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!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Back In The USSR

I hadn't even crossed the border to Turkmenistan and I already felt the familiar Soviet vibes: decrepit border-post, old ladies with enough gold teeth to buy a Merc, oversized shoes and countless forms and endless bureaucracy feeding the KGB machine. I was getting too comfortable in Iran and Turkmenistan is just what I needed to jolt me into action.

Turkmen family visiting the ruins of Merv on the weekend. I particularly like the elegant, colourful velvet dresses of the women.

I must admit that Turkmenistan wasn't at all like I had expected. I realise that after having travelled so much that prior expectations are to be taken with a shovel-full of salt, but I couldn't help myself as the country was such an exotic enigma with many outlandish tales swirling around it was hard to know what to believe. I was perhaps expecting a nation of automatons that had been brainwashed into acquiescence. Instead what I found was a surprising degree of normalcy. On my first day there I visited the ancient ruins of Merv. It was a Saturday and I saw many local families on day-trips, having pic-nics and generally enjoying themselves. Kids playing football, women dressed in traditional colouful, long velvet dresses and men knocking back the vodka. They seemed open and friendly and quite curious, although conversations generally didn't go far due to my broken Russian and my unwillingness to stray into politics (which, I was later to find out, was the right course of action). Otherwise the roads were in pretty poor shape and lacking in any signage, but were populated by surprisingly decent cars: mainly Toyota sedans of various descriptions. It was later whilst taking a shared taxi that I learnt the reason for this: they are second-hand imports from Japan. And due to the steering being on the wrong side there is a burgeoning cottage industry of steering wheel transposition in Turkmenistan.

Some local guys out for a spot of fishing and a picnic on the weekend in Merv. When they saw me they insisted I join them for lunch, washed down with some strong homemade vodka (the Russian influence easily trumps centuries of Islam!).

Friday, April 08, 2011

Spring In My Step

In Tehran leaves are budding on trees and flowers are blossoming, the days are longer than the nights, birds have returned and are beginning to sing and build their nests and I've managed to add three visas to my passport (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). All of which means that winter is over, spring is here and it is time for me to pack my rucksack and hit the road once more. My upcoming route will take me through the 'Stans of Central Asia, a collection of countries that have fascinated me for some time and whch I am really excited to explore. It's a region with a rich cultural and historical legacy, but which is off the radar for most people unless there is some heavy civil unrest or uprising. Even when the 24-hour news channels report the global weather they manage to metion such insigificant countries such as Mozambique, Honduras and Timo l'Este but skirt past the entire Central Asian region. Perhaps there are strange weather phenomenon going on there that make forecasting difficult?

My first port of call will be Turkmenistan, a country which keeps pretty much to itself but which is without a doubt one of the most closed an repressive countries in the world, on a par with North Korea and Eritrea. For 15 years following the break-up of the Soviet Union it was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, who styled himself as Turkmenbashi ("Head of Turkmen") and created one of the craziest cults of personality the world has ever seen. Not only did he emulate the likes of Mao and Gaddafi by writing his own book (the Ruhnama, which is pretty much the only book studied in school and its knowledge essential for anything from geting a job to obtaining a driving licence), but he also changed the names of two of the months of the year after his mother and himself. Bankrolled by the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world Turkmenbashi went on a megalomaniacal building spree that has seen no equal in the world, creating vast new building complexes in downtown Ashgabat, complete with shopping malls, five-star hotels and wide boulevards that are completely empty and unused by the poverty-stricken population of the country.

Of course a country such as this doesn't let people in willy-nilly and you can only really visit on a transit visa which is valid for five days, meaning an in-depth taste of the country is nigh-on impossible. Internet is also non-existant in Turkmenistan (and severely restricted in most other countries in the area) so it may be a while before I can post again.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Persian Paradoxes And Politics

In my time here in Iran I have come to regard it as a country of paradoxes. I've already mentioned a few, such as the surprisingly good transport infrastructure paired with the complete lack of respect for road rules, and the Iranian love for camping and the outdoors, as long as they don’t have to leave their cars. Today I want to cover a few more as well as touching on some political issues. So please bear with me as this post may be slightly disjointed.

Perhaps the biggest paradox in Iran is that of its women. The overwhelming view of Iran’s women in the West is of a poor, repressed underclass, forced into submission and degradation, hidden away behind chadors and hejab. I have found the truth to be very different. First there are the simple facts: women form the majority of university graduates, they can work, run for parliament and drive cars. Significantly better than most countries in the region. Sure, there are many limits to their rights, and in theory permission from male guardians are required although often not in practice. I find the obsession of the West of the mandatory wearing of the headscarf to be very much misplaced. It is a very small, cosmetic annoyance and is the least of women’s worries in Iran (what Western media fail to report is that there is also a dress-code for men as well, which, although less restrictive, is also a reality). But then there are also the women themselves: fiercely independent, resourceful, spirited and clever they are universally the driving force within any household. They don't let the restrictions of the regime get in the way of chasing their dreams. Throughout the country I have been surprised by the strong women who are bold and outgoing and unafraid to air their opinions. Unlike their more emancipated Western sisters who take their freedoms for granted Iranian women are aware of what they have fought to earn and guard it jealously.

A simple wristband but one that could potentially get you arrested, symbolising, as it does, the pro-reform green movement.