Archive for August, 2013

Rashid on Central Asia

August 11, 2013 Leave a comment


[Mike King, in the New York Review of Books]

Two springs ago I found myself plowing through a sequence of books on the history of countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and along the Black Sea. (See, for instance, my post on Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road.) At the same time, the Seattle Art Museum had an exhibition on Central Asian ikats (post here) that reinforced my newfound interest in the region. And then a brochure arrived highlighting a trip to Central Asia and the Caucasus this October sponsored by the Met. (Bad timing.)

No surprise, then, that when I saw an article by Ahmed Rashid with the title Why, and What, You Should Know About Central Asia in the table of contents of the current New York Review of Books, I went straight to it. The article is behind a paywall, so you won’t be able to read it in full without subscribing. Too bad.

The opening draws one right in.

On the freezing night of December 12, 1991, in the heart of Central Asia, I stood on the icy tarmac of the airport outside Ashkhabad, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, watching as the five former Communist Party bosses and future presidents of the republics of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan arrived wearing fur coats and hats. The honor guard, the military band, and the dancing girls holding frozen flowers went through elaborate drills, shivering all the while as the dignitaries’ planes landed.

It was a critical moment in the history of the world. Four days earlier Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus had signed a treaty dissolving the Soviet Union. The five republics were now suddenly independent but nobody had consulted the Central Asian leaders themselves. Angry, frustrated, fearful, feeling abandoned by their “mother Russia,” and terrified about the consequences, the leaders sat up all night to discuss their future.

It was strange to see the heirs of conquerors of the world—Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babar—so cowered. They were tied to Moscow in thousands of ways, from electricity grids to road, rail, and telephone networks. Central Asia had become a vast colony producing raw materials—cotton, wheat, metals, oil, and gas—for the Soviet industrial machine based in western Russia. They feared an economic and social collapse as Yeltsin cast them out of the empire. That night a deputy Turkmen foreign minister told me, “We are not celebrating—we are mourning our independence.”

Rashid reviews three books and two reports, all in the context of what may happen in the region after the US departs from Afghanistan next year. The closing two paragraphs give a sense of what’s at stake.

Tumultuous changes could well be in store—both internally as the Central Asian states are forced into greater reforms and democratization through pressure from below, and by policies pursued by the regional big powers. That the US is more or less exiting the region, while Russia faces a deep economic and political crisis that is unacknowledged by its leaders, will leave China in an even stronger position in Central Asia and Afghanistan. What, if anything, China, with all its strength, may do in the region is a mystery.

Sir Halford Mackinder, the nineteenth-century political theorist, viewed Central Asia as “the pivot region of the world’s politics” and “the heartland” because, he said, “it is the greatest natural fortress in the world.” He reckoned that whoever controlled Central Asia would exercise enormous power. But no power has achieved control there and the battle for influence will take different directions after 2014. One of the great dangers for the US and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there.

I’m particularly intrigued by one of the books under review, Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, which came out in May. Rashid writes:

The weird, the strange, the corrupt, and the grand are all evident in Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia. He writes primarily about Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Tiny Kyrgyzstan has a population of just 5.5 million people who live in the highest mountain ranges in the world, with no resources except sheep herding and income from a single gold mine. They have tried hard to become a democratic state—overthrowing two presidents to do so. The result, not surprisingly, has been more misery and much chaos.

Shishkin, an American journalist of Russian origin, captures these events in a far corner of the world with breathless and poetic prose. … He relentlessly pursues and then tells the stories of the most corrupt and powerful and also the most sincere and admirable characters who inhabit these mountains.

If you can get hold of Rashid’s article, it’s well worth reading.

Categories: Books, Politics

The Villages, Here We Come

August 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Odds are, we’ll be staying in Seattle when retirement comes. And if we don’t, Gail’s preference will be to head straight to Nantucket. After last night’s dinner at neighborhood favorite Cactus, though, I suggested we should consider The Villages. You know, that Florida retirement community with all the advertisements on TV? (And if you don’t know, watch the video above.)

Why not? Restaurants. Nightly entertainment. Activities galore. No need to drive anywhere, except in golf carts. Plus, no kids! I mean, I love kids and all. Really, I do. But last night we were the only people at Cactus without children under the age of 3. Well, it was early, but still.

I always think of Cactus as a young adult hangout. The big bar. The noise. The excitement. That’s the usual reason I drag my feet when Gail suggests we go there. The place is packed nightly, and everyone seems to be having way too much fun.

Evidently, those young adults got a little older and decided to have children, all of whom showed up yesterday.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But we clearly didn’t fit in (as I first realized when our overwhelmingly friendly waitress greeted us by asking if this was our first time in. It was all I could do to keep from saying we’ve been eating there since before she was born. Which might be true, by the way.) The kids hanging over our booth, babies bawling, parents standing over other people’s tables with children in their arms were too distracting.

As we walked out, I suggested to Gail that we rethink our retirement and take a closer look at The Villages. When we got home, I did so.

There’s a video about their newest restaurant, City Fire American Oven & Bar, that gives me confidence we won’t be missing much.

It looks good, doesn’t it? I suppose kids are allowed in restaurants when they’re visiting with their parents, but all in all I picture life as quiet and idyllic. Lord knows, it’s cheaper than Nantucket. And we could build our dream home there.

What’s that? The Villages is owned by Gary Morse, major Romney supporter last year? Fox broadcasts from there frequently? Glenn Beck held a massive rally there in 2009? Oh, and this story from last November might give us pause. Here’s one paragraph:

If Villages transplants aren’t already disposed to conservative values, they’ll get a good dose of them through the Morse family’s small media empire. Fox News Radio is pumped daily out of speakers in town squares by the community radio station, WVLG-AM 640, making for an odd blend of sunny Villages-themed dispatches and distinctly right-leaning political news reports. A driver listening to Villages radio can step out of his car in one of the town squares and hear the same broadcast without missing a beat. In talking to HuffPost, several liberal residents likened the public speakers to Orwellian propaganda.


Gail, what are we to do? But watch the video below. Aren’t they having fun?

Categories: Life, Restaurants

Lemond and Hinault: Together Again

August 4, 2013 Leave a comment


This is what I get for letting the blog go to hell. For three weeks, I’ve wanted to write a post featuring a photo of Tour de France greats Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond finishing the ride up Alpe D’Huez together, 27 years after their famous ride in competition. And now I can’t find the photo. Well, I’ll follow through with the overdue post anyway.

I’ve told the story before. And others can tell it better. But, just to review, American Greg Lemond rode his first Tour in 1984. At that time, only two cyclists had won the tour five times: Jacques Anquetil in 1957 and then again consecutively in 1961 and 1964, and Eddy Merckx in 1969 to 1972 and 1974. Hinault arrived on the scene soon thereafter, winning in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1982. Fellow Frenchman Laurent Fignon won in 1983 and 1984, with Hinault not competing in 1983 and second in 1984. Lemond finished behind Fignon and Hinault in 1984 in his first Tour.

In 1985, the famous deal was struck: Lemond would ride as Hinault’s teammate and help him win his fifth. In return, Hinault would support Lemond the next year.

That’s when I arrived on the scene, not that anyone was paying attention. I won’t tell this story at length again. It’s somewhere in the Ron’s View archives. Suffice to say that Gail and I were on our honeymoon, visiting my sister in Paris, watching the Tour on her TV as it arrived in the city on the final day, coming down the Seine just a few hundred meters away. I suddenly realized I could be out there with them. Off we raced, across the Seine and up to the Champs-Elysées. We were eight deep, maybe ten, as the peloton whizzed by, doing its final laps. And there was Bernard Hinault in his yellow jersey, about to win his coveted fifth Tour, with Lemond at his side. A Tour devotee was created that day.

The next year was to be Lemond’s. But once the Tour started, it emerged that Hinault had other ideas. There’s a whole book about this Tour, Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France , by Richard Moore. I haven’t read it, but I have read Moore’s short account of the climactic day, when the Tour arrived at the famous climb of Alpe d’Huez (which, by the way, we climbed by car in October 2009, as I have written about elsewhere, during a visit to Grenoble to see Joel; we rented a car, drove out to Le Bourg-d’Oisans, and then up the famous switchbacks to the resort).

As the Tour entered its third and final week it seemed that their battle for the race’s yellow jersey would be decided on Alpe d’Huez. LeMond had ousted Hinault from the race leader’s yellow jersey the previous day, following which, according to team owner Bernard Tapie, the two riders were “at each other’s throats” until 4am.

On the day of the Alpe d’Huez stage, Hinault launched further attacks on the first climb, the Col du Galibier. But LeMond, realising the Tour was slipping away from him, chased and caught him, in the process blowing away the rest of the opposition.

And so the team-mates ride together to the base of the Alpe…

Entering the human corridor, Hinault leads, LeMond follows. “The crowd is massive,” Hinault will later write in his autobiography, “and they are chanting my name. Greg looks worried; I tell him to stay behind me, that it will be OK, that I know how to deal with the crowd.”

An estimated 300,000 people pack the slopes, creating an extraordinary natural amphitheatre, forming a “squalid, manic shambles”.

Hinault and LeMond proceed steadily through banks of braying fans, who have waited all day, perhaps several days, for their fleeting glimpse of the race. No wonder their excitement is at fever pitch; they’re seeing the national hero and the yellow jersey tearing the race – if not each other – to pieces. The fleeting nature of their exposure to the action only makes the experience more intense. In the circumstances, LeMond seems content to follow Hinault, rather than to set the pace himself, or, as payback for Hinault’s repeated attacks over the previous two weeks, to give him a taste of his own medicine by attacking him.

Yet there is no visible evidence of their enmity. On the contrary, LeMond and Hinault appear, for the first time in two weeks, united. For once Hinault is not snarling; his expression tells of the effort rather the anger that fuels him. The impression of unity is confirmed as they proceed up in tandem, riding through the throngs of supporters, the majority of whom are French and cheering their hero, Hinault, urging him to a record sixth Tour victory. It is as though they don’t even see LeMond. They spill into the road, clearing at the last second to leave only a narrow, handlebar-wide passage for the two riders.

All the time, Hinault leads and LeMond follows. It seems a truce has been called. For hairpin after hairpin, the order doesn’t alter. Neither does the steady pace; theirs is one of the slowest ‘winning’ ascents of Alpe d’Huez in Tour history. Hinault is at the front, pedalling like a metronome; LeMond just behind him, as though the American is hiding in the Frenchman’s shadow. Perhaps he is.

But fear also weighed on LeMond’s mind and influenced his thinking. “I was worried,” he says now. “I was thinking of Eddy Merckx, who was punched in his side. I was thinking there could be someone out there…there was such strong feeling out there. It was so frenzied. And I’m racing against France’s best-known athlete.”

“I kept telling him to stay behind,” says Hinault. “There was absolutely no need for him to go and wear himself out on the climb. We were six minutes ahead. I told him, ‘you stay calm, don’t panic, and we go to the finish together.’”

At the plateau, as the road levels, LeMond puts in the smallest of accelerations to emerge, for the first time since the valley, from Hinault’s shadow. He pulls alongside his team-mate while Hinault turns and looks at him almost indulgently. LeMond reaches out to touch his shoulder and then puts his arm around Hinault. LeMond smiles. Hinault smiles. They exchange a few words, chatting as though they are out for a leisurely ride. As one speaks the other nods; they smile, and nod again, and carry on riding side-by-side.

Then they join hands in joint celebration, before Hinault moves slightly ahead to cross the line first, for his twenty-sixth stage win, a haul that puts him behind only Merckx in the all-time list.

This year’s Tour was the hundredth, in honor of which historic sites were visited, Tour greats showed up, and astonishing stage routes were designed, none more so than stage 18 with its double climb to Alpe d’Huez. Up the riders went, only to descend the other side, circle around, and go up again to the finish. The day was as dramatic as anticipated, and crucial to Chris Froome’s ultimate overall victory.

But that’s not the story of this post. Rather, I want to highlight the ride that took place earlier in the day, one of many beautiful moments this year, as Hinault and Lemond relived their 1986 climb. Alas, I can’t find the photo I saw that day. Well, there’s this low resolution version, put side-by-side with the historic photo at the top. It will have to do.


Oh, and there’s this official video, with English narration that blocks out some of the French being spoken by Lemond.

By the way, Lemond would probably have been the fourth to win five Tours if not for being shot in a hunting accident by his brother-in-law before the 1987 Tour. He won in 1989 (over Fignon in the great final-day time trial) and again in 1990. Come 1991, he had slipped, and Miguel Indurain began his reign, winning the first of five consecutive Tours. Speaking of which, here’s a photo of another wonderful moment from this year’s Tour, taken on the final day in Paris.


The Tour organizers had the three living five-time winners and Lemond ride into Paris together behind the competitors. That’s Merckx in the passenger seat and Indurain directly above him.

Categories: Cycling

The Continuing Decline

August 4, 2013 Leave a comment


This summer continues to be a disaster for Ron’s View, and I’m at a loss as to what can be done about it. As the Ron’s View host explained in a post a couple of weeks ago, “other duties seem to be getting in the way.” New work duties taken up on July 1. The never-ending kitchen remodel. And all those weddings. They don’t stop.

Two weeks ago we were up in Oak Harbor Friday and Saturday for one, only to head south Sunday for another. More of the same this week, though confined to Seattle. We attended a wedding Thursday evening (interfering with what is often prime blogging time). And yesterday we went to a 3:00 wedding with a 7:00 reception, presenting us with the difficult dilemma of whether to drive all the way back across the city to spend some time home between the two or whether to stay on the other side of town in search of diversions.

We chose diversions, which turned out to be fun, other than our being a little overdressed. Ballard, the former independent waterfront city annexed by Seattle in 1907, was both the site of yesterday’s events and the home of Gail’s youth. Since the selling of her parents’ house a few years ago, we don’t get over there too often. Yesterday we got to revisit and explore, starting with an early dinner at Louie’s Cuisine of China, the cavernous restaurant just north of the Ballard Bridge. I had never eaten there until a month and a half ago. Now it is becoming a regular. Not that the food is all that great, but Louie’s features a classic Cantonese-American menu, an enjoyable change from our standard.

And Brown Bear Car Wash is just across the street. Not normally a reason to detour, but there’s this remodel we’re doing, as you know, and my car sits in the driveway under a maple tree these days instead of in the garage. Yes, I could park on the street, but the tree keeps the car cool. And messy. It needs washing, which it got in mid-June on our last visit to Louie’s and again yesterday.


Then, off to see Gail’s childhood home. We drove up the street to see the front side, then down the alley for a rear view. The foot of the alley lined us up to drive ten blocks west for one of the great views Seattle offers, from Sunset Hill Park.

Why oh why didn’t I bring my new camera and take pictures? Here’s one, from a city website.


The park sits atop a bluff, with Shilshole Bay and the Puget Sound shoreline directly below. Across the Sound directly west lies the north end of Bainbridge Island, and beyond that the Olympic Mountains. It’s an expansive view from north-northwest to south-southwest.

Next we drove south through Ballard past Ristorante Picolinos, which we have been meaning to get over to for years. We did eat there unknowingly one afternoon three summers ago, the day after we had our 25th wedding anniversary party, in order to celebrate the wedding of our friends Sverre and Megan, who had married in Norway. The party was on the back patio and it took us another couple of years to realize that the restaurant we kept hearing about and intending to try—Picolinos—was the very place we had been to for this occasion. Since we entered the patio directly from the street, the restaurant’s name never registered on us. Truth is, we should have eaten there last night instead of at Louie’s. But they don’t have a carwash across the street.

From Picolinos, we continued south to the Ballard Locks, hoping to find a parking spot and walk around by the canal, locks, and gardens. But parking there on a summer weekend is hopeless, so we continued driving instead, along the opening to the canal toward the waterfront, then north along the waterfront to Golden Gardens Park, another Seattle treasure that is impossible to park at on summer weekends.

Up the switchback road we went, back up to the bluffs, and then on through a variety of neighborhoods to the north of Ballard. This gave us the opportunity, as we meandered past houses with extraordinary views, to review why it is exactly that when we spent a year househunting twenty years ago, we didn’t move to such neighborhoods.

We did look. In fact, we looked closely and fell in love with a house just north of Sunset Hill Park, hidden among the trees but completely open to the very views one has from the park. We passed that one up for fear that it would fall off the bluff in our lifetimes. Our drive last night offered examples of houses with almost as extraordinary views that aren’t likely to slide down a hill. But that crosstown drive just isn’t one I wanted any part of, and so we didn’t look too hard, instead ultimately settling on a landlocked house with no water or mountain views at all.

No regrets. It’s just that last night we got to see what we have been missing all these years.

We weren’t done driving around. There was more to see. Soon, though, it was time to head back down to the waterfront so that we could attend the wedding reception, in a building right on the water, just south of the Shilshole Bay Marina. We chose to sit at a table just past the windows so we wouldn’t be in the sun, and maybe so we wouldn’t continue to have the Sound and Olympics in our faces, questioning our decision to live on the other side of the city.

Hmm. This post was supposed to be about the decline of Ron’s View. Instead it’s about the decline of Ron’s view. Returning to the intended subject, I wish I could promise improvement. I’ll do what I can.

Categories: Life