Search This Blog

Monday, May 25, 2015

Two Necklaces and a Bracelet

With various projects that aren't related to beads (and, well, my job), I didn't have too much time for beading during the semester.  Now that the semester is over, I think I've made up for lost time.

The first project I finished was one I had been thinking about for a long time.  Scott got me a wonderful, large, colorful pendant as an anniversary gift a few years ago.

I loved it, but it took me a long time to figure out how to use it.  I think very large pendants usually benefit from being surrounded with large beads and design elements.  At the same time, I didn't want the surrounding beads to detract from the pendant.  I ultimately ended up stitching beaded triangles in colors that complemented the pendant, and stringing those in sections along the sides of the necklace.  Other beads include vintage black glass beads; drop beads in clear, yellow, and brown glass; and large pink seed beads. I think the beaded triangles add a lot of visual weight without actual weight, which makes me happy when I wear the necklace.

Sorry for the questionable photo--I miss my light box!

The next necklace I made incorporated a small octopus pendant made by Cynthia Thornton that I had been unable to resist.  This pendant posed a different design challenge.  It is fairly small and dainty, and I didn't want the surrounding necklace to overwhelm it.  However, I didn't want the necklace to be underwhelming, either.  My compromise was to include a double strand section at the front of the necklace.

The beads I used are labradorite "chip" beads, which are much prettier in person than in these photos.  I often find chip beads difficult to work with because of their irregular shapes, but in this case, they helped me achieve the natural look I was going for.  The octopus rests on a small length of chain (from my chain scraps, yay!).

The most recent thing I made was a narwhal bracelet.  Green Girl Studios makes wonderful metal (mostly pewter) beads.  My favorite ones feature animals, and I was very excited when they came out with a narwhal design.  Because of the placement of the holes, I thought a bracelet made the most sense.  I decided to dip into my collection of vintage glass beads and made lots of wired dangles with those and purple niobium headpins.  This was my first time working with niobium, and I liked the contrast of a type of metal I think of as a more modern design element with my vintage glass beads.  Also, I tend to hoard my vintage glass beads, and it was oddly liberating to use so many on one project.

Wishing everyone time for the hobby of your choice!

Saturday, May 23, 2015


The recent news of ISIS seizing Palmyra made me think back to my own trip there, when circumstances in Syria were very different.  I studied in Syria for about a year from 2004 to 2005, and I visited Palmyra in the spring of 2005.

I don't remember exactly how long my bus ride there was from Damascus, where I was living, but it was certainly a number of hours.  Palmyra's ruins were considered a "must see" in Syria despite their distance from the major cities, and, as might be expected, a good number of the people there made their living on tourism.  There are a lot of wonderful sites for both locals and visitors to see all over Syria, but this was the only place I visited in the country where restaurant owners routinely brought out guest books for me to sign.  It was also the only place where I saw a restaurant very prominently advertise a good review they had gotten from Lonely Planet several years before.

I thought I would share a few pictures I took there.  I'm wishing peace and safety for the people and cultural treasures of Palmyra with all of my heart.

Entrance to Palmyra

Side View of Temple Bel

View of Mountains and Palm Trees


Citadel and Columns

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


On the last day of our trip to southern Kazakhstan, some of us went to visit some sites in and around the historic city of Turkistan (also spelled Turkestan).  Our choices were to be taken hiking in a canyon or go to Turkistan, and while both options sounded tempting, Turkistan won out in the end since Scott is a historian, and particularly since he has been teaching a class on the history of Kazakhstan.

The place where we were staying arranged transportation, so early in the morning, those of us going to Turkistan loaded up in a minibus.  Our first stop was at the local train station to pick up some other travelers who were joining us.  There isn't much to say about them.  It seemed clear to me and all the people I had been traveling with that they were experiencing some sort of awful tension among themselves.  There might well have been a good reason for it, but suffice to say that this won't turn into one of those cheesy stories about making lifelong friends out of people we met on a daylong tour.

We rode in the bus for quite a while, enjoying views of red poppies and small local mosques from the window.  The first stop we made was to see the ruins of Otrar.  According to one of the Russian speakers in our group, the minibus driver commented that there was nothing to see there, just a pile of rocks.  Truthfully, to the uninitiated, his comment seemed rather apt.  Scott told me to think of it as evidence of Chinghis Khan's destruction.

Our next stop was the Aristan-Bab Mausoleum, for an early mentor of the Turkic sufi scholar Kozha Ahmed Yasaui.  There was a well there from which people were drinking, but I never learned the story behind that water.

Then, it was on to Turkistan for lunch and for the Kozha Ahmed Yasaui mausoleum, which built by Tamerlane in the 14th century.  Tamerlane died before it was completed, so while the back side is adorned in colorful tiles, the main facade remained unfinished, to the extent that the scaffolding poles are still there.

Unfinished main facade

Close-up of the scaffolding poles

Beautiful tile work in the back

Close-up of some of the tile designs.  Some of the tiles looked pretty old, while some looked very recently restored.
Most of the women who visited this mausoleum covered their heads, but quite a few of them had bare arms and legs.  This interested me because at many religious sites in the Middle East, you can rent long, hooded cloaks to wear.  I was also interested to see that shubat, or fermented camel's milk, was being sold right outside, despite being alcoholic.

Of more general interest, there was also a very cool furry camel right outside.  The poor critter was making sort of disgruntled sounding noises.  It was a pretty warm day, and I imagine he might have been sort of uncomfortable.

We didn't see too much of the town of Turkistan, but what we saw seemed to be on sort of hard times.  Not everyone in Astana is wealthy by a long shot, but quite a lot of money there is spent on modern buildings and the like.  Despite Turkistan's historical importance and relatively large population (112,000 according to my Lonely Planet guide), it did not seem like a particularly affluent town.

Then it was on to Shymkent, where we were to eat dinner and catch a flight back to Astana.  Our group had to decide whether we wanted to either (a) go directly to the Shymkent airport and have a long wait, but not worry about making our flight, or (b) going to a restaurant and then making our way to the airport.  We decided on the latter option, and I'm glad we did.  The restaurant was air conditioned, a pleasant change after a day spent on a hot, crowded minibus.  The food was very good, it was a good chance to chat and unwind.  Also, it turned out that the Shymkent airport was quite small, and relatively lacking in both seats and food options.  On top of that, it also had a wide swath of unguarded wet cement inside, as we found out when Scott stepped in it on our way to the security line.  We heard a guy screaming "Nyet, nyet!" when it was already too late.  We spent enough time in that airport to make our mark; no additional time there was necessary.

I'm glad we saw the sites in and around Turkistan, but I think the day demonstrated some of the difficulties of travel in Kazakhstan.  For one thing, Kazakhstan is a very large country, and distances between sites can be quite long.  They seem even longer when you are in a hot, crowded minibus.  Infrastructure is also not evenly developed throughout the country.  Some of the roads we traveled were extremely bumpy, and toilets seemed to be quite few and far between.  Then there was the language barrier.  We were lucky to always be in the company of at least one Russian speaker, which helped tremendously, but Kazakh seemed to be the more dominant language in parts of the south.  (I would actually love to learn some Kazakh, particularly since my students are always telling me about words Kazakh and Arabic have in common, but I haven't had a good opportunity, and it isn't all that widely used in Astana).

We arrived in Astana sometime after midnight.  We had a wonderful time on our trip to southern Kazakhstan, and we're so happy we were able to see a new part of the country with friends.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve

On the second day of our southern Kazakhstan trip, we went hiking in the Aksu-Zhabagyly nature reserve.  I had heard it was beautiful there, but was not prepared for the scene that awaited me when we arrived.

I wish Astana looked like this!  We were assigned a ranger to hike with us, so we headed out.  Our first challenge was needing to cross this stream.

The ranger was helping some people to cross by stepping on a couple of largish rocks.  Other people were taking off their socks and shoes and wading across.  I surveyed the scene and decided that wading in with my socks and shoes still on was my best bet--I was less likely to fall or cut my foot on something.  It wasn't fun getting my shoes and socks wet, but my shoes were mostly mesh and my socks were of some sort of quick-drying material, so it wasn't too bad.  Poor Scott took off his socks and shoes only to get his feet muddy and not be able to clean them off easily.  On we went.

The climb was pretty steep at times, and I was grateful for all the times I had chosen to walk up to our apartment on the tenth floor.  Nonetheless, I was still sore the next day.  My main challenge was not falling.  There were plenty of opportunities to fall:  thick mud, very narrow paths, and loose rocks.  With Scott's help, though, I stayed upright and enjoyed the wonderful views.

In addition to the seeing the beautiful mountains, we saw plenty of interesting plant life, including various tulips.

Wild apple blossoms

Close-up of Greig's tulip

Hillside of Greig's tulips

We had been hoping to see ibex, which live in this reserve, but that didn't happen.  We saw plenty of evidence of ibex, but it was not of the variety worth photographing, if you catch my drift.  One of my friends saw a strange cat-like creature who disappeared before any of the rest of us could get a look.  Since we don't know what it was, I choose to believe that my friend saw the extremely rare and elusive snow leopard.  On the upside, none of us had a close encounter with a bear, which also live in the reserve!

We ate a picnic lunch here.

Then we continued on to see the waterfall.  This was the most challenging part of the hike for me--walking down a steep slope with loose dirt and gravel to slip on.  The view was pretty cool, although it may be difficult to see the actual water in these pictures.

The way back down was beautiful, too, although perhaps even harder on my cranky knees.

After our hike, we went to a museum for the nature reserve.  It had all sorts of taxidermied critters and an interesting central tree display.

Then we made an ice cream and/or beer run at a small store and went back to where we were staying to relax.  Several of us buddied up to a small striped cat, and there were puppies on the premises for the dog people.  Some of us took a short walk before dinner.

The funny thing was that there was rain in the forecast, and we were worried that we might not be able to hike or do much of anything.  It was actually pretty close to perfect--never too warm or too cold, a pleasant breeze a good part of the time, and no rain.  I'm so glad I got to make this beautiful hike, and would happily go back again.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Train-Tripping To Taraz

On Thursday evening, we set out on a trip to southern Kazakhstan with some friends.  Our trip was to begin in Taraz.  From there, we planned to spend a day hiking in the Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve, then see some sites en route to and in Turkistan, and finally end up in Shymkent, where we would catch a flight back to Astana.  We took the overnight, high-speed train to Taraz, a trip that took about 13 hours.  This probably doesn't sound particularly high-speed, but according to one of our travel companions, the trip used to take around 24 hours because the train would stop at all sorts of small towns along the way.  So, by comparison, a 13-hour option seemed quite good.

The set up was like our train trip to Almaty in the fall, with four seats, and then four beds that could be set up.  Our train departed around 11:30 PM, which was fine because it wasn't too long before we were all ready to go to sleep.  This process was somewhat delayed by one of the train attendants coming by repeatedly to tell us not to pull the red emergency handle in our compartment and to make sure to record all of our nationalities.  (Were we sure we were all from the US?  Someone in the neighboring compartment said he was from Indiana!).

By the time we started waking up in the morning, the scenery was gradually becoming more interesting.  Southern Kazakhstan seems to have much more to recommend itself than northern Kazakhstan, at least from what I have seen so far.  It has mountains, and even when no mountains are in view, you see more trees or at least interesting plants.  I didn't think this would photograph well from the train, but poppies were in bloom, so we saw this amazing bright red color highlighting the landscape.  I watched the scenery and played Farkle with my compartment-mates.

We got in to Taraz around lunchtime, and someone from the homestay near the the nature reserve where we had booked rooms came to pick us up.  We had lunch, and then visited the Aysha-Bibi mausoleum.  The story I've heard/read about this is that Aysha fell in love with the lord of Taraz, but Aysha's father did not agree to the marriage.  They made a pact to marry in secret, but Aysha was bitten by a snake.  The lord of Taraz married her just before she passed away, and later, built this tomb for her.


Old and restored sections
We then visited a canyon.  It was great seeing the scenery along the way, at least when I was awake!  I haven't trained myself to sleep very well on overnight trains yet.  I was startled awake by lurching and noises a number of times, and the bed was a little short for me.  The result was that I was very drowsy the following day.  We saw some bee eaters with very vivid blue feathers from the van, but I was never in a good position to photograph then.  The canyon was very close to the border with Kyrgyzstan.  I think someone said that the small stream in the canyon forms part of the border.

I heard distant thunder and felt occasional raindrops while we were at the canyon.  By the time we approached the place where we were staying, it had started raining pretty hard.  Various livestock were out and about and had to be herded somewhere.  From the van, we saw a young guy on horseback herding quite a lot of cows.  It was a pretty amazing sight.

The place we stayed was wonderful.  It was scenic, and had great food.  I was happy to get a good night's sleep on a perfectly stationary bed before our hike the following morning.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Another Attempt to See the Elusive Flamingo

Ever since I learned that Kazakhstan had the northernmost colony of flamingos, seeing them has been on my Kazakhstan bucket list.  Last time we headed out toward the Korgalzhyn nature reserve to try to see them, the trip didn't go so well.  The weather had already gotten quite cold, the flamingos were wintering somewhere with a more pleasant climate, and we spent the day trying to avoid attracting the attention of a local film crew.  The weather is warming up rapidly at this point, though, so when we had an opportunity to take another trip to the area, we jumped at the chance.

Unfortunately, the flamingo was to remain unseen.

We learned that usually by this time in the year, the flamingos have returned to Lake Tengiz, a saltwater lake that has a type of shrimp that they like to eat.  This spring has been unusually cold and wet, though, so while flamingos have been spotted in Kazakhstan, they haven't settled in Lake Tengiz yet.  Additionally, the roads out to the lake were still too muddy, so we couldn't even make it out there.  We saw flooding on the way to the nature reserve, so I could see how dirt roads in come locations may not have been passable.

Despite the notable absence of flamingos, it was a great day.  We went to the Korgalzhyn nature reserve's visitor center and learned about various animals that can be seen on the steppe.  After that, we had lunch at a guest house that I think may have doubled as the proprietor's home.  We were served cabbage salad; a type of salad with corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and mayonnaise dressing; manti (Kazakh meat dumplings); and traditional fried breads.  Then, we took off to see what we could see.

We actually saw quite a lot, although not all of it photographed well.  I'm starting to realize that if I want to take pictures of critters on nature trips, maybe I should invest in a camera with a better zoom. Oh well.  We did see several species of birds, including cranes, egrets, two species of swans, and bitterns.  We also saw several steppe marmots, wildflowers, and the largest anthill I had ever seen.  The scenery was very striking, with very flat land and very few trees.

A swan!  The one critter I can recognize from my photos.

Freakishly large anthill

Wild tulips!

More wild tulips!
At the end of the day, before traveling back to Astana, we had a light picnic supper.  I also met a gray cat I wanted to take back with me.  He wasn't very cooperative about looking up at the camera, however.

I should note that the weird white oversocks are because of ticks, not a bizarre fashion statement!
I'll leave this post with the best evidence of flamingos I saw.  The Korgalzhyn visitor center seems very insistent that flamingos reside there for part of the year, so maybe I will see them one day.