Words by Kirill Korobkov. Photos by Alexey Lapin.
Central Asia is a region of the Eurasian continent poised on the edge of the East and the West. It is situated in between the Caspian Sea, Western China, Russia and Afghanistan. This is a unique ethnographic zone, where different cultures, traditions, religions and attitudes are all mixed together. Historically this region has been host to Persian, Russian, Asian and Turkish people and a variety of religions and politics to match, it’s always been an area of intense interest for a lot of people. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Central Asia now consists of the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and last May skaters from Europe, Russia and the US decided to make their way through the Stans, from North to South, discovering what lay in store in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. We didn’t know what exactly to expect, we didn’t know what we would go through, where we would end up or what we would skate, but we felt adventurous, and that led us there.
As the 9th biggest country in the world Kazakhstan seemed like the best spot to start our trip from. It earns its money from oil, natural gas and other mineral resources and it soon became the leader of the whole region, and the most developed country of central Asia. In 1997 they moved capital to futuristic Astana but the former capital Almaty is still the biggest city in Kazakhstan and this was where we all met up. The trip was the brain child of filmer Patrik Wallner, a continuation of his “trail around the Eurasian peninsula by ground transportation" idea, and he made his way to Almaty from China with a crew consisting of Walker Ryan, Dave Bachinsky, Jimmy Mcdonald, Dan Zvereff, Laurence Keefe and te second filmer Charles Lanceplaine. Michael Mackrodt, Kenny Reed, Gosha Konyshev and Stas Provotorov.
Kazakhstan’s largest city isn’t as shocking as you might think, it’s actually really mellow and quite modern. The Soviet presence influenced local architecture a lot and residential areas look like they’re from the USSR – Kazakhs are obliviously majority in their country but there are still a lot of Russians and other nations who live there. In fact it can feel like you are really on the edge of the East and West. The city is surrounded snow-covered peaks from the Tian Shan mountain range, which you can see from every part of town – even the modern skyscrapers are shaped in the form of mountains to fit.
Skate-wise Almaty was surprisingly good too; there are all types of spots: Soviet monuments, modern plazas, smooth marble oases, harsh Siberean looking obstacles. The problem is that most of the spots are a bust as the security guards are really territorial and don’t like skaters at all.
Kazakhstan is a big country and so we didn’t find time to check out its many different sides. There are people who keep it traditional and live nomadic style in countryside, there is the Caspian Sea at the West, there are Russian cities at the North and there is the surreal new capital, Astana. We only saw one city and we liked it a lot. Kazakhstan is like a gate to Central Asia: you can already see Asia in the details; in traditions, in traffic, in food, but it’s not real Asia yet. Kazakhstan is a part of the modern world and the deeper South you go the more different it gets. So, after one week in Almaty, we headed south, to Kyrgyzstan.
Dave Bachinsky, frontside flip. Almaty, Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has been ruled by the same president since 1991 – it’s pretty normal for Central Asia to have the same leaders for decades. Official propaganda eulogizes the president’s achievements and makes him look like the father of the nation. There are a lot of things and places named after him, for example, this stairs set is located in Nursultan Nazarbaev’s park of Almaty. People go there for weddings and walks but Dave went there for business.
Kyrgyzstan was the least famous country out of our entire list. Sometimes you hear about Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or Afghanistan in the news, but Kyrgyzstan has been out of the international media coverage for years. It is a small country to the South from Kazakhstan in between China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Also it is farther from an ocean than any other country in the world.
The drive wasn’t long. The Kyrgyzstan border is just couple hours away from Almaty. Actually every border crossing routine was a story by itself. In between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan they group people in front of the building. As soon as there are around 50-60 people and the pressure becomes high, they let everyone in thorough a meter wide door. Lines and rules don’t really exist over there. Everyone one rushes with their luggage into the room where border guards are and push people from the previous group as hard as they can. The crowd in front of the bar gets so packed that there can easily be 4-5 people for 1 square meter.
The number one rule at all the boarders is not to take any photos. But with all this craziness going on Stas couldn’t resist to take a photo of another group running into the boarder control building. He got busted straight away and taken to the chief’s room. When Stas offered to delete the shot, the head of the check point answered he knew his own method for that and started doing Jackie Chan karate kicks in close vicinity to Stas’ camera.
Bishkek, the Capital of Kyrgyzstan, was nice, laid back city and it felt good to be there after big and busy Almaty. There are virtually no tall buildings, no traffic jams, no big shopping malls, and no hectic intersections. It’s less developed than Almaty, the roads are pretty bad – life is harder for them. Still it feels cozy in Bishkek, people are friendly and it looks like they have warmer hearts than busy inhabitants of Almaty. You can see this attitude in terms of skate spots too, in Bishkek we skated everywhere we wanted.
One day Stas started talking to this random guy watching us skate a spot. The man looked brutal – something like a taxi driver or a dealer on a market – but it turns out he was Bishkek’s assistant mayor. He and Stas had a long conversation about our trip which ended up him saying: “In Bishkek, you can skate anywhere you want." This pretty much describes how we rolled.
The local skaters over there were interesting too, the guys who showed us around had started pyramid investment scheme around half of the year before we came. They got their money multiplied fast and by the time we arrived the guys already had second-hand Japanese sport cars and a personal office on the top of an office building – where wee partied a couple times. My favorite parts of the office were the transparent toilet door and the “smoke_weed" WIFI password. I wonder how they spell it when investors ask for it during the day.
We had two day long drive towards the Uzbekistan border and the mountain landscapes we saw were some of the most beautiful scenery of the whole trip: snow-capped mountains and sunny, green valleys, pasture fields with cattle and crystal-clear turquois lakes and almost total absence of heavy industry or human’s pollution. We stayed overnight in a random village and swim in lonely lake, skated road barriers and had amazing traditional food. Kyrgyzstan has a great potential for development of eco-tourism, in this subject it can be on the Alps countries level but because of its distant location, lack of investments and lack of tourists I doubt this will happen any time soon.
On our last night in Kyrgyzstan we stayed in Osh, where a local guest house placed 8 of us on a floor the size of a normal hotel bedroom, whilst the rest of the crew has slept next door in a different room; Tetris style. Uzbekistan was next.
Uzbekistan is a really complicated place and we were not ready for it. For a start, crossing the border you have to put down in declaration all the money you have on you (including the coins), all the electronic devices including phones and i pods, they can go through all your gadgets and your books looking for music, videos and films they deem inappropriate or illegal in Uzbekistan. Second step, is getting money. Right at the point we had to pay for our apartment in Tashkent we found out that there are no ATMs in Uzbekistan. You can’t get money from your Visa or credit card by going to banks in cities. Only in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent are there a few 4-5 stars hotels for foreigners with cash points and partly working ATMs where you can withdraw very limited amount of US dollars and only at certain hours every day. After that you’ve got to exchange dollars into Sums. There are two rates: the official one and the black market one. Black Market rate is almost twice as good as the official one. You have to know the black market currency exchange spots though. They can be found around hotels, markets or even inside the liquor store. If you exchange your money there obliviously you have no receipt or any other proof where you got Uzbek money from. Sums (the Uzbek currency) are really weak. The biggest bill in use is 1000 sums and that is about 25 cents. As you can calculate, changing 100 Euros, you’ll get 400 1000 Sums bills. You wallet will not be able to handle Uzbekistan; you need bags and backpacks for money over there.
Uzbekistan has been ruled by the same president for more than 20 years. He, his family and his clan pretty much took over the whole country. They organized all the laws, businesses and whole economy it their own favour. Right now it’s one of the harshest political regimes in Central Asia, and in the world, unsurprisingly regular citizens of Uzbekistan suffer the most.
As soon as you get used to all this special sides of the country, though, you can actually start to enjoy Uzbekistan. Looking around you can see the differences in the previous two Stans. It’s more traditional, more authentic and more original than the first two countries of our trip. The way people look, the way they dress, the music they listen to, the food they eat were all based on Uzbek traditions and culture. The people here were nice to us and curious about our mission. A few times security, rather than kicking us out, tried to protect our sessions from the growing crowd and strangers. Sometimes it was stricter with filming than with skating. With all those regulations police are more worried about official buildings and streets being documented that skated.
There is small skate community in Tashkent and Arthur is one of OG guys. A couple of days before we entered Uzbekistan he had called up my phone and said “Hello, my name is Arthur; I will take care of all your problems in Uzbekistan". Despite not knowing who he was, I must say that Arthur was true to his word. He took care of us from our first minutes in Tashkent till the moment when we left. Accommodation, black market money exchange, registration, hospital, sightseeing, nightlife, souvenirs – Arthur and his girlfriend Veronica did it all for us. Thanks.
After Tashkent we went to Samarkand, where the scenery noticeably changed. The landscapes became deserted and more flat and day time temperatures started going crazy, over 40 degrees at some points, and sunstrokes became daily routine for half our crew. But our plans were to change way more than the nature around us was.
The original plan was to finish the trip in Turkmenistan, the country of the most authoritarian political regime of all the ex-Soviet states but right now it is one of the most closed countries in the world. Getting into Turkmenistan is a serious mission for foreigners (sometimes even for its citizens too). 3 days before we were supposed to enter Turkmenistan the immigration cancelled their invitations and forbade the visit. It was said in the email that they had seen Patrik’s personal website and realized that purpose of his trip wasn’t traditional tourism and that the guys should have applied for different types of visa. From there we started thinking of somewhere else to go. There were two options where we could go from Uzbekistan: Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
In Tashkent we got acquainted with Abu or Abdula, one of Arthur’s closest friends. He was Afghan who grew up in Sweden and currently lives Uzbekistan and has family in northern Afghanistan. We asked him about Afghanistan a lot and he kept saying that we should come to his country one day and, since we’d all been denied entry to Turkmenistan, we figured this might be the chance. Everybody knows how attractive Afghanistan is but also how risky it might be, but a lot depends on who takes you there. We had long conversation with Abu and he assured us that with him we would be safe in northern Afghanistan and for Kabul Kenny arranged us Skateistan welcome. Abu organized Afghan visas for us all in one day with just a few phone calls and we began to understand how connected he was and what we should expect.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was waiting for us next.
Whilst the transition from the Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan was pretty interesting but the entrance to Afghanistan was alike entering another world. As soon the border gates opened we were thrust into a completely different cultural zone, a far cry from the previous countries and one with almost no visible Soviet influence. All the women wore blue burkas covering their whole bodies in public. People pray 5 times per day, there is no alcohol at all and segregation of the genders is completely normal.
Visually Afghanistan was different too. Most of the buildings are really simple, usually made of mud bricks produced in the countryside or of concrete in the cities and nothing really reaches over 5 floors. There is dust from deserts everywhere.
Outside of the cities people still live medieval lifestyle like their ancestors did. Life is definitely not easy over there; its history, its climate, its traditions… the whole of Afghanistan has been gone through wars and harsh times for decades. People were saying that over the last few years the situation has finally started to slowly change for the better.
Abu’s people waited for us right at the border with two huge SUVs and an additional pickup complete with heavily armed bodyguards. Half way to Abu’s home city of Mazar-i-Sharif another police pickup joined and headed up our cortege, with the lights on and siren going, cleanithey cleared the highway for us – traffic-cops even saluted us at every checkpoint. We couldn’t believe that it was happening to us for real. Totally surreal.
In Mazar-i-Sharif our securities help us a lot with crowd control. People’s reaction to skateboarding was crazy, I mean crazy. Most of the spots we skated in Mazar-i-Sharif were located next to busy intersections and roads so as soon as we started skating there were so many people watching us, all the traffic was jamming up – even China wasn’t like that. Literally in two minutes there could be a crowd of 100 people following skateboarding action.
Abu’s dad appeared to be governor’s personal assistant and one day the governor invited us in for tea. Atta Muhhamad Nur, the governor of Balkh province, one of the most powerful politicians and commanders in Afghanistan, had us, a group of random skate travelers, in his office during the business day just because he was curious about our trip. You never know where skateboarding will take you. During the conversation the governor made a call to check out the progress on Skateistan branch in Mazar-i-Sharif. After the meeting in his office we did a demo for the governor and the members of his team on a 4 stair set right at the center of the government complex. The group portrait with all those Afghan men is definitely one of the best souvenirs from the trip.
Kenny has been to Skateistan in Kabul before and he knew the project founder Oliver Percovich and few more people related to the school. Skateistan does different educational programs through skateboarding aimed on progress and development of kids. What is really important is that Skateistan teaches both male and female students. When you are there watching kids studying, skating and having fun in contrast to how the street life looks, you really understand the scale and importance of this social project. Thumb up and great respect to people who runs it. Skateistan is one of the best socially oriented skateboarding initiatives ever.
Big thanks to Oliver, Rhianon, Brandon and the rest of the team for having us there.
Afghanistan was the last state in our tour of central Asia. We successfully went through about 10 levels of security control in the Kabul international airport and flew away. The trip was done. The documentary about the tour is in progress right now. The video should be out by autumn time. For more photos, stories and information about the documentary check out Patrik Wallner’s website visualtraveling.com.