Catching some rays…

Seven months ago eight of us went in search of adventure in Kazakhstan. Courtesy of our Kazakh friend’s willingness to be a translator again, this month the group took a trip to another former soviet nation. Two Iranians, a Kazakh, an Indian, a Kiwi, an Aussie and two Brits flew to the Ukraine, to learn a bit about the city of Kiev and the site of Chernobyl, one of the world’s biggest Nuclear disasters to date.

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It’s important to stress here – a trip to Chernobyl is not out of morbid fascination with something dark or for the sake of our Instagram feeds. A visit to Auschwitz or the Somme is about paying respect to an element of the incredible tapestry of what humans are capable of. Chernobyl is not the site of a battle, but a deadly accident borne out of bold ambition. It was not horrific immediately, but the processes of its cover up, the sheer power of nuclear radiation and the fact that we still cant fathom its affects – all of this is worth seeing and attempting to understand. The Ukraine is a fascinating, inviting country that hosts Chernobyl, not proudly, but stoically and honestly, as a major part of its past.

Like much of the Eastern block, the Ukraine is profoundly affected by its Soviet history. But pre-Berlin Wall, contrary to glimpses shaped by Hollywood and bombastic Presidents and Prime Ministers – Ukranians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Tajikhs, Georgians, Slovenians and Belarussians were not brought up to feel like they were ‘the bad guys.’

Kiev Figures

Photo by Drina Cabral

 

Kiev Architecture

Whatever ways history may interpret the soviet era, the Ukraine is a country that flits between centuries of European kingdoms, the odd Viking or Mongolian invasion, and the brutalist architecture of soviet determination. In the mix is Kiev, a dignified city of wide gridded streets, between rolling hills and a large river. It reaches from high-rise concrete estates littered with monumental street art, to neo classical and baroque columns around grandiose empirical buildings that are now home to Sushi and Starbucks.

The capital is full of contrasts: fashionable monochrome ladies in red lipstick beside ex-soldier-boys with severe 90s haircuts; hipster bars and vintage speak-easies next to brutalist institutions; swirling art-nouveau facades of naked ladies flanked by political busts of serious men; ornate orthdodox cathedrals beside confiscated Russian tanks; bowls of Borsch and dumplings, and fusion restaurants that deserve all the Michelin stars; gypsies holding prize-chickens for photographs, and Putin’s face on toilet-roll; many, many men called Vladimir and cats with biological-weapon-breath.

There were also a lot of directional arm gestures. We needed to calm down.

 

We got a guide and a mini bus, and made a very big day-trip.

Chernobyl is a 2.5 hour ride out of town. It wasn’t the main reason for the trip to Kiev, but a destination none of us could argue against. We expected an abandoned city, two-headed mice, maybe some yellow smoke, men in gas masks, craters in the ground and apocalyptic signs – basically a 90s music video.

On the bus, our cheery guide described a time when the whole of Europe teetered on the brink of annihilation, and events that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a massive smile on his face.

In 1986 the Chernobyl disaster started as a fire in reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Power Plant. Along with Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, it ranks as one of only two “Level 9” events – the maximum classification.

Chernobyl began as a nuclear power station built from 1970 onwards, in use from 77 to 2000, well after 86. Contrary to popular belief or selective memory, the accident was not the equivalent of one sudden nuclear bomb, but about thirty Hiroshimas, and not sudden at all, but a week-long disaster that affects a much broader expanse of Europe than the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl.

Pripyat Nursery 2

The slow release of radiation; triggered by a fire – triggered by an overnight safety-test; released a plume of radioactivity into European air for several days. The world had never experienced anything like this, so Mikhail Gorbachev’s all-seeing government would not have known where to start. It was the civilian emergency services that would bare the brunt, and pay with their lives, from firefighters to helicopter pilots and hospital staff.

Pripyat Piano

A bit like the Ghostbusters scene when the fire-station reactor is shut down, radioactive fumes flowed into the atmosphere, drifting over Europe, – only these took an entire week, and were invisible, with up to 60% settling in Belarus. Local authorities didn’t notice the fire was blazing within the reactor until a journalist & photographer flew over it in a helicopter the following day. Russia failed to alert the international community until Swedish Nuclear Power-station workers across the sea triggered their radiation detectors upon entering their workplace, rather than exiting. Sweden contacted Denmark, Norway and Finland, and the Russian Government now had to put its hands up.

Pripyat entrance

Pripyat was built as Nuclear town from 1970 onwards, close to the plant, to house workers and their families. Its 50,000 residents had 16 years to get used to their burgeoning community: its supermarkets, restaurants, schools, nurseries, sports stadium, fairground, before being calmly uprooted without explanation.

Pripyat Nursery 1

Today, two of the most radioactive parts of the town are the middle of the playground and the hospital; two points where the first respondents were first brought to; helicopter pilots and firefighters. As human carriers of unprecedented levels of radiation, their presence in the hospital endangered the lives of hospital staff too. At first they showed what looked like burns, then vomiting, and were each given hours… The hospital staff would have months, and often years before they would feel the effects, but they would feel them. These were areas we could not access.

Pripyat Dodgems

In the first days, residents had been advised to stay indoors, as shelter was better, and wind initially led the fallout away from the town, but as the wind changed, thousands of families and their animals were quietly led away from their homes. People came back over the months and years to collect precious items, but what is left now, among the decaying wall-paper, dusty children’s toys, jars in cupboards, broken pianos and decomposing sofas, is a memorial to our precarious life on this planet – the life we’ve built for ourselves, with its invisible, but invincible threats around us.

A thin but established forest now dances over Pripyat. Shrubs scribble over its once-busy tarmac’d streets, with strange red beetles zagging between fag-butts and rotting wood. Street lamps stand quietly in clusters of trees the same height, and there’s a reverence to the place, but as we run around it, absorbing signs of 1986 soviet life, a sense of pride. I don’t know whether it was the blue sky, or our collective quiet wonder, but Pripyat is not macabre, or even sombre.

It’s not a place of death, torture or violence. It’s the centre of a much wider place that was exposed, betrayed by a lack of honesty, but that still shows its heart and faces. Forced to react, with thousands of lives uprooted and transplanted, the place is a monument of truths, and of transience. Just as Pompei is a glimpse into a distant, deadly past, Pripyat is a frame of nearer catastrophic times, but still very human and very real. As the trees take over the schoolyards, and vines creep into the supermarket, it’s eerily beautiful, a poignant reminder that humans are not permanent, infallible, or gods.

Pripyat Nursery 3

For now, a second “Sarcophagus” sits over the reactor, said to be able to last 100 years. The site is teaming with industrial workers and soldiers, who look nonchalantly at the wide-eyed tourists. Down the road is ‘the red forest’ – where much of the most radioactive land was exposed shallowly, – a large expanse where much of the initial airborne radioactivity landed, where the hand-held scanner in our guide’s hand bleeped ferociously.. The bottoms of the trees are black – and birds freely land, nest, and fly away to other areas. For now, it costs billions to take care of the sarcophagus – generations of Ukrainians will have to worry about the forest later. So for that reason, tourist dollars directly contribute to the upkeep of the site.

31 deaths are attributed to Chernobyl, among the emergency workers and reactor staff. A UN report attributes 64 deaths as of 2008, although the toll is expected to reach 4000 among those exposed to the highest levels; 200,000 emergency workers; 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas.

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But here’s the kicker. The fateful reactor was number 4, with reactors 5 and 6 under construction, and another 6 planned. The reactors powered nearby cities and towns, yes, but that kind of power would need a very maximum of two reactors – not twelve. About a 45-minute drive from the plant, we were taken to a huge construction of space-age rows of telegraph wires, some 150m in height, by 300m in length – a rigid series of conical cages, ladders, platforms and wires, pointed unashamedly towards the United States. In full view, NATO would have been aware, but people are still confused over its purpose, if it is purely a colossal listening device, or the potential to be much more.

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Known as “The Russian Woodpecker”, the structure was in action, interfering with radio waves and airwaves for decades, right up until 1989 and the end of the Cold War.. Popular local belief is that, with a possible six more reactors, the intention was to do much, much more than simply listen, (and here I picture Alan Moore’s ending of “The Watchmen”). The guide explained the amount of power that would be needed to create a weapon that could control the weather – and with incredible amounts of nuclear power under your control – why not?

It was by reaching so far, and literally to the sky, that one of the biggest, and most powerful empires the world has seen, collapsed. One crack – one accidental fire, that cost 16 billion dollars to address, and then fix, back in 1986. Its expense was crippling, and that in turn, transformed the lives of millions across the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Estonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and many more.

Pripyat Supermarket 2

Today, the Ukraine relies on Nuclear power for 60% of its energy supplies, and with it’s ability to take away dependency of fossil fuels and natural resources, and to power entire cities fast, without a viable sustainable alternative, nuclear power is going nowhere. As a global populace, its up to us to understand how to take care of it, harness it, and live with the consequences if we can’t.

Heading back to the city, the combination of Kiev and Chernobyl was a mind-opening trip that hadn’t been what any of us expected. We expected a pretty European city with a smattering of communism and a clash of cultures, with Vodkas in our hands. We expected a bomb site full of horror stories and post apocalyptic film sets.

Instead we found quiet, inspired stories from strong people full of contrasts; a task to attempt to understand even just a tiny bit, a myriad of different types of beauty, different sides of history, solid handshakes with hidden attentiveness. And of course, a trip across a planet that can perfectly cover our steps if it needs to, and we could so easily force its hand.

Pripyat Apartment

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Almighty Almaty

My cheeks hurt from smiling for four days. My throat’s hoarse from laughing and shouting, and my poor, poor liver.

Six Dubai hipsters had the privilege of spending our Eid Al Adha in Almaty, Kazakhstan with our good friend Olga, a real-life Kazakh who we now regard as a Gangster Princess. All we knew about her nation had been defined by a British, Jewish impersonator with a Turkish catchphrase – “Yashimash”.

In the following days, Craig David crashed a wedding, we got rhythmically spanked with oak branches by a semi-naked Korean, a tearful spy passed out on our couch, we sang Irish shanties around a soviet satellite-monitoring station and some innocent children were farted on. And among this and a few things that are unpublishable in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, we fell in love with a country that surprised us a thousand times. This is a long one. Sit with me.

Almaty sits just beside the border of Kyrgyrzstan (spell that without looking). With 1.4 million residents, it’s surrounded by colossal mountain ranges and  home to major winter sporting events thanks to all the gradient and icyness. That’s the factual bit. Now let’s engage.

Friday September 9th.

Upon arrival in our first ‘Stan, with a Wikipedia summary on the plane and no expectations whatsoever, before we could absorb the cyrillic signage and our first slivers of soviet concrete, we were packed into what looked like a bullet-proof van with black windows, which became the Gangsta-Party-Bus, captained by our enthusiastic but patiently bemused Driver/DJ, Azim. I’m scoping out potential Kazakh husbands and Azim is candidate number one.

Kazakhstan is 70% Muslim, 30% Christian/Miscellaneous. Its people are 60% descendants of nomadic Mongolian tribes, who revere Ghengis Khan as a unifying warrior-emperor (and not the Khal-Drogo-Barbarian Western countries have historically painted him as). 30% are ethnic Russians and mixture of other Eastern European cultures.

On the whole, it seems a bit divided between these two groups, which makes our multi-ethnic party an oddity, with apparently the only combo of both an Indian and Black man in town. This is where I give myself the covert mission of whispering to strangers that our friend Edem is British Songwriter Craig David. (Edem still doesn’t know how many Kazakhs I said this to).

Driving through the outskirts of the apple city (Almaty is apparently the spiritual home of apples – they started here- every apple ever), our wide-open tourist eyes try to decipher every difference in this culture from the worlds we understand, from intricate tiles and ornate fences to super-size policeman’s caps and take-no-prisoners driving.

Kazakh homes are cared for, and thoughtful design is everywhere. It’s in the layout of parks, the buttressed facades of 80s residences, influences everywhere of nomadic Mongolian craft, and a completely unique fusion of Communist-Imperial-Brutalist-Mughal-Modernist-European-Asian aesthetic. I’m confused and inspired at once. But inspired design is not there functionally in the traffic system yet, where getting between two spots within a 15 minute walk can take 20 minutes in the car around a gargantuan one-way circuit (which mystifies me in a city with a grid format).

The bullet-proof Gangsta-bus takes us to a group of theatrically-majestic spiked glass towers in the centre of town, built in the style of a mountain range. Smarter people at this point would remember the name of where they’re staying.

After our first few rounds of vodka and a sample of horse meat (we ordered a Pork platter), evening sets in. We get back in the Gangsta-bus and head across town to a dark, questionable alleyway, with a solitary young Russian-looking woman standing under a lamplight. Before panic sets in, we’re told this is Olga’s best friend, and we’re happier to be ushered in to the adjacent brick-walled courtyard. We pile out and crowd around an incredible feast of thirty plates of incredible hot and cold food under the moonlight.  Joining the loud and grateful diners, this platter is provided by Alexei, the owner of a Banya, who generously passes around a Kazakh ‘Shisha’, with a smile that radiates with perfect consistency for our entire trip.

I didn’t know at this point that Kazakh herbologists are extremely adept at their trade. Maybe it was the altitude of such a high city, but my internal altitude soared and I was not prepared for what came next. A Banya is a Sauna-and-Plunge-pool affair, but you’re encouraged to wear woolly hats in the steamy heat (“to stop your hair going frizzy”) and then lie on your front while you’re tapped, smacked then tapped with oak leaves for 10 minutes. This shamanistic soft-percussion releases bad energy, eliminates stress and detoxes. But I got very stressed when my turn was up, and continued drinking vodka to calm my nerves.

We posed for a group photo, holding up a plate with one delicious-looking brown unidentifiable fish, (purely because it looked fancy). The fish’s head fell on the floor mid photo, and we howled with laughter, while our Kazakh hosts were very confused. (“they have never eaten fish?”) Right before it was my turn to get smacked for ten minutes, I dug into the fish and ate what I thought was couscous. I had inadvertently disembowelled the fish with my finger and eaten its unborn foetuses. Cue a royal freak out.

We steamed. We plunged. We smoked. We drank. We dressed, and we went clubbing. ‘Pink Pong,’ also owned by Alexei, is one of my new favourite places.

imageA small, assuredly cool but subtle affair, it’s a sleek little bar with wooden walls, pink light, and quietly friendly artists, designers, copywriters, account directors and individuals who were interested and interesting.

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Occupying a residential area, it is the unfortunate doorman’s job to regularly shush the clientele. The shushing and his earnest face don’t instill fear, and soon we’re all shushing back as soon as he comes near, then theatrically shushing each other. He probably doesn’t find this as hilarious as we do.

Inside, drinks are cheap and the music is exceptional. Erika, an impossibly cool and impossibly beautiful half-Kazakh-half-Mexican DJ nonchalantly plays body-rouser after body-rouser, and we reach for Shazam every time. I haven’t had a night in years where I’ve been so thrilled by such a danceable playlist of tracks I’d never heard. She, Rustem, Arys and Aidaar kept us on our feet, while we danced the vodka out of our systems.

At 4am, slightly confused, a bit worse for wear, my two roomies and I are bundled into a cab with Rustem, who at this stage, we don’t know that well. None of us can remember the name of the iconic tower we’re staying at (featured in most Almaty postcards), so we go on an early-morning ‘road trip’ across a city none of us know, in languages we don’t speak. Driving the wrong way up a one-way street, we’re pulled over by a cop. Our driver is expected to bribe him to be allowed to pass GO, but the policeman insists instead that after we’re dropped off, the driver goes and gets him some snacks, cigarettes and a magazine. Apparently this is normal, but Rustem is as confused as us. The driver agrees and we continue the wrong way up the one-way-street to Whatsitsname.

Saturday September 10th. 

We rise, and walk across town to the base of the Cable Car up to Kok Tobe. Cable Cars turn me into a Six year old on Christmas Morning (but so far, so have most experiences in Kazakhstan). Kok Tobe is a mountain with a ferris wheel on top, a petting zoo with ostriches, stags and giant rabbits, a bronze statue of the Beatles, a Toboggan run and a rooftop cafe with hearty local food where Almaty’s answer to Michael Bublé serenades us, then breaks out a Violin and makes my heart implode. Maddy Heaven. If there was a cinema here playing only 80s comedies, life would be complete and I’d find a way to relocate here and never come down. I could take care of the giant rabbits.

Photos tell us Gerard Depardieu, Steven Seagal and Prince Michael of Kent had the Kok Tobe experience too. And the Kazakh herbs are helping us appreciate the nuances of every second.

imageSitting in the Toboggan with my head between my best friend’s legs, I loudly lose my mind and voice plunging down metal rails towards earth across the side of the mountain. Then another Cable Car ride. Everything is amazing. Too. Much. Awesome.

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imageAfter Kok Tobe, we take a stroll through the park, towards Zenkov Cathedral. Built in 1907, and apparently the 2nd tallest wooden building in the world, the outside looks like a perfect Birthday Cake, while inside, the Russian Orthodox version of Eid Al Adha, the feast of Abraham, has me spellbound. Women wear headscarves, and sing better than any orchestral choir I’ve seen, in front of guilt-gold panels of incredible paintings. I’m in awe of their faith, and the piety of their talent; perfect voices in harmony, tnot aimed at a camera phone, but at an altar. Just like the voices in a Baptist church in Brooklyn, the sounds inside Zenkov Cathedral will stay with me forever.

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We walk from here to Panfilov Park, where a pantheon of colossal sculptures commemorate 28 soldiers who died fighting the Nazis outside Moscow, and who are about to be commemorated in a film. The huge figures are composed, powerful and emotional. This is not a place for Selfies, but to feel intimidated by pride, bravery and action.

On our way out, a wedding party lines up to have pictures with Craig David and his friends.

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That evening we head to Kino, another exceptionally cool club with BBoying Kazakhs, a delicious funky-disco soundtrack, and a proprietor and smiling DJ, Rustam, who also happens to run Jazzystan – an outdoor, annual hilltop Jazz festival at my favourite place, Kok Tobe, that features Jazz, electronica and funk acts from across all of the Stans, and a few global ones too. I will be there.

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The day’s not finished. We head to an abandoned Munitions factory that is one of the coolest hipster-tastic spaces we’ve ever seen. A former production line for human destruction, it’s now an impossibly cool temporary art-space full of sculptures, hyper-cool lighting, terrifying toilets and music that makes us feel like we’ve taken drugs even if we haven’t. Getting home is still difficult. Nobody has yet tried to remember the name of the massive spiky landmark we live in.

Sunday September 11th. 

Our groggy heads bundle back into the GangstaBus and up the mountain to the former olympic site, Medea. Cue today’s ear worm, SL2’s “On a Ragga Tip” for the intro lyrics: “Dea, Medea, BeWanladidi..UmbaDea… “

We queue for another cable car, only now it’s raining, and the cable car is not going anywhere. The queue becomes a stationary crowd of angry faces shuffling forward when there is no forward. To try and reclaim some space, a member of the group uses their own personal emissions. Two Kazakh children are in the line of fire. This is a low point in our behaviour on the trip, but achieves the desired outcome.

The queue’s not moving, but Gangsta Princess Olga conveniently meets some friends nearby, who lead us to another friend’s nearby log-cabin in the mountains – An Actual Log Cabin, made of actual logs, with an open fire, and a professional multi-restaurant-owning Serbian chef barbecuing slivers of the most perfect meat we’ve ever tasted. imageThe friend in charge of the log cabin is Aidar, another brilliant DJ, who also runs his own massive annual Almaty music event, Cosmic Picnic. I’ll be there. And near to the cabin itself, despite the rain, a busy, family-friendly mountain-music-festival was taking place. We dance and grin to a Kazakh Klezmer-Punk-Ska band with wonder in our souls. A lot of cameras wanted to film Craig David’s attendance. Everything is still amazing. Too. Much. Awesome.

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That evening we head to the home of another DJ, Red-bull-award-winning composer Arys Arenov, and a small gathering in what we believe is his own apartment, but may possibly be owned by his parents. Buttressed Arches shape the Windows as if Rennie Macintosh was inspired by Starwars. One of us asks: “When was this built?” Arys replies “86”. Our response: “1886?” “No, 1986”. This little misunderstanding is indicative of how the architecture throughout the whole city is like nothing we know. We had no references, no context, and we loved it.

We ask Arys to give the six of us a tour of the apartment. We pile into the dining room, expectant and excitable. “This is the …dining room”, is followed by an expectant pause, confused looks, then an awkward shuffle out of the dining room and into the genuine Kazakh hallway. Perhaps not every single element of this trip is supposed to be a mind-blowing adventure.

In Arys’s kitchen we play the escalator game. An Indian, a Ghanaian, a Kiwi, an Australian, an Iranian, a Brit and six Kazakhs applaud one another over impressions of passing up and down a hypothetical escalator  behind a table.

With every country or nationality I’ve ever encountered, humour unites and forges friendships like nothing else. It establishing understanding, boundaries, trust, and for me, loyalty. One real, deep-down-dirty belly laugh and you’ve got me for life.

Hometime. Nobody knows the name of spiky tower. Jane thinks it might be called “Noodly Towel”. Arys’s bottomless blue eyes may be another factor in me looking forward to a return trip.

Monday September 12th. 

We thought we were already blown away by Kazakhstan, but the Almaty gods had more in store. Just as the rain led us to a perfect log-cabin, the following day clouds are trying to disguise a new treat. They blanket the city like a comfortable gloom as we head up to the mountains. We stop for a picnic in a traditional wooden hut. More delicious food, and Pork Shashlik, which our Indian gang-member has been raving about since the plane. He’s right. It’s dangerously delicious.

Back on the bus and we make our way towards Almaty Big Lake, nestled in the peaks that line the jagged border with Kyrgyrzstan. We drive up and up, then above the clouds, and our jaws drop. On left and right are valleys that look like the saturation has been turned up on Photoshop and the CGI team have gone all-out.

Prehistoric don’t-fuck-with-me mountains straddle the heavens while having what looks like an engrossing conversation with one another at the same time. They make me miss my humble Lake District, but their beauty is completely their own. I feel like I’m on acid just looking at them.

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Big Almaty Lake is a light blue colour, due to Zinc, Rustem tells us. Today, the mountains around it are peppered with discoball shafts of sunlight. To add a cherry on the top of this perfect-perfecty-perfectness, a newlywed couple are nearby being photographed on a rock. With her dress billowing in silhouette, they held a smoke flare and my heart implodes again.

Craig David and I try to bring things back to our humble-mortal level with multi-man poses in one Panorama.

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Rustem asks if we fancy heading to the nearby Space Observatory, a former communist monitoring station still in military use. There’s a unanimous YES. Arys and Rustem make quiet calls ahead with serious faces. We pile back in the Gangsta bus and up to the Tien Shan Astronomical Observatory. Our passports and security cards are handed over to a man at a check point. Kazakh herbs can be stronger at this altitude, so I don’t  quite understand the gravity of the situation, and maybe my white privilege has made me a bit complacent these days, because I don’t think I stopped singing, erraticallg dancing or laughing all the way up the mountain, at the checkpoint, or around the station itself.

The Aussie poet of our group, Meredith described Tien Shan as a “vintage Astronomical wonderland” and it’s exactly that; a mystical setting for strange, purposeful buildings and old-school sci-fi equipment, in an ethereal landscape. Remnants of a mistrustful but diligent soviet republic, watching the skies, from as close to them as possible. We want to absorb it all.

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I wish I’d had a slightly clearer head at this point, instead of trying to sing The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” with my arm around the unimpressed but tolerant slightly-terrifying Russian lady following us as our security escort. I think I’m being a bit obnoxious-Brit.

It’s hard to peel ourselves away from the colours and shapes and the calm mountain quietness I’ve so rudely and repeatedly interrupted, but we make our way back down from the mountains and into the city with sufficient levels of drama.

Azim, our DJ/Driver blasts Euro, Kazakh and Russian pop at us. It’s as formulaic as global pop, so we’re able to sing along loudly without having heard any of the tracks before. The whites of Craig David’s eyes widen as we hurtle down the mountain pass screaming neon ballads, with a sheer drop of death on either side of the road, and our laughing driver turning back to look at us instead of that road, while we stay gleefully thankful to be alive.

With the hills, then the burbs, then the city trundling past, my eyes try to take in every last piece I can; the blend of brutalism and humanism in the buildings, small or big. Rigid lines of confident optimism with sudden arcs of sweeping energy of decades not that far gone by. They show me that the Soviet psyche was not the one-dimensional characters of robotic villains in films. These visionary structures could not be made by regimented, repressed, unimaginative souls. They hold belief and ambition. Their lines, angles and defiant shapes were full of a brave new optimism for a bold, space-age, world-conquiering future. That future might have taken an erratic path, but it’s still forming, and the richness of modern Kazakh identity is fascinating.

Hometime.

From what we saw, Kazakhs are quietly observant, and loudly friendly. They’re discerning and aware, and in design, music and fashion, the individuals we met knew their shit. It felt like they’d taken the best of what the world creates, but stayed true to their own. I love that. There was no need to please, minimal homogeneity. Just a desire to share, a pride that didn’t have to be declared, because it was authentic and assured.

Kazakhstan is no fairytale, and Olga’s friends do not represent the entire populace. Ruled by the same president since 91, communism may no longer be the official regime, but democracy as half the planet knows it is not here yet, and equal distribution of substantial wealth appears to be far off. In a country with limited press freedom, and a regime in charge that has been known to brutally and mercilessly intimidate dissent, this is a stunning wonderland where everyone appears to work very, very hard. Even the supposed Slackers would be unequivocally back at the office at 8am after an all-nighter with us. But we didn’t see poverty – we saw people working hard. We didn’t see drunks staggering across any streets (well, except us), or hear the same kind of street-shouting/slurring the Brits tend to do at home and abroad (although I hear it’s a different story after dark).

Despite recent troubles with Islamist Militants, we felt safe, perhaps because we had Craig David with us, perhaps because we stuck out like sore thumbs, but safe thumbs.

I think it’s evident I fell pretty hard for the place. I can’t wait to go back, and am booking in Cosmic Picnic and Jazzystan. You’re welcome to join me.

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The stars of this adventure were:

Olga Verchenko   …(Superstar actually)

Sachin Mendonça

Jane Aldersley

Edem Agbotui

Meredith Carson

Lady who can’t be named

And of course, Ruslem, Erika, Arys, Alexei, Aidar, Azim, Ruslan, and a host of brilliant folks with incredible generosity.

Click here and go find adventures.


Stranger, Better things.

There’s a Game of Thrones gap in my life that has now been nuked by a ‘Stranger Things’ gap. In the aftermath, I feel like a beloved pet has just died. In just 8 episodes, Stranger Things made me excited, inspired, flattered, and it made me care about things, and people that were pretty ridiculous. The hugely popular (and now cult) series didn’t have the world’s most colossal budget, (but an evidently big one) or a colossal cast of exceptional shakespearean thespians slumming it. But, like the coolest cat at the party, it was intricately composed, while appearing free and easy. Its characters were whole, without having to lord it. Its settings took you back to your own past, without looking like the set designer was enjoying himself too much.

Like most, I binged the lot, like a Cartman with a bucket of popcorn, a dark room and no friends. I screamed, but I loved it. And I tried to figure out why it’s so bloody lovely. This is my theory:

CRAFT.

Everything has been thought of, delicately enough to look like it hasn’t. Shot on an impossibly expensive camera, ‘The Red Dragon’, a layer of subtle ‘frosting’ film was added to give the overall feel a subtle “VHS” look that adds subliminally to an overall feel of authenticity (more subtly than the crackling opening credits).

The composition of each frame is as painterly as Pans Labrynth, from  dancing particles of ash, to monochrome Barb sitting on a diving board. And the subtle colour grading throughout never gets in the way.

ERA.

This is everything that makes Stranger Things an Instant Cult classic. Egregiously referring to the era that is the apex of Stephen King and John Carpenter, there is an innocence to sci-fi, horror and comedy from this period that allows films to be all three genres without having to stake a sole claim in one and own it vehemently. Stranger Things is not a buddy flick, horror film, thriller, drama or vintage homily. It is free to be all of them at once.

The Duffer brothers chose the last period of time when popular culture was still innocent. Celebrities still had bad hair and teeth, and teenagers wore cardigans knitted by their mothers. When sanitised MTV culture stole the 90s from us, it paved the way for High School Musical, not awkward kids playing boardgames. The 80s is a time we can still remember with a warm nostalgia- where fads, toys and brands came and went without brands declaring their domination. And we miss it.

CHARACTERS.

We now live in an era with too much excellent drama, in our golden age of almost too many rich, believable characters and plots set in the real world, we’ve been spoiled. Over the last ten years we’ve had Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and so many powerful character arcs and compelling stories we feel a part of. Because the standard, thanks to HBO and Netflix, is so high now, it’s refreshing to meet characters that, at first, don’t appear to ask too much of us – where, with the luxury of eight hours and not two, we are allowed to appreciate them, on whichever level we choose to.

The characters are developed, and believable, but you could happily sit back and just gorge on the E.T. and Goonie-ness of it all with a little healthy shit-yourself-fear thrown in. The casting however, is the golden ticket. The Duffer Brothers struggled to sell the show to a series of networks primarily because nobody wanted to bank on a horror format with children as the stars. And that’s exactly what makes this whole thing precious. I’ll say more about that.

SOUND.

You can now get the Soundtrack on iTunes. The sound design for Stranger Things is not simply a homage to 80s synth. It gets it. The Duffer Brothers (my new unequivocal crush) actively sought out Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and it was one of the best decisions they made. Dixon and Stein do not over do it. We’re aware of the score, and yes, it manipulates, but, unlike in Game of Thrones (which is brilliant at orchestrated crescendos versus softly-stepped acoustic anticipation), it frames, and subtly leads us, without giving anything away. Somehow, all it does is add to the whole beautiful thing.

Have I raved too much? I’m not done yet.

CAST. 

The unknowns and the knowns. The five twelve year olds at the heart of this are not Hermione Grangers or “seeing dead people”. Whether it’s the child stars, or the brilliant direction of the Duffers, the action is simply taking place, and the boys and girl seem completely unaware of the camera. I really want to see how good they’ll be in other projects, or whether this is about the whole production.

We can laugh at these eleven year olds, but we care about them, because Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Materazzo and Noah Schnapp are each brilliant. The teens too. Joe Keery’s annoying Steve Harrington won the directors round, enough to change his character’s plotline and keep him in it, as more than a basic bully. Natalie Dyer’s Nancy Wheeler was sweet but strong, kind but manipulative, and grew to dominate  with every scene.

Stranger-Things-TV-show-on-Netflix-season-1-canceled-or-renewed-590x332

My Questions.   # # # S P O I L E R S  # # #

  • If the Demagorgon senses blood, surely that makes every menstrual lady in the town a target? And also.. the hospital?
  • Which came first – the egg or the slug?
  • Where is the dog. Why does nobody care what happens to the dog?
  • Can we have a prequel purely about Barb? She’s amazing. Totally worthy of the memes she’s been generating.
  • 3 juicy relationships – Eleven & Mike, Sweetly-Badass Nancy and whichever-one’s-about, and of course, Joyce and Hopper. Really wanted the last one to happen..
  • In series two, will the children have the same innocence that makes this so accessible? Or will puberty take a massive bite out of the playfulness of the whole thing?
  • That article on the noticeboard. Many, many questions about that.
  • How is the carbon-based, carnivorous Demagorgon so impervious to bullets/flames/massive leg-spiked traps
  • I love it that the Demagorgon is now being described as “Tulip Head”. I’d like to see how far they can steer this away from being a bit too “Aliens”/”Predator” in the next series.
  • Eleven. Can she not just become Hopper’s adopted child and then everyone’s happy? That would make me happy.

I’ve said enough.

Stranger-things-4

 

 


Remember Tibet?

This isn’t normally a political blog.. but after spending Christmas in Northern India, there’s always room for a story of substance. Tibet has been ruled from Beijing since 1950, when China says it “peacefully liberated” the isolated plateau region. More than 2.5 million Tibetans have been ‘relocated’ within China in the last 10 years as well as hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders on the eastern plateau region.

At least 220 Tibetans have committed acts of self-immolation since 2009 in protest. China denies that its rule over ‘the Tibet Autonomous Region’ is repressive; that it has brought prosperity to an impoverished area, and that its relocation policy creates economic improvement.

Amid rampant mining and river-damming, Tibetan culture and traditions are linked intrinsically to the land that has been have farmed and revered for millennia. Wild horses are deities, neighbouring valleys have completely different dress and hair styles, and hairy hermits in caves become inspired legends. During our trip to Dharmsala in December, Fathima Mohiuddin and I were able to see a slice of that culture, where the Dalai Lama and over 70,000 Tibetans live in exile. Beijing regards the Dalai Lama as a radical separatist and is highly sensitive to any perceived endorsement of the Buddhist leader. A May 2012 meeting between British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Dalai Lama resulted in a 14-month diplomatic “freeze” until normal contacts (and extensive contracts) were signed and sealed.

The Dalai Lama denies he is seeking an independent Tibet. He’s not the only one. He says he wants greater autonomy for his homeland. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and many more millions displaced… but it beggars belief that the world can ‘forget’, or look away, when a country helps itself to the historic territory of a neighbour. As an Englishman I’m not one to talk about carving up other people’s territory, and the International Community seems to have already started to accept what’s happening in Ukraine. Another Bleeding-heart-liberal Facebook status won’t make a lot of change, but this 16 year old serves as a reminder that a beautiful nation, and its millions, are still bleeding, and while China wants us to forget, and forcibly stops Tibetans fleeing to Nepal, diplomatic pressure is still a possible solution.

 

 

Here are a few links with more info, and I’m on the hunt for something substantial that lets us do more than simply point fingers…

The Tibet Post 

Human Rights Watch

 

 

 


Screen. Shot.

This is written on a Mac, with a smartphone beside it. The Mac has three files open, five tabs on Safari, two on Firefox, while the iphone flashes Whatsapps from friends in Birmingham, Hong Kong and New York.

At a restaurant this week, four girls beside us spent a two hours taking, reviewing, editing and uploading selfies. Two hours. They had a pole to suspend the camera, which my partner said was a brilliant invention, and it was, which depressed me. This is not an attack on Selfies, which are here to stay, regardless of how upset I get. But the girls would each get home and probably spend another forty minutes each, sharing, tagging, untagging, commenting on their evening. More time cumulatively talking about it online, than being with each other at the table.

I, we, all of us, spend hours on social media every week. It’s who we are and we’ve all proselytized the crap out of it. That night we, the judging couple at the next table, who thought we were smarter,  stayed up until 1.30am reading and sharing articles our friends had shared. Today I’m tired, in my head, and a little more in my heart. I, we, all of us, scan and scroll through articles, links, every day – 20 ways to lose weight at your desk, You will not believe what this cat does, Rihanna’s tits in this dress, The incredible truth about Blah… etc.

It’s not enough that electronic media, in all its forms, now clouds the way we live in the real world. The couple on the date, staring into their phones, Selfies as an accepted social disruption, like voluntary vanity hiccups in every conversation. It’s Orwellian. Huxley. Rand. Bradbury. They all warned us and it happened anyway.

We think in clicks, have tabs open, bookmark subjects and read the world in snippets; boxes, tabs, links and scroll-downs. And our memories take them in the same way. Even my dreams are shorter scenes, with more changeable characters.

Mine was one of the first year-groups to be allowed calculators in exams – to not even need to do the sums in our heads. Now every essay must be scanned for plagiarism, (and the skill it takes, to sit down and write an essay, with the entire internet behind your Word screen, is a lifeskill that really will pass the test of time – she says, clicking on the Buzzfeed’s ’33 Jokes only Game of Thrones fans will understand’).

 My father used to charge on a series of crusades against the media, how it manipulated us, how we gave it our lives to it and how it was accountable to no-one but moguls with their own egos on the agenda. Piers Morgan and Max Clifford were his Nemeses, and Mark Zuckerburg would have made him spit fire.

If he was around today, I know this voluntary life-corrosion in the name of ‘Sharing’ would be his current crusade. He would have loved this video, and if it has 43 million hits… something is catching…

It’s so much harder now to sink into a bigger story, a warm one that, segmentized through your daily commute, can’t be diminished. And it’s even harder to write one. The way our brains work, the way we read and think, and how our social relationships have evolved, is fast. A thoughtful friend wishes Facebook was an actual place you could reach out and hold people in. Instant, but real and tangible. A universal craving that our own behavior pushes further away.

Facebook isn’t just a communication tool. With friends in Dubai, a transient place at best, it’s also how people get to know and understand you, when actual conversations are harder to make out in the beating nightclub. Your Facebook etiquette – bombarding people on Chat, too many Selfies, aggressive statuses or judgmental posts, become your Actual social behaviour, to live or die by – to raise or destroy a business, reputation or livelihood.

And in the more important friendships, we write long emails and Facebook and Whatsapp messages, often instead of a call. Skype breaks this down, but still puts real life through a screen that can’t give you a rib-squeazing sweaty bear-hug. From the Middle East, I see my baby nephew in Hitchin, through daily videos held in my hand, where he isn’t.

Next month, I’m travelling to Birmingham, Brussels, Croatia and London then back to the Desert. I’ll see 14 of my closest, longest friends, my mum, my sister, her husband Senior-Awesome and their baby Super-Awesome, my brother and his beautiful wife. I can’t wait to not take any pictures or post any statuses. I want to hug them silly and exhaust them with condensed Chat. Twenty days to go…


A bone to pick.

Illegal downloading and sharing means those cheeky Superglomerate Record Company Behemoths; generous pumpers of RihannaBeiberSwiftKe$ha-fermented-silage that they are, are now desperately required by their impoverished shareholders to be even less honourable than they’ve ever been before.

Back in the 50s Elvis Presley’s bosses happily repackaged backwoods-Georgia-Gospel and Tennessee-anti-slavery-heartsongs as ‘rock n roll’ for screaming white hormonal babyboomers. The bones of the songs were given new skin, shiny Polyester and a dazzling smile.

In these two songs, the original, and its new packaging, the bones don’t matter. Sod the bones. Take the pieces, and reassemble just like new, like a knock-off handbag with some old wisdom-teeth in it instead, only the handbag is branded by one of the world’s most popular music acts.

As Paul Arden famously said, and it often deserves repeating,

“Ideas are open knowledge. Don’t claim ownership. They’re not your ideas anyway, they’re someone else’s. They are out there floating by on the ether. You just have to put yourself in a frame of mind to pick them up.”

And in Advertising, that happens every day. Trying to strip back any thought to the most common, simplest way to say it, preferably without words, inevitably means someone else in Singapore or Sao Paolo could be trying to do the exact same thing, with the same simple objects, as any trail of comments on adsoftheworld.com by bitter creatives will tell you.

But this? This is just outright stealing, and the Record Companies really don’t give a shit about my little rant. No bones about it.

Exhibits A and B:


Video & Ting.

I don’t make animations. This isn’t one. It’s more of a Slideshow Musickness-Accompaniment-ism. But an MC in Dubai gave me his CD, and I wanted to give it a try.

THIS LINK RIGHT HERE is the article I wrote about the same artist and two more that inspire me for Uprising, the brainchild of Scott Goodson, rather clever founder of Strawberry Frog, an agency made up of individuals creating things they and their clients can feel proud of, that people can enjoy seeing.

UAE HipHop and R&B in Uprising

I’m going to make another Hypermental-Slideshow Musickness-Accompaniment-ism, but for the next one I’ll be learning some proper editing packages and make some actual footage and actual stuff.

And for a chuckle at my expense, this here is the first animation I ever made back in 2003. It’s Medium-Rare Crappola, but made me laugh today by how perfectly terrible it actually is.