical nexus of an impossible system of movement and instinct that seems preprogrammed for chaos.

He’s the dog walker. And he’s got nine charges on leashes most mornings, the smallest being a German shepherd.

It’s a strange but common sight in this city of dog lovers, where you can get anything delivered, from a latte to your laundry, from empanadas and ice cream to your weekly grocery shopping. For those busy porteños (Buenos Aires residents) with a little extra cash, why not hire out the walking chores?

I like this particular moving human-canine mass; it retains a kind of stately flow despite the thundering buses, uneven sidewalks and enough dog shit laying around to drive any pooch to distraction. Better than the mini-herds of smaller dogs you see occasionally, yapping and nipping and just making life miserable for everyone concerned.

Palermo pads

The dog walkers are just one of the more colorful aspects of life here in Palermo Soho, my neighborhood in la Capital Federal, where I’ve been for about three weeks. Friends had recommended the area as a desirable place to be, and turns out Lady Luck was on my side when I rented an apartment over the Internet.

It’s quite the place to be these days, full of cafés and leafy oaks, parks and squares and a wonderful mish-mash of architectural styles, from the aforementioned neoclassical beauties to modern, minimalist high-rises (luckily not too many, yet) and everything in between. There are even a couple of half-timbered houses that wouldn’t look out of place in Bavaria.

The neighborhood’s gotten the Soho designation because it’s become quite hip and trendy, and expensive for Argentines. The big Palermo neighborhood has been further subdivided into Old Palermo, Little Palermo and, most oddly, Palermo Hollywood, since there are a bunch of television studios there.

My area has fewer Klieg lights and more hip clothing boutiques, staffed by impossibly beautiful Argentines who must have either just stepped out of a Greek sculptor’s studio, Pygmalion style, or are just killing time until they’re scooped up by some telenovela producer. I step out of these places happy with my wardrobe addition, but wanting to put a bag over my head.

Adding to the city's decibel level

Luckily, the hipster epicenter is several blocks away. Right around my apartment, it’s a bit more down to earth and every-day. There’s the supermarket around the corner run by Asian immigrants (they’re ALL run by Asians with a grasp on Spanish that seems worse than mine), where I can buy my sweet but deadly-to-the-waistline dulce de leche.

There are the fresh vegetable stands on every block, where you can get a bag full of greens for a song. There’s the gym next door where Argentines work off all that beef and cheese that make up their diet. And there’s the laundry where I take all my dirty clothes and drop them off with the kind old woman who continually takes delight in the strangeness of my name. I pick them up later that day, washed and folded, all for about three euros.

It’s  pretty certain that one of the city’s most famous sons, writer Jorge Luis Borges, would find it somewhat odd that the area has become so chic. He spent his childhood in a house just around the corner from me, on the street that now bears his name. (It’s now a hair salon with a plaque.) But back in his day, Palermo was a semi-rural area on the outskirts of town, frequented by gauchos and knife-carrying thugs who liked to drink and fight in the local bars.

Literatura...that's a real slog for me to get through

Just down the street at the next corner is where Borges, in his poem “Buenos Aires,” set the “mythical foundation” of the city. Well, today at the intersection there’s a hamburger place where I got some disgustingly greasy French fries the other day, a designer furniture shop and an ultra-hip bar that’s all flat metal planes.  But at least on one corner there’s still the “Almacén el Preferido,” a pink building that dates from the 19th century.

Borges wrote about the sometimes nefarious goings-on in the place and the atmosphere of potential violence that fascinated him.

Yesterday I peered in the window. Not a sign of a glaring gaucho on his fifth whisky or the glittering flash of deadly metal. Instead, an amorous couple stared into each other’s eyes and two tourists, outfitted with fanny packs and Crocs, dug into a big hunk of Argentine beef.

At least the food part of this particular Buenos Aires scene is eternal.

Outside the Blue Mosque, the red flag

Outside the Blue Mosque, the red flag

On the way back from Kazakhstan, I stopped for two-and-a-half days in Istanbul. It was my first time in the former Constantinople.

It’s a fascinating place with so many different layers of history piled up on top of each other — Byzantine capital, Ottoman imperial city, teeming Turkish metropolis.

After Aktau, I was jumping for joy to be in a real city, where one could get non-instant coffee and find a newspaper not in Russian. Since I hadn’t seen any of the tourist things, I approached the hordes and dove in.

Here are a few snaps I took scurrying from one site to the next:

Seaside idyll?

Seaside idyll?

“You would gaze around and feel so dreary that you might well hang yourself.” –Taras Shevchenko (1850)

Landing in Aktau, in far western Kazakhstan, on a Saturday at noon, and taking a cab into town from the airport, I could well sympathize with Mr. Shevchenko’s sentiment on being exiled to this parched region back in 1850.

The Ukrainian poet had run afoul of the authorities, who in good Roman fashion, decided to send him packing to some God-forsaken place. Lacking piles of rock in the Mediterranean, the czar picked a more-than-suitable alternative, a stretch of barren land on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea – my home for a week, Aktau.

But then it wasn’t Aktau back then; I don’t believe it was much of anything, except scrub, flies, rock, wind-blown sand and perhaps a camel or two. In fact, later on, the covert settlement that would spring up in 1961 when the Soviets discovered there was uranium in them thar’ hills simply had a number as a moniker. Two years later it was baptized Shevchenko, after the region’s reluctant former resident.

Shevchenko ponders his fate

Shevchenko ponders his fate

My introduction to the place was not, shall we say, auspicious. After a pretty stress-free flight on Air Astana (which wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, and in fact better than some Delta planes I’ve been on) I grabbed my suitcase off the creaking conveyor belt and headed out into the blinding sun. I nodded at one of the more reputable-looking individuals among the gaggle of men offering rides into town.

Being very clever I thought, given how poor my Russian is, I asked him to write down the price he would charge for his service. 300 T was entered into my little blue notebook – a steal! Especially since my two-year-old guidebook said it’d run me about 1,000 tenge, the local coinage. Oh, foolish traveler…

We set off down a brand-new road that looked suspiciously like the one that leading from Astana’s airport to its city center, complete with new streetlights every five feet and billboard after billboard featuring the glories of either: 1. Kazakhstan (usually with children, old women or veterans in the photo), 2. The President (usually surrounded by children, old women or veterans) or 3. Astana! This national PR campaign had gotten out of hand.

My driver kept talking to me like I could understand what he was saying, at one point saying something about the hotel and holding up five fingers. OK, since the hotel was actually outside of Aktau, I thought he was bumping the price from 300 to 500 tenge, just €2.30 – still, a steal! Oh, naïve visitor…

Road to nowhere

Road to nowhere

The taxi sped through this wasteland – a post-apocalyptic landscape if I’ve ever seen one. (Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” came to mind.) There is no fresh water here; the city has to desalinate all it uses. The ground is so hard, I read, that jackhammers have to break up the soil before trees can be planted.

As we approached town, the already-gusty wind grew in force, clawing at the small trees and whipping up dirt and dust, throwing it in the faces of the figures making their way across the rocky shoulder. Russian pop blared from the car stereo, which the driver didn’t feel the need to turn down when holding any one of several mobile phone conversations, he’d just yell into the thing.

Aktau itself doesn’t present her charms readily. The city was born at an unfortunate time in Soviet architecture (err, was there a fortunate one?) and the crumbling apartment blocks don’t look better here than they do anywhere else in the former eastern bloc; except here, they were getting lost in a sand storm. We skirted the downtown area and headed south toward the Dostar Hotel, the compromise (and in the end, bad) choice since the other business hotels in town were not within the budget. Being an oil and gas town, Aktau’s prices are surprisingly steep.

Finally, a bit of blue unfolded to the right, and then unfolded some more – and the sparkling waters of the Caspian Sea brought a modicum of relief from this arid landscape, at this stage broken by three-story barracks-like apartment blocks in front of a distant blur of factory smokestacks. The salt-water sea is a lovely sight, a blue and bright oasis under the unrelenting sun.

Enjoy Soviet-style accommodation!

Enjoy Soviet-style accommodation!

Pulling up in front of the hotel, I handed my driver the 500 tenge and all hell broke loose. He thought I was trying to cheat him; I thought he was trying to cheat me, and it turned ugly, degenerating into our yelling at each other in languages the other didn’t understand.

In the end, thanks to a barely bi-lingual hotel receptionist, I learned the man is just this side of illiterate, and thought 300 spelled three thousand. I gave in to that, but refused to go up to 5,000, and that was that. He stormed off in a huff, I marched off indignantly to my room. Welcome to western Kazakhstan.

Aktau, what does one say? After a week, her charms were still somewhat elusive. Perched as she is on the edge of the desert, she’s got a dust problem. But at least the Caspian keeps her cooler than the oven behind her and back in hammer-and-sickle days, her coast sported an elite resort for Soviet higher-ups. In the winter, she doesn’t get the bitter Siberian winds of Astana or other places on the steppe; it rarely snows. The streets are kept relatively clean by a brigade of women wrapped up like rubber-booted mummies who sweep the sidewalks.

There are long stretches of relatively uncrowded beach and the hotel balcony allowed for pre-sunrise views of the twinkling lights of tankers waiting to dock in the far distance among the rhythmic red and blue flashing of buoys. At the other end of the day, the sun’s slide down under the watery horizon would set off a tumult of breathtaking colors in the sky.

Proletariat housing

Proletariat housing

Oil in the region has given Aktau a leg up, and while the old apartment blocks are still there, they’re interspersed with new business centers and luxury apartment blocks under construction, plus a plethora of big single-family homes in various states of completion, McMansions that would feel at home in any high-end US suburb — well, save the two that appear to have been built for King Arthur and Zeus.

The Kazakh people were a little hard to get a read on. Some were very warm and hospitable, such as those I worked with. But others, particularly in the public sphere, could be pretty unpleasant. I’ll stop complaining about German shop staff now. The hotel personnel at the Dostar combined incompetence with discourteousness – always a winning ticket.

Perhaps it’s that Russian way I’ve never really appreciated or understood, although Kazakhs I spoke to say they are very different than Russians. The women, one group told me, treat their men like kings, whereas Russian women do not. Do the Kazakh men deserve such an attitude, I asked? Not from what I’ve seen.

An outing with the girls

An outing with the girls

No matter, the fairer sex here will stand by their men, and preferably perched on very high heels. As in Mongolia, the women under 40 here are generally decked out in at least three inches of heel, often more.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a trip to the supermarket, a walk along the beachfront, a trek through cityscape of crumbled sidewalks and dirt lots. When I said most women where I come from prefer flats for everyday wear, the looks were incredulous – but heels, they’re part of being an attractive woman.

These Kazakh women, with their highly developed sense of balance, are always en pointe – hoping, I guess, to impress the royalty who cross their path.

IMG_5796I didn’t have any idea about Mongolia’s capital before coming here — I mean, who does? Ulaanbaatar is far removed from, well, pretty much everything. It’s light years away from the Paris-London-Barcelona tourist circuit and even those who do venture further afield generally don’t make it as far north as the world’s coldest national capital. And after being here a week and a half, I can see why.

I don’t want to be unfair. This windswept city on the steppe emerged from seven decades of communism less than twenty years ago. Seventy years of Soviet-style city planning and architecture would take the shine off just about anything. But, my god, UB (what those in the know call the city) takes being dreary, dowdy and down-at-heel to new heights, or lows, as the case may be. I wonder what the proud Chinggis Khaan (the current spelling of Mongolia’s national hero, Genghis Khan) would think of the administrative and cultural capital of the country that descends from his massive Mongol empire – at his death, it stretched from the Caspian Sea to today’s Vladivostok. Well, truth be told, UB didn’t even exist when he was around. All the better.

A fairly representative apartment building

A fairly representative apartment building

I’m not recommending saying no to a trip to Mongolia – the countryside is spectacular. The wide steppe—startling, empty landscapes rolled out under a towering sky broken by occasional herds of sheep and horses—is overflowing with austere beauty. But the built landscape, that’s another thing. I’d relish a week out on the steppe, living in one of the traditional yurts, the round, felt tents that many Mongolians, especially those still living a nomadic lifestyle, call home. I’d even put up with the boiled meat and dairy products that make up the traditional diet for a while.  But I’d likely give the capital, something of a sore on that mightily impressive landscape, a pass.

What to say? It’s mostly a collection of concrete, prefab buildings in various states of disrepair, dropped around crumbling sidewalks and murderous traffic. Once you get maneuver the open manholes and rock-strewn walkways, its takes a powerful death wish to attempt crossing any street. Drivers actually appear to speed up when approaching pedestrians and one more than one occasion I’ve almost been taken out by a packed city bus whose driver took a corner like he was trying to keep his lead in some urban Grand Prix.


Crossing the street is like a real-life game of "Frogger"

The ugliness of some of the city is actually oppressive, and not just to the effete aesthete whose idea of nirvana is sipping espresso among the lovingly restored medieval buildings of Paris’ 4th arrondissement (err…not referring to me, of course). Once I spent the better part of a lunch break looking for a café to get a break from the meaty, greasy stuff that Mongolian cooks at the Press Institute provide. It was apparently just around the corner from where we’re working, in a particularly unattractive corner of this unattractive city.

After spending half an hour tripping over crumbling concrete, dodging accelerating vehicles, squinting at faded street signs in Cyrillic mounted precariously on cracking facades, I gave up, and got back to an interior as soon as I could (almost losing a foot to a car in the process), anxious to leave behind the urban landscape outside. All the better, again, since I later learned the last trainer to find that particular café spent the next two days on the toilet.

Best to ignore the ground and focus the gaze upwards

Best to ignore the ground and focus the gaze upwards

The city of one million (which got its current name, “Red Hero,” from the socialists in 1924) is ringed by mountains, which are lovely. The city is growing fast, since many traditional nomads are finding they can no longer sustain themselves herding animals, so they move to the city and further strained the creaking infrastructure. (About one-third of the country’s population lives here.) UB is ringed with these new settlements, ramshackle collections of yurts, or gers, and small houses, often without electricity or plumbing or much of anything. They are heated with coal and I’ve heard that in the winter, the city lives under a thick blanket of smoke. That, in combination with temps that drop to -40 degrees, is a concoction that must be pure hell.

It's dinner time!

It's dinner time!

And the food…don’t get me started. Perhaps consuming fatty, boiled meat all winter and dairy products all summer was a diet that appealed to Chinggis’ marauding armies or sheep-herding nomads eking out an existence in a hostile climate, but I and my heart don’t want any part of it.

Still, there’s some great cashmere sweaters and blankets to be had. We’ve met some very cool Mongolians, who are trying to make the most of a difficult situation. Corruption is rampant in the country and is hindering development. The global economic crisis has snaked its way into the steppe, with crashing demand for costly cashmere hitting herders hard. But democracy is established, the country is eager to overcome its geographic isolation and join the international community. And, UB now has two vegetarian restaurants. Things are looking up.

We met some Australian women who have been here working in Ulaanbaatar for about a year. They took us out on a trip to the countryside on the weekend. One of them summed it up for me: “Well, UB is kind of a shithole, and I probably won’t ever be back. But in the end, I’m glad I came.”