Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Getting To Taiwan The Slow Way

My dream is to be able to complete my trip, travelling round the world, without needing to resort to flying. It will be difficult to accomplish, and almost certainly be more expensive and take longer than if flying, but I feel that airplanes have somehow trivialised distances so that we no longer really appreciate how far away places are. And when travelling by plane from point A to point B you do not see what is between them, how the land changes, how cultures, traditions and people connect the two. Furthermore flying is also the most polluting form of transport (per kilometre travelled) out there. (And in one of the world's ironies/hypocrisies, it is also the form of transport that is taxed the least, thereby benefitting the most affluent as well as the most profligate polluters.) The dream may not work out, but I will certainly try.

The fearsome Taiwanese army, ready to fight off any invasion from Commie China ... OK, maybe not. But they did help me cut my way through the bureaucracy of buying a SIM card in a 7-Eleven on Matsu.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Big Trouble In Little China

Over the course of this and previous trips I have spent about four and a half months in China. A long time perhaps for a single country, but not that long when you consider its size, history, and the fact that it is home to one sixth of the world's population. In my time there I have mastered the use of chopsticks (well, perhaps not mastered, but I certainly won't go hungry), picked up a smattering of Mandarin, speaking as well as reading, developed a liking for red bean ice-cream (and red beans in general) and learnt a good deal about it. I now feel pretty comfortable travelling in China, which has a surprisingly comprehensive rail and bus network, finding accommodation, buying food and generally being a tourist. I can even ask some basic questions, although I will rarely understand the replies unless they are accompanied by hand gestures. I have come to really enjoy the (street) food and find it hard to let a day go by without satisfying my hunger for baozi. All in all my impression of China is very positive, yet there are some things that grate on me and (I feel) are intricately linked together.

In China's breakneck growth many have seen their quality of life vastly improve, but there are also many that have been left behind.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hidden Stories Of Fujian

One of the things I love doing when travelling is finding little-known, obscure vestiges of history. Places that hark to a past that is not talked about, forgotten or, better yet, actively suppressed. I'm not really sure why, perhaps out of a desire to witness a truth that is being denied and thereby keeping it alive, or perhaps to satisfy my own curiosity about disputed pasts and to make up my own mind. Whatever the reason I am drawn to the forgotten stories, even though there is often little there to actually see. Some examples include the multitude of Armenian remains scattered throughout Turkey, many of which were actively destroyed, damaged or converted by successive regimes to deny, or at least reduce, a historical Armenian presence; or Palestinian towns within Israel that have been removed for the same reasons; Jewish remains within the Middle East or the Pale of Settlement where there had been communities for centuries but no longer today; or Communist-era follies in eastern Europe.

The Great Helmsman has a lot to answer for. The omnipresent cult of personality is gone, as is his Little Red Book (which is surprisingly difficult to come by in China, although, oddly enough, pretty easy in Hong Kong), though a number of statues still remain. This one in Fuzhou is one of the most conspicuous.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The War For Drugs (And Tea)

Today's post is a little different from my usual ones. It's not about my travels as such (and there are no photos), but instead is about a piece of history that I have learnt whilst travelling that I didn't know and thought it important to share.

Although the most important factor making Hong Kong such a stress-free destination is the fact that most people speak English to some degree, and many often well, thanks to Hong Kong's past as a British colony. Many people like to pin all the world's ills on colonialism and its legacy, whereas I believe that is too easy a cop-out. Colonialism was often racist, mercenary and exploitative, but it also helped less developed societies to leap forward. Hong Kong would probably be the poster child for positive colonialism: a rich, dynamic and open society that is now ploughing its own furrow. Of course, what is often forgotten, is just how Britain came to possess Hong Kong and how China opened itself up to the outside world. That little episode in history is known as the Opium Wars, and is one of the darkest passages in Britain's history, and one that gets very little air-time.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bright Lights And Big Bets

At the mouth of the Pearl River, on either side of the estuary, lie Macau and Hong Kong, former colonies of Portugal and Great Britain respectively. And although they were returned to China (in 1997 in the case of Hong Kong and 1999 for Macau) they still remain administratively and politically separate from mainland China under the "one country two systems" policy and are classified as Special Administrative Regions. They are free of the all-pervasive Chinese censorship; travelling abroad is far easier; they tend to speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin; and use traditional Chinese characters to write rather than simplified characters. In fact in some ways they are more Chinese than their mainland brothers as they have retained some traditions that were purged during the tumultuous years of Mao's China. The ex-colonies are also easier to visit for foreigners than for ordinary Chinese who need a special permit to visit the SARs.

A small shrine outside a shop where incense is burnt and often a food offering (e.g. an apple or an orange) is left is a common sight in Macau and Hong Kong, but almost extinct in mainland China.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Where Can I Buy 4000 Pairs Of Shoes?

I finally made it to Guangdong province on China's southern coast. The palm trees are here, as are the bananas, but the warm balmy weather is still eluding me. The name Guangdong may sound unfamiliar to Western ears, as it is more commonly known as Canton. During the 18th and 19th centuries when the Western powers were expanding their influence around the world their main point of contact with the Middle Kingdom was through the various ports in the province, particularly Guangzhou (which was also, confusingly, named Canton). This is the Chinese region that has had the greatest contact with the outside world and has always been more open to foreign influences, which is easily evident both in its people and its places.

A poignant reminder of China's bygone openness to the world. This minaret stands in the grounds of a mosque in Guangzhou, built in the 7th century AD, and therefore one of the oldest mosques in the world. There is still a significant Muslim population throughout China that traces its history back t those early days.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Chinese Landscapes

I remember, as a child, seeing traditional Chinese landscape paintings. I remember thinking to myself that they didn't look real: they were permanently misty and the mountains looked like caricatures, sort of ideal mountains that a child would draw, but far more "mountainy" than any real mountain. They didn't look like anything I had ever seen in Europe and so I simply dismissed them as fantastical make-believe landscapes ... how wrong I was.

Yangshuo's iconic karst scenery and idyllic rivers make it one of China's most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Winter Migration

Zhengzhou was getting too cold for me, with nighttime temperatures plunging uncomfortably close to freezing and the hazy days faring little better. Exacerbating the situation was the lack of indoor heating that prevails in most of China - people just put on more clothes when they're at home in the evenings. There was only one solution: I bought myself a train ticket, direction due south. The scenery rolling past the train (when you could see through the endless mist) was one of small, steep hills with isolated villages surrounded by paddy fields, now denuded and home only to stubble and the odd, rather lost-looking, water buffalo. As soon as I stepped off the train in Wuhan I knew I was headed in the right direction and I was even able to take off my beanie, which had become a permanent fixture on my head since returning to China.

Like many large Chinese cities Wuhan is undergoing a boom that is seeing a rise in local investment and consumption. So far 4 of the cities I have visited have metro systems under construction and many are also building swanky shopping and leisure districts such as the one above that has regenerated an old canalside.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cradles And Graves

500km inland from Qingdao lies Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. The province's name means "south of the river", in this case the Yellow River, and is without a doubt the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Within a relatively small radius lie the remains of over a dozen capitals of previous dynasties and kingdoms, most of the buried under countless layers of silt deposited by the continuously flooding river. For archaeology buffs it is the region to visit in China.

Zhengzhou itself is a large, hectic city of over 8.5 million people (more than Greater London) that, despite its long history, has little to show for it. But as a major railway junction it is a handy base from which to explore the surrounding region and travel back in time. If you want to work chronologically your first stop should be Anyang to the north of Zhengzhou, a rather nondescript and drab city, but sitting atop the ruins of the ancient Shang capital. Dating back to 1400 BC the ruins represent the very start of Chinese history as well as the origins of the Chinese writing system. Thousands of bones and turtle shells have been unearthed bearing the characters that would give rise to modern hanji script, and although most of them are too far removed to be recognisable, the few that have traversed the millennia almost unchanged elicit goosebumps as you feel the ancient world communicating directly to you. The succeeding Zhou dynasty moved the capital to Luoyang, west of Zhengzhou, where the historic remains include more than just excavated earthen walls and tombs with ritual sacrifices. The most noteworthy are the Longmen Grottoes, stretched out along either side of the Yi river. Here generations of Buddhist monks carved shrines and temples into the rock, from the tiny to the grandiose, with the central Buddha reaching over 17m, over a period of 300 years. Most of them survived unscathed until the beginning of the last century when the combined effects of Western collectors, Japanese invaders and the disastrous Cultural Revolution defaced the majority.

The main temple of the Longmen Grottoes with its 17m central Buddha carved from the cliff face.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Not Quite Bavaria

I left Japan via Shimonoseki's ferry terminal, my port of entry to the country. It wasn't something I had wanted to do but there was no other option if I didn't want to fly. Not only was it my first and last stop, but the last person I saw in Japan was also my first: by chance I ran into my host from my first days in Shimonoseki, Seiji, who was seeing off another guest (a Mexican named Homero) who was also headed to China on the same boat as me. It was nice to have someone to talk to among the 24 other passengers (all of them, from what I could gather, Chinese working in Japan) on the 29 hour passage to Qingdao as entertainment options on the ferry were limited to a single channel of Chinese TV, a meagre onboard library of half a dozen foreign books, and taking long, hot showers and soaking in the public bath.

The ferry bathroom where I spent a considerable chunk of time on the crossing from Japan to China, simply because there was little else to do, and baths are a rare luxury on the road (figuratively speaking, of course), to be taken whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Land Of The Rising Yen

There are a number of eclectic skills that you pick up as a long-term traveller: you learn to memorise your passport number and issue date for filling out endless visa and immigration forms; you become adept at noticing good spots for sleeping rough, even when you don't need to; and your long multiplication, which is essential for currency conversions, greatly improves. The latter (as well as the sleeping rough one to a certain degree) was certainly needed in Japan. One pound is currently worth 120 yen. A relatively easy number to calculate with, but not one I particularly like. Only four years ago a pound would get you 250 yen, and the lowest the pound has been against the yen in the past 13 years (the furthest back I could get data easily) was less than a month before I arrived, at 117 to the pound - having lost more than half of its relative value in a very short space of time! The sharp appreciation in the value of the yen has been across the board against other currencies and is somewhat strange as the Japanese economy is not doing particularly well itself and hasn't been for many years now. Nevertheless international investors see it as a safe bet and keep buying yen, which is causing a great headache for the country's export-oriented economy. Needless to say I was not happy either, and neither was my bank account. Japan has always been an expensive country to travel in, but with the exchange rate skewed so heavily against me, every purchase, no matter how minor, was taking a significant bite out of my budget and I had to use every trick in the book to save money.

Standard budget food whilst travelling on a budget in Japan: super noodles. To make them even cheaper you should get the simple packets without a pot or bowl and procure your own receptacle. In this case it was a discarded cardboard coffee cup that surprisingly lasted for 3 days before I threw it away.

Sunday, November 06, 2011


When I first planned this trip and drew up my itinerary on the back of the proverbial napkin I had purposefully omitted Japan for a number of reasons. The first was the cost (see next post) and the second was that it was something of a dead end and would require me to double-back on myself, something I strive to avoid at all costs. In the end both concerns were justified but were unable to outweigh my curiosity for the country, its unique culture and bracing combination of old and new.

One of the most recognisable symbols of modern Japan: the shinkansen bullet train pulling into a Tokyo station.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Eastern Elegance And Eccentricity

It's no revelation to say that the cultures of the Far East (by Far East I mean China, Korea and Japan) differ quite markedly in many ways to European, and even Middle Eastern, cultures. I have become particularly intrigued by the Oriental sense of aesthetic - perhaps also because the aesthetic has a clear, external manifestation, whereas it's hard for me to be able to talk about how people actually think and what they believe. The Oriental view (and I am writing this as a layperson who hasn't studied this at all, but more from my observations and experiences whilst travelling here) emphasises a holistic harmony and balance, which we see, at the most basic level, with the complementary forces of yin and yang.

The ultimate expression of Far Eastern  esoteric harmony: the Japanese karesansui (dry landscape) garden, heavily influenced by Zen Buddhist principles. (The garden in the picture is at Ryoan-ji temple and is perhaps the most famous example of the style.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

8:15. The Time It's Always Been

The name Hiroshima will forever be linked in the consciousness of the world with the events of the 6th of August 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, ushering in the nuclear era with a bang. A bang so large that it destroyed 90% of the city and killed almost half of its population and helped precipitate the end of the Second World War (although some academics argue that the USSR's declaration of war against Japan and invasion of Manchuria on the 9th of August was a far greater reason for their surrender). The effects of the atomic bombs on the world were momentous and too great to mention here, but in Japan it led to the pacifist constitution and a widespread national desire for peace (not that Japan doesn't have its militarist nationalists, and its continued inability to admit and apologise for, rather than regret, its World War II atrocities doesn't help make it any friends in the region). The epicentre for the peace and nuclear disarmament movement worldwide is undoubtedly Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park where a museum, shrine, cenotaphs and statues pay moving tribute to those who perished on that fateful day. The symbol of the complex is the A-Bomb Dome. The building was an exhibition hall before the war and was almost directly below the bomb - the hypocentre, or ground zero - when it exploded (the bomb was detonated 600m above the ground so that the destructive heat and shock waves would not be impeded so as to cause maximum damage) and so its vertical walls survived the devastating blast since they were perpendicular to the shock waves. Its preserved skeleton serves as a grim reminder to what happened on that fateful day.

The empty shell of the A-Bomb Dome serves as a stark reminder of that horrific day 66 years ago.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fishy Friends

My last stop in South Korea was Busan, the country's major port, located at the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. The steep, indented coastline with its myriad islands as an ideal deepwater port location and has long been Korea's gateway to the world. The densely-packed city of over 4 million coalesces at the feet of the surrounding hills into discreet neighbourhoods connected with each other by an intricate maze of tunnels and bridges. Like many port towns Busan is loud and brash - at least by Korean standards where conformism and not rocking the boat are desired traits. A place where conspicuous consumption is lauded with the world's largest department store along with one of the world's tallest towers also under construction. There are few worries about the future in this prosperous city. Way gooks (white foreigners) are far more conspicuous than elsewhere in the country, and it's not just the English teachers; there's even a Russian ghetto in town where you can get your fill of pirozhki and stock up on Baltika beer.

Panorama of Busan's crowded harbor area.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jeju See That?

Wherever I went in South Korea people never neglected to recommend that I should visit Jeju. "Very pretty." "Sandy beaches." "Delicious oranges." "Good weather." Indeed, Jeju island is South Korea's Hawaii. As well as being the main holiday destination for locals it is also a volcanic island and is home to south Korea's highest peak, Hallasan, a dormant volcano. In fact the whole island is basically the mountain, whose main cone rises up in the very centre of the island and can be seen from everywhere (theoretically at least, although the peak is usually shrouded in mist). What makes it unique though, at least for geology geeks, is the numerous so-called "parasitic cones" (oreum in the native dialect) of which there are over 350 scattered around the island. Many are easily overlooked, but others form clusters of craters that pop unexpectedly out of the surrounding farmland and look distinctly otherworldly. Add to this some funky, hexagonal basalt blocks that spill into the sea and lava tubes that look like dragons' lairs and you have all the ingredients for a volcanic geologist's wet dream.

View of some oreum peeking out of the mist on the way up Hallasan.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Painful Past, Better Present

South Korea is well under the radar of public consciousness when it comes to anything other than its hugely successful industrial behemoths, or chaebols, such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai. They are household names the world over and exert tremendous influence at home with a finger in every proverbial pie. As for history, people may be able to cite the Korean War (though not that many, given its nickname of The Forgotten War), Korea's colonisation by the Japanese and a handful of sporting events, such as the '88 Olympics and 2002 World Cup. That's as far as my knowledge went anyway before I arrived. So it came as quite a surprise to learn that South Korea was under consecutive military dictatorships right up until the early 90's - the first peaceful transition of power was in '92. The fact that little is known about this period of South Korea's history is probably due to the Cold War mentality of the West supporting any despotic regime as long as they were anti-Communist - "he may be a son of a bitch, but at least he's our son of a bitch" - that also helped keep various Latin American juntas in power.

Rows of graves of the victims of 518 in Gwangju.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Masked Balls

The southeast corner of South Korea is home to many cultural and historical relics, perhaps partly because it wasn't so severely damaged by the Korean war which left much of the rest of the country devastated (many historical sites are reconstructions, albeit faithful ones, of their former selves). Of the three "must-see" sights in South Korea (Seoul being another, and more on the third in a later post) is Gyeongju, which is often called the "Museum without walls" due to the many historical remains scattered around the city dating back to the time when it was the capital of the Silla kingdom that ruled over the region for almost a thousand years. Most of the remains are grassy tumuli that represent tombs of nobles and royalty and are dotted around all over the place, but there are also old Buddhist temples, grottoes, statues and rock carvings that bear witness to what was once one of the largest cities in the world.

A 1000 year old pagoda on Namsan mountain in Gyeongju.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Farewell To A Faithful Companion

I said goodbye to an old friend in Seoul. I had bought my scruffy tent in West Jerusalem back in early 2007 for just 100 shekels (around £10 at the time) in a small shop just off Yaffo Street. It was the cheapest one I could find yet she served me well through my various trips since then. I had called her home in over 25 countries on 100 different occasions (to get an idea of how useful a tent can be check out my free-camping map for this trip - it helps if you initially zoom out a little), but it was now time to part ways as I will have little opportunity to use a tent in the next 7-9 months and 2kg is a lot of extra weight to carry around. I left her with my host and hopefully she will get passed on to another traveller who will be able to make use of her. My week in Seoul passed by very quickly and was certainly not enough to see it fully, but I had to keep moving. The call of the road is unrelenting.

One of the many picturesque valleys in Seoraksan national park.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seoul Of The Country

Although I had very briefly been in South Korea whilst visiting the DMZ at Panmunjon, if I wanted to get there properly I had to go via China. So back it was to Dandong where I bought myself a ferry ticket to Incheon, Seoul's port city. It would have been cheaper and faster to fly, but I'm wanting to try to travel round the world without having to resort to airplanes as much as I can at least; plus in an airplane you don't get the opportunity to share a giant dorm room with over 100 Chinese.

Travelling economy class in China means something completely different to what we're normally used to. The convivial atmosphere of the large dorm aboard the ferry to Incheon.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Completing The Axis

Whilst in Dongbei I visited the towns of Ji'an and Dandong, on the banks of the Yalu river which forms the border with North Korea. Staring out across the divide is like looking through some sci-fi time-vortex: the Chinese side is bustling, noisy, full of lights, shops, cars and the shouting mass of Chinese humanity, whereas just over the slow waters the other bank is moribund and lifeless with barely a soul stirring. As night falls there is barely a light to be seen in the enigmatic Hermit Kingdom. At the Hushan Great Wall (the easternmost section of the Great Wall which reaches right to the DPRK border) the Yalu river narrows to such an extent that the Korean border fence is only 10m away. Getting so close there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to visit what is perhaps the most intriguing and isolated country in the world today (with the possible exception of Eritrea) whilst also completing my tour of George Bush's infamous Axis of Evil.

The Yalu river a Yibukuo where it narrows to less than 10m. The left side is China, whilst the right is North Korea.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A Life More Ordinary

From Beijing I headed up to the region historically known as Manchuria. Today though in Chinese it is simply called Dongbei, or Northwest (actually, to be more accurate, Eastnorth), a far more neutral term as Manchuria is the cradle of several unhappy episodes in Chinese history: first there was the disastrous Manchu Qing dynasty that oversaw the stagnation and decline of China; and then Manchuria became the backdoor through which foreign empires, first Russia and then Japan, invaded. It's not a particularly touristy area, its major draw is the imperial mountain resort at Chengde which is popular with locals (and shows that there is a sizeable affluent middle class with disposable incomes, as the entrance ticket costs almost $20 regardless of nationality and with no reductions, even for people with fake student IDs). Even though I arrived at 8am the place was already thronged with families on weekend breaks, tour groups with matching T-shirts and baseball caps and, particularly memorable, large groups of older women doing undemanding dance routines to easy listening music. Old-timers in China are surprisingly sprightly, and it's not uncommon to see them doing tai-chi, singing karaoke or even kicking about a shuttlecock in a city park.

The "Small Potala Palace" in Chengde. Initially the Manchu emperors felt more affinity to their Mongolian and Tibetan cousins and built temples in their styles and used Mongolian script. But as time went on they became more Sinicised and looked down on them.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Staring At The Sun

During my first week in Beijing the sun, when it was visible, was a faint, brighter dot in the city's enveloping haze. An apt symbol for the sea-change between Mongolia and China. The former has wide, open spaces with barely a soul in sight, the calm serenity and blue skies only broken by the whup-whup-whupping of a crow's wings as it passes overhead (when was the last time you heard a bird's wing beats?). Beijing is another planet entirely: loud, chaotic, bustling, choked with traffic, pavements spilling over with street vendors, air wafting with odours both salivating and unpleasant mixing with the sweat of humanity brought on by the humid summer. Beijing out-populates Mongolia by four to one (despite being only one thousandth the size of the latter). The smoggy haze is an inevitable by-product.

The obligatory holiday snap of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'AnMen) at the entrance to the Forbidden City, along with its portrait of Mao and watchful soldier.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Between A Hammer And A Sickle

Heading southeast from UB towards the Chinese border the monotonous landscape is broken by a few small, run-down towns amidst the unending, patchy steppe. (The curious thing about the Mongolian steppe is that, when seen from a distance, it looks lush and green, but up close you discover that there is in fact more barren ground than there is vegetation.) Pretty unassuming and rather boring by and large, although there is a wonderful curiosity just off the main road. Not signposted or marked on any maps and surrounded by a rusting barbed-wire fence some 25km north of the town of Choir are what is left of what was once the largest Soviet airbase. All the jets and really exciting equipment has, of course, been taken away, but the 50 or so domed hangars and slowly crumbling support and command buildings are still there, testament to both the sway that the Soviet Union once held over Mongolia, as well as to the frostiness of relations between the former and the other great Communist power, China. Although the site is abandoned militarily, a handful of families occupy the base with their gers and herds of goats, their only reason for being there to shoo out pesky tourists who come nosing around (why I have no idea). So although I managed to sneak under the barbed wire without much problem and even poked around a few of the hangars I was inevitably caught (ambling around with a 20kg backpack is not particularly stealthy) and politely escorted off. A shame, as there's certainly a business opportunity going begging there.

One of the hangars in the abandoned airforce base outside Choir. Once they housed MiG 25s, now they just house goats.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Climb Any Mountain (Just Take A Map)

In palaeontology the thin, iridium-rich, band that marks the K-T boundary is indicative of a cataclysmic event that wiped out the dinosaurs and changed the face of the world entirely. Similarly in archaeology, throughout Eurasia there is often a band of ash that is consistently found towards the beginning of the 13th century and which marks the Mongol conquests; from Novgorod to Nishapur and Kiev to Korea. They did a truly thorough job. Yet despite their prowess at razing cities the nomadic warriors were less adept at building them. Under Genghis's successor, Ögedei, they realised that their sprawling empire needed a capital and so they founded Karakorum. By all accounts it wasn't that impressive and housed mainly foreign subjects - artisans, merchants, clerics and envoys from all over the dominions, whilst the Mongols preferred to continue living in their gers on the outskirts of the city. One astounding aspect of the city, and the Mongol empire in general, was its liberalism and tolerance regarding religion. Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam, Manichaeanism and Shamanism were all represented and coexisted equally, each with their own places of worship. Something that European civilisation still hasn't really managed to properly do today.

Holding history. A fragment of 13th century, glazed, clay piping from the Karakorum ruins. Bits like these lie scattered around the site whilst most of the ruins remain under the soil.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Giant Red Hero

Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world with less than two people per square kilometre. This comes as no surprise after travelling through it for any time. What is surprising though, is that the capital, Ulaan Baatar (which means Red Hero, in honour of the Communist revolution), or UB as it is affectionately known by locals and expats alike, is home to roughly 45% of the population; which means that for the rest of the country there are fewer than 1 person per square kilometre. Capital cities are often markedly different from the rest of the country, and here in Mongolia that difference reaches true antithetic levels.

Despite being a country of boundless space the traffic in UB is atrocious with gridlock affecting the main arteries throughout most of the day, exacerbated by the majority of cars here being large, space-hogging SUVs (Landcruisers are the vehicle of choice, but not a day goes by when I don't see a good half-dozen Hummers as well); high-rise buildings and apartment blocks are the norm whilst the highest building in the rest of the country is a solitary 16-storey block of flats in Darkhan, Mongolia's 3rd city; expats are as common on the streets as flies on cow-pats whereas in the rest of the country you can go weeks without seeing another white face; boutique shops abound whilst in the rest of the country you'll be lucky to find new (rather than second-hand) Chinese clothes; and it's possible to find educated locals who speak either English or Russian so communication can ascend above the level of gesticulations and mimes. Indeed whilst chatting to a young Mongolian I met in a bar a few days ago I mentioned that I was half Czech, to which his response was, "oh, the land of Jan Žižka!" Jan Žižka, though the Czech national hero, and undoubtedly one of the greatest generals in history, is little known outside his own country except perhaps to military enthusiasts. I was certainly impressed. There is even urban sprawl with districts of ramshackle gers oozing along the Tuul valley.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Buddhist Travelling

Most visitors to Mongolia, even backpackers, form groups and hire a van and driver to travel around the country. If there are four or more of you this is barely more expensive than taking public transport, allows you to get to those hard to reach places (of which there are more than a few in Mongolia) and saves a lot of time. The latter aspect was made all too clear to me when I popped into the tourist information centre in Moron to get some info about getting to, and hiking around, Hovsgol lake, Mongolia's second-largest and the little sister to lake Baikal just across the border in Russia. The information centre was staffed by a Czech and a German volunteer and so, pleased at finding a fellow countryman, I ended up spending about an hour with them chatting about this and that. A topic that invariably cropped up was visas, as they were having problems with theirs. I still had 9 days left on mine and was feeling relaxed about getting to Ulaan Baatar in time to extend it ... until they informed me that applications for extensions must be submitted four working days before expiry and that the application can only be done in the capital. There wasn't a hope in hell that I would make it to the lake and back in time so I quickly altered my plans and plotted a new course heading east.

Empty vodka bottles littering the steppe. Mongolian men are more than a little fond of the hard liquor and you will often meet some that reek of alcohol, even early in the morning. Usually they are harmless, but sometimes they can get aggresive.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Helicopters And Shamans

As I've mentioned before meeting different people, from all walks of life, backgrounds and cultures is one of the most enriching aspects of travelling. A while back my mother sent me the contact details of a nephew of one of her friends who she said lives in Mongolia. It turns out that Hamid doesn't just simply live in Mongolia (actually only part-time, during the summer), but he has studied their culture extensively and films documentaries about Mongolia and its people and even runs a camp out in the far north of the country. Here was an encounter I really didn't want to pass up.

Gers, forests and mountains in the evening light.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Wide Open Country

Mongolia is a widescreen country. Some claim it is the highest country by average elevation in the world, but since there is no comparative list on Wikipedia I cannot say for certain. Nevertheless most of the country is at 1000m or more and formed of extremely wide valleys separated by seemingly low mountains, though the heights are deceptive due to the distances. You can easily see for 30km or more. The high visibility combined with the altitude means that you are not only closer to the clouds, but you can also see them coming half a day or more in advance, inching towards you like continental plates, and with the same inexorability. All of this adds up to a landscape that is widescreen in the extreme: the vistas are squeezed by the valleys below and clouds above and only allowed to expand sideways. This leads to problems for the amateur photographer who is unable to capture the details, which are inevitably far away, without losing the grandeur of the expanse, and vice versa. My camera's 4:3 aspect ratio fails miserably to capture the awe that I am seeing so I am resorting ever more often to taking sweeping panorama shots to try and get a small idea of the sheer immensity. It'll have to do, but nothing beats seeing it in the flesh.

Cloudscape in northern Mongolia (close to what are, allegedly, the northernmost sand dunes in the world).

Friday, July 22, 2011


 A quick message for all my readers who receive this blog via e-mail. I have been entered into the Blogger's Choice awards for best travel blog (admittedly by myself, but sometimes you need a little self-promotion). If you feel my blog merits it (or even if you don't but would still like to be supportive) you can either follow this link or go to the blog itself and click on the link in the top right and vote for me. Also if you haven't been on the blog in a while there are photo galleries from the trip so far up until Kyrgyzstan (Kazakhstan and more to follow soon) as well as a map of the route I've taken.

All the best, Erik.

P.S. Feel free to spread the word and get your friends to vote for me too!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trust Fund

At the Mongolian border the asphalt stops. Some would say it's the end of the road, whereas other, more optimistic souls, would say that the road just got wider: the broad, grassy valleys of the high mountain steppe that slope gently up and down from one pass to another are the spiritual home of the off-roaders whose only boundary is the capability of their cars. Often a single track crosses a pass only for it to split into half a dozen or more a hundred metres later as drivers continually strive to find a smoother ride free of corrugations. It's a tough country for cars, nevertheless the backbone of the vehicular population are old Soviet UAZ jeeps and vans, many of which are older than I am. And they aren't treated with kid gloves either, but hurtle along bumpy roads often overladen with twice as many passengers as they were designed for plus luggage and perhaps a sheep as well for good measure.

Lake and mountains in Altai-Tavan Bogd national park. On the other side of the mountains lies China, just 10km away.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sorry For The Inconvenience But Our Country Is Closed. Please Try Again Later.

Travelling through Russia was certainly far easier than I had imagined. People were generally polite and helpful, the roads were of good quality all the way to the border, I had no trouble with the police (one did stop by me whilst I was hitching, but more out of curiosity and to have a chat than to try and extort money), and hitching was a breeze.

The gorgeous Altai landscape (even the people and the outdoor toilet can't detract from the beauty).

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Saying Goodbye To Stan

My last stop in Kazakhstan and Central Asia was Semey, also known by its original, Russian name of Semipalatinsk. The town is one of the oldest in the north of the country and the centre is dotted with Tsarist-era log cabins, with their reassuringly organic lines, still clinging on to existence amongst the concrete apartment block. Semey is (in)famous throughout the world for its Soviet past where it, or at least a nearby patch of "uninhabited" steppe was home to the Semipalatinsk Polygon where the Soviet Union tested its atomic bombs. In all there were over 100 above ground nuclear explosions. Although the Soviet authorities were not so stupid as to kill their own citizens in the explosions, they kept quiet about the effects of nuclear radiation and fallout so the area is still haunted by abnormally high levels of birth defects and cancers.

The memorial to the victims of the Semipalatinsk memorial. Very moving, but strangely located in a patch of foresty wasteland on the other side of the river from the town.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Steppe Outside

The Soviet Union was the largest country in the world by area by a considerable margin (more than twice the size of Canada at number 2). When it split into its 15 constituent republics the lion's share of that went to Russia, but Kazakhstan still managed to become the 9th largest country in the world (just a Croatia shy of Argentina at number 8). Kazakhstan is a big country. And with most of the 16 million population concentrated around the edges a lot of it is taken up by the wide, flat steppe. In the dryer, hotter south the predominant colours are already yellow and brown, with a little pale green mixed in, as the summer has already set in for a while, but as you head further northwards the deep green of growing grass takes over. The landscape is easy on the traveller, affording you long moments without changing much, allowing for plenty of time for reading and sleeping.

In the middle of this green monotony, springing out of nowhere (relatively speaking, because you can already see it from over 30km away) is Kazakhstan's new capital Astana. Previously the capital had been Almaty, but 14 years ago that title was transferred to Astana (called Akmola at the time, but since the name means White Tomb - not a particularly auspicious designation for a capital - it was renamed, using a great deal of imagination, to Astana, which means Capital), ostensibly to have a more central capital with closer links to Russia, which is still the most important trading partner, although more cynical people claim the real reason to be Nazarbayev's desire to consolidate his grip on power as Almaty was too large and independent to bow to his whims. There were drawbacks to this move though, the mains ones being the vicious winters of the area (temperatures in January often fall to -40 degrees, not counting windchill, as devastating winds come sweeping in from Siberia, making it the second-coldest capital in the world), and perhaps more importantly, that it was a small, provincial town. Since then there has been a frenzied level of construction to create a showcase capital causing the population to triple in 10 years. The skyline has been transformed with new, fanciful towers springing up every year often designed by the who's who of contemporary world architecture, the only constant being the forest of cranes that whir and hum at break-neck speed. All this has come at a price, estimated to be around 10% of the national budget every year. Some of the buildings are indeed beautiful, but there is no over-arching harmony so instead the place feels rather soulless. Some of the more interesting creations include: a giant, indoor aquarium/sea-life centre which includes a 70m long underwater walkway where you can get up close and personal with sharks and other creatures of the deep (must have cost a ridiculous amount as the sea water had to be shipped in especially, and Astana is thousands of kilometres from the nearest sea); a giant 150m high tent with a transparent roof that is home to a shopping and entertainment centre; as well as an entirely new governmental complex with grandiose ministry buildings (although, as opposed to Ashgabat, it does look like these are getting some use).

Shiny new skyscrapers in the new administrative centre of Astana may look pretty...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Historical Turning Points, And Crayfish

The road from Almaty was initially a railway. The town of Kopa is a forgotten stop on the edge of the steppe on the line heading west out of Almaty. Only one train a day stops there and on that particular day I was the only person to get off. It is, however, the nearest town with any sort of public transport to Tambaly, where there are the greatest collection of petroglyphs in Central Asia. OK, perhaps not one to get the hearts racing, but interesting nevertheless. I sat myself down on the road out of town hoping to get a ride the 30km out to the site. At least the tumbleweeds kept me company. My wait wasn't as long as expected and the very first car that passed took me all the way there (hitching is not only reasonably common in Kazakhstan, but I also don't feel uncomfortable asking for a free ride here where the standard of living is significantly higher than the rest of Central Asia). And in a textbook example of things generally working out in the end, as I was wrapping up my visit of the site, and beginning to wonder how the hell I would get out of there, I spied a group of visitors (the only ones to visit that day apart from me) who had obviously come by car. So I went over to see if I could bum a lift, at least to the main highway. They turned out to be a group of 3 Mexicans living in China, a Kazakh girl (girlfriend of one of the Mexicans) and her father. Certainly not people you would expect to meet in the middle of Kazakhstan. Nevertheless they said, sure, they could take me to the highway as they were going back to Almaty that evening anyway. And so once they had finished visiting the site themselves we set off. I was happy as I got to practice my Spanish which was encased in a sizeable coating of rust, but at least I was still able to conjugate the verb chingar in several different levels of impoliteness, which impressed the Mexicans considerably. As we approached the highway Aina (the girl) suggested I come crayfishing with them. It was getting late, it was in my general direction and I had never been crayfishing before (hell, I hadn't even ever seen a live crayfish before) so I heartily agreed.

Monster from the deep comes face to face with a crayfish.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Big Apple

Apart from the general sightseeing I did have an important task to do in Almaty: get my Mongolian visa. (I know what you're thinking, "oh no, not another visa anecdote"; and I'm sorry to bring it up - although I will be brief. But visa acquisition forms a large part of a traveller's daily preoccupation - where do I get it? what documents do I need? how long does it take? do I need to do it via an agency? etc, etc - because, very simply, without overcoming these hurdles you can't do any travelling. And the whole visa system in this part of the world in particular is so arbitrary and capricious. It's a universal rule that if you get two travellers sitting down and talking together, within an hour they will be swapping visa stories. Nevertheless I shouldn't complain, as getting into the EU or United States with a passport from Central Asia for simple tourism purposes is nigh on impossible. But back to the story...) So I made my way to the embassy, which is very inconveniently located in the southwest corner of town in a random residential area down a very nondescript little alley, on Monday morning, only to find a little, handwritten sign tacked to the gate saying that the embassy would be closed until Thursday. I was not impressed.

My view of Almaty, with the ever-present Tian Shan mountains behind decked in an approaching thunderstorm. One of my first pics with my new camera - obviously I need to learn how to use it properly.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Apple Strudel

There are some things that we consider to be so quintessentially of a certain place or culture that it comes as a shock to learn that its origins are often very different. There are many examples: who can imagine England without tea, Italy without football, Wall Street without (neck)ties, or even Ireland without potatoes. Yet these come from China, England, Croatia and Peru respectively. And why am I thinking about the origins of things? Well, I am now in Almaty (formerly Alma Ata), Kazakhstan's biggest city and former capital. The name means "Father of Apples" because, believe it or not, the common apple, that is so much a part of the European landscape and even culture, has its origins in the foothills of the Tian Shan. Similarly the walnut, another European mainstay,  is also from the region, with the region of Arslanbob at the eastern fringes of the Fergana Valley being home to the largest walnut forest in the world.

And although Almaty can only count on apples for making it unique in the world, it is certainly unique in Central Asia. Arriving from Bishkek I was greeted by the standard wide, tree-lined grid of streets of Russian imperialism. But there were obvious differences to other towns in the region: rubbish bins conveniently placed all over town, a cycle lane (though to be honest, that was a little deceiving as I was to later find out, as I was let off the bus on the only street in town that actually has a cycle lane) and even drivers who stop at zebra crossings to let you cross - something I haven't experienced since perhaps Poland. Indeed, Almaty is an island of Western order in the sea of Asian bedlam (not that I dislike Asia's organic chaos, which is very stimulating and exciting). Upmarket boutiques, swanky bars and restaurants, flash cars and designer clothes are all commonplace and your average Almatian is as refined and educated as their counterparts in Amsterdam or Andalucia. Although Almaty is no longer the political capital of the country (that title, as of 1997, belongs to Astana) it is still very much the commercial and cultural capital. Certainly a far cry from the image we might have in the West where, for the majority, the only Kazakh personality that is known is Borat, Sacha Baron-Cohen's fictional racist, homophobe, anti-Semite, chauvinist. Interestingly, when talking to Kazakhs about him they are quite savvy and realise that it was actually Americans who were being ridiculed in the film, and are glad that their country got some publicity (the president, on the other hand, didn't get the joke and the film was banned in the country).

Friday, June 10, 2011


Kyrgyzstan is a land of mountains, but also of lakes (and also of horses, but I'll touch on that later). To get a true taste of the country, both metaphorically and literally, you need to leave the towns and cities - Bishkek feels like a relaxed, provincial eastern European town - and head for the hills, where the nomadic Kyrgyz soul resides. The first place I made for was Issyk Kul lake (a bit of a tautology as kul means lake in Kyrgyz). Talk to any Kyrgyz person and they will tell you that you haven't seen Kyrgyzstan until you've seen Issyk Kul, which is seen as the jewel in the country's crown. It is indeed a special lake. Although Kyrgyzstan is a small country, smaller even than Britain, the lake is one of the biggest in the world (10th by volume, and 7th deepest). For the landlocked Kyrgyz it is their beach destination and is suitably equipped with hotels, deckchairs, parasols and all other beachy paraphernalia. Even the water is salty. However, due to it's high altitude - 1600m - it's not particularly warm despite its name (which translates as "Hot Lake"), as a brief dip unequivocally demonstrated. (The name refers to the fact that, because of its depth and high salinity, the lake never freezes, even in the depths of winter.) This means that the "beach" season is very short, outside of which there's barely a soul to be seen. Not that I was particularly interested in taking a dip, the surrounding landscape is far more interesting to me. The lake is surrounded on all sides by tall mountains and in the east, on a clear day you can spot the challenging 7000m peak of Khan Tengri on the tri-border with China and Kazakhstan, lording it over the other lesser mountains of the surrounding Tian Shan range - not that I ever saw it as at this time of the year the mountains are almost constantly shrouded in a blanket of cloud, at least at the higher elevations.

A "popular" beach on Issyk Kul, framed by a spur of the Tian Shan mountains.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Close Encounters Of The Foreign Kind

I never knew my paternal grandfather who died of cancer a couple of years before I was born. All I know of him is through faded photographs and my father's reminiscences. One anecdote has particularly stayed with me. When my grandfather visited London from Czechoslovakia in the 70's he would wander around the local neighbourhood, but he would leave his watch at home on purpose. This gave him an excuse to go up to people to ask them the time and so strike up a conversation and use his limited English. I do something similar. I like asking people for directions. Often it is necessary as maps and signs are often inadequate, but usually I will ask more often than is really required so that I can practice my limited local language skills and create a human contact. Rarely does anything bigger come of it, but a transient conversation and a smile are the ephemera that make travelling special. I think my grandfather and I would have got along well.

These contacts are the palette that colour my days: even the dullest places can become exciting and the most cosmopolitan metropolis a morgue depending on who you meet. Tashkent is supposed to be Central Asia's cultural capital whilst Bishkek is but a backwater with, quite frankly, nothing going on. Yet for me the roles were reversed thanks to the people I met. Tashkent was OK, but Bishkek has been a revelation. I've met some fantastic people who have led me down the rabbit-hole of unexpected activities such as playing ping-pong in the central, Panfilov park on a Thursday afternoon and going to a private, Soviet-era banya in the bowels of a swimming pool complex. The most unexpected though was through my couchsurfing contact here, a girl named Selbi. A very forceful and energetic individual who is an activist for LGBT rights in Kyrgyzstan. That in itself is extraordinary as in the region homosexuality and even sexuality issues in general are ignored, swept under the carpet and plain denied. Although homosexuality has been legalised in Kyrgyzstan (as opposed to all the other Central Asian republics where it is still illegal) it isn't recognised and there is still much discrimination and certainly little understanding. So when she invited me to come along to a gay club in Bishkek I was very eager to see what it would be like. I was surprised to find that it was in a very central location and not hidden (although it wasn't advertised as a gay club), though the bouncers at the door made sure that only known clientele and foreigners got in (foreigners aren't seen as being homophobic and so are accepted as LGBT supporters). The club itself was pretty ordinary and could have been anywhere. There wasn't even that much overtly homosexual action, but instead it was a place where the LGBT community could let their hair down and relax and have a party without fear of interference. It was nice for me too as I put on my best T-shirt and dusted off my dancing shoes (well, sandals) and bust some uncoordinated moves on the floor. It seems to be a universal law that gay people are not just better dressers, but also better dancers. It was funny to see that there were two groups at the club that night. There's the hard dance fans with their pumping beats, but as soon as I Will Survive hit the amps they fled the dancefloor to be replaced by the camp, cheese crowd (to which, I must admit, I belong). Seeing that there is a gay scene in this, in certain respects, conservative part of the world and that the LGBT community is working to make its voice heard and get its rights.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Vortex Of Unrest

I've wanted to visit Central Asia for a long time now. It's a region that falls well underneath the radar of most peoples' consciousness and yet has a rich history and varied ethnic and cultural patchwork. In fact it is the cline at which the Indo-European and Oriental peoples meet, producing physiognomies from classic European to Han Chinese with everything in between, especially in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The town of Osh where I am now epitomises both the best and worst aspects of this fact.

The main entrance to the Osh bazaar says "World Peace" along with a monument with three doves, whilst behind lie burnt out stalls from last year's clashes.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pamir Travel Travails

From Langar the road follows the Pamir river slowly upwards. The mountains recede to the distance, hanbitations disappear as do the trees and the fields as you leave the valleys of Badakhshan behind and enter the high, desolate, windswept Pamir plateau. The land is parched and the driving wind coats everything in a fine layer of dust in an instant, seemingly forcing it into your very pores. There are few inhabitants except for Kyrgyz herders driving their flocks of sheep and goats from one sparse pasture to another, and a handful of settlements servicing them and the Chinese truckers importing cheap, shoddy goods (it's not just Westerners who complain about the quality of Chinese manufacturing, or lack thereof). But for the most part the plateau is an intensely inhospitable place, a fact noted by Marco Polo over seven centuries ago. The floor of the plateau rarely descends below 3500m and I could feel the effects of the altitude on my first day whilst crossing the pass from the Wakhan at 4300m - a shortness of breath and slight pounding of blood in my head.

The Pamir plateau is beautiful yet barren. Very little can grow at such high altitudes and with such little water and the winters are bitterly cold.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wakhan Do It

Tajikistan is a poor country. It has the 7th lowest GDP of any non-African country, has no industry to speak of (one large aluminium smelting plant, though the ore has to be imported from abroad), few mineral resources worth mentioning (a handful of gold and silver mines) and only 7% of the country is arable land (whereas 50% is comprised of mountains). Its long and porous border with Afghanistan that the government cannot possibly effectively control makes it an important conduit for drugs. The evidence of the drugs trade can easily be seen if you take a ride north from Dushanbe along the Varzob valley where tasteless modern mansions line the river, the vast majority, according to my Tajik friends, built using drug money (the rest from government corruption). The only export Tajikistan has in any quantities is cheap labour for Russian construction sites.

As you can see from the map, mountains are the one thing Tajikistan has in abundance.

Monday, May 16, 2011


A slight disaster: the last post I wrote regarding arriving to Dushanbe did not get published properly. Furthermore the drafts were also lost. I have contacted Blogger and will hopefully retrieve the post and put it up again, in the meantime, rather than write it anew I will carry on from where it finished.

Having put in my application for the Kyrgyz visa I had a week to kill before I could set off along the Pamir highway. My destination was the town of Panjikent in the Zerafshan valley and the Fan mountains to the south. The Fan are an outlying spur of the Pamir-Alay range and with peaks reaching up to 'only' 5500m, and as such are a more accessible and amateur-friendly range than the giant Pamirs to the east. Getting to Panjikent required a little backtracking towards Istarafshan, but only crossing one pass, before getting off in the valley hoping to catch some onward transportation along the wild and narrow Zerafshan valley. My onward transport happened to be an old man in his battered Moskvich who picked me up and took me all the way. The road was in a poor state, but at least the views were compensation, with the scenery reminding me of a small version of the Karakorum Highway, with only 200m drops rather than 600m (although, at the end of the day, both are lethal should you try to test them out).

Along with pot-holes and dodgy drivers, herds of sheep are also a natural obstacle to be  negotiated on Tajikistan's roads.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Along my travels there are certain historical characters I keep bumping into, the most notable being Alexander the Great. I've seen traces of his conquering ways in northern Greece, Iran, Turkey and even in the Egyptian desert. And now, in the northern Tajik province of Soghd I've come across his furthest outpost, Alexandria Eschatae ("Alexandria the Furthest" - Alex wasn't particularly imaginative with the names he gave cities, naming at least 13 Alexandria), although now it is called Khojand (after a brief incarnation as Leninabad). There isn't really anything to show that Alex made his way through here, except for the unintentionally kitsch and funny local museum where 'authentic' marble mosaics depict Alexander's various exploits.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

There Are Some That Call Me Tim

I wrote a couple of posts back that I preferred taking the train. Here is a little vignette showing why. I'm sitting at Termiz train station waiting for my ride to Samarkand. The Dushanbe-Moscow express has just passed by on its 4800km, 3-day journey. Although the Soviet Union imploded 20 years ago, its railway network still trundles on, with trains criss-crossing the former Communist behemoth linking most of its former countries (the Baltics and the Caucasus being the only exceptions). So it is possible in Nukus to hop aboard the Tashkent-Kharkiv train and be directly transported to Ukraine in a few days, crossing three international borders, a journey that has taken me over 7 months in the opposite direction. As a slight aside, the word for train station in the ex-Soviet world is vokzal. Those with more than just a passing knowledge of London may find it oddly familiar, sounding very much, as it does, like the district of Vauxhall. In the 17th to 19th centuries Vauxhall was the site of luxurious pleasure gardens (which may come as a surprise to current inhabitants of the borough) that were emulated throughout Europe, including Russia. When the first train line was constructed in Russia it was just to such a garden, and so was called Vokzal, after which all train stations gained the name.

Soon the Tashkent train that would take me to Samarkand slipped into view and people started climbing aboard. I joined them, and was relieved that I had drawn a low bunk as it would allow me to stash my rucksack in the compartment beneath it. I was sharing my immediate compartment with two middle-aged men and a son in his thirties. Across the aisle from us an imposing matron set up her throne, flanked by her daughter and two grandchildren. She seemed austere at first, until she pulled out a portable boom-box from her handbag and which started blaring Uzbek pop. There wasn't much conversation to begin with until people started pulling out their supplies: bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, tea, salami, mackerel (in a tin), pastries and, of course, vodka. All this was piled high on the creaky table between the bunks. Everyone pitched in and everyone (in our small section of the carriage) was invited. As soon as the vodka started flowing so did the conversation. I can't say I remember much but it certainly beat sitting in a cramped, sweaty bus.

Party time on the train to Tashkent (via Samarkand).

Friday, April 29, 2011

You Can Have Any Colour You Want, As Long As It's A Daewoo

I had wanted to take the train back east from Khiva, and had my eye set on a particularly useful departure, but I had underestimated the popularity of trains here in Uzbekistan (or perhaps how much people detest the crappy roads). There are few buses and often the only other form of intercity transport is the shared taxi, not a means of getting round I particularly enjoy. It's not very efficient and taxi drivers are notoriously rapacious and will stop at nothing to squeeze every last penny out of you. From Urgench to Bukhara I knew the price shouldn't be more than 40,000 som (the Uzbek currency), which is the equivalent of $17 - a hefty sum for me (pun intended). Not only did the driver start off by quoting me twice that to begin with, but when I remonstrated with the other passengers they told me that they had been instructed not to tell me how much they themselves were paying. Nevertheless I managed to get the ride for 40,000, but it cost me unnecessary time and annoyance. It also reinforces my belief that taxi drivers are amongst the lowest and least scrupulous forms of human life.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

See The Sea Before It's Sand (aka The Importance Of Carrying Out Environmental Impact Assessments And Heeding Their Warnings)

From Bukhara I followed the Amu Darya on its northwesterly course. It cuts a fertile, verdant swathe through the otherwise inhospitable landscape of the Karakum desert to the south and Kizilkum to the north (the Black Sand desert and the Red Sand desert respectively, although, to be honest, both looked pretty sandy coloured to me) and is, and has been, the life-blood of the region for millennia where water is the most treasured commodity of all (an interesting, if useless, factoid, except for those who participate in pub quizes, is that Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world - the other being Liechtenstein - that is doubly landlocked i.e. a landlocked country that is itself wholly surrounded by landlocked countries (the Caspian and Aral seas don't count as they are technically lakes)). On its way the great river passes the historical cities of Khiva and Urgench before passing by Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, and finally emptying into the Aral Sea. At least that's what older maps would have you believe. That's before the Soviet authorities, in their infinite wisdom, brought about the world's greatest environmental catastrophe, perhaps all the more catastrophic for the general worldwide ignorance and apathy that has accompanied it.

A couple of rusty boats sitting high and dry where the sea used to be at the "ship graveyard" at Moynaq.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sitting Down. Getting Picked Up.

Sometimes you have to travel far and go through great efforts to make rewarding contacts or rewarding experiences. On the other hand sometimes you have to just stop and sit down. I left Bukhara bound for Navoi, a town some 100km to the north, where I had booked a berth on the twice weekly Tashkent to Urgench train*. But along the way I stopped off at the town of Gijduvan, known for its shashlik, large market and medieval madrassa. When I arrived at the latter with my heavy rucksack the quiet, shady courtyard seemed like the ideal place to sit down, rest and catch up with my diary writing which I had neglected of late. I didn't get much writing done though. First the guard came over to inspect my thoroughly suspicious behaviour: "where are you from? what's your name? what are you doing? year of birth (here, rather than ask you how old you are, they ask you for your birth year)? how many children do you have? why aren't you married? The final question automatically follows the one before it and is asked with a mixture of inredulity, amazement and pity - 30 is already well past the best before date as far as Uzbekistanis are concerned. Next came the caretaker with exactly the same questions. Then the lady selling souvenirs, the odd-job boy, and finally the imam. Even local visitors would crowd round me, curious to know what this strange foreigner was doing in their madrassa with his oversized bag and his book of cabalistic scribblings. Come lunchtime I had only managed to write a couple of entries and was feeling rather peckish when right on queue souvenir-lady came over and motioned for me to a small chamber where the others were sat around a low table each with a bowl of mutton stew and several loaves of round bread broken up in the middle. There was an empty place set aside for me. And so the next few hours were spent idly chatting away with my new "temporary family" trying to make ourselves understood, and usually managing after a somewhat convoluted manner.

Hanging with the madrassa boys. Lamb stew, bread and green tea. Mmmmm!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Iranian In Bukhara

I had always wanted to cross the Syr Darya river. Even as a kid gazing at the map it sounded neat. Then when I found out that it was the Oxus of ancient times and gateway to Transoxiana, both names that evoke dreams of exoticism, it only spurred my curiosity even further. It was a little disappointing, therefore, to be crossing it on a rickety railway bridge in a carriage with creaky wooden benches on a dreary, dust-strewn day with visibility down to only a few hundred metres. "No matter," I said to myself: "onwards to Bukhara!"

Bukhara was once one of the greatest cities of the Muslim world and a thriving centre of learning, boasting scores of madrassas and mosques, as well as being a major crossroads on the Silk Road. During the golden age of Islam Bukhara, and the region in general, was home to some of the greatest scientists, poets, mathematicians and astrologers of the world: Al Biruni, Avicenna, Al Bukhari, and Al Khwarizmi to name but a few. With the opening up of the sea routes to the East by the Europeans the Silk Road withered away and its great cities, like Bukhara and Samarkand, sank into obscurity, ruled by petty khans squabbling amongst themselves in internecine conflicts until one day, some 150 years ago, crept up behind them and swallowed them up as part of The Great Game. Although Russia (and then the Soviets) dragged Central Asia into the modern era, the spirit of those bygone days can still be found in the dusty back alleys of the old town where children play hide-and-seek, and the ghosts of venerable scholars hide in the nooks of madrassas in between souvenir stalls.
Local Tajik lady from Bukhara wearing traditional adras/atlas outfit. Gap stores haven't got a chance!