Nooruz: Persian New Year in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
(Note: this post originally published in 2014. Sadly I’m out of town for 2015 festivities, but hopefully next year I’ll be able to catch in Bishkek or Tashkent or maybe even Tehran? Till then, sprazdnikom nooruz!)
As with any holiday worth the title, half the fun of Nooruz in Kyrgyzstan is in the lead-up for the week before the festival as the city prepares to have fun. In Bishkek this can be seen not just in new signs on Ala-Too Square or the increasing number of Kalpak hats around town, but even in the very weather itself. As the snow finally melts away and flowers start to bloom in the streets, it truly feels like time to celebrate the beginning of spring: Nooruz.
Exploring the Vienna Woods:
Mayerling, Seegrotte, and Heiligenkreuz Abbey
Rising to the northwest of Vienna atop the very first foothills of the Austrian Alps, the Wienerwald is a beautiful green belt and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve actually within the city limits of Vienna. With over 500 square miles of forest to wander through, it also makes the perfect day trip to get out of Vienna proper and do some biking or light hiking. Indeed this is one of the planned uses for the Vienna Woods, with 39 mountain biking trails and 12 hiking routes. Not feeling quite so ambitious? Vienna is ALSO the only city with proper vineyards inside the city limits as well, and you can sample the fruits of these vineries at the Heuriger restaurant/taverns in the small communities that dot the woods.
As a traveler in Vienna, there are really two ways to make a daytrip out into the Vienna woods.
The first (and easiest) is a day wandering through the trails that connect the small villages immediately ringing the northwest of Vienna. Some of them, like the village of Klosterneuburg with its monastery/winery/museum offerings, justify a whole day in their own right. Others, like Cobenzl and Kahlenberg, serve more as convenient stopping points in between long walks than as destinations in themselves. These points are all connected to Vienna by public transport and by fairly bike-able roads and trails, so if you want an independent freewheeling day out of the city this is the way to go.
Snow Leopard Conservation in Kyrgyzstan: Snow Leopard Enterprises
Note: this article originally (apart from some minor changes) appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of AUCA Magazine, of which I’m the Editor-in-Chief. See the full version on the AUCA website. If you’re looking for gratuitous pictures of snow leopards, check out my post on Saving Snow Leopards in Kyrgyzstan: the NABU Rehabilitation Center. As the head of Snow Leopard Enterprises in Kyrgyzstan, Cholpon Abasova is responsible for not only ensuring that snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan are protected, but also that the local communities within snow leopard habitats prosper from the conservation effort. Like many of AUCA’s current and former students, Cholpon sees the snow leopard as one of the most important species in the Kyrgyz Republic and one whose protection is vital to the environmental initiatives in the country. Not content to stop at high level government meetings like the Global Snow Leopard Conservation Forum in 2013 or local awareness drives like AUCA’s annual Flashmob on International Snow Leopard Day, Cholpon is working to make snow leopard conservation sustainable in the very mountains these animals call home.
Snow Leopard Trust, a leading world authority on the study and protection of snow leopard populations, has been working with rural communities for over ten years to address the economic issues that when neglected will often lead to conflict between those communities and the endangered snow leopards that occasionally prey on their livestock and which represent a potentially tempting income from illegal poaching. Founded in Mongolia in 1998, the Snow Leopard Enterprises program provides economic incentives for rural communities to support the effort for conservation and join the fight against poaching and habitat loss for the animals.
The Best of February
Compared to December and January, February has been strangely quite for me. In fact I’ve been in Bishkek, as in haven’t left the limits of the city, for over a month and a half now! All those trip to Turkey and India and Kazakhstan caught up with me, I suppose, and then I do need to work every once in a while as well. All of the photos I posted on my Instagram this month, then, were old favorites – many of them celebrating the beauty of Kyrgyz winter that I can see to the south of town from my apartment window each morning.
One shot, though, stands apart from the others: the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. February 1st marked the 80th anniversary of the Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a public museum, and though I unfortunately wasn’t in Istanbul to celebrate the moment I’ve been there so many times by now that I can easily picture they way it would have been: soft afternoon light streaming through the windows in the vaulted room to illuminate the countless historical artifacts inside.
Aside from that shot, my Instagram feed was full of shots from Kyrgyz winter – some from camping and ski trips in years past like 2014’s first trip to ZiL Ski Base or a birthday hike to the Kol-Tor Lake high up in Kegeti Canyon. Others go even further back, including a photo I took on one of my first wintery camping experiences in Ala-Archa in May of 2013 when I’d just returned to Kyrgyzstan to properly settle down for a while.
Defenders of the Fatherland Day:
Holidays in Bishkek, Soviet-style
(This article originally posted on Defenders of the Fatherland Day in 2014. To follow updates from 2015’s holiday in Bishkek, follow my Facebook Page and Instagram feed.)
Once ‘Red Army Day’, then ‘Soviet Army and Navy Day’, and now finally ‘Defenders of the Fatherland Day’. With piles of snow, high-stepping soldiers, and big furry hats it epitomizes a number of popular stereotypes that Westerners hold about Kyrgyzstan.
Winter in Kyrgyzstan:
Snow Camping at Ala-Archa
The long frozen Bishkek winter takes it toll on my traditional pastimes. Growing up in Louisiana, deep in the US south, my love for the outdoors has always extended to camping and hiking and multi-day backpacking but given the locale usually only the warm-weather versions of those. The very idea of camping on top of snow, from a Louisianian perspective, is ridiculousness bordering on absurdity.
I could think of no better way to challenge this notion and, frankly speaking, to overcome this fear of the unknown than by just going for it. Kyrgyzstan’s mountains stay frozen for a good half the year or so, after all, so at some point I either need to learn to love it or learn to leave town for the season. On a long mid-winter weekend, I packed my three warmest jackets and two warmest sleeping bags all into a bag and strapped a pair of snowshoes onto the outside – off to Ala-Archa!
the Varanasi ‘Ganga Aarti’
Whether for Hindu pilgrims on a spiritual journey or international backpackers on a decidedly more voyeuristic trip, the Indian city of Varanasi draws visitors from all over the world and one of the headline attractions in town is the nightly Aarti puja ceremony on the shore of the Ganges river at Dasaswamedh Ghat.
India is a great country for travel photography, but it can also be a hard place both as a traveler and photographer. The Ganga Puja ceremony is photogenic and atmospheric and a legitimate religious tradition (even if admittedly a bit showy/touristy), but with the low light and crowded conditions it presents a uniquely difficult problem for photography. I had trouble finding information on the Aarti ceremony especially, so hopefully these tips will help other travelers make the most of their nights in Varanasi.
Instagram Update: The Best of January+
Somehow between Christmas and New Year and running off to India for both of those and more, I managed to skip posting my favorite and best/most popular photos from Instagram in December. The past few months on Instagram have reflected my actual travel and location a lot more than the blog, which I haven’t had as much time to post to. My Instagram followed me through a frozen weekend campout in Kyrgyzstan’s Ala-Archa National Park, along on a food-focused but sadly short trip to Istanbul, and to India for a few weeks of travel through a country I’ve long wanted to visit but only now made time for.