It's home away from ... the comforts of home Media: When the Pentagon says jump, the press pool jumps, and lands in a Kazakh hotel that has seen better days.

September 20, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Shymkent, Kazakhstan -- There are five-star hotels and there are lodgings for the budget conscious. And then there's Hotel Shymkent, in a class by itself.

It squats like a trash can on Lenin Avenue in this Central Asian city of a former Soviet republic, a seven-story testament to the failures of Marxism. Dingy white with tiny balconies, faded curtains flap from its windows -- some open because the glass has long since checked out.

Don't ask for room service. And don't even inquire about hot water until the winter season begins Oct. 15. Few of the bathrooms have toilet seats, although one has a gaping hole that affords a view into the next room. All this for $50 per night.

Even a slumlord would blush and call this building an eyesore. Members of the Pentagon press pool had a more depressing label for it last week: home.

Nine of us were jarred from slumber at 2: 30 a.m. in Washington on Sept. 12. Military officials offer only a cryptic order: Be at Andrews Air Force Base by 6 a.m. for deployment to a "cool" climate.

As the KC-135 military jet groans eastward toward the Royal Air Force Base at Mildenhall, England, Navy Capt. Craig Quigley finally breaks the silence: The pool is being "activated" ("hijacked" some reporters would later insist) to cover a military exercise involving the 82nd Airborne Division and members of the Central Asian Battalion, a newly created force of soldiers from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

This is a dry run for the pool and its military handlers. Media pools grew out of a dispute between the press and the military following the 1983 Grenada invasion. The press complained that they were barred from covering the early stages of the U.S. action to restore order in the tiny Caribbean nation.

A military-media panel came up with the pool concept, in which a rotating group of broadcast, print, wire and radio organizations would in the first day or so of a major military action serve in a non-competitive climate as the eyes and ears of the American public, pooling their information and sending it to other news organizations.

From England, the pool flies seven hours to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where we load into vans bound for Shymkent, a bumpy three-hour ride north into one of the most remote regions on earth. The narrow highway cuts through dry, rolling steppes that stretch to the Tien Shan Mountains, a dusky, towering range on the horizon.

Kazakhs, sometimes whole families, huddle along the highway's edges, selling drinks and candy in the darkness from plain wooden stands. They are descendants of the nomadic Mongol tribesmen, their rugged features resembling a cross between Chinese and American Indian.

Farther along, other Kazakhs are perched on cots or inside traditional felt tents called "yurts," ready to pump gasoline for passing motorists from aging, van-sized tanks. Sheep herders ride along on mules, coaxing their charges with a long stick. A ghostly horse cart clacks along the asphalt.

The air is eternally scented with smoke; a blend of diesel fumes, burning trash, fields and dung, which is dried in the fields and used as fuel.

The accommodations

A hazy sun rises to illuminate Shymkent's boxy concrete buildings, the drab skyline of socialism. Although the Soviet Union is no more and Kazakhstan is independent, there are still huge and heroic statues of Lenin in the public parks. Soaring metal sculptures of the hammer and sickle dot the wide boulevards.

We pull into the curved drive of the hotel, topped with neon signs that boast a "Restaurant" and "Casino." Breakfast at the restaurant the first day: two hotdogs and mashed potatoes topped with cabbage. The casino turns out to be video poker machines, wedged into a small room like six portly friends at a Friday night card game.

The cavernous lobby is decorated with bold murals, geometric designs and portraits of horses and riders.

Military officers and police loiter on the steps outside. At night they plop down on the lobby couches and sleep, hats still fixed squarely on their heads.

A hotel worker nonchalantly hands out keys from a drab metal desk. Since the elevators collectively resigned some time ago, we troop along worn tiles and climb the concrete steps to the third floor. Along the darkened hallway, every footstep clicks on the loose jigsaw puzzle of wooden slats.

There may have been a heyday for Hotel Shymkent, but not since the time of Nikita Khrushchev.

We push open our doors to find musty, cramped rooms. Howard Arenstein, a reporter for CBS Radio, notices a hole in his bathroom wall with a clear view of the next room.

Associated Press writer Jim Drinkard finds himself sharing his room with a cockroach and its extended family.

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