In June 2021 I traveled to Pennsyvania with two friends after weathering the endless COVID-19 pandemic. Fully vaccinated amid easing social distancing requirements, it was an unusual but welcome change to do normal things like go to a restaurant and walk around a museum. It was a pretty relaxing weekend and I don’t really have any great stories of discovery or misadventure, but I took some nice photos.
Sited on the ancestral lands of the Lenni Lenape tribe, Quaker farmer George Peirce purchased this property about 35 miles west of Philadelphia and generations of his family built a sprawling garden and arboretum complex that has been open to the public for about the last century. It has changed hands a few times over the years and is currently managed by a public trust. It got its current name from “The Long Woods”, a section of the underground railroad that came through here just across the Mason-Dixon line. The property was also a frequent meeting point for abolitionist leaders.
Fountain show at Longwood Gardens, synchronized with patriotic music.
The Magic Gardens
This quirky location is the largest art installation created by Isaiah Zagar and was probably my favorite stop on the trip. The entire three-city-lot site is a swirling mosaic of discarded objects and cement, with pathways and tunnels running in three dimensions. Around the beginning of the 21st century they were almost priced out by gentrification of downtown Philadelphia but were able to keep and even expand the property with financial help from the community.
The rest of these photos just document normal things I did with my friends, and I can’t express how strange and wonderful that felt. We went to restaurants, bars, museums and even got a group together to sing karaoke (my favorite thing in the world which I have missed dearly).
And, of course, I got a cheesesteak.
Odd but very cool "skylight" structure at the Barnes Foundation. This was shot looking straight up.
Exterior shot of the Barnes Foundation. I really enjoyed its brutalist architecture.
The best Philly cheesesteak has got to be always at a random pizza place. There are some famous ones in town, but don't waste your time and just got to a pizza place.
So, the exciting thing is that I have completed the entire script. It has been in outline form and the ideas have been swimming around in my head since I was a teenager, but it is quite a milestone to have finished it. I have shared the drafts with an illustrator and with some friends, and I am looking forward to getting it out into the world. The most recent version of the story is consciously influenced by Russian fairy tales, which in the past years I have really fallen in love with. Aside from some unsubtle references to popular stories (the rumor that Wilfred has iron teeth for example), the realist themes of Russian storytelling are firmly cemented throughout the work. The entire story and illustrations should be concluded by January or February at this rate, and it will be wonderful to share with people.
I am going with the same style seen in Phantasy Star IV for cutscenes. This is the format ironically that I used for my own bad art for many years ago, in high school, making the first version of this game.
In service of this, I’ve partnered with Artem Parkinsun to do the cutscene art. So far we’ve been working together wonderfully. He shares the same enthusiasm for Slavic folklore as I do, which could very well be a natural consequence of his living in Russia. I was kind of pleasantly to surprised to find this out, as it was after I had already scouted his art and hired him, but I guess that is a sign. You can view his other work on Artstation: https://www.artstation.com/artparkinsun
Something I intended from the beginning was for this version to be a platformer, with running, jumping, climbing and swimming to make the environments more interesting. Another less conventional design mechanic I have included is bullet hell scenarios. Maybe a little unusual for an RPG, but I really like. You can see a video below:
You can also see most of the navigation mechanics are settled at this point. It needs a lot of polish, but that comes later!
Nearly all of the assets are completed; I would say about 98% or 99% by end of the month. Most of the assets are original but some things, like spell effects, some vegetation and other things are largely assembled from things I’ve picked up on asset stores. This is another key milestone–aside from a few sprites and make a few weapon models for variety, I just have to slog through making the content. I am touching up some music; I won’t re-record every track, but a few will sound substantially different than what I released a few years ago.
I spent the first parts of the pandemic extremely depressed and not really doing much other than working. This was a tremendous waste of time and life that I will just never get back. These last months though I’ve felt quite inspired, and I plan to take full advantage of an isolated winter with quite a lot of free time to try and bring this thing past the finish line.
I spent much of 2018 without a permanent address, traveling often for work and otherwise spending the rest of my time up and down the West Coast in Canada, the US and Mexico. 2018 was a very chaotic period of my life, and it seemed like a perfectly sensible choice at the time to spontaneously travel to Kyrgyzstan during Thanksgiving, and celebrate the American holiday alone in Almaty’s sister city, Bishkek. I had always been very curious about it. So I packed up my entire home, which was a suitcase and a backpack full of electronics and began my journey.
This trip started in Mexico, where I had landed for a month or two. I had an interview in Washington DC for an exciting new professional opportunity the next day. My plan was to taxi to the border, walk across to the US, board a flight in San Diego, interview for a job in Washington DC and go on to Kyrgyzstan. You know, a perfectly normal two days for me in 2018.
Of course, as luck would have it, I sustained a concussion from an inopportune fall down a flight of stairs in Tijuana (as luck would have it, that was the second time that year I fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a concussion). I don’t really remember re-entering the US that night and cannot account for a few hours of my life, including the basic first aid somebody had apparently administered to me. Looking through my phone, however, I had apparently been texting people as I waited at the border and was able to reconstruct the story. I can only wonder what my interaction with US customs was.
Nonetheless, I did manage to get to DC, and though I was still recovering from a minor concussion I was able to successfully fumble through the interview. While I waited around for a phone call with the outcome, I shipped off to Kyrgyzstan to eat horse meat and drink fermented mare’s milk and cheap vodka and walk around a lot. Mercifully, my concussion had recovered well enough by the time the plane landed in Kyrgyzstan, and customs was a cinch. Looking back, I should have probably seen a doctor instead of shipping off to a country where I have no access to medical care, but like I said, it was a very chaotic time in my life.
Here are some photos I took.
The Capital of Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is a fairly typical small central Asian city. It is undergoing a massive boom in construction, so gleaming glass structures sit alongside aging, Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks. It is an increasingly international city much like others in the region, and though it wears its nomadic cultural roots and Soviet history on its sleeve, you can see a lot of foreign investment and a promising future for the capital.
Victory Square, which sits in a public square at the heart of the city. Like public memorials in many other former Soviet holdings, this is dedicated to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the tremendous suffering citizens of the Soviet Union experienced during World War 2, when a full 15% of the entire Soviet population died as a direct result of warfare. You can see new construction in the background, a typical sight around the city.
Decorative lights strung in front of the parliamentary building of Kyrgyzstan. This photo was taken in 2018. As of this writing in November 2020, Kyrgyzstan has faced massive social unrest; after a disputed election, protesters stormed and took over this building in October of 2020.
The same austere parliamentary building by day.
This photo is unexceptional but does demonstrate that the heart of downtown Bishkek is quite lively and modern--and expensive.
Metro Pub was the only decent nightclub I was able to spot in the city. The staff was patient with me as I struggled to order in broken Russian, but nobody was really very interested in talking to me, so I didn't make any friends. In such places in Central Asia I don't really attract much attention because I probably just pass as a local ethnic Russian and not a foreign tourist--as long as I don't open my mouth.
Hotel Dostuk, where I stayed during my time there. It is I believe the oldest hotel in the city and far from the best, but it was an interesting piece of history to stay in a hotel built during the time of and with the sensibilities of the USSR.
Like any other Central Asian city I have been to, during winter and especially at night the smog in Bishkek is terrible. These are the growing pains of a developing country where it is so often very cold, and the urban poor turn to cheap, heavily polluting fuels to stay warm.
A memorial recognizing the siege of Leningrad, obviously one of many Soviet memorials in the city. Though Leningrad is in Russia, at the time of World War II the USSR was one country, obviously, and so it is not so unusual to see a memorial like this. The memorial is dedicated to the 4 million people that died in an extended siege of the city that lasted nearly three years in the 1940s, making it the worst siege in human history. Due to the systematic starvation of its citizens, some historians describe it as an act of genocide.
A statue at the Leningrad Blockade Memorial. In Kyrgyz it reads, "Conservation, Protection, Assistance" I believe, but I know not a word of Kyrgyz and used a translator. Like most over Soviet World War II memorials, the structure communicates only the pain of sacrifice the citizens of the USSR faced during the war, when about 20 million of them died. I have always found it interesting that public memorials of the era rarely celebrate victory or depict the might of the army that ultimately captured Berlin; the art focuses almost exclusively on how horrific the northern front was and how much people suffered.
At a tourist camp at the edge of the city, you can enjoy a meal in a traditional yurt. Like Kazakhstan, Mongolia and other countries of the region, Kyrgyzstan has its ancient history rooted in nomadic life.
As I often do when traveling, I got a tattoo while I was in Bishkek. This bear is supposed to represent my best friend, who I asked one day, "if you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?" He replied: "I would be a bear." And so this is my way of tattooing his name on my body.
The quite wrinkly shirt I am wearing I purchased at local mall for about $3 USD. Like I said, my hotel was quite basic and did not even have an iron.
What I Ate
Being a modern international city, Bishkek has available more or less all of the foods that you would expect to find in any modern world capital. This is with one exception: horse, the region’s specialty, which as always I was very much looking forward to eating.
As an international city, of course there is Korean food available here. This restaurant, Chicken star, was recommended to me by several locals and I even ate there twice.
This dried shredded meat is a staple in Central Asian cuisine and is put in all sorts of dishes. It somewhat like a very dry barbacoa. In this case it is put into a savory milky soup, though that is hardly the only way to have it.
At Obama Bar and Grill, any visiting American gets free beer. This was in 2018, during the heart of the Trump administration--I can say with some certainty that there was not the same reverence for Obama's successor among Kyrgyzstani citizens. The menu was a grab bag of every stereotypically American food you could think of; burgers, hot dogs and the like. I had here a perfectly serviceable American-style pizza.
Speaking of beer, no matter where you are in the world, you are near an Irish pub. In keeping with tradition I made sure to visit one here.
There are several upscale newer cocktail bars throughout the city that cater to a younger crowd. They are quite expensive however.
A heaping serving of beshbarmak which I had at a Navat, a local chain mostly aimed towards tourists that serves traditional Kyrgyz food. Beshbarmak literally means "five fingers" in several languages, describing how you are supposed to eat it: with your hands. In this case it is made with horse meat.
This was my Thanksgiving dinner. Beshbarmak is something that is not normally eaten alone, and is usually made at home for major celebrations. A little poetic to eat it alone in a tourist restaurant during American Thanksgiving on the other side of the world, but I enjoyed it all the same.
I spent a bit of time on the road, hiring a local driver to show me around the countryside. He was a middle-aged Russian man with strong feelings about Vladimir Putin and a stereotypically Russian fatalistic outlook on life, but he was a good dude and I’d recommend his services (I can refer him if anyone contacts me to ask). He taught me a few new Russian phrases as we drove.
Kyrgyzstan has a gorgeous countryside, with mountains that seem to go on forever. It is not that famous in the west as a hiking or skiing destination, though it is famous for it locally. Both Almaty and Bishkek's economies enjoy a large amount of outdoor recreational tourism.
I hired a driver to take me out to Ala-Archa national park which, since it was the winter, I had entirely to myself. Upon driving me out here he simply said, "I wait here", and I ventured out into the wilderness for several hours. Without any cell phone service and not a park ranger in sight, I am glad he was still there when I returned.
It seemed every place I stopped had a dog or two; I am not sure whether this good boy hanging out at an empty national park was a stray or not, but he was friendly enough.
The second of two good boys that followed me around as I hiked.
A bird sitting in a tree.
Being Central Asia, there are of course herds of horses all over the countryside. Though it was winter, it was still only November, so there was still enough open grass to graze on.
There is an intersection where American and Central Asian culture share a common convention: cowboys.
Many of the superficial and actual characteristics of the nomadic culture of the region, which persists today, remind me of the imagery of the American cowboys that, in a romantic view of American history, were resourceful tough guys that tamed the wild west atop their horses. Of course, that history is not the reality and really only exists in fanciful fiction, and the real history of development of the American west is bloody and cruel. In Central Asia, however, it is alive and well to this day; if you want to see real cowboys, you should look not to the American west but to life in Central Asia today.
Though Bishkek itself is a modern city, Kyrgyzstan is on average an extremely poor country, with nearly a third of its GDP dependent on remittances from workers in foreign countries (for example, Kyrgyzstani laborers in Russia). The villages on the countryside are markedly more humble than the capital.
One of many abandoned structures that dot the countryside, which date back to the Soviet era. Though things are improving in Kyrgyzstan in recent years, the economy declined precipitously with the fall of the Soviet Union, as Kyrgyzstan did not have the good fortune of some its neighbors like Russia and Kazakhstan to have vast reserves of natural resources to prop up the economy. Once the Soviet Union fell, Kyrgyzstan could no longer benefit from a collective economy, reaching a low point in 1999 where its GDP barely surpassed a billion USD. These days, the GDP is nearly eight times its low point in 1999. I have a Kyrgyz friend who left the country a very long time ago and has not returned for many years; she said that the Bishkek I described is not the one she remembers.
Burana Tower, a 1000 year-old tower in Kyrgyzstan and a world heritage site. It is one of the oldest standing structures in Central Asia and I believe the oldest in Kyrgyzstan, and is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun.
The view from the top. Burana Tower is situated on a bit of steppe, ringed by mountains on every side.
The mountains are endless throughout the countryside; you are surrounded by them no matter where you go. Unlike the rocky mountain region of the United States, however, Kyrgyzstan’s mountain ranges are broken up by long swaths of steppe, making the terrain a little more navigable.
Visitors are free to climb to the top of Burana Tower, which I appreciated as a tourist but I have mixed feelings about. For one, it is a quite treacherous climb through the dark with more or less no safety mechanisms whatsoever (and it is much worse going down than up). One false step means a long, probably fatal tumble into the darkness below, with hardly even a handrail to protect you. Also, with all of the heavy foot traffic, the structure is badly in decline, long grooves driven into its steps from thousands of tourists over the years. And at the top, this ancient structure is littered with graffiti. The view from the top is spectacular however.
I really enjoyed my time; it was relaxing, interesting and dynamic. Other than the moment I got assaulted by drunk nationalists as I exited a karaoke club at 2:00 AM, I found Bishkek to be an interesting city full of kind people, fun things to do, and the Kyrgyzstan countryside very beautiful.
I really enjoyed my time; it was relaxing, interesting and dynamic.
After my trip to Kyrgyzstan I returned to Washington DC, summoned for a second interview. A few days later I was thrilled to learn that I landed the job and that is where I am employed now, and couldn’t be happier in that regard. I recall during the interview being asked if I was local; I thought about the question for a moment, and then said “yes”. That’s the moment I decided to rent an apartment.
And that was it–an end to the chaos I had lived through for most of 2018. I view this trip as that period’s send-off. I even have still have an apartment, which is a good thing to have as I write this in November 2020, the 8th month of a seemingly never-ending pandemic in the United States that is not likely conducive to nomadic life.
It has also been over two years since I’ve sustained a serious head injury, but I will remain for the rest of my days ever-vigilant of my arch-nemesis: stairs.
In July 2019, I traveled to Cambodia. There I partied in nightclubs, explored ancient temples, made a new friends, ate strange food, and visited a mass murder site. I returned home extremely sick and about ten pounds lighter with an intestinal parasite.
The Origin Story
My interest in Cambodia started with my work at a consulting firm. One of the junior resources approached me with an RFP from the United Nations to build a reporting system for child health care outcomes in Cambodia, a country I previously only had passing familiarity with and vaguely understood in association with proxy wars in Southeast Asia in the 1960s-80s and a book on the Khmer Rouge I had read in high school. The work was a little outside of our verticals but I decided to put together a team and bid for it. We had a very compelling international team but ultimately did not win the work. It was a long shot anyway.
However, I remained curious about the place. Late one weekend I decided to set up a recurring donation to a girls’ dormitory in the capital city, Phnom Penh, having earlier researched in preparing the doomed business venture described above that young women had difficulty getting lodging in the city for cultural reasons, and so they had disproportionately less access to education.
And being me, sometime later I figured I might as well go there and see the country for myself.
It was a little hard to find the dorm; I had been given only the address. My tuk-tuk driver, who did not speak English, seemed puzzled when I showed him where I was going, but he eventually shrugged and drove me off to the edge of the city. We arrived at the end of a twisting, dusty alleyway, far outside of downtown. He hesitated before he left, seeming certain I did not know where I was going, and out here, I'd probably have trouble finding a ride back. I looked around--there was nothing but modest housing, people doing their laundry or daily chores, some giving me puzzled looks as I wandered around. Eventually I walked up to a woman and some children who were playing. I tried a few different combinations of basic translations on my phone; iterations of "school", "girls", "dormitory", "college". Eventually one of the boys' eyes lit up. He grabbed my hand and drug me off down a few turns of this alleyway. He stopped and pounded on a nondescript solid iron gate, which was exactly where I had been dropped off earlier, and shouted something in Khmer. The door slid open, and the guards, who were expecting me, welcomed me to the Harpswell Foundation Phnom Penh dormitory.
I was given a thorough tour. The students told me about what they were studying and showed me their facilities, introduced themselves and told me stories. I am not sure if it is common that donors visit or not, but they treated me like it like a pretty big deal. The young women all lived together, cooking and studying; typical dormitory stuff. They were very proud of it, and understandably so, because while this is a very ordinary institution to Americans who leave home to go to University, it is not the normal case here. I was humbled and honored; these hard-working and intelligent women deserve to have everything more in the world than I ever will, and they will work a hundred times harder for it too.
Phnom Penh was one of my favorite cities in the world to visit; I found its truly insane energy captivating, the diverse mix of expats from around the world and the lack of more or less any conventional sense of social order as I understand from my western perspective equal parts liberating and disconcerting. I was only there for a few days prior to heading out to Siem Reap and some temples, but I certainly had some memorable experiences and made a couple of interesting friends.
I can't remember the name of the backbacker bar/hostel I took this photo from, but it shows a fairly typical view of life in downtown Phnom Penh. Its downtown is crowded, dirty and chaotic with a relentless, disorganized energy. It is never quiet, and the people are stacked up on top of each other. This photo also shows the ongoing gentrification of the city; across the street from humble, crowded apartments sits a brightly-colored, brand new luxury hotel with air conditioning (a relatively uncommon blessing in the merciless, sticky heat of Cambodia).
In much of Southeast Asia, a motorbike is just the standard mode of transportation. They are affordable, the cities are too crowded to accommodate cars and it never gets cold. This is a very typical parking lot.
As a former radio technician, I have always found these tangled masses of telecommunications lines in southeast Asia equally amusing and horrifying; it was delightful to finally see them in person. My understanding is that it is a byproduct of a long-standing practice of simply running a new line as each new customer comes along and running everything on poles. Most developed countries
have stronger central urban planning with planned rights of way for cabling and, more importantly, tend to bury the cables. While it's very cheap initially to run overhead wires like this, it's much more expensive to manage long-term, as they will constantly break, get compromised by moisture or suffer some other fate from being exposed to the elements all the time. But given the explosive rapid growth of Phnom Penh in the last couple of decades as the kingdom has rebuilt the country the Khmer Rouge destroyed, it is understandable the telecommunications infrastructure was built as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Though nicer parts of town would feature proper sidewalks, in much of the older sections of Phnom Penh there is not really a concept of varying walking spaces from driving ones. You just sort of walk in the street and hope that nobody is going to hit you with their motorbike as they swerve around you on both sides. I was generally reasonably confident that I would be ok. There used to be sidewalks, but they are completely taken over by street vendors and their stalls.
I do not believe I have ever drank more beer in my life than I did in Cambodia; between the relentless heat and ubiquitous all-day-long-happy hours with two-for-one $1-2 pints of ice cold draft beer, I'd stop to cool down and rehydrate every thirty minutes or so. The popular local brands, Cambodia and Tiger, were light and very drinkable lagers.
In 1937 French-occupied Cambodia, ផ្សារធំថ្មី, or the Central Market, was said to be the largest mall in all of Asia. Today, with the Aeon shopping center down the street, it is sort of a throwback, stuck in time between the street vendors of old and the climate-controlled western shopping mall with luxury brands and a cinema on the other end of downtown. In American terms, it is sort of a much more upscale flea market. I very much appreciated the art deco architecture, however, and perused the countless vendors selling daily household items, jewelry, electronics and the like.
The National Museum of Cambodia (សារមន្ទីរជាតិ), about one century old, was like every other structure in the city left abandoned and in disrepair during the Khmer Rouge regime when the city was evacuated by force under the brutal regime. Reopened in 1979, it now serves as one of the country's premiere museums. Though ostensibly an example of traditional Cambodian architecture, it was designed by George Croslier, a Frenchman who was born in Phnom Penh in the late 19th century when the nation was then a French Protectorate, and spent much of his life in the country. The building in reality is better characterized as inspired by Croslier's limited knowledge of ancient Cambodian temples and designed to meet western sensibilities for museum spaces.
Taken in BKK, a recently redeveloped portion of the city with expensive shops, hotels and luxury apartments. I found this neighborhood pleasant enough, but really much less interesting than the organized chaos and heart at the older part of the city center. BKK is also extremely expensive. However, like the rest of the city, it was packed with motorbikes.
Throughout BKK and other developing districts, you see tons of construction of modern, high-rise buildings; a sign of the city's explosive growth and inexorable change in its culture and character.
The Russian Market in Phnom Penh, so-called for the Russians that once shopped there. The city's already oppressive heat is particularly stifling here, where you are boxed in by the tin roof and crowded corridors in hundred-degree heat. It is otherwise a pretty typical Asian street market, with hundreds of stalls selling daily household goods, clothing, electronics and media. It was neat, but in the heat I could not stand to explore it for more than a few minutes.
Wat Ounalom (ឧណ្ណាលោម), one of the few still-standing ancient Buddhist temples in the city. It was constructed in 1443. During the Khmer Rouge regime, where religion was officially illegal, about half of the temples in the country were destroyed and the remaining half, including this one, fell into disrepair, used for storage or simply left to rot completely. It has since been restored.
The late Anthony Bourdain had a deep love for Cambodia, simultaneously describing it as a place where people come to behave badly while also expressing a deep hatred for the American politicians that carpet-bombed its countryside in the 1960s and 70s. While the country’s two biggest cities (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) certainly do offer plenty to live up their hedonistic reputations, economic growth in the country, immigration by well-monied expats, foreign investors and what I suspect is just a general national desire to cater to classier breed of tourist–for better or worse–has led to an explosion of upscale pub streets with booming nightclubs in addition to the divey backpacker bars selling watered-down $0.50 beers to obnoxious tourists.
Both of the major cities were replete with nightclubs, catering to a variety of clientele, whether locals, expats, tourists or foreign businesspeople. But a nightclub is a nightclub; they all start to run together over time.
If there is a thing, hipsters will eventually show up and ruin it. Phnom Penh is no exception. Here is a charming alleyway that a local friend had taken me to, full of whiskey bars and mixologists. My understanding is that most of the bars packed into this alley are owned by the same expat.
Pub street in Siem Reap is a delight for tourists, with hundreds of bars and clubs and nearly as many live bands. Though labeled "pub street", it is actually several city blocks in size.
In general, Siem Reap was much more upscale than Phnom Penh, and a lot less crowded. It is quite close to Angkor Wat and the other temples the country is most famous for, so it is only natural that the city would build out its capacity to entertain backpackers and other adventurous tourists between temple excursions.
I fell in love with these booze carts, which would usually come out pretty late at night. It is of course a good idea to stop for a shot of tequila in the street en route to your next place, no?
All booze carts are similar, but this one is special, because it was the last one on the walk back to my hotel. We finished a couple of evenings here after leaving the bars and clubs on pub street.
Though most bars were extremely inexpensive, at this rooftop bar at the top of Vattanac Capital national bank headquarters, I ordered a dry martini for something like $20USD. I remember my friend thinking I would really like it, as it was a fancy, western-style bar that offered fancy cocktails on the highest structure in Cambodia. I couldn't get out of there faster.
The view, however, is quite spectacular, if you like to look down on people, both literally and figuratively, while sipping a cocktail worth a local laborer's weekly salary. I certainly didn't, and I don't recommend the place.
The Most Horrifying Crimes Ever Committed
My blog will not serve as an authoritative source on the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, a topic that deserves much greater sensitivity and scholarship than I can offer here. I’ll provide a brief overview and my personal experiences. If you would really like to read more, I recommend legitimate historical sources, or at least the Wikipedia article on the topic.
In the late 1970s, Pol Pot and his Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK, or popularly, the “Khmer Rouge”) took power in Cambodia after fighting a brutal civil war. Though the CPK party had been active for many years prior, a combination of geopolitical and economic factors led to their ultimately taking control of the country. There are really no good actors in this story, and I am no historian, but even a cursory read of the events would lead one to conclude that every major world power at the time, including The United States, China and the Soviet Union were all complicit in what would later happen.
In 1975 the Khmer rouge took power and implemented an extreme interpretation of Maoist thought, forcefully evacuating the residents of every major city to agricultural compounds and forcing them to work on farms to be entirely self-sufficient. Naturally, the agrarian paradise envisioned by Pol Pot and his associates did not materialize, and much of the country’s entire population died, either collapsing on the long forced marches to distant compounds or starving to death once they arrived there–if not outright murdered by the regime first, which was more likely.
The new government set to orchestrated mass murder of the entire cultural, educated and political classes. This included anyone with connections to the previous government, artists, painters and musicians; professionals or educated people including people who spoke foreign languages, economic saboteurs, enemies of the party or anyone else that could so be charged as a member of these groups. They were the enemies of the post-economic agrarian collective Pol Pot and his associates had envisioned.
Estimates vary, and I don’t want to step on serious scholarship. Most studies I have checked estimate that up between 1/5 and 1/4 of the entire country’s population died, in most cases from violence, and in most of those cases, from execution. In all there were between 1-3 million people killed in a country of under 8 million residents. All of this within four years.
Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, several hundred thousand more people, or about 5% of the remaining living population, starved in the following year as the shattered nation began to rebuild.
After a Soviet-backed Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, much of their leadership went into hiding, though Pol Pot commanded insurgent troops and the Khmer Rouge party remained a legitimate political entity well until the 1990s. Justice has been slow; Pol Pot was not captured until 1997, and his two right-hand men were convicted only in November 2018.
While in Cambodia I had dinner with a middle-aged woman who had survived through these times, the last of her once twelve-or-so member family. As we sat in a fashionable Phnom Penh restaurant, she told me about growing up during this time, and I’ll never forget the things she told me. There is one story that sticks with me the most: her description of the sound of her brother’s last breath before he succumbed to starvation as he lay on the floor next to her.
If you didn't know any better, from a distance, it is seems just a very nice spot--lush with greenery, singing insects, a bunch of chickens running around and monks doing their daily work and prayer at a small temple.
Choeung Ek (ជើងឯក) is the most well known of the so-called Killing Fields, the hundreds of locations throughout Cambodia collectively containing up to about 20,000 mass graves. Here you will see only a fraction of what happened under the Khmer Rouge. The site is a short drive from Phnom Penh. I came here alone, and stayed a few hours to let the weight of what happened sink in.
After the Khmer Rouge fell, they denied that the murders had ever happened. There was no evidence, after all, except for what everyone had clearly experienced. And so the international community set to find proof; to do so, they dug up a representative sample of the graves. You see here a mass grave estimated to have about 450 people inside.
The entire site, the accessible area of which was up to about a square kilometer as I recall, had bumpy, uneven ground like this. These are the graves that the authorities didn't dig up, where the victims were allowed to lay at rest. Only a small portion of the graves were disinterred--only enough to be able to reasonably estimate what would be found in the rest of them. These mounds of dirt underfoot one must watch their footing on as they explore the site serve to remind one of the scope of what happened here: and at only one of over 100 such locations.
Anecdotal reports said that chemicals were poured on the open pits full of human bodies. Later, evidence would prove this, and that the Khmer Rouge used a mixture of chemicals including DDT. This served dual purposes: it would cover the small of the decaying bodies so as not to alert other nearby camps, and it would also ensure anyone that had been buried alive would die before they could climb their way out.
There were stacked here over 1000 skulls. They fill the entire stupa. The message is clear: at this site, you see only a few mass graves have been exhumed. All of these skulls represent only a small fraction of the people buried here. Given the proximity of this site to Phnom Penh, one can only wonder whose heads are stacked here--how many of them were musicians, or how many of them worked in a hotel that had foreign customers, or how many were interested in astronomy?
The investigation confirmed reports that, to save ammunition and other supplies, most executions were simply done with blunt force. The exhibit provided a guide to help identify which fatal injuries were sustained by, for example, a crow bar as opposed to a shoot of bamboo. At this point, I really lost my composure; there are many mass killings that I have read about or have seen evidence of first-hand. The inhuman cruelty, however, of assessing the situation and deciding to use a stick to save on bullets--it really got me.
The soil of the site is littered with human teeth, which I understand is a very normal thing at the killing fields. As best as I could tell, when found, they are just collected by one of the groundskeepers, and some are put on display.
The so-called "Magic Tree", the largest tree near the center of the compound. Here loudspeakers were outfitted, which would blast music to drown out the sound of suffering.
Many places in the world offer natural and scenic beauty. Of course, so does Cambodia. Southeast Asia, including Cambodia (and even moreso Vietnam), are known and portrayed mostly for being covered with choking jungles. Of course, their geographies have much more to offer than that. My photos will do nothing to correct that stereotype, because I only visited the jungles.
The endless jungle canopy viewed from an outcropping we had hiked out to.
I climbed something like 10,000 steps to find this view at Chi So Mountain. I went without a guide, and so I did not see the gorgeous temple that was about 500 more steps up, because the path was around the corner from some trees and I am idiot. I recommend you look the temple up; it is a beautiful historic site. And if you bother hiking up this mountain, I recommend going to the temple. I've heard it is nice.
The endless steps I climbed up the side of a mountain in order to fail to see a gorgeous historic site on top.
A typical home along the highways in semi-rural Cambodia.
A path down to a popular recreational area at one of the national parks I visited.
Just out of frame in this photo are about a 100 tourists goofing around in the water below. I was tempted to take a dip in the water to relieve myself of the crushing heat, but I didn't have a change of clothes.
I always take time to praise the sun.
I could tell that my driver was hesitant to pose for this photo. I can't imagine why.
The Temples that Inspire
The temples of civilizations of yesteryear have always inspired the western world–whether in Egypt, Latin America or Southeast Asia, all westerners share a common fiction of heroes that look like us uncovering the secrets of the ancient world and taming the forgotten unknown. Some of these stories range from only slightly problematic (Indiana Jones) to shockingly racist (the ending seqeuences of Apocalypse Now). Regardless, there is good reason to be inspired: these places truly are incredible.
Cambodia’s temples remain one of those great treasures of the ancient world. There are about 4000 such temples in the country, constructed from somewhere around 50 AD to the about 1400. During this period culture flourished; empires came and went, and they all built temples: lots of them. These temples were the walls and fortresses and places of worship and homes for nobility that anchored the society. They were built, as most structures of antiquity were, through the back-breaking work of millions of slaves.
There really is a sense of mystery about the temple complexes in Cambodia, which is only reinforced by trying to read about them. There is enough, though limited, history available for the nearly 1.5 millennia where the Cambodian empires were, at times, the largest advanced societies in the world. These empires built these temples. But it stops around 1450. At this point begins a dark age, when the last Khmer empire finally collapsed after a long period of decline. This dark age lasted until about the 1850s. Most of the history during that time is of questionable quality, and we have more or less only an outline. People did, of course, live there–for example, merchants that engaged in international trade, and a new capital would be built by a new king every couple of generations here or there. And there is much recorded history of its neighbors in Vietnam and Thailand meddling in the stagnating royal court’s internal affairs, warring with each other and claiming various territories over the centuries. There was also a short time where Imperial Japan occupied the territory in the early 1940s. But there is not much constituting a continuous history by its own people.
In 1863, King Norodom Sihanouk asked the French government to protect this nation from its neighbors, and so they settled the country and remade it in their image. And eventually, they stumbled upon these temples. There had been a small number of Khmers living in them continuously through the whole of the dark age, and every once in awhile some foreign explorer would find and write about them. The magic, and mystery, of these temples is a matter of perspective. To some people for a very long time it was just home.
The famous Angkor Wat, Cambodia's most prominent and important temple complex. There are millions of photos of this place, and here is another.
The detail in the construction is incredible, with countless shivas masterfully carved into the stone.
A closeup of the shivas from the last photo.
An ancient gate which has been repurposed as a road (asphalt out of frame).
Bayon temple, perhaps the second-most famous temple of the ancient city of Angkor. Constructed around the 12th century.
The view from the top of one of the temples I was led through. My friend that was with me--a Khmer woman--was not allowed to enter the temple, because she was dressed inappropriately, her knees showing. It is a crime to enter a temple dressed inappropriately in this country. My knees were showing, too, but I was offered an English-speaking guide and shepherded in. I felt guilty, knowing it was because I was a western tourist.
You see so much intricate, thousand-year-old stonework while exploring these temples that you become desensitized to it. These shivas, large and small, cover nearly every surface of every one of many thousand temples.
The whole time, I was dressed in these goofy, Indiana Jones outfits. But it really was practical to carry a bag (to carry batteries, water, food and bug repellent) and to wear a hat (the sun is relentless). Though I did feel self-conscious, and about four or five groups of Chinese tourists asked to be photographed with me.
Between a trip to a nature preserve, clambering around temples and going on some hikes, I came across a variety of animals. I like to photograph animals because they are so peaceful and innocent–except, of course, for macaque monkeys, who I just have absolutely no affection for. These photos are taken in a variety of locations around the country.
This stray was lounging in the woods on one of my hikes, and was by far the happiest of the creatures I came across.
Animals in cages often strike me as sad. Nowhere is this more apparent than with other primates, whose facial expressions we can truly understand. Or maybe I had caught him at a bad moment. Though this photo is taken at a nature preserve, and for most of the creatures here, due to pervasive poaching it is either this or extinction.
Though it seems cruel to keep a tiger in a cage, it seems much less so when considering a wild Cambodian tiger was last seen in 2007 before reintroduction efforts in the past few years. Tiger poaching is a problem in many countries, including here. The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that 96% of wild tigers have been lost in the past century. The remaining few are kept in captivity and hopefully they will be allowed to once again roam free.
The jungles were alive insects, crawling, flying, buzzing and stinging (my doctor advised not to take hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure, given the fairly low chance I would be exposed to Malaria during a short trip with the certain chance that the drug would make me nauseous and give me horrible nightmares). During this season the forests were especially replete with butterflies.
This guy seemed unusually happy to see me. I would soon find out why.
No sooner had the elephant reached out to me with his trunk than a nearby vendor offered to sell me sugar cane and melons to feed to him. I obliged; partly to indulge my own curiosity of what it might be like to feed an elephant by hand and partly out of a desire to give the vendor a few bucks, and I figured it was harmless enough to feed an elephant some snacks. Though, I do wonder about the dietary fiber contained in an entire stalk of sugar cane.
Mammals with Hands are Bad
This applies to humans, raccoons, and in particular, to monkeys. Some evidence provided below.
A moment after taking this photo this monkey hissed at me, and with a charging leap, grasped onto my leg, screaming and clawing. I kicked him off and he soared through the air. He landed in a perfect ninja stance, immediately charging and grabbed onto my leg again. I panicked, out of ideas and disinterested in suffering a bite from a wild monkey in a foreign jungle. Suddenly, my guide came to my rescue, striking the menace in the face with a large stick. The creature ran away, whimpering. My guide smiled. With a self-satisfied grin, she said: "use a stick. Monkeys hate sticks."
If you were lucky, you might get just a disinterested glance. If you are unlucky, they will snatch your phone out of your hands, try to eat it and throw it into the river. At tourist spots they are everywhere, always assessing if you have something of value; namely, food.
The temples featured these obese little guys who live in a weird symbiosis with messy tourists who leave their half-eaten garbage around. Truly, the macaques are the true rulers of Angkor Wat.
There is a horrific trade of illicit macaques stolen from the wild and sold as pets; this absolutely can't be condoned. As much of a menace as they are, they are extremely cute; but please, don't think of taking one of these guys from the wild as a pet.
This was my guide Annie, who at the nature reserve taught me about the animals and protected me from the awful monkeys.
What I Ate
I am adventurous eater, always on the lookout for whatever could reasonably pass as fit for human consumption. In Cambodia I ate everything from bad pizza to traditional grilled amphibian meat to fried insects and, in one case, a very bad piece of alligator meat.
Fish amok, the national dish of Cambodia, which I had several times. It is a basic fish curry. The curry is served wrapped in a bamboo leaf.
I started nearly every day with a bowl of relentlessly spicy soup like this one.
Our hotel in Siem Reap greeted us with a variety of snacks. I was quite fond of the bamboo-wrapped sticky rice. The nuts were, like everything else served in Cambodia, unrelentingly spicy.
A traditional meal we had near Angkor Wat, consisting of an entire grilled chicken, a grilled bullfrog that was also about the size of a chicken and some sides including red ant paste. I read that the satisfying tang and burn of the ant paste comes from the same formic acid they normally use to sting you.
Cambodians eat everything, and I did not shy away from eating like them. We spent part of one afternoon perusing a roadside market with mountains of roasted, spiced insects--grubs, roaches, crickets, water bugs, spiders, you name it--all lovingly prepared and seasoned for passing travelers. Though I suspect in most cases, outside of rural areas there is not much interest in eating these insects these days, as none of the restaurants I went to in the cities served them.
The giant black scorpions were my favorite, with a satisfying, sweet flavor, and a lot of meat. The shells weren't too tough.
I recommend that you eat grilled tarantulas once, and exactly once, in your life. The experience of eating one is vaguely horrifying, having the texture of mushy, bitter shrimp with an exoskeleton like dry fingernails, and with tiny bits of coarse hair that shred your gums and get stuck in your teeth. The abdomen contains a vile brown paste of organs and excrement and I would guess eggs. I am glad that I ate them once, for the experience of it. I will never go near them again.
I cannot tell, from investigating online, whether eating tarantulas is a traditional practice from the jungles where these spiders are plentiful, a practice that developed out of desperation during the Khmer Rouge period or a trick to scare tourists. Local accounts as well as internet sleuthing recounted all three stories with equal credibility.
This is the meal that did it: a cheeseburger and fries. From this meal I contracted the worst case of food poisoning in my life.
The day after I ate this for dinner we were to drive back to Phnom Penh. I do not recommend doing this when you are so sick.
I had to ask to stop the car constantly. On one of many such stops, for a moment, I just considered giving up. I was struggling to find the strength to stand, on my hands and knees in the pounding sun in a field surrounded by ducks at a farm we had pulled over at in rural Cambodia for about the fourth or fifth time that hour. I had just expelled the entire contents of my digestive and vascular systems onto the ground around me. I was huddled behind a crude metal structure that covered only two sides of me and the ducks would not leave me alone, hundreds of them quacking and defecating everywhere. I thought, for a fleeting moment, maybe I should just give up and lay there until I died, as that seemed a vast improvement over my current station. Eventually I crawled back to the truck and we continued our journey until the next time I needed to stop and repeat this process all over again.
Incidentally, I do not recommend the alligator at Temple Restaurant in Siem Reap. I did, however, have a quite pleasant experience with the affordable and attentive health care available to tourists once I returned to Phnom Penh.
Though by the following day I could walk again and felt more or less reasonably well, I could not eat solid food. For the last few days I spent in Cambodia in Phnom Penh I subsisted on a diet of antibiotics, loperamide, light beer and clear soup. I would pick at some meals here and there to try and be polite when I was with people, but I'd afterwards be in excruciating pain.
When I got back home to the United States and returned to work, upon seeing my emaciated frame and gray skin, my CEO told me to immediately go to the doctor, which I should have probably done before going to the office. I was diagnosed with a stomach parasite and given a medication regimen that made me even more sick, which among other things, made all the mucus membranes on my body peel, including the insides of my eyelids. I lost more weight. One more week after that I had fully recovered.
Special thanks to Somphors, who comforted me and drug me back and forth to the car while I was so sick. I may very well owe her my life.
I finish writing this about one year after returning from this trip. It is strange writing this article, now, in July 2020, about four months into a coronavirus pandemic that has crippled my country and left me barely leaving my home, let alone traveling the world, while I look back on these times. I loved my time in Cambodia, and wish I could return.
The factors that conspired to bring me there are somewhat random, but I am really glad that they did. I made some new friends for life, had some enlightening and fun experiences and nearly died from a parasitic infection, all things that I value in equal measure.
I am sure that I will go back someday–though I think I’ll stay away from the alligator meat.
In July 2019 I had an overnight layover in a sleepy suburb of Tokyo. Since I did not have enough time to enjoy Tokyo proper, I spent a leisurely 16 hours overnight in the city of Narita.
In July 2018 I was planning to visit Cambodia. Naturally, there is no direct flight from Washington DC to Phnom Penh, and the best flight option there was through Japan. I was planning to spend an evening in Tokyo as I had an overnight layover, but did not realize until I arrived that Narita, the city Tokyo-Narita airport is actually domiciled in, is quite far from any of the neighborhoods in Tokyo I would have liked to visit. I just did not have time to get downtown on the train and enjoy the city to any degree. So I spent an evening in the laid-back suburb of Narita.
The thing that most struck me, aside from the quiet, was the astonishing, almost creepy cleanliness of the city. This was my first time to anywhere in Japan, and although I was generally familiar with the culture of cleanliness and safety, it was a much different thing to see firsthand. To amuse myself, I counted the pieces of garbage I could see as I went on a long walk through the city. Over the course of one 30 minute interval, I counted one stray tissue and one cigarette butt. I also counted dozens of bicycles just left leaning against the side of a home, completely unlocked as the sun set. Because why would it occur to you to lock your bicycle if it never would occur to someone else to steal it?
The streets were exceptionally quiet, especially at night. Aside from a few bars and restaurants, there was barely a single business open in the evening.
I stayed in this quite-charming traditional suite. The bedding was a traditional roll-out futon, and they had fresh tea prepared for me when I arrived. It was across the street from the temple complex you can see in the background.
The ceilings were of a traditional height as well. I admit that I am much taller than average, especially compared to people in Asia. But nowhere have I hit my head on things as frequently as I did spending not even a full 24-hour period in Japan. Here I am standing in a typical doorway. This doorway in my hotel is one of many things I hit my head on.
I had two meals while I was in Narita, and both of them were sushi. The sushi bar experience was a delight, where the chef clowned around a bit more like I am accustomed with hibachi chefs. The sushi is placed directly on the glass plate and you eat it with your hands. I guess it is a stereotypical thing to say, but the sushi really was much better in its homeland than I was used to in the United States.
Even the sushi at Narita airport was exceptional.
There is a nice temple in Narita called Naritasan Shinshoji. It is a Buddhist temple complex about a thousand years old. As an outsider to the Buddhist tradition these ancient temples have started to run together in my head, because I have seen so many of them, and they carry many common themes no matter where you go. In keeping with the Japanese ethos, this complex was much cleaner and well-maintained than its analogs I’d seen in other countries.
Nonetheless, if you find yourself in Narita for an evening and a morning like I did, you can do worse than to go on a stroll through the temple.
All told, I am glad that I visit Narita, as it’s inspired a desire to visit Japan in a broader sense. Despite my lifelong enthusiasm for Japanese video games, and a diet that consists of far too much sushi, for some reason I was just never particularly interested in visiting Japan until this trip. After visiting and getting a taste for the culture, I very much want to go back for a bigger trip. And I certainly shall.
Wilfred the hero is a game that I have been working on in various iterations for about 15 years, at some points in partnership with artist Teo Mathlein. I have a dream to finish it someday, but at this point, I am being realistic about my prospects. It is currently in its fourth iteration. This page contains some historical information about those efforts for posterity.
The story follows Wilfred, a famous hero, and his squire Alanadale, his partner and source of emotional support, in their journey to slay The Dragon. Every hero before them has failed to succeed in this mission, and Wilfred is terrified that he will fail, knowing that, despite his fame, he’s not particularly a special person. Along the way the heroes are supported by an enigmatic traveling salesonion named Mr. Onion. They are stymied along the way by the evil witch Streganona and her monster, Stregoneria; the witch seems more keen on tormenting the heroes than in actually killing them, and the monster is conspicuously reluctant to harm the heroes but most follow the orders of its master. They also are confronted by Josef, a hero that is long supposed to have disappeared, but not all is as it seems . . . and his squire is not with him.
The concept was to take the scope of what is normally a very ambitious final dungeon to an RPG, and stretch that out into an entire game. The story largely explores topics like depression and how relationships between two people can become extremely toxic when they depend on each other too much. It has also evolved over the years as I have thought about it as well. It’s all wrapped around this goofy fantasy environment of course, and straightforward fairytale premise.
I completed the soundtrack for Wilfred the Hero a very long time ago. You can listen to it on most major platforms as I published it through a label service, but I recommend either Spotify or Soundcloud. It is some of the musical work I am most proud of.
Wilfred the Hero (2019)
This is the current iteration of the game. I’ve scaled back to a psuedo-Playstation style with the graphics; this was originally per Teo’s advice. It exists right now as a basic prototype with some platforming. More info forthcoming, hopefully. I am not presently working with Teo on this iteration, though I will be using the work that he prepared for the previous version. This remains a noncommercial project at present.
Wilfred the Hero (2011)
In 2011 I got the insane idea to make Wilfred the Hero as a full 3D game with no practical game development experience outside of RPGMaker. I spent about $10,000 and thousands of hours of work, and eventually, ended up giving up a couple of years later.
It was just a completely ridiculous prospect that I would create this Playstation 2/3-quality game almost entirely by myself, with Teo doing 3D modeling for the characters and props and textures, and putting pretty much everything else on myself, especially given that I had no experience or qualifications whatsoever to do so in Unity.
What we ended up with was a very rough game that produced some nice screenshots but ran very badly and would take me another 10 years to complete working at the pace I was, which was about 30 hours per week. I would say more than half of the game was complete in some form or another. I remained quite committed to it through 2011-2013 until some particularly devastating events happened to me in my personal life. I put work aside temporarily, and as these things go, I never got back to it.
It wasn’t a total waste however, as I did learn quite a lot. By the end of this exercise I considered myself a qualified Unity game developer and had reasonable competence in 3D modeling, animation, worldbuilding and programming. I was even able to parlay this experience into some professional game development work. I plan to reuse all of these assets for the current iteration of the game.
There was a very early build of the battle system I posted once, but I no longer have access to it and no interest in issuing a new one or tracking the file down (if something was on the internet at one tine, it will surely be on the internet forever, somewhere). The metadata in the Unity project in the backup I maintained is ruined; lesson learned and please read up on using Google Drive sync to backup Unity projects if you decide to go that route. For all intents and purposes the project files are completely ruined, except for, most importantly, the assets and media.
I do have two early videos I recorded. however. These were recorded far before I gave up on the project and represent a quite early version. Unfortunately, the world will never see the work as it stood at its best. See them below.
Wilfred the Hero (2004)
This project started when Teo reached out to me and suggested that we enter an RPGMaker 2003 contest together. I jumped at the opportunity, having loved his Sunset Over Imdahl game and being a fan of his art. I had been working on some game prototypes starring this hero Wilfred with a goofy red helmet and one of his sidekicks was a pink rabbit. Teo wanted to run with the idea. We did not win the contest, but decided to keep working on the game. We finished Part 1 of 3.
It is now just an interesting relic of my youth, but it was a big part of my life and something I will forever be associated with. If nothing else, the record should that froggits appeared in Wilfred the Hero in 2005.
The game was fairly popular at the time, and though I did not have any meaningful metrics, I am confident that tens of thousands or even a hundred thousand or more people have played it. It was shared around the internet and included in some demo disks in European gaming magazines. It is now listed on a number of retro and abandonware sites. Indie game development at the time was a much different thing than it is now, and I was very proud of the reception.
It was a strange time to be an indie game developer back then however; the term “indie developer” did not even exist as a broad concept at the time, and much of the indie community was making flash games and Newgrounds was still king. In my case, I was part of a community surrounding a very clumsy game development suite called RPGMaker. The formation of this community is a long story, and largely begins with a the personal project of a Russian hacker who went by the alias “Don Miguel”, but that’s a separate history for another day. Though I find it amusing now that it is a legitimate product, given the origins of the RPGmaker English-language community.
Most RPGMaker games tended to use assets ripped from Super Nintendo games with modest edits, or in some cases royalty-free assets from Japan. Within the RPGMaker community, it was extremely rare for games to feature quite good original art and music as Wilfred the Hero did. Outside of the RPGMaker community, the style probably just struck people as quaint and nostalgic.
It is also not a stretch to say that Wilfred the Hero is quite technically impressive for an RPGMaker game. RPGMaker 2003 provides a basic template for a Super Nintendo-style RPG, including a battle system, menu system, a dialog system etc. It is designed to make it easy to make a game in the style of Final Fantasy 5 or 6. However, we would not have our game use the standard gameplay mechanics. We needed to develop our own systems. However, RPGMaker 2003 does not have a proper scripting engine like later iterations do, and the concept of doing “programming” is only done through a point-and-click logic system with ridiculous constraints like completely lacking the concept of an object and very limited ability to do math. If I recall correctly, there were no floating points and everything had to be a signed integer.
For example, within this extremely limited framework I had to develop my own text system by building logic that would load a given PNG file to show a letter on screen, because there was no way to display text in an arbitrary manner. These files were all just letters and and numbers. I also built a sprite and animation system that worked by showing pictures on screen, but it had no concept of a sprite object and was hardware locked at 10 frames per second. Within these same limitations I had to do things like build enemy AI. Looking back, we should have just used a real game engine and learned how to code, but we were young and didn’t know any better. Given how limited the tools are, I’d say it is technically the most impressive programming I’ve ever done. But it is also by far the most stupid.
Since the game predates the concept of Let’s Plays or watching other people playing video games on the internet in general, there isn’t much video of it. However, I did find a couple of hits on youtube. Courtesy of RMN:
This is one of the first real music projects I ever completed, which I worked on in spurts from 2003-2005. I recorded all of the music in FruityLoops, the predecessor to FL Studio, which was software intended to make dance music. At the time I could not even read music. So all of this classical music is actually sequenced as layers of loops on an interface that looks like a DJ controller. Again, I was young and didn’t know any better. You can listen to it on Soundcloud.
Play Wilfred the Hero (2005) Part One
Keeping in mind we were almost literally children when we made this, if you would like to try it, find a download link below. I did not even have a copy; I had to dig this up on an abandonware site.
I give no assurances for unsigned code from a Japanese video game development suite that was unofficially translated into English by Russian hackers 20 years ago and intended to run on Windows 98. Download at your own risk.
In July 2018, I traveled to Mongolia. There I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, learned a good deal of history and bore witness to some of the most beautiful land our planet has to offer. Here are my photos and experiences.
Some years ago, I picked up Jack Weatherford’s excellent book, “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” on a free Audible credit. That book sparked a long-standing interest with the country and history of Mongolia and central Asia in general.
In the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of making a number of Mongolian friends in the Washington D.C. area (suburban Arlington has, I believe, the largest Mongolian diaspora in the world). I’ve even picked up cursory bits of the language, but my vocabulary is relegated primarily to food items, basic greetings and compliments. It’s more than most Americans know, though, so even a simple greeting—Сайн байна уу?—is sometimes enough to show that I’m at least trying.
And so in Summer 2018, I decided it was time to see Mongolia for myself.
I spent a good part of my time in the country in the passenger seat of an SUV. I stared out the window as we barreled down the highway on the Mongolian steppe at about 120 kph. We went from Ulaanbaatar, the capital, until we were nearly to Kazakhstan.
As I traveled across the steppe, it seemed in the very best way like it could never end. It stretched in every direction. It was a sea of grass, rolling hills and sparse patches of scrub, dotted occasionally with gers, herdsmen and their animals. My companions’ playlist consisted mostly of Mongolian folk and country songs that (after hearing them countless times) I was quietly singing along with by the time we returned to the city. Of course, I only understood every fourth word or so, but I was able to understand the general idea.
There was something very captivating and irreplaceable about this experience—staring out the window at grass, patches of color, otherworldly rock formations, lazily grazing herds and blue skies for days.
Most of the highway through the steppe looked exactly like this—reasonably well-maintained asphalt roads, animals always grazing in the background, and a power lines running off into the horizon to provide commercial power to villages and ger camps throughout the steppe. The paved roads were not continuous; sometimes we’d have to negotiate our way up and back down rutt-filled trails on muddy hills when the pavement would abruptly stop, and sometimes, we'd just have to make our own way through with no trail at all.
We stopped at ger camps along the way—we could rent a ger for about $30 USD that provided accommodation enough for the six of us. The host will get your wood stove going and bring extra blankets when it’s cold (it will also be cold at night in Mongolia, even in July). You’ll sleep on a raised bed. Some camps had running water, and in one case, a shower. I saw a variety of tour groups featuring a stay in a ger as if it were part of some exotic adventure at the end of the earth; in reality, you're hardly roughing it.
The ger camps struck me as not much different from a roadside motel or hostel. But there was something unusually cozy and relaxing about sleeping together in a ger with friends, huddled around a crude wood stove during the chilly summer nights. I can’t recall the last time I have slept so well. The Mongolian people love their gers, not only as practical housing, but as a symbol of their history and the honor of their culture. After staying in them, I can see why. I can't articulate exactly why, but I have developed a fondness for gers as well.
The name of this national park escapes me, but it was the most pleasant place that we stayed on our journey. It was a fairly typical camp, but the weather and scenery were particularly nice. There were herds of horses and cows wandering around as if they owned the place, and I did wonder where were the ranchers that owned them.
At one point we took a detour near the mouth of the Gobi desert. Mostly for novelty's sake, we pulled over, rented a half dozen horses and camels and goofed off in the sand for awhile. I had never ridden a camel prior to this. I found that they are comfortable and easy to ride, but extremely stubborn, and when they whine, they sound exactly like you would imagine a person sounds when making fun of a stubborn camel.
I was much too tall for the stirrups that our animals were outfitted with, so I had to leave my feet dangling.
Turuu did most of the driving. He thankslessly spent days behind the wheel, and I was beyond impressed with his handling of our SUV off-road. At one point, I was absolutely certain we would have to abandon our truck, having been caught in a rainstorm, inundated with mud on the side of a mountain. Somehow, he not only got control of the car, but forced it up the muddy slope in a zigzag pattern until we reached the shrine at the summit. Everyone poured out of the car to make three circles and pray, making an offering of food. In prayer, he offered vodka made from milk.
Every vehicle in Mongolia is a Toyota, and most of them are a Toyota Prius hybrid, some of them dating back to the original 1997 model. People in Mongolia drive their Priuses everywhere; after a day or two of conditioning, it did not strike me as unusual, for example, when I saw someone utilizing a Prius to ford a river.
In recent years, owing to a combination of climate change and overgrazing, the Gobi has been growing as parts of the steppe gradually succumb to desertification. The steppe’s grasslands are fragile, with sandy topsoil that seemed like it might have been a centimeter thick. Disruptions in the ecosystem, whether from increased soil erosion from climate change or the increasingly large goats herds that tear at the roots, are slowly but inexorably converting the steppe's grass and brush to desert. As a good half of this country’s population depends directly on livestock in one way or another for their livelihood, the spread of the desert presents a major economic issue for the future. Nonetheless, the world has an insatiable demand for Mongolian cashmere, and more cashmere means more goats, and it seems unlikely the human race will get its arms around human-influenced climate change anytime soon. Further, climate change has led to shorter and drier rainy seasons while the winters are colder and longer. This leads to mass dyoffs of livestock, called Зуд ("Zud"). Each zud used to occur about once per decade; in the 21st century, they are much more frequent and recently occurred three times in a row (1999-2002), breaking dieoff records previously set in the 1940s. A little searching online can yield countless case studies where a family lost their entire herd (and accordingly, accumulated wealth) to a zud and was forced to move to the city to try and find work. However, even knowing the facts in this case and seeing the evidence in front of me, as I stood at the mouth of the Gobi with the endless sand before me and the endless grass behind me, I couldn’t help but feel as I stood there that the steppe was infinite and invincible, and that it would stand forever.
So Many Creatures
There are many times more livestock than people in Mongolia; estimates vary by source that I referenced, but a country of 3 million people has 50 million or more head of cattle, sheep, yak or goat. You see this throughout the countryside, and where I was at first delighted to see a herd of horses wander nonchalantly into my camp to graze in the morning, by the time I returned to Ulaanbaatar from the countryside, I was fairly numb to the sight of these ubiquitous creatures.
Mongolian horses are smaller, but sturdier, than the Iberian horses in North America brought by the Spanish during the 1400s-1500s. Owing to their powerful physiques I would not exactly call them ponies, but other than their impressive musculature they are roughly the same size as one.
Back home in Wisconsin, deer are everywhere, and they are a nuisance and threat on the road. Everyone in my hometown has had an experience where they've hit a deer or ran off the road avoiding one, wrecking their car or being injured. And so when driving, you are always watching for deer and routinely have close calls on highways. In only a few days on the road here, I developed this same relationship with horses. What an unfamiliar feeling: to be surrounded by so many horses that they were nearly a pest.
A regular fact of life in Mongolia outside of Ulaanbaatar is that you are going to have to stop your car when a herd wanders onto the road in front of you. This will happen all of the time. There are generally no fences or boundaries as the herds move freely across the steppe to graze. The animals are totally comfortable around cars, and sometimes stubbornly refuse to move out of the way even as you are blaring your horn. I got the distinct impression that the land was reserved for animals first, and cars second.
There is really no concept of grass-fed, all-natural, no-hormone, free range meat here, as that is just the standard meat available everywhere. Though my western palate had some trouble adjusting to the idea of steak cooked nearly all the way through, that is just how it is served here. Even well-done, I found Mongolian meat to be the best in the world.
A Day at the Beach
We spent one morning and early afternoon leisurely goofing off in and around Terkhiin Tsaagan Lake, about 400-500 miles’ drive west from Ulaanbaatar. It’s one of the only places in the entire country I’ve seen a restriction on where one could set up camp–in this case, you had you pitch your tent at least 20 feet or so from the beach.
Otherwise, best as I can tell, you are free to stand up up your tent (or ger) on nearly whichever inch of this vast and beautiful country you would like to.
My friends Uugi and Khishigee goofing around in traditional clothes.
The water was immaculately clean and beautiful. Of course, it was just my luck that I contracted a horrible skin infection from some parasite in the water that dogged me for the following few days, and the lower half of my body was covered with oozing lumps. Nobody else in the group was affected.
I asked my friends about the significance of these carefully piled rocks, assuming some cultural or religious purpose. The only purpose, in fact, was just that it looks nice.
In a nation of such seemingly limitless natural and scenic beauty, it seems ridiculous, frankly, to designate any one particular area as protected land. However, Khorgo Mountain, a dormant volcano in Arkhangai province, struck me as worthy of the protected status it has held since 1965.
The volcano erupted about 8000 years ago, flooding the valley with magma and peppering the surrounding region with countless black boulders and stones of basalt rock. Owing to this geologic event, the region now carries unique flora and fauna including an evergreen forest populated with deer, ducks and wild boar. The hike up to the lip of the crater is manageable even for a novice hiker and offers outstanding views of the Taryatu-Chulutu volcanic field.
Once cannot investigate Mongolian culture and history without considering the important role of Buddhism—not only as a cultural and religious institution, but as a political and historical one.
There is evidence that Buddhism was first introduced to the Mongols as far back as the 4th century, but it would not become central to Mongolian history until the 13th century, when Kublai Khan practiced and clearly favored Buddhism. After the fall of the Kublai’s Yuan dynasty, Buddhism experienced a brief decline until later in the 16th century, when feudal lords and herdsmen began to convert to Buddhism en masse. Eventually, thousands of monasteries were built throughout the city, and at one point, as much as about half of the male population of Mongolia consisted of Buddhist monks and over 2000 monasteries were constructed throughout the countryside.
From the late 1500s and until the era of Soviet control in the 20th century, Buddhist monasteries functioned as much as political entities just as much as they did religious ones, controlling much of the wealth, order and legitimate control of society in the country.
The widespread Soviet-led purge of Buddhism in the 1920s eliminated any legitimate control Buddhist leaders had over the function of society. Mongolia established a democratic government in a series of reforms through 1990-1992, and today, Mongolia is a modern country led by elected officials. Today, most residents of Mongolia are practicing Buddhists.
Some old temples and monasteries stand today, serving a dual role as tourist attractions as well as places of worship. As my friends and I traveled through, we both seemed equally welcome as I admired the art and history of these and my friends stopped to pray.
The Ariyabal Meditation Temple in Gorkhi Terelj National Park was by far the most crowded temple we visited, but it was absolutely lovely. I didn’t feel comfortable taking many photos of the stunning art here or in most of the other temples I visited, because even though in those rare cases that photography was not forbidden, it seemed somewhat crass to take tourist photos in a place of worship.
One of the gates at the Bogd Khan Winter Palace, much of which is intact today a few miles from downtown Ulaanbaatar.
This place and some of the other temples I visited struck me as the most peaceful and isolated places on the planet; in this case, it felt so peaceful even in Mongolia’s capital a block away from the national stadium. It was raining a lot while I visited, and most people had left town for the holiday, and I was on vacation, so maybe it there were a confluence of factors. But it was special to me.
Bogd was the last person awarded the title of Khan. Born in Tibet in 1869, as a boy he was recognized as the Bogd Gegen, the top-ranked lama, or head of religion, for Mongolia. He subsequently moved to the country at the age of 5 and spent the rest of this life there.
On December 29, 1911, amidst the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and decline of Imperial China, Bogd Gegen was declared Khagan of Mongolia, taking the title of Bogd Khan. He would be the last of the khans, his shortly-lived theocracy was lasting only until 1919, when Chinese troops would occupy the country once again.
For the next five years, Mongolia became a battleground for powers both foreign and domestic, trading hands between Bogd Khan loyalists, Chinese forces, anti-Bolshevik Russian revolutionaries and ultimately the Soviet Union.
The Soviet-backed Mongolian People’s Republic was established in 1924. It functioned in almost all respects as the 16th unofficial republic of the Soviet Union. Mongolia was, at least officially, a sovereign nation and served for much of the 20th century as a strategic buffer between Soviet and Chinese territory.
The Soviet-backed Mongolian People’s Republic was established in 1924. It functioned in almost all respects as the 16th unofficial republic of the Soviet Union. Mongolia was, at least officially, a sovereign nation and served for much of the 20th century as a strategic buffer between Soviet and Chinese territory.
A stupa at Erdene Zuu Monastery, which by most records is most likely the oldest surviving monastery in Mongolia. It was constructed in the late 1500s, but was badly damaged in war and abandoned around 1688. It was later rebuilt and by the beginning of the 20th century housed about 1000 monks.
Note the yellow and blue Soyombo symbol painted on the stupa at the left, with partial sculptures of it at the top. This symbol was created by Mongolia's religious and cultural hero, Zanabazar, in the 1600s, and is featured on the nation's flag today. It is the national symbol of Mongolia. Its component parts represent the sun, moon and fire, past present and future, the defeat of one's enemies, the honor of justice of Mongolia's people, unity and strength between people and finally, the balance between man and woman.
It would have been destroyed if not for the unlikely intervention of Joseph Stalin in 1944. This monastery was targeted, along with many others, in the widespread purge of organized religion conducted by the fledgling communist Mongolian People's Republic. Stalin intervened, convincing the government to maintain the temple as a feigned example to foreign visitors that the nation permitted freedom of religion. It is a complete farce, but I suppose the outcome was positive, because the monastery was spared complete distruction.
Though most of the monastery was demolished prior to this, a few small temples and stupas remain, including this one, and as of 1990, Erdene Zuu serves a dual function as a modest functioning monastery as well as a museum today.
Mongolian Buddhist art carries a certain ferocious spirit; deities and historical figures are often depicted powerfully and with an assortment of weapons.
And in every temple, of course, was a Buddha.
Naadam is Mongolia’s largest cultural festival and holiday, occuring every summer for three days. While the festival traditionally is centered around the nation’s three traditional sports–wrestling, archery, and horseback riding–in Ulaanbaatar, while these sports were certainly well-represented, the experience of being there was not much different than any other national festival. There were concerts, fireworks, street vendors and performers, fried food, long waits at temporary toilets and, of course, crowds.
I was tremendously excited prior to my trip, feeling it was an honor to visit Mongolia during Naadam. Before I went, I had thought it would be the highlight of my trip. However, when I came home and began looking back through my photos, I noted that I had barely taken any of them at the three-day festival. It was a great privilege to see Naadam, but the best memories I had during my trip all took place outside of it.
The festival was by a long shot the only crowded place I was able to find in the entire country. I do not think it is an overstatement to claim that all 3 million of Mongolia’s residents join a few hundred thousand tourists to all cram into the same city block for the opening ceremony on the first day of Naadam. And they are there the second day about a mile’s drive (and three hours in traffic) at the racetrack outside of town.
Speaking of tourists, not so many Americans have visited Mongolia, and so most of my friends thought it a very strange place to visit. However, Ulaanbaatar was choked with international tourists my entire time there. During my stay I was one of thousands of westerners wandering around the city. Accordingly, Mongolia has a thriving tourism industry, and even if I hadn’t been spending my time with gracious friends willing to drive me and show me around, there would have been countless professional guides and organized tours available to me.
In one case, I attended a show where I am reasonably certain the only resident of Mongolia in the entire audience was my Tinder date. The performance was, of course, narrated in English.
Life in Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia, and practically speaking, the country’s only city (the second largest city, Erdenet, has only 83,000 residents). About half of the country’s 3 million people live here in Ulaanbaatar.
Through most of the 20th century, Mongolia was not an official member of the Soviet Union, but it was more or less under Soviet control and a sort of unofficial member of the republic. Today though, outside of the primary alphabet used (Cyrillic), a handful of old monuments and some aging apartment buildings, there is very little of the country’s soviet history on display. I wondered while I was there if any Soviet character the country had has been suppressed on purpose in order to establish a new Mongolian identity, or if it just was never part of the culture the way it is, for example, in Kazakhstan.
Mongolia established a Democratic government and market economy through 1990-1992, finding its way into the modern world like many other countries did during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though Mongolia is a developing country with many of the same economic and social challenges as its peers in the developing world, It has on average been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world for 20 years.
The vibrant capital lies at a confluence of eras, featuring brutally efficient old Soviet concrete towers, Russian-style opera houses, soaring asymmetrical glass towers, ancient Buddhist temples and not a small number of gers. Further, it seems like the city is the middle of a constant complete teardown and rebuild as the city’s population swells by about 5% every year and infrastructure struggles to keep up.
For the most part, though, it was not unlike any other nation’s capital: a modern city with significant public and private investment designed to attract international business and to make a good impression on visitors.
The city is full of new construction and green spaces towards its center. The outskirts of the city give way to older Soviet-style apartment blocks while the ger districts sprawl out onto the hills.
Mongolia's Government Palace stands in Suukbaatar Square in the center of the city, housing the office of the president, prime minister and national assembly. A grand statue of Chingiss Khan stands at its front entrance, flanked by his generals Muqali and Bo'orchu.
Most of Ulaanbaatar's exterior signage is either in English or in Mongolian and English, so for someone like me visiting, it isn't hard to figure out where I was going.
Like other parts of Asia, Yum Brands restaurants have a conspicuous footprint (Pizza Hut, KFC, and in an inronic twist, Lucky Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, a Chinese brand acquired by Yum a few years ago).
I went to a local KFC on a desperate late night when nothing else was open; the quality was leagues better than you'd find in the USA.
Tom N Toms, a Korean company, is more or less the Starbucks of the city, with locations on nearly every corner. As I've experience in other parts of Asia, there is no drip coffee, and you get sort of an odd look when ordering when an Americano with no milk or sugar.
One year ago, the city began to host the Nightlight Street event each weekend on a section of Seoul Street in the western part of downtown Ulaanbaatar. Here, about a half kilometer of street is closed off and lights are draped overhead. Thousands of people relax to eat street food and drink beer every Friday and Saturday night. When opened, it was declared the first car-free street in Ulaanbaatar. As a central part to Ulaanbaatar's nightlife, I found myself back here three or four separate evenings during my stay.
No matter where you are in the world, you are near an Irish pub. In this case, I'm enjoying a pint of Chinggis (Genghis Khan) beer. Many things in this country are named after him, including the airport, this beer, a perfectly serviceable vodka that was only a few US dollars per liter, a major city thoroughfare, about a hundred restaurants including the one I am drinking this beer in and more than one bank. Though famous internationally for building the largest empire in human history, the Great Kahn is also largely individually responsible for establishing a united Mongolian identity. Nearly a thousand years ago, he brought disprate tribes together into a singular nation through his brilliance, diplomacy, cunning and ruthlessness, and one can draw a straight line from him to the culture that is largely intact to this day. I have to think that his role in bringing Mongolia together is probably more important to the people here than his foreign conquests, and that is why the country honors him. And so, he persists as the nation's cultural hero to this day
I had seats in the house for what turned out to be just about the most astonishingly gorgeous music I've ever heard. Various classical and original pieces were performed with an orchestra of mostly morin khuur, the national instrument of Mongolia. It is kind of like a violin with two long strings instead of four.
The soloist astonished me with his talents by performing Ave Maria entirely with overtones produced via throat singing. The orchestra behind him performed harmonies so lush I couldn't make sense of how they worked. The costumes were gorgeous and the entire ensemble changed outfits several times to fit the music. I can't say that his throat singing overtones produced the most beautiful version of Ave Maria I've heard. To be honest, the musical texture between the orchestra and his overtones was extremely odd. However, he was showing off, and the audience knew it, and as soon as he finished every single person in the theater sprung immediately to their feet.
. . . and an exterior view of Mongolia's National Academic Drama Theatre, in which I saw the show mentioned above.
A view of the city from Zaisan Hill, a popular spot on the south side of the city. The hill was full of tourists, dating couples and families coming to enjoy the view and street vendors hoping to part you with your hard-earned money on dart throwing games and other novelties. With such a sweeping vista, I can see why it was a popular spot. I even returned here a second time at night.
In the distance, the ger districts sprawl onto the hills surrounding the city. There about a third of Ulaanbaatar's population live in a gers at the nexus of Mongolia's traditional nomadic and modern city lives.
It was not uncommon to find falconers and their golden eagles at tourist sites in the city and countryside alike. Falconers entered Mongolia fleeing Kazakhstan during the Soviet period, and as a group, simply never ended up returning home.
For the next five years, Mongolia became a battleground for powers both foreign and domestic, trading hands between Bogd Khan loyalists, Chinese forces, anti-Bolshevik Russian revolutionaries and ultimately the Soviet Union.
The Soviet-backed Mongolian People’s Republic was established in 1924. It functioned in almost all respects as the 16th unofficial republic of the Soviet Union. Mongolia was, at least officially, a sovereign nation and served for much of the 20th century as a strategic buffer between Soviet and Chinese territory.
Tsetserleg, capital of Arkhangai province, population ~15,000. This photo provides a pretty typical example of life in towns and villages outside of Ulaanbaatar.
Aside from some gers and a good deal more dust, it did not feel much different than the small towns in Wisconsin where I grew up—including the tourists, of which there were plenty, stocking up for the own journeys through the steppe.
There were, as always, animals everywhere. In this case, horses and yaks, the latter of which I was told the region is known for. Here I purchased a sack of aaruul, or dried curd, at the supermarket. It's a little bit like a very dry and crumbly cheese, and it was the same thing I had in Kazakhstan (though there and in most places that I know of it is called "qurt"). I have to say, though, that what I had is much better in Mongolia.
Through the entire steppe there was usually cell service with somewhat brief gaps between settlements. I would probably rate the wilderness coverage on the Mongolian steppe much better overall than that of Wisconsin's northwoods or much of rural America.
My line of work in my day job leads me to take particular interest in celullular coverage in rural or wilderness areas. Maybe the United States should look to carriers in Mongolia for guidance.
Sukhbaatar Square, named after the hero Damdin Suukhbaatar, the hero of the Mongolian Revolution of 1921 that established Mongolian independence.
The ger, a type of yurt, is the traditional dwelling of the Mongolian nomad, and they are ubiquitous throughout the country to this day. Though most of central Asia shares a tradition of nomadic life, Mongolia is unique in that the ger is still a part of daily life.
You will see them everywhere--ringing the city and villages, dotting the countryside, at tourists camps and all manner of unusual circumstances.
In once case, I even saw one on a city rooftop.
The Biggest Damn Stainless Steel Statue in the World
Nowhere is the display of Mongolia's cultural hero Chingiss Khan displayed with less subtlety than this 40-meter-tall statue outside of Ulaanbaatar, which I believe is the largest stainless steel statue in the world (or, at the very least, the largest equestrian one).
You can climb to the top and fight with tourists to get a photo of his face . . .
. . . or appreciate the spectacular view of the steppe.
In customary fashion, the grounds are populated with (human-sized) statues of warriors in the same sort of armor they would have worn during the great khan's time.
I owe Khishigee a debt I doubt I can ever repay.
I had the time of my life during my visit in Mongolia, and I largely have her to thank for it. She joined me nearly every day in the country, organizing everything and introducing me to an ever-growing cast of characters that I am now happy to call friends of my own.
With a local best friend at my side, I was able to negotiate all sorts of things I would have never been able to manage on my own, whether it was crowding into a tiny ger to order khuushuur at the horse races during Naadam, an impromptu road trip nearly to the Kazakhstan border or finding a karaoke place in a dark alley at 1:00 AM that had a reasonable English language song selection and a good deal on entire bottles of vodka. The rare days we didn't meet, she always checked in to make sure I was ok.
Since I have returned home from my trip, I've missed her terribly. For the gift of the experiences I've had, I owe her everything.
Mongolia was not only the most beautiful place on Earth I have visited, but one of the most humbling. Even though I was in the custody of good friends in a relatively tourist-friendly country during peak tourist season, I was always completely out of my element. For nearly entire days at a time, I navigated in relative silence, unable to really communicate and just getting by.
I wish that my trip, much like the steppe, would have never ended; unending, indominatable and permanent.
In November 2017, I traveled to Almaty Kazakhstan on my own.
It was equal parts intimidating, wonderful and strange.
In 2015, I went on a Tinder date with a beautiful, spirited and brilliant young woman from Kazakhstan. I fell for her quickly, but due to my own personal failures, our courtship did not last for very long. But I was never able to shake the desire to go to her country someday.
Ever since I have been fascinated about the place. Having in September made a new friend that lived in Almaty, I decided to finally go! I left alone, armed with little more than some very rudimentary Russian, a quite favorable exchange rate and many hours of reading history and trivia about the region.
Visiting Almaty was an unforgettable experience.
The Original Big Apple
Almaty has had many names over its roughly 3000 years of continuous settlement, including Verniy, Almatau, Alma-Ata, Almatinsk and now Almaty.
All of these names (it was known as “Verniy” under Russian Imperial rule in the 1800s) mention apples in one way or another. This is because the region has always been known for its apples and for its mountains–these features have defined the region for its entire history. In fact, the primary ancestor for all apples is from this region: the genus malus sieversii.
And so, it is fair to declare Almaty the original “Big Apple”.
Almaty was, indeed, an important major culturual and trade nexus for centuries. The area experienced continuous development for over 1000 years, even developing plumbing around 1000 AD. The city continued on its trajectory until the decline of the silk road through the 18th century, of which it was a major trade hub. The region’s fate was further tied to Russia through its integration into the Russian Empire and the subsequent rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
Following are some pictures of the city’s Central Park, which is, paradoxically, located on the east side of town. Because it was so peaceful, I must say I enjoyed it a lot more than America’s crowded and noisy equivalent.
Translated literally, “Central Park of Rest”. I suppose it is implied in American English that a park is a place to relax, but I cannot comment on the context in Russian or especially Kazakh.
Kazakhstan’s nomadic history and its people’s close relationships with horses endures in its art and culture to this day. The importance of the horse to Kazakh culture cannot be underestimated. Traditional Kazakh people depended on their horse for everything–it provided their food in the form of meat and milk, clothing and shelter through their leather, transporation, companionship and strength on the battlefield.
The Park includes a nearby zoo. Based on the facilities, it appeared they had in recent years made strides to make the animals a lot more comfortable. Next to this nicely-decorated grassy pen, for example, was an empty cage with a cement foor, which I assumed had previously housed this majestic beast.
I’m not sure what this animal is called. It was hard to get a shot of them sitting still.
Disney characters were very popular in the children’s sections of the park. There were rides for children, but they were all closed–I was there during November on a weekday, after all.
A lake in Central Park with a view of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountain range and the Kok Tobe television tower. In clear weather you have a clear view of the mountains from most south facing streets. I used this photo as my cover image as I feel it best captures my infatuation with the city’s unexpected beauty.
Some things are truly universal.
It was a peaceful day; as it was late in the fall or early in the winter I was almost the only person here. I imagine it would be swarming with families in the summer.
This little guy wasn’t actually at the Almaty zoo; I caught him at a smaller zoo up on Kok-Tobe hill.
I am not much one for selfies, but I did take a few every now and then.
A former Soviet Republic
The Soviet Union was more or less perpetually at a state of war for nearly a century, and Kazakhstan, as a member, was invariably pulled into its conflicts. Throughout the city are many monuments and memorials honoring the sacrifices of Kazakhstan’s citizens in more or less foreign wars.
I was impressed by not only the bold artistry of these monuments–they are certainly a lot more visually arresting than our American counterparts–but by how they captured a spirit of honor and sadness.
As an American, I of course have always had a negative opinion of the Soviet Union. However, learning more first-hand history and the perspective of people from one of its member republics has made these feelings more personal.
The World War II monument at the park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen. It commemorates 28 Kazakhstani guardsmen who defended Moscow from German assault in World War II. The style is absolutely striking. The statement, in Russian, roughly translates to "Great Russia, there is nowhere to retreat to behind Moscow!" And so you see the guardsmen protrayed as a literal stone wall with nowhere to retreat behind them. This monument is set right in the middle of Panfilov Park in the busiest part of the city center and arguably one of the most important displays in the nation. In the summer, they routinely host public events and concerts here.
It is customary to lay flowers at the monument before an eternal flame. It was raining the day I visited, which seemed thematically appropriate. Though Western education and entertainment make much of America's role in World War 2, this part of the world will never forget the horror of the Eastern Front between Axis and Soviet forces, where over 32 million people died--most of them civilians in the Soviet Union.
A memorial to the Soviet-Afghan war and the people of Kazakhstan conscripted to fight in it. Those who died have their names listed. I related this story--and its memorial--to United States involvement in the Vietnam War, where young men were drafted to fight in a foreign war for an unpopular cause they neither supported nor understood. The monument truly captures a sense of resignation and hopelessness.
A memorial for Aliya Moldagulova and Manshuk Mametova, two women remembered as heroes in World War II and posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest distinction given in the USSR. Moldagulova was a fearsome sniper with 91 confirmed enemy kills, and Mametova was a machine gunner who single-handedly killed over 70 enemy combatants in a desperate last stand against German Wehrmacht forces.
I spent a great deal of time simply wandering around the city and enjoying its sights, food and people. By night, I would find myself in restaurants, bars and night clubs open until all hours of the morning.
The city has a lot to offer–and a lot for one to learn–depending on where you go and how much attention you’re paying. It has a rich history on display in its monuments and memorials and several decent museums.
Like many modern cities, Almaty displays deep poverty and extravegant wealth side-by-side; its streets are clogged with 35-year-old Soviet-era diesels alongside brand new Lexus SUVs. Near the mountains on the south part of town, people live much better than further north or west (locals refer to “up” and “down”, meaning in relation to the mountain, so I never understood anyone’s directions).
However, a universal truth to the people of Almaty, as far as I encountered them, is that they were enthusiastic, helpful and kind to me. I felt safer in a poor neighborhood alone at night than I do in most American cities.
The city's logo. Note the stylized apple and Latin script. Kazakhstan recently enacted a bold 8-year plan to convert its entire language from the Cyrillic (or the "Russian" alphabet) to Latin (or "European") alphabet. I am not sure if things like this logo showcase this movement consciously, or whether they are just part of the same trend.
From my estimate, up to 1/4 of the city's prime downtown real estate is devoted to walkable paths like this one. This is a major street! There truly are trees planted everywhere.
Coffeedelia, a bustling staple of Almaty. Like other coffee houses in town, they have about 100 things on the menu, much of it a variety of western food like sandwiches and pizzas.
Almaty had a far nicer train system than any I've ever seen in the United States (though, admittedly, we aren't known for the quality of our public transit). For a few cents I could get from one end of town to the other in a brand new, comfortable train. I heard from locals that this was a troubled public works project for quite a long time. All the same, I was grateful to ride it.
Western Coffee Culture
Some of the most popular and fashionable places in the city are western coffee shops, complete with acoustic covers of popular western top 40 hits. In fact, three young professional women living and working in the city all independently recommended the location featured here, Coffeedelia, to me.
Almaty seems to have a small but growing coffee culture, where most people traditionally prefer tea. The coffee shops are all distinctly western in style, with American or Italian-sounding names and menus in English. Drip or pressed coffee is not available–only espresso–but Americano is popular. I felt particularly self-conscious ordering it, especially when servers would look at me like a lunatic for ordering it without milk or sugar.
I visited in November, so even at noon the sun hung low in the sky. Because the city is situated north of the Zailiski Alatau mountains, daylight hours in the city are even shorter than normal during the fall and winter as the sun slips out out above the mountain peaks; the mountains make the horizon effectively 5000m higher than it would be otherwise. Here I am at Kok Tobe hill. You can see the Kok Tobe transmission tower in the foreground, and the ever-present Zailiyskiy Alatau range in the background.
Next to the cable car that takes you to Kok Tobe is the Kazakhstan Hotel. Being one of the first modern hotels built in the city years ago, it is an important economic symbol for Almaty's mission to be a major modern city and it is a landmark of the city center. It has a lavish ballroom and event space that plays host to special events like conferences or seminars. Note the many international flags on display. It is, as it is in many countries, uncommon to fly a flag in Almaty outside special circumstances such as at a government building. It is a powerful and meaningful statement for Almaty to fly the flags of its neighbors outside of this hotel.
The monument to Ablai Kahn outside of the Almaty 2 train station. Ablai Khan was an 18th century khan that was successful in largely uniting much of Kazakhstan under his rule. He is considered a "batyr", or hero, and one of the city's major streets is named after him.
Nightclubs close sometime between 05:00 and 08:00, depending on where you go, and I had heard a few are open until 11:00, but I never ended up at one that was open that late. This particular club, Esparanza, had a pretty legit hype team including a truly inspiring MC, a couple of DJs and a revolving pool of male and female gogo dancers. Smoking in an Almaty nightclub is practically required; nearly everybody in sight in every club was chainsmoking, best as I could tell. Surprisingly to me, people do not drink that heavily relative to the American clubs I am accustomed to. They probably felt like they were good and liquored up, but they have clearly never been to Wisconsin. Maybe that is why they can get away with being open until lunch the following day.
This truly dire reproduction of the Beatles needs no additional comment.
The dombra, an instrument ubiquitous in traditional Kazakh music and featured in a lot of Kazakhstan's folk and patriotic art. It's pretty much like playing a guitar. I am pretty sure I will order one. There is a Kazakh legend about the dombra. There was once a powerful ruler who had said that whomever brought news of his son's death would be condemned to die by having gold poured down their throat. When his son finally died, nobody was brave enough to the break the news for fear of brutal execution. And so an enterprising musician composed a tune so sorrowful that he knew the ruler would know his son had died upon hearing it. When the musician finally performed, the ruler knew immediately from this sad music what it meant and that his son had died. And so he poured molten gold into the dombra's soundhole, fulfilling his promise.
My guide Amina, a student at a local high school. At the suggestion of someone on Reddit I reached out to the local high school to arrange for a guide; they in turn get the day off of school and practice English for a day with a native speaker.
My second guide, Amina. Also a student at a local high school.
For about $7, you can take a cable car from downtown Almaty to the mountains. I would not recommend it if you are afraid of heights, but it is a great way to get to Kok Tobe hill and provides a good view of the city.
This is very typical construction in Almaty. The city is full of concrete, earthquake-proof Soviet-era buildings that may very well stand for centuries. They have been repurposed for modern city life. Typically they will have a fashionably remodeled first floor storefront based on mixed use development. Many of the homes have nice interiors and exteriors have been retrofitted with cladding and accessories like balconies, large windows and air conditioners. They are often pretty swanky once you get into the living spaces. These concrete towers were made to last, and so the city makes the best use of them.
A meal of beshbarmak and kumis, which may very well be one of my new favorite dinners. In English, that means horsemeat and fermented mare's milk. I spent the week eating as much horsemeat as possible, since it is served everywhere here, and you cannot find it in the USA. It reminded me of Venison, but less gamey, and with delicious marbled fat and a lot of flavor. From subsisting primarily on horse meat and onions for a week and a half, I feel like I might have lost some weight. Locals told me they were surprised I could stomach so much of it. Again, clearly they have never been to Wisconsin.
Oysters are a real delicacy in this town, available at only a few places and selling for $10 or more apiece--much more expensive than in the United States. However, though land-locked itself, Kazakhstan is equidistant to several seas I had not eaten from. I was willing to lay down a few extra dollars in order to sample a few new ones all in one place. Who knows when I will next have the chance to eat Turkish, Irish, French and Russian oysters all in one meal?
After stuffing my face with oysters, the host poured me glass after glass of this stuff--on the house--just to show their appreciation. I must have had nearly the entire bottle of 80-proof spirits. Of course, I had dinner plans just an hour afterwards. I represented Wisconsin appropriately, showing up stinking dunk for a Tinder date in a far-flung foreign country.
One universal truth in today's world: in any city on Earth, you are only a few blocks from an Irish pu
Kazakhstan, like other members of the former Soviet Union, established its independence in 1991. There are a couple of powerful monuments dealing with this period of history that I really enjoyed.
This monument was erected in 2006 on the 20th anniversary of Jeltoqsan, a key event in Kazakhstan's drive for independence. In a common local style, the history recounting the events is depicted in a mural. In December of 1986, the USSR replaced the head of Kazakhstan, who was an ethnic Kazakh and from Kazakhstan, with a Russian bureaucrat who was not from republic at all. This sparked protests in Alma-Ata (now known as Almaty) that spread throughout not only this city, but to the country's other major cities throughout the republic as well. Over the following days military forces were brought in to quell protests, which led to violence, arrests and civilian deaths. This event is viewed as one of the most important that led to an independent Kazakhstan. Sources vary on the scope of the protests and casulaties. Official sources at the time claimed that only 200-3000 people participated in the riots and that only 2 were killed. Other sources claim up to 60,000 participated nationwide in the protests with 5000 jailed and up to 1000 killed or injured.
Almaty's Independence Monument celebrates the indepenence of Kazakhstan and identity of its people. Atop stands a replica of the Golden Man riding a snow leopard, a major cultural symbol. The Golden Man was the 3rd or 4th century BC skeleton of a Scythian noble adorned in golden armor discovered in a burial mound in Almaty region in 1969 with a substantial hoard of gold. He(?) has since become a symbol for the people.
Legend has it that when you place your hand on this brass engraving and pray, your wishes will come true. You can see the well-worn imprint of the hands of the thousands that had come before me. I too, said a prayer.
Almaty’s Independence Monument documents the history of thousands of years of Kazakh history in a series of fascinating murals made of molded bronze. The murals begin with the ancient nomadic peoples and conclude in the modern day with the establishment of the nation of Kazakhstan under president Narsultan Nazarbayev in 1991 and relocation of the new capital to Astana in 1998.
If you look closely, you find many small details that summarize legends, major historical figures or cherished cultural artifacts. At the center is the Golden Warrior monument, the soaring obelisk being about 100 feet tall.
The murals document thousands of years of history, and I like, in particular, some of the powerful symbolism. The depiction of the Nazi army during World War II is particularly striking, as are the skirmishes between Kazakh horse archers and Russian cannons during the 1800s. Very sad is the depiction mass starvation of Kazakhs prior to gradual assimilation of parts of the culture into Russia’s, leading straight into the Soviet period and foreign war.
The Nice Part of Town
At the top of the city and nearer to the mountains, overlooking historic Almaty is the wealthiest part of town, full of gleaming western-style glass towers and Greco-Roman architecture. It is a stark contrast to the rest of city which wears its 20th-century legacies on its sleeve.
Here you’ll find tremendous displays of wealth; I walked past no fewer than three weddings in the same park I certainly would have had trouble financing myself. I wondered where the money came from (the brides and their bridal parties did look absolutely stunning, however).
At the top of the city sit glass towers overlooking the concrete construction below, with more apparenty under construction every day.
A building whose Greco-Roman style and bizarre art that would be perfectly at home on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
A western-style shopping center, Dostyk Plaza. Many of the goods here are expensive imports and out of reach for most locals to afford.
Out of curiosity, I went to the Levi's store and compared prices to the same pair of pants I was wearing that day. They were going for 53,000 tenge, or about $170--nearly 1/4 average monthly wage in Almaty. In terms of relative buying power, that would be like charging $1000 for them in a typical US city.
No discussion of Almaty is completed without mention of 19th century poet, writer and composer Abay Qunanbaiuly, who is one of Kazakhstan’s most important creative figures and a cultural hero.
He is generally regarded as Kazakhstan’s first modern writer and bears much responsibility as a culture reformer for shaping the country’s culture into what it is today. His significance in Kazakh history and culture is immense.
This was the largest statue I identified that honored Abay. Though there are many throughout the city.
Me standing in front of the Abay Opera House, named, of course, after Abay. It is near the Abay metro stop. I had planned to see a ballet there over the weekend, but my plans never materialized. I hear it is a beautiful space. Maybe next time!
Abay Restaurant at Koke Tobe. The walls feature his poetry. The dining room is styled after a yurt, which nomadic Kazakhs lived in for most of Kazakhstan's history. The crossed wooden arches at the center and beneath a round skylight symbolize the shanyrak, or the opening in the ceiling of a yurt used to ventilate smoke from the home's central fire. The shanyrak is widely used in Kazakh ornamentation and design to symbolize well being and peace. The restaurant, of course, plays Kazakh folk music and serves pretty decent (although expensive!) traditional Kazakh food.n-style shopping center, Dostyk Plaza. Many of the goods here are expensive imports and out of reach for most locals to afford.
I will never forget this trip, and I can’t wait to go back! Maybe I will return during the late Summer or Early Fall, when they have all of these festivals that everyone told me I had just missed by a week or two and after I have improved my Russian a bit.
I cannot recommend traveling to Kazakhstan and the Almaty region enough, and I encourage you to do so on your own. This was my first real trip to anywhere particularly outside of my comfort zone, and I am forever a better person for having done it.