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).