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Central Asia Recap Part One: Kazakhstan


My Friends,
   Due to the unreliable internets access I have been made to endure as of late, I havent been the prolific bloggeur I normally am.  Let me perhaps rectify this by filling in some of the blanks of the last couple of weeks. 
   I left the balmy beach weather of Israel on 16 December.  This was a significant departure because it was my final good-bye to my beloved Mediterranean.  More than simply a sea to me, I had swam in its warm waters, interacted with its peoples and used its coastline as a navigational aid for months.  I treasured my last Mediterranean sunset walking on the beach in Tel Aviv and even got a lil’ misty.
   My plane from Israel took me first to Kiev, Ukraine for a 9-hour layover.  I had planned for this and I used the extended downtime to make a foray into the former Soviet-bloc city.  Luckily, by entering the country instead of simply waiting in the designated layover area I copped some pretty new bling (read: stamps) for my passport.  The bus ride to Kiev took awhile but I actually like the city a lot.  It was very beautiful and the people seemed really friendly.  The food and drinks were cheap and although wet, it was not too cold.  My only complaint was how cozy and warm all the little shops seemed: the Christmas spirit was in the air and watching happy couples gazing longingly into each others eyes over hot cocoa/coffee by a warm fire really drove home the point of my loneliness over the holidays.  It was far easier to stick to the cold air of the outdoors than torture myself by going into these shops and getting a closer look at what I was missing out on.  I have resolved that I will one day go back to Kiev with my woman during the Christmas season and enjoy it like I was not able to during this first visit.
   Went back to the airport, waited some and got on my plane for the four-hour flight to Astana, Kazakhstan.  I had heard from a chick in my hostel in Israel that Kazakhstan was like -20C and I joked that I was going to freeze my balls off although I was secretly concerned.  But having already submitted my passport for the visa I could do little with this knowledge except steel my nerves against the expected onslaught of cold weather.  I began to think to myself that -20C wasnt that cold.  After all, I have experienced that in Canada and survived.  If nothing else, the cold weather would be a boon; people would be more likely to take pity on this hitch-hiker and pick him up.  In retrospect, such imaginings and self-reassurances seem sheer folly, but you’d be surprised what you can convince yourself of when you need to.  So, “prepared” as I was for -20C, I was dismayed beyond words when, as we pulled into Astana airport at 530am, the captain said the weather was -27C.  I hadnt planned for this, and this extra 7 degrees of coldness may as well  have been an extra 50 degrees of coldness.  I took a glance around the airplane and saw everyone pulling on their bubblegooses (puffy coats) and furs, while all I had was a Von Dutch zip-up sweater and a wind-breaker.  What the F had I gotten myself into?
   Still, maybe -27C wasnt as cold as it was cracked up to be.  I hadnt experienced it since last winter so I really shouldnt be so quick to judge, as my faculties of memory might have been flawed.  They were not.  Just getting off the plane and feeling the slightest touch of outside air chilled me to the bone.  I realized this simply wouldn’t do.  I thought long and hard about my options after clearing customs and waiting in the front entrance of the airport, shivering in spite of myself every time the door opened and someone entered.  I resolved that I would get the fudge out of the city by means other than hitch-hiking and to the former capital of Almaty, as it was at least a manageable -7C or so.  So I cabbed it to the Astana train station (of course the cabby had to be parked at the other end of the parking lot) and got a ticket for that night’s train to Almaty.  Having to wait 15 hours in the Astana train station was a trying experience: the multitudinous police and security officers present were so unaccustomed to a Westerner that they took me aside and detained me while they looked through my passport and joked about my shoes, my manner of dress and prolly my facial hair.  This particular incident happened in the morning but I had passport checks all day and was continually harrassed about where I sat, lying on my foam mat while waiting and charging my ipod.  It got to the point that I started being a little bit of a prick and whenever they would make eye contact with me I would hold up my passport and ticket and insist they check it while cursing at them audibly (they didnt understand Englirsh anyway). 
   It was so bad that my only reprieve from this intrusiveness was the dreaded cold; I made the arduous 60 second trek to a nearby cafe, almost died in the process, and spent an hour or two there drinking coffee and keeping warm.  I noticed the sun (which had gingerly risen around 10 am) during the walk to this cafe.  It sat so low on the southern horizon even at “high noon” that I swore I had entered the Arctic circle (and who knows, maybe I had; I really didnt do much research on Kazakhstan before deciding to go there as foreknowledge and preparation often preclude wacky adventures).  I dont want to overstate the cold weather but you must understand my situation: My upper body and legs were perhaps warm enough to survive for protracted periods of time in the cold (not comfortably mind you), but my footwear of choice is Vibram Five Fingers KSO Treks.  These are a barefoot equivalent shoe which mimic the barefoot very well, particularly in their almost complete absence of resilience to cold weather.  There was only 6mm of rubber between me and the snow and my toes were separated which made them chill that much faster.  I literally may as well have been walking out there barefoot.
   Whatever though, I survived the day and made it to the train (although the walk on the platform was another trying experience).  The compartment I was in had two young guys and two old ladies on it who became essentially my Kazakh aunts, insisting that I eat with them and drink tea with them.  It was a very pleasant train ride considering noone spoke English.  Also, I finally got warm.  The train itself bears some mention because it was incredibly old-looking and it seemed to me that it was very possibly a Soviet relic which I thought was kinda cool.
   We arrived in Almaty the next night and one of my aunties insisted on taking me to the international bus station so I could buy a ticket to Urumqi, China.  Almaty was warmer but still not as warm as I would have liked, and I was forced to walk outside for over half an hour, poorly-equipped.  We got me set up for a bus leaving the following night and I stayed in the bus-station dorm.  It was a fun night as I got invited to drink with some Kazakh taxi drivers taking a “vodka break” in the kitchen of my hotel (I didn’t write that last bit as a joke, but its actually kinda funny).  We crushed their whole bottle (smoothe stuff) then I figured “fuck it”, and busted out my bottle of cheap scotch from the Kiev duty-free.  We crushed that too and smoked my pipe and I woke up feeling like shit the next morning.  My wake-up was even worse because it was conducted by the Kazakh cleaning lady who was yelling at me to get out in a voice that sounded like a cross between a cat being strangled and a little girl being raped.  I had to kill the day in Almaty waiting for my night-time bus departure.  I spent a good three hours internetting across from the station.  It was during this time that I learned from FB friends that Kazakhstan had declared a state of emergency in response to unruly labourers in the Southwest who were protesting the government for something (higher wages, better hours, more jobs, etc…).  We had passed near this region en route to Almaty while I was sleeping on the train two nights before.  Leave it to me to sleep through a conflict. 
   Around 10 pm on my third day in Kazakhstan I boarded my overnight bus to Urumqi, China.  It was awesome because I was expecting to be sitting up for the whole 24+ hour ride but it was a sleeper bus stocked with thick fleecy blankets.  I dwelt on the cleanliness of the blankets for less than an instant and got to the business of sleep real quick.  My awakening the next morning was a rude one: my busmates telling me to get my passport out because we were getting boarded by the Kazakh miltary.  Fortunately this was no random passport check; it was the first (of several) passport checks to go through the border to China.  The border crossing took about two hours as all the bus companies seemed not to co-ordinate their schedules, so there was a surfeit of people trying to get through the border, and these people had seemingly not grasped the concept of “a line:” I literally had to occupy my whole border lane to prevent little Asians from pushing past me.  In this instance my backpack came in handy for occupying space as it is roughly the size of a small Asian.
   Much more pleasant than exiting Kazakhstan was entering China.  There was a 5km or so “no mans land” between the two countries which was traversed only by my bus apparently.  What this meant in practice was that all of those people from the various buses that came through all piled onto my bus and I almost didnt even get a spot.  Plus this old man who was mad that he didnt get on the bus before me kept pushing me from behind.  It took all of my patience not to clock the Kazakh fuck.  But like I said, entering China was fine: in fact because I was so conspicuous in the crowd of Asians, the Chinese authorities pushed me to the front of the line which happened to be right on front of the pushiest fucks from the bus ride over, much to their Kazakh chagrin.  It was a small victory but a victory nonetheless.  The process was delayed a little by passport control who kept looking back and forth between me and my passport pic.  He even called a friend over to get his opinion on if it was really me.  That was really the only hiccup. 
   Clearing customs was a lot like clearing customs in Egypt though; as soon as I was free of security the hustlers and hucksters wanted a piece of me.  Many were holding wads of Chinese money to change but I had read about rampant counterfeiting in China and opted not to change my money with these disreputable seeming characters.  We had a quick lunch China-side and were on our way.  It wasn’t until after midnight that we reached Urumqi, and the bus saw fit to drop us off at a hotel instead of the bus station.  This was problematic because Urumqi was not much warmer than Almaty and I really wanted to be on my way further south to the city of Chengdu in the Sichuan province.  In the next few hours I had one of my weirdest experiences thus far, but alas, that’s a story for the sequel.
Stay Thirsty
-Andre Guantanamo 
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Light me up that cigarette; DON’T strap shoes on my feet

My Friends,
   I don’t even know where to start.  I feel like I have tons to say about my trip to New York but at the same time I am much more enthusiastic to talk about my ongoing training for bare-footing around the globe.  So first things first, I’ll talk about NYC some and get that out of the way.

I Want to Be a Part of It
 
   Most people, well some people at least, have been to Manhattan and can attest to the fact that there is enough shit to do there.  Even with no shortage of attractions to spend money on however, you can still have a good time without spending any money at all.  For example, you can…

…do yoga in Central Park…

…pose in front of cool shit…

…or even just say “fuck it,” and climb city infrastructure.  Sometimes you just gotta carry it like that.
   However, a lot of the attractions which are uniquely New York do cost some skrilla money.  This isn’t too much of a problem as most of the costs aren’t too prohibitive, and if you plan ahead you can even bundle together attractions with a city-pass and save some money for street meat.  However, what I found intolerable was the security associated with some of the more famous attractions.  For example, to get to the Statue of Liberty we had to go through two sets of airport-style security (one in Battery Park and the other at the base of the monument).  As well, the last time I went to NYC (August 2008) there were similar security measures to get to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and I don’t imagine it has changed since that time.  It all seems a little much.  I realize that the city could be a potential terrorism target but is the answer really to treat tourists as suspects?  This suspicion itself does not sit well with me, but it is exacerbated by two factors: For starters, I AM ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS!!  Like for fuck sakes, I went to the ‘ghan, hunted tewwowists and worked with Americans to achieve common ends.  Can’t a pimp get exempted from the anal probe in light of services rendered?
   Second, it seems the vast majority of people in charge of making tourists jump through the hoops of security seem like well…non-persons; the kind of people who I wouldn’t give a second-glance to on the street.  But all of a sudden they are vested with arbitrary power by the state, municipality, country, whatever the fuck, etc… and they have the ability to make my trip suck.  In “All Quiet on the Western Front,” by Erich Maria Remarque, the main character, Paul Bäumer muses while recalling his slave-driving sadist of a corporal during basic training, something to the effect of how “those who are most insignificant in daily life are taken the worst by the military.” (paraphrase)  I think this holds true even for security positions as these people compensate for their low prestige by flexing authority when they can.  But on the other hand, a small minority of these types I have dealt with, whether at the Statue or Liberty, the airport or border crossings do make an effort to put people at ease and process them with minimum difficulty.  So for the future I just have to hone my douche-radar and try and predict which security person will be the most amicable before I pick a line or kiosk to go through.
   So I hadn’t meant for this to be a diatribe against the stringent security measures in NYC and I have already said more about my trip than I had planned to so I’ll just fill in some pertinent details in point-form for the benefit of those who care.
-stay at the Mansfield Hotel on West 44th and 5th Avenue -awesome hotel
-eat street meat; its affordable, delicious and held to strict standards by the city
-Statue of Liberty is cool in spite of security but access to the crown requires advance booking.  When crown booking re-opens (the monument will soon be closing for maintenance) I will book a ticket there and then plan a trip around my crown booking thereafter
-If going to Brooklyn, take the Williamsburg Bridge to Bedford Avenue and head north into the neighbourhood of Williamsburg.  According to Wikitravel, Williamsburg is now what Greenwich Village used to be before yuppies and gentrification.  Definitely a cool scene; quaint and quirky with a certain charm.
-Times Square is equal parts awe-inspiring and suffocating, especially in the evening for the latter.  Worth walking through but know you’ll feel like taking a shower afterward
-Sam’s Pizza in the financial district = motherfuckin dizzope
-Signs for fallout shelters are under-publicized relics that hearken back to a more innocent time when denouncing your neighbour as a communist was an expedient method of disappearing them.  Next time I will bring a wrench so I can hopefully steal one of these bad boys off the side of a building (yes that is me professing intent to commit larceny; realtalk)

K, thats about all that comes to mind right now.  On to….

F-F-F-Fabulous Barefoot Adventures

   Since I began training last week for bare-foot walking I have noticed marked improvement.  The training has consisted thus far of daily walks, conducting my affairs around the house on my tippy-toes and routinely spreading my toes when I am am barefoot in my house (all the time now).  These last few days in New York were mostly recuperative; although I walked a ton I did it with shoes and sandals, save for the few hours I spent walking up the west side of Manhattan au naturel.  But now, back in my element with all acquired abrasions and cuts on my soles healed, I have redoubled my efforts to make up for the last 26 years of abuse my feet have suffered at the hands of my shoes.  To that end I set out barefoot today carrying my backpack, the very same one I will carry on my trip loaded to weigh 32 lbs.  The walk was difficult at first; the pitting and imperfections in the concrete were a lot more pronounced with the extra weight but once I got warmed up and made it to the wooded trail I started on last week, my feet really began to shine.  After a minute or two of acclimatization to the rocky, uneven terrain, I began to adopt a quick pace that I was able to maintain, and on the way up the final hill out of the woods (still gravel and rocks) I even managed to jog.  This was a far cry from my first foray into barefoot-land last week on the same trail where I took twice as long with no added weight.
   This significant improvement has convinced me that I want to do this trip with nothing more than my bare feet and a minimalist shoe such as the Vibram “Five Fingers.”  I was looking at a few of the different models and there does not seem to be one yet designed specifically for bearing a heavy load but the one which looks most amenable to my purposes is the KSO Trek

Made with real kangaroo skin …seriously

I think between these beasts and my bare feet I can probably traverse most of the terrain that will be thrown at me.  So now I must procure a pair to incorporate them into my training regimen.  Till then I keep at it barefoot, which is as real as it gets.
Stay Thirsty
-Andre Guantanamo

 

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Tenderfooting

My Friends,
   My woman recently put me onto this website/blog called “Mark’s Daily Apple” (http://www.marksdailyapple.com/).  Its run by this dude in California named Mark Sisson who advocates a primal lifestyle.  I don’t know too much about the eating part of it (although I would assume its similar to the paleo or caveman diet) but I found myself reading lots about the physical fitness aspects of the primal lifestyle.  The idea of natural movements that exercise the whole body (without isolating a specific muscle group for aesthetic reasons) has great appeal to me.  This is one of the main reasons I like parkour; it brings out my inner primate.  A major tenet of this movement is bare-footing and as I read more about it, I found myself positively enchanted by the concept.  Since I was young I have always been inclined to walk with bare feet and I am starting to think that perhaps this was not a fluke but an expression of my genetics.
   When it comes down to it, a shoe is an unnatural augmentation to what is a highly-evolved mechanism: the foot.  Sisson argues, and I concur, that we are doing ourselves more harm than good by constantly wearing shoes.  He illustrates the point with diagrams from a study conducted in 1905 (that’s how long we have known about the detriment to our feet caused by most footwear).

When I saw this first picture my first thought “wow, that is a weird-looking foot.”  Since it looked dissimilar to mine I naturally assumed it was a set of feet that had been damaged by years of poor footwear.  But much to my dismay, the article pointed out that this set of feet was the healthy one, belonging to an individual from the “bare-foot sample.”  Notice the wide spread of the toes, almost as if each has developed to play an active role in walking?
   The article then shows an individual from the perpetually shoed (sic) sample:

Shit.  While I wouldn’t say my feet are that mangled, I (and most people I would guess) share a similar deformation of the toes.  The big toes point inward, which is apparently wrong, and the other toes have been cramped to the point that they look atrophied and shrivelled.  Most dismaying about feet like this and is that they seem to be a milder version of feet like these,

These are the feet of a woman who was exposed to the imperial Chinese practice of foot-binding.  While the deformation of the toes is far more pronounced and effectively crippling to the woman, the comparatively benign deformation of my feet is still scarily reminiscent.
   What to do about this dilemma?  We live in a society where we wear shoes.  End of story!  But the shoes we wear, even athletic shoes are having a detrimental effect on our feet and our joints  (Read more about this here: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/flat-feet-treatment/).  I can speak first-hand about this.  Recently I have gone from running 4 times a week or so, not including running to commute, to not running at all, due to chronic ankle pain.  The impact from heel strikes, even with the cushioning of a “quality” shoe has proven too much for me.  Having heard a while back that man in nature typically has stronger arches from running unsupported on the balls of his feet, I suspected that I should perhaps look into “toe-running,” as it would have a lesser impact on my joints (It is no coincidence that uphill running is my favourite, less impact and its all on the toes).  However, during my most recent session of ankle physio I asked the therapist about getting into this type of activity.  Skillful as she was with active release therapy, she seemed really unsure about how to advise me.  Essentially she said “whatever you do, take it slow.”  I didn’t find that incredibly encouraging so I sat on her advice until yesterday when I read the article linked from Sisson’s website.  Now I am convinced that I must rectify the years of damage that have been done to my feet by literally airing them out.
   To that end I took a long barefoot walk that included terrain such as concrete, asphalt, cedar chips, grass, gravel and wooded trail.

Going barefoot will also help me get rid of unsightly ankle tanlines

Throughout the process I made a conscious effort to spread my toes with each step and really feel the ground I was walking upon.  Basically, it hurt after a while, but that doesn’t really bother me: As I have been told during my tenure in the military, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  As I sit here writing this I feel the same kind of soreness you feel on your hands when you stop using gloves at the gym; both soreness from abrasion and tiny muscle soreness.  My goal is to keep walking around barefoot until I lose the sensitivity in my soles.  When that happens I will attempt toe-running barefoot.
   What is equally exciting and daunting for me is the implication that barefooting would have on my upcoming trip.  My backpacking boots are incredibly good at what they do: providing support for my ankles and arches.  But wearing them for the next six months seems like it will negate any progress I make in the next few weeks leading up to my departure.  As I walked I could not help but think that I may yet be able to train my body to carry a load whilst barefoot.  I would have to stick to a strict training regimen and re-evaluate things before I left but going around the globe barefoot would be an interesting thing to do.  I’ll keep you updated.
Stay Thirsty
-Andre Guantanamo

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