The causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.

It isn't mentioned in the book, but below is a photo of the tree of life, which is a single tree, thought to be around 400 years old, growing in the middle of the desert. You can also see it from a distance in the photo to the left. 

Downtown Balykchy

Riffa was on a bit of a plateau—fifty feet or so above sea level—which was high ground for Bahrain. So when they exited the city, Mark could see the bleak southern desert sprawled out below them in the hazy distance. 
Heading south out of Riffa, toward the desert and oil fields.

Outside the side entrance to the White House, where Sava first meets Holtz.

Heavy traffic forced them to stop behind a pink, blue, and white conversion van emblazoned with the words ICE CREAM FRUITY...
That's one  detail I didn't make up.

When I was in Bahrain, the capital city of Manama was fairly calm. Partly this was because I was there in the summer, when it was 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon. It was also Ramadan, so many people were inside fasting during the day. Outside the city, however, there were nightly street battles between Shia protestors and the police. Below are photos that capture some of the anger.

Two cops piled out of the Kyrgyz cop car and started running toward Mark. A second Kyrgyz cop car, closely followed by a third, barreled down the one-way street, going the wrong way.

A Kyrgyz police officer. 

The main mosque in Riffa, where Mark Sava gets dropped off.

Some knucklehead standing near the border of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I took some pictures at the border crossing that Mark Sava passes, but the guards there made me delete them. 

One of many abandoned factories.


Bahrain is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. It's also the home of the US Fifth Fleet. Although the majority of Bahrainis practice a form of Shia Islam, the country is ruled by a Sunni royal family. This has resulted in sustained protests and unrest since 2011.

The main island was just thirty-five miles long and some ten miles wide. The country’s culture had been defined by tact and restraint—at least until the uprising had started. While vulgar upstarts in Dubai built indoor ski areas and goofy islands shaped like palm trees, Bahrainis had built a thriving financial sector. While the Saudis to the west choked their citizens with a repressive religious regime, the king of Bahrain talked of allowing religious freedom, and even followed through on some of the talk. And while the Iranians to the north thrived on confrontation with the United States, the Bahrainis had developed deep ties to the Americans—especially to the US Navy.

View of Manama, the capital city of Bahrain.

Mark started to walk toward Panfilov Park, a weedy Soviet-era amusement park located behind the White House...They’d come to a roller coaster. The electric-green metal track was rusted, and there were big patches of dirt in between stands of unmowed grass—the Kyrgyz, originally a nomadic people, rarely bothered to waste time on an endeavor as stupid as cutting grass; that’s what cows were for.

Bahrain was a monarchy, one that had been ruled by the same Sunni Muslim royal family for hundreds of years. The problem was that most Bahrainis were Shia Muslims. The Shias—or Shiites, as they were sometimes also called—weren’t happy about that arrangement. Not happy at all.

…the hatred many Shias harbored for the royal family was plain to see. Newly-built apartment buildings and run-down shops were scarred with graffiti at ground level. Most of the graffiti was in Arabic, but some of it was in English: Down with the King, Terrorism is a British Industry, US get out! Bahraini security forces had tried to cross out the slogans with spray paint of their own resulting in a nightmarish mess that conveyed little but mutual anger. 

Balykchy, a town around a hundred miles west of Bishkek

The Road to Balykchy.

Mina Salman, a huge seaport on the eastern edge of Manama, was owned and operated by the Bahrainis, but the US Navy leased a large portion of it and had recently signed a deal to lease a larger portion still...
The entrance to the port of Mina Salman.

Dowtown Bishkek, looking south toward the mountains.​

Bahraini men lining up to pray outside of an overcrowded mosque.

Entrance to US Naval Support Activity Bahrain, which is what the US naval base on the southeastern tip of Manama is called.


Bishkek, the capital

...his eyes fixed on what was going on just outside of the Soviet-era hospital building across the street...Every so often, orderlies would drag out the frayed, red-striped, futon-like hospital mattresses and air them out in one of the building’s courtyards. It always depressed Mark to think that a human being, a sick human being no less, had to sleep on one of those things...

Dried fish for sale on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul

Back in Bishk​ek

The White House in downtown Bishkek was similar to the White House in Washington, DC, in that it housed the office of the president, was open to anyone willing to make a large political donation, and was, in fact, white. In the Kyrgyz version, however, it was because the Soviets had glued white-marble tiles all over its clunky concrete frame. 

Kyrgyzstan's version of the white house.

Mina Salman, a huge seaport on the eastern edge of Manama, was owned and operated by the Bahrainis, but the US Navy leased a large portion of it and had recently signed a deal to lease a larger portion still...
The entrance to the port of Mina Salman.

The checkpoint.

Kyrgyz women selling apricots.

Mineral-rich boulders, used as cattle licks.

Just past a tall clock tower on the outskirts of Riffa, red signs appeared that said Reduce Speed Now and Checkpoint, Stop for Inspection in both Arabic and English. Beyond the signs, thick concrete barriers painted yellow with black arrows directed traffic into a single lane.

The clock tower.

Below are photos of the town of Riffa, Bahrain, where the royal family lives.

The sky was a hazy gray and the land a dull brown. In the vast flatlands that extended out from either side of the road, enormous excavators were loading sand into dump trucks; other trucks sent trails of dust in the air as they transported the sand to an industrial complex.

That anger was also evident in all the brick-paver sidewalks that had been ripped up—to be thrown at the police, the cabbie explained. Streets were charred with black marks where fires had been burning, further evidence of nightly conflicts, and blackened tires had been pushed to the sides of the road. Men in thawbs, the white robes that were common to the region, stood on rooftops, surrounded by rusted satellite dishes as they stared down with hostile expressions at the passing traffic. The remains of battered effigies, presumably representing the king, hung from a few lamp posts..

Before Rad turned his eyes from the bright low sun, he caught a glimpse of a bleak desert landscape and a line of telephone poles that seemed to extend out into infinity.

Oil fields appeared. Chain-link fences encircled nodding-donkey pumps that were connected to each other by tangles of pipeline. Flare stacks—tall chimneys that burned wasted natural gas—dotted the landscape. The fires at the tops of the towers shimmered in the midday sun. Random pieces of discarded industrial equipment lay baking in the sand.

US ship.

On the outskirts of Balykchy, near where I envision the orphanage is located.

Mark walked a few more blocks, then stopped at a Cinnabon, where he ordered a coffee and a cinnamon roll with extra frosting. He took a seat at one of the yellow metal tables that had been set up outside and ate his roll while basking in the warm breeze.

All the roadside yurts that had been stocked with fresh apricots, blackthorn berries, and smoked trout during the summer had been taken down for the season. The tourists from Russia and Kazakhstan, crammed into cars overstuffed with beach umbrellas, towels, and inflatable rafts, had stopped coming through months ago.
Since I was there in summer, all the roadside stands were still there. 

Mark ran across Government Avenue, then turned down a narrow street. He was in a pedestrian-only district packed with little shops; an old part of Manama. 
The area that Mark ducks into is known as the Manama souk. Below and to the right are photos of it. 

Entrance to the palace.

All photos by Dan Mayland
Excerpts from the novel appear in italics

The contrast between the edge of the southern desert—where little grew other than occasional patches of sad scrub brush—and the brilliant green fairways was striking...Mark turned his gaze to the row of windows that looked out over a nearby fairway. A man in Bermuda shorts was swinging a driver as his golf partner and a caddie waited behind him. It made Mark think of the band that kept playing while the Titanic was sinking.

He saw an exit sign for Isa Air Base— home of the Bahraini Air Force—and wondered if that was where they were taking him. 

Three men playing narde, the backgammon-like game Mark Sava is fond of. I took this photo in Azerbaijan, but you get the idea...​

The US embassy was located at the southern end of Mira Avenue—a perfectly straight road lined with huge white poplar trees. 

Panfilov Park, in back of the White House.

One of several royal palaces on the island. This one's in downtown Manama. I wasn't able to photograph the main one in Riffa.

The Royal Golf Club

Below are photos of places Mark Sava might have encountered when he drove part way from Bishkek to Balykchy to try to intercept the kidnapped boy.

What had been a wide, newly paved road transitioned abruptly to a much older, narrower one hemmed in by low mountains. Along this stretch, Chinese laborers were building big stone retaining walls to contain landslides, preparing to widen and repave this section of road the way they had the previous one...The damn Chinese were everywhere, thought Mark as he drove. He knew that they were building this road, which would run from Bishkek to the border with China, at no cost to Kyrgyzstan, in an effort to help pry open the Kyrgyz market. He didn’t blame them; the Americans were also trying, with limited success, to get good transit routes running from Central Asia to Afghanistan. But he found it unsettling to see just how much faster the Chinese were getting the job done. 

The roadside pumpkin vendors had packed up and left weeks earlier.
I visited Kyrgyzstan in the summer, whereas SPY FOR HIRE takes place in late fall, so it was watermelon instead of pumpkin season. This photo was taken in Bishkek.

The hospital across the street from Mark and Daria's apartment. The photo to the left is the back entrance to the hospital.​


​​of places featured in

Spy For Hire

The Bahrain World Trade Center—two gleaming wedge-shaped skyscrapers joined by slender sky bridges—was just a short walk away...

...when the Soviet Union collapsed, Balykchy collapsed with it. The factories had closed. The trains had stopped. The orders for trout and whitefish had dried up. And most of the Russians had gone home, taking most of the jobs with them. Twenty years later, what was left was a scarred and abandoned relic, a place that had sunk low and was still sinking. 

Lepeshka bread, round to represent the sun.

The entrance to the Royal Golf Club, which is just south of Riffa, on the edge of the southern desert.