Visas I have known

This is the first visa in my passport, the student visa from when I studied abroad at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan in 2002. Note that although it is a multiple entry vis, in Japan one still must obtain a re-entry permit sticker at the local immigration bureau to be placed in one’s passport before leaving the country, or the visa becomes invalid. Naturally, this is an extra fee.

This is my first tourist visa for the People’s Republic of China. Note that unlike the Japanese visa, it actually uses Chinese characters the fill out some of the fields, most notably the “Issued at” field, which is marked “Osaka.” In fact, I applied for this visa at a very strange “travel agency” office around the corner from the Japan immigration bureau in Kyoto, which in addition to accepting applications for visas to China also serves the role of selling the payment stamps which one must use to pay fees at the Japan immigration bureau in lieu of actual cash when paying for such things as reentry permits or visa extensions.

The only differences from the first one is that A: this one is double entry, so I could reenter China after my bus trip to Kazakhstan from Urumqi, and that it was glued to my passport in an extremely crooked fashion.

This is actually two separate, but related documents. The yellow thing is my tourist visa for Kazakhstan, and the blue thing above it is the “Registration Certificate” that non residents are required to keep in their passports until they leave the country. Notice that the visa is glues, and the certificate is stapled so it can be removed. It is, however, too cool to remove. The Kazakh visa is notable for a couple of things. First of all, it is handwritten-the only 21st century visa I have ever seen which is. Secondly, the “Inviting Organization” of “Sunrise Travel.” One cannot just apply for a Kazakh tourist visa like with most countries-instead you must have a letter of “invitation.” Tourist agencies, such as Sunrise Travel, will provide these letters for a small fee-I believe it was on the order of US $20.

There is an item I wish I could place right next to mine, and there is a story to it. My traveling companion on this particular trip was “Saru”, formerly also a contributor to this site. For some reason instead of indicating a one month span as I did on my visa application, he listed the exact seven-day period we had been planning to be there. Unfortunately, he got the range slightly off, so that if we had actually left on the date indicated on his passport we would just barely miss the local celebration of Nauryz-the biggest public holiday of the year! Obviously, this would have been extremely undesirable, so on the day after we arrived in Almaty, our local friends with whom we were staying took us to the office of this Sunrise Travel who had “invited” us to the country and asked how to resolve it.

Saru asked, “what happen if I overstay my visa?”

In reply, the tall, somewhat manly Russian woman with coarse black hair and a gigantic mole on her nose laughed heartily saying, “you go to jail!”

In the end, for a moderate fee she managed to work something out for Saru, but it was a rather odd solution. Instead of an extension to his tourist visa, or even a new tourist visa, she got him a business visa, which kicked in the day after the tourist visa ended. A one-day business visa. It looks much like the tourist visa, except for being blue, but I imagine that a single day business visa for Kazakhstan must be very nearly unique in the history of travel.

This is my “Visitor Visa” for Taiwan (legal name, “Republic of China”). I went there to study Mandarin in Taipei immediately following my undergraduate graduation from Rutgers University on a Taiwan government Summer term scholarship for Mandarin study, originally planning only to stay for the three-month Summer term. You may notice that the Duration of Stay is only 60 days. This is because a Visitor Visa has a term of only 60 days, which may be extended twice, for a total stay of 180 days. Why was I on a Visitor Visa instead of a Student Visa? Due to a very peculiar visa system, Taiwan does not actually HAVE such a thing as a Student Visa-only Visitor and Resident. Although a full time university student from abroad would qualify for a Resident Visa, since ordinary Chinese language schools there only enroll on a quarterly basis, language students are issued Visitor Visas. But what if you want to stay and study for longer than 180 days? The answer is below.

This is my Resident Visa for The Republic of China (Taiwan). After studying in Taiwan on a Visitor Visa for four months, one is eligible to apply for a Resident Visa. Once you have a Resident Visa, you are then eligible to apply for the ARC (Alien Registration Card) and upon having that, to the national health system (which incidentally works very much like the one in Japan).

The entire system is absurdly cumbersome, with Visitor Visa extensions and ARC applications being handled by an office of the county or city police, but the Resident Visa application being handled by the immigration department, in an entirely different part of the city (at least in the case of Taipei). Visitor visa extensions for language study also require the submission of an attendance tracking form, which one obtains from the administrative office of the language school. If a student has more than a couple of absences, they may then be subject to questioning and browbeating by a member of the foreigner registration section of the Taiwan police.

All in all, it is extremely bureaucratic, containing a number of overly complex and supervisory elements which I suspect (but do not know) are based in the former police state period of Chiang Kai Shek’s regime.

After leaving Taiwan, I got a job working in the office of the College of Information Science and Engineering at Ritsumeikan University’s Biwako Kusatsu Campus, near Kyoto. Although the contract was technically only for one year, it was of a type commonly renewed twice, which I suppose explains why I was granted a 3-year visa.

This is the one I got yesterday.

And I thought Bobby Fischer was crazy

Well, Fischer is still plenty crazy, but it turns out that even within the world of competitive chess, they come far crazier. Case in point, Kirsan Nikolayevich Ilyumzhinov, president of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia (a tiny former Soviet republic which is Europe’s only Buddhist nation)and of the world chess body. This article from German’s Spiegel Magazine is so impossibly absurd that I almost have trouble believing it, but then again we are talking about chess masters here.

He claims that he can communicate with aliens. Once, he says, he was even taken on a tour of one of their UFOs. “The extraterrestrials put me in a yellow astronaut suit and showed me their spaceship. I was on the bridge. I felt quite comfortable in their company.” And who is the lucky space tourist? None other than the president of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

The 44-year-old multimillionaire has other interests than just space aliens. In the past, he regularly consulted a Bulgarian fortune teller named Babushka Vanga. About 13 years ago, the blind psychic told him that he would be appointed leader of Kalmykia and elected president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), would open a factory to clean the wool of Kalmykian sheep and, last but not least, would have an oil pipeline built through the Caucasian steppes.

The pipeline doesn’t exist yet, but the psychic’s other predictions have all come true.
And what about the extraterrestrials? “The day will come when they land on our planet and say: ‘You have behaved poorly. Why do you wage wars? Why do you destroy each other?'” the president says. “Then they will pack us all into their spaceships and take us away from this place.”

Given his psychic’s success rate so far, we may want to start packing.

Unsurprisingly, Ilyumzhinov is an admirer of Bobby Fischer. Please do yourself a favor and read the entire article.

Asian History Carnival

Welcome to the 7th installment of the Asian History Carnival, a project of Jonathan Dresner and the Asian History blog Frog In A Well. For this installment I have decided to, instead of using the usual geographic classification, separate posts into three broad thematic categories. First “History Wars,” for posts and articles about attempts by contemporary people and nations to control the memory of the past. This title comes from the excellent book of the same name, which I read recently. Next are History Finds, posts in which the author presents his or her own research or discovery of some not commonly known piece of history. Finally we have History Lessons-posts which are, in some form, teaching history. Of course this overlaps with the other two categories, so this section includes only posts which do not fit the criteria of either of the other two. That is, they are presenting history which is, if not necessarily well known, something which can be discovered from conventional sources, and not based on the personal discovery of the previous category.

History wars

With all the controversy over the ABC Road to 9.11 miniseries, the US public is finally getting a taste of the history wars that East Asians are continually waging.

There’s always some sort of territorial dispute going on in East Asia. If it isn’t Russians arresting Japanese fishermen over islands nobody really cares about, it’s Japan arresting Taiwanese fisherman over other islands nobody cares about. Or maybe a Korean guy engaging in an awesome protest stunt for obscure reasons.

While there was a miniscule controversy over a poorly drawn map on the Okinwana prefectural website showing Tsushima, an island which is actually part of Nagasaki prefecture, as foreign territory, the current major fad in East Asian territorial disputes has to be over Koguryo, an ancient kingdom on the Korean penninsula that ceased existing in the year 668, after being defeated and absorbed by the rival Silla kingdom, with plenty of help from Tang China. One might think that disputes over the borders of Koguryo would have ended back then, but sadly things are not that simple.

What do you need to know to understand this? Well, it might not hurt to read up on Koguryo history a little. (And it might not hurt to check out Tang China, Silla, and so on while you’re there.) Then try The Korea-China Textbook War–What’s It All About? from History News Network. This article is from back in March and may have been in a previous edition of this history carnival, but it’s good background. Next try this article on The “history war” Between China and SK, which while published in the Asia Times Online, is written by the blogger Andrei Lankov, of North Korea Zonesome comments in response to this article, as well as links to some Korean coverage of the battle. There are of course plenty of other bloggers discussing this issue as well.

As speculation mounts (again) that the Kim dynasy of North Korea may be weakening, a post-collapse scenario by Robert Kaplan has been making the rounds. This is where the academic debate over ancient territorial borders starts to have a practical result. After the DPRK collapses, does China get to grab part of the former North Korea to protect their territorial integrity from ethnic Koreans in China who want to rejoin their distant relatives? Does the newly Unified Korea get to grab nearby territory in China because of the significant Korean minority? Time to bust out the historical precedent-no matter how flimsy or dusty. You can find discussion of this article by bloggers at DPRK Studies, GI Korea, or in the comments thread at the Robert Kaplan fan-blog Yes, in the end it’s just speculation about the future. But in the end this is exactly what the History Wars discussed just above are really all about.

Antti Leppänen, a Finn who blogs on Korea, reports on the possible rehabilitation of Pak Hôn-yông , “Southern-born communist leader who went over to the North before the establishment of separate states, was a member of the early DPRK leadership and was given the responsibility for the failures of the Korean War and executed in 1955 for having been a ‘spy for the American imperialists.'” Does this amount to an admittance of fault by the Kim dynasty? Is the initial report even true? Like most developments in North Korea, we have more speculation than hard fact.

Is it already 30 years since Mao’s death? Try comparing this Apply Daily article with this one from Canada.

Is Taiwan “China”? The debate has raged for decades, if not centuries, and shows no sign of calming. Jonathan Dresner gives his opinion on Michael Turton’s argument “China has never owned Taiwan” largely because Taiwan was “never the possession of any ethnic Chinese emperor.” This is one of the many arguments that Taiwanese pro-independence forces use in their ongoing battle. Of course, however sympathetic one may be to the cause of Taiwanese independence/autonomy, it does seem unlikely that they will achieve formal recognition by the PRC as a separate state through superior rhetoric.

Noja, of Frog In A Well Korea, has an article questioning the difference between “resistant collaborators” and “collaborative resistors.” Since Noja is actually trying to puzzle out the answer for inclusion in a Russian textbook on Korea’s history (being written in Kyushu University!) this could almost have gone in the Lessons section below, but Noja is grappling with definitions of some issues touchy enough to have gotten many of the original actors executed, so I’ll leave it here.

History finds

Michael D. Manning of The Opposite End of China finally discovers the original location from which an “ancient” 1998 photo of Korla, Xinjiang, was taken and snaps his own photo for comparison, at the exact same angle. There is probably less difference between the two photos than you would find in most Chinese city centers over the same period.

In a similar vein, Richard Barrow shows an interesting contrast between a photograph of the Royal Tonsure Ceremony for the boy who would late become King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) and a line drawing made for reproduction in the book”The English Governess at the Siamese Court,” (photographs could not be printed with the day’s technology) which I will assume is the basis for The King and I. The editor made a mistake which I imagine even under Thailand’s modern lese majesty statute could get him in trouble. Shortly below this you can see some photographs and description of what slightly less regal Thais were wearing in the mid-19th century.

It may seem premature, so let’s call this preemptive history. The statistics and survey in Japan blog What Japan Thinks has a survey on what will be Koizumi’s legacy as Prime Minister. It’s an interesting list, particularly since it shows the massive contrast between issues that the foreign-language press pays attention to, and what Japanese people actually care about themselves.

The absolutely essential China blog EastSouthWestNorth has posted translations of a couple of dozen passages from “Extraordinary Sayings” (非常道) by Yu Shicun (余世存), an unstructured collection of, well, extraordinary sayings gleaned by the author from hundreds of books, covering China’s history from 1840-1999. A two part post, you can find Part 1 herePart 2 here.

Roland Soong, the now famous and formerly semi-anonymous ESWN blogger has also been doing some historical research of his own, into his own family roots. The first installment of his findings, in which he tracks the fate of his grandfather’s once-famous library, makes for fascinating reading.

This is where I would like to plug one of my own postings. After several weeks of minimal posting I stumbled across a reference to an important but largely unknown American-born engineer by the name of William R. Gorham, who emigrated to Japan in the early 20th century, helped build their early aeronatics and automobile industries, and finally towards the end of his life became a Japanese citizen on the eve of World War II. A man with an important history, but just on the edge of total obscurity, I spent some time tracking down everything I could find out about him using only conventional and free online resources, and wrote up my findings in this article here.

History lessons

When I went to Xinjiang, China a few years ago I was surprised to find that Turpan is full of Japanese speaking Uyghur guides, to accomodate the steady stream of Japanese tourists that have been heading there ever since the famous Silk Road documentary aired on NHK in 1980. In looking through the archives of various blogs for this Carnival, I found that earlier this year Our Silk Road had reported that this highly influential travel/history documentary is being updated with recent scholarship, and even better, higher resolution imagery.

The Central Asia and Caucasus themed blog collective has an excellent special feature looking back at the Soviet breakup on its 15 year anniversary. There are posts at each country blog – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – as well as an editorial and a “special guest post” by Dr. Johannes Linn, Brookings scholar and former Vice President of the World Bank for Europe & Central Asia. No, I haven’t had time to read all of them yet.

This August was also the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Cultural Revolution in China. In honor of that, the Chinese Media blog Danwei has one long post with “two first person accounts beginning of the decade of chaos, translated and with an introduction by Geremie R. Barmé.” They also put up a companion post with links to several cultural revolution resources, including a recording of the original radio announcement. Jottings from the Granite Studio also has a post with some thoughts on History and Memory and the Cultural Revolution.

I wasn’t sure whether to put this one in the History Wars or the History Lessons section. And I’m still not sure. I may even change my mind before I finish editing. The Taiwan based Betelnut Blogger is ticked off by historical revisionism in the Taipei Times editorial page, and he’s decided to set the facts straight on the history of the KMT/CCP civil war in China. Does the politicized introduction make this a History War post, or is the content neutral enough to leave it here? In a sense, this is the question of authorial viewpoint that one has to consider in any historical document being consulted,cited or referenced, whether primary or secondary source. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Blogging… Walk The Talk is a Hong Kong based blog maintained by two men involved in the tour guiding industry in some fashion. Naturally, it often contains posts on interesting history, and last month included two worth noting. First is the story of The Colonial Flag of Hong Kong, which like the symbols of many ambiguous territories never really reached the level of popularity that such things achieve in more nationalistic populations. Second is an interesting piece on Japan’s Heroin Habit in the Roaring Twenties. The thing I like about this post is that it is not referencing Japanese sources, but an exerpt from a 1923 Hong Kong Imports and Exports Office document. Maybe someone else can find some confirmation from the Japanese end that the heroin actually got to where it was supposed to?

In addition to just articles that teach history, we also have one about teaching history. Jonathan Dresner has a post introducing his syllabi for a class on Japanese Women.

Other contributors to Frog In A Well brings us two reproductions of original documents. First is an illustration from an article on smoking in an early 20th century Shanghai newspaper, which seems to show an army of premature Elvis clones out to destroy traditional Asian value. Finally we have an extraordinarily specific contract spelling out just exactly what it was like as a slave in Han China.

* * *

And that’s it for this installment of the Asian History Carnival. I apologize for the delays and lateness. I blame the anonymous neighbor from whom I had been borrowing wifi service from, who seems to have changed their settings to make the connection just barely on this side of semi-usable for me. The DSL installer is coming in one week…

Here are a few announcements for related events:

Carnivalesque (Ancient/Medieval and Early Modern)
coming up sometime soon.

The History Carnival coming up 10/1 at Rob Macdougal’s place (most recent edition at Cliopatria.)

Carnival of Bad History, coming up at World History Blog.

And of course, the next edition of the Asian History Carnival to be hosted by Nathanael Robinson.

New Photo Galleries

Since I’m about to leave for Taiwan I thought I would finally upload some of the previous travel photosets that I had been meaning to post ever since I created the blog. Click each thumbnail for the corresponding gallery page.

beijing thumb
Beijing, 2004

great wall thumb
While in Beijing I of course had the visit the Great Wall.

opera poster thumb
This is a set of photos I took of the outside of an abandoned Beijing Opera house I found in a sidestreet. The decaying hand-painted posters are great, I only wish I could have somehow taken them down and saved them from the inevitable demolition.

urumqi thumb

Urumqi, 2003 and 2004

turpan thumb
Turpan, 2004 and 2004

kazak thumb

Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2004

Report From Kyrgyztan

The following piece was forwarded to me by my friend Charles, currently living in Kazakhstan. My only comment is that the holiday of Nevruz which he refers to was this past Monday (March 21), and I was in Almaty, Kazakhstan visiting Charles on that day last year. It was clearly the most important festival of the year, with much of the city, and even thousands of visitors from provincial areas gathering in the city square and celebrating long into the night. Try to imagine how a mass cultural patriotic holiday like this transitioned into the street revolution that you have been reading about in the news.
For links to continuing coverage, see the Registan blog.

According to the Kyrgyz Republic’s long-lived president Askar Akaev, the recent parliamentary elections passed in “genuinely democratic, transparent and honest” atmoshpere and symbolized a “major success and celebration of democracy”, thus proving that “democracy extended deep roots in the fertile Kyrgyz soil”. Were this idyllic and impeccable depiction true, the Kyrgyz people wouldn’t come onto the streets and rally in front of state buildings to protest the current regime’s scandalous attempt to forge the elections.

As an indignant reader of “Moya Stolitsa Novosti” (MSN) wrote in her letter, the scale of bribing and cheat during the 13 March runoffs was appalling. In the University polling district of Bishkek, where President’s daughter, Bermet Akaeva, ran for seat after the first round of the elections on 27 February, she witnessed as school masters, apparently threatened to be sacked if they didn’t collaborate, brought their employees and relatives from all over the city to the polling station. They concealed photos in their passports with pieces of paper as a sign for election committee’s members, who calmly produced voters’ lists, letting the ardent “constituents” put signatures against bogus names, and dispensed the bulletins, which subsequently went into voting boxes in Bermet Akaeva’s favour. What is even more scandalous, on exit they received from 150 to 300 soms (41 soms equals 1 $) after entering their signatures in a sheet.

Even after the elections were over and all the Kyrgyz people were supposed to unite in celebration of the “deep-rooted” democracy and greet the new parliament members, “honestly” elected by their votes, the extent of the ruling regime’s interventions into the political life was so blatant that sometimes it was ridiculous to witness. On 18 March the US ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic Mr. Stephen Young gave a press conference in the “Akipress” news agency and assessed the past elections. Starting to his presentation, he said that he was prepared to everything and showed a pocket lantern to the surprised reporters, hinting the embarrassing development that took place the previous day. Electricity was cut suddenly and the lights went off completely when ENEMO’s (European Network of Elections Monitoring Organizations) international observers gathered in the same building to introduce their report on the elections.

A month earlier, something similar happened to the Freedom House printing press, the only independent printing house in the country. On February 22 the electrical power was cut off, allegedly due to staff’s violation of safety requirements. By providing professional printing services to over sixty local and regional newspapers, it had been irritating the government since its opening last year. Seemingly, the MSN’s allegations against Akaev and his family served as the last drop, as he accused the newspaper and the Kyrgyz media in general of “systematic information terror” and has declared his intention to file a criminal libel suit against the MSN newspaper, which is also printed by the independent press. The remarkable and eloquent thing about the development is that electrical power was cut off just 4 days before the national parliament elections. The incident was widely accused by local and international media and NGOs. The Freedom House itself, the international freedom and human rights watch-dog based in US, voiced its concern over the development and named it as an “act of censorship” and an “attack not only on a legitimate business operation, but also on democracy”.

Beginning this article yesterday, I did not suspect I would be writing these final lines in an office in Istanbul while my Kyrgyz compatriots are writing history on the streets of Bishkek. Emotions are overflowing me at this great moment. Occasionally it becomes hard to check tears of happiness, passion and hope as I feverishly press the refresh button of my browser to track the pages of websites updating news from Ala-Too square, the main square in Bishkek, practically in the real time mode. These emotions are: happiness to see my people united in the critical time of change, passion at the sight of my brothers and sisters’ blood shed for the sake of this change, and hope for the brighter future for my country. The timing of the uprising, coming right after the ancient holiday of Nevruz, is highly symbolic, too. It has been widely celebrated by all peoples of Central Asia and has symbolized the New Year and change for both nomadic and settled tribes of the region for thousands of years.

The last developments in Kyrgyzstan openly manifest that the elections have been the last drop for the long-suffered Kyrgyzstanis. The Kyrgyz people have been traditionally viewed as the most tranquil and peaceful nation in the Central Asia, not disposed to change the current developments and force out the ruling regime, more so. Yet, however radical and unexpected Akaev’s ouster may seem, it stands in line with the velvet revolutions in the former Soviet Union, and in greater scale, conforms to the flow of history: discontented nations sooner or later overthrow their repressive authorities. Whatever the circumstances behind the latest events in Kyrgyzstan may be, now that Kyrgyz people persisted and managed to express their will, they may be proud to be named as the most democratic in the Central Asia.

So, dear brothers and sisters, accept my genuine congratulations on emergence of a new democracy! Regarding the questions Max raised here, I am positive they won’t take 15 years for the new authorities to answer!

Chinese Currency and the Black Market

Note, this entry was written as a comment posted on this thread over at Coming Anarchy. It’s only tangentially related to the discussion on US Foreign Debt over there, but I thought it was good enough so I should post it here as well.

Saru: You said, “In order to keep the RMB pegged to the dollar, the Chinese central bank must intervene in the currency markets to counter upward or downward pressure on the RMB against the dollar.”

It’s important to remember that the primary way that China controls the exchange value of the RMB, as compared to how other countries attempt to control their own currency, is by strictly regulating the export of RMB. You may remember how when we were in China and exchanged foreign currency for RMB we were issued a receipt? Upon leaving China again, without that receipt we would have been completely unable to sell back any excess RMB we had, and if we were carrying a large amount of Chinese currency, we would have gotten into serious trouble as customs. Chinese law only allows for the export of amount of currency that they consider to bepocket change, and they regulate this so carefully that even Chinese tourists going abroad are only licensed to exchange a fairly limited amount of funds.

By keeping virtually all Renmenbi inside China the government manages to keep an independent market for their currency from developing. I’m sure you also remember the black market currency traders that we used in Urumqi? They are the direct result of China’s currency policy. Because RMB cannot be exported or traded by private citizens, Chinese businessmen (apparently especially in the Shenzhen area, according to what we were told) who want to invest abroad, or make large foreign purchases, may have to acquire foreign currency indirectly.

For the others, I’ll tell the story briefly. When Saru and I (and Younghusband as well, but he didn’t actually make it on the bus to Almaty with us) were at the international bus station in Urumqi we were greeted outside the building, in a neighborhood where the signs were more likely to be writtein in a Cyrillic-script language than in the local Chinese or Arabic alphabet using Urumqi language, by a throng of dark coated men of dubious nationalities standing around the crowded parking lot fanning huge stacks of RMB in the open air. Seeing a pair of confused white boys, they immediately jumped into business mode and started offering to buy our US$ in a variety of incomprehensible languages. Although I didn’t have many dollars on me (having come from Japan, and already been in China for three weeks besides) I did exchange the little I had left, as did Saru. Since we were going to Kazakhstan later that day, I also asked around and found one fellow who had some Kazhak Tenge in his wallet and was grudginly willing to sell them to in exchange for more Chinese RMB.

Later on we got an explanation from our Uyghur friend who had been helping us arrange our transportation. Black market currency traders like the ones we met operate throughout market areas along the Chinese borders, where foreign currency is more easily avaliable, and then buy US$ at a better exchange rate than the bank. It might seem like a money losing proposition, but then once they have accumulated a decent amount of money (about $1 million) they hire a courier to take it to the rich areas of Eastern China. The usual method is to pay a commericial airline pilot to carry the money with him as he makes his ordinary flight, in exchange for a sizable fee of about $5000. When the money reaches the East, it is bought by businessmen at far higher rates than the official market value, because as I mentioned before, this is only way for them to acquire large volumes of foreign currency without a difficult to obtain government license.

As a footnote, when we got to Almaty I was astonished to see little currency trading stands all over the place, sometimes within only a couple of blocks of each other in the busier areas. Each one had a slightly different selection of advertised currencies, but they all took Dollars, Euros, and Rubels plus a few others. There were none that took Chinese RMB.

Semipalatinsk TEST SITE, Kazakhstan

From the New York Times:

On this spot on a summer morning in 1949, Soviet scientists detonated Stalin’s first atomic bomb. Over the next 40 years, in the air above the steppe and the soil of the surrounding area, scientists detonated at least 455 more.

Kazakhstan’s nuclear arsenal is now gone, returned to Russia in the 1990’s. But one of this sprawling country’s dismal inheritances after decades of Moscow’s rule is this vast poisoned zone. It is a measure of the disarray bedeviling many corners of the former Soviet Union that access to it is fully unrestricted.

If you can find your way here, you can enter at will.


The test range is a peculiar post-Soviet legacy. In an area roughly the size of Israel, the Joe One site is just one of several places where the hundreds of bombs were detonated. Across this vast stretch, no one who wanders the range can be sure of the risks. No one who lives nearby can be sure the meat in markets did not come from animals that grazed on radioactive grass. No one knows where all of the irradiated metal has gone.

What is known is this: The site has been stripped almost bare. Scavenging gangs have yanked the thick copper cables from the ground and dismantled and carted away the parked aircraft and fighting vehicles.

If only I had had more time on my trip to Kazakhstan a year ago! Someday I have to go back and take a Semipalatinsk and Aral Sea tour.


Bringing together Adamu’s post on nostalgia and mine on the wide world of cola, I bring you CCCP Cola. I saw a bottle of this in the supermarket in Almaty, when I was in Kazakhstan, and just had to try it. I asked our local host about it and found that despite the name it was actually created after the fall of the USSR as a nostalgia product. For the curious, it certainly tastes as if it were brewed before Communism fell, perhaps when Stalin was still alive-and aged in Lenin’s formaldyde-preserved armpit. And no, it isn’t in the Cola Database. Maybe I should write them a review.

Also have a gander at this awesome Kazak bar that Curzon, Saru and I saw while we were there.


The General Theory of Nostalgia

Nostalgia has been a recent theme of several sites I frequent.

First up is the puzzling surge in Soviet nostalgia among the former Socialist bloc. He and MF witnessed it firsthand in Kazakhstan. Why on earth would people wish for the days of Stalin, when, for example, millions of political dissidents were killed and fear reigned the day? Curzon posits that “many feel they have lost their national pride, and they want it back.”

Now, what is meant by nostalgia? Curzon talks of nostalgia on a national level: a combination of the older population feeling nostalgia individually for things Soviet, and the youth who yearn for what their grandparents told them of their nation’s history.

Then we have Dr. David Thorpe, reknowned music snob, feeling nostalgia about bad music from a few years ago that we think is good. He gives an insightful explanation as to why we look at songs like “November Rain” differently from when they were played 20 times a day on the radio:

Those of us who bear the burden of an unhealthy obsession with pop culture are often stereotyped as being unreasonably nostalgic. I’m not sure I buy that. Those of us with more discriminating tastes know that the pop music of the past isn’t really better than the pop music of today, but the appeal of shitty songs from the past is no less mesmerizing. Nostalgia isn’t the right word; I don’t yearn for the days when Whitney Houston battled Eric Clapton for the year’s biggest tearjerker. I don’t fondly remember turning on MTV and seeing the “Unbreak My Heart” video three times in a row. Regardless of this, cultivating an appreciation for pop music I once hated is a vital part of my education as a music snob. Sure, I may spend my days studiously furrowing my brow at high-minded avant-garde music that plebeians like you could never properly appreciate, but that doesn’t mean I won’t throw on a Color Me Badd record once in a while. Continue reading The General Theory of Nostalgia

Ten reasons . . . for loving Kazakhstan

Before I went to Kazkhstan last year I knew almost nothing about the country besides it’s general location. When I bring it up in conversation many people have never heard of it, few know anything about it, and of course virtually noone would ever actually consider going there.

While not exactly an introduction to the country, this article makes a good case for why one should know Kazakhstan.

Ten Reasons for loving Kazakhstan

4. Oily

. . . what is thought to be the world’s biggest oil field was discovered there in 2002. Specialists believe the offshore Kashagan field, in the Caspian Sea, contains about 40 billion barrels of the black stuff. Western governments, keen to reduce their dependency on the Middle East, have snuggled up to the Kazakhs ever since. There are also plans to construct an oil pipeline to China later this year. The upshot is . . .