Thursday, 14 July 2011

Going home and final thoughts

“Once you have become the companion of the road, it calls you and calls you again... the road lies outside the door of your house, full of charm and mystery. You want to know where the roads lead to, and what may be on them, beyond the faint horizon’s line.” (Stephen Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 1916)

Our travels are almost over now and tomorrow we’ll be back in England, home amongst family and friends. It feels right to be going home: a year is a long time to live a transient existence and we feel ready to resume and rebuild our London life. Yet it’s been a fantastic year, and an opportunity we feel so privileged to have had and are unlikely to have again.

We feel so lucky to have seen sites we’d read and about and dreamed of seeing for years: the wonderful ancient silk road cities of Central Asia, the modern Chinese East Coast cities, Everest and the Potala Palace in Tibet, the temples of Angkor, the museums and galleries of St Petersburg and Moscow, and countless beautiful landscapes, like those of Siberia, Tibet, Kyrgyzstan, Western Norway, and the Caucusus Mountains. Enjoying twelve months of almost continual clear blue skies and sunshine has also been wonderful (even if at times it’s been oppressively hot or painfully cold). But it is the contact we’ve had with people along the way, and the friendliness and hospitality we’ve been shown time and again, that will linger perhaps longest. Over and over people went out of their way to help us, inviting us into their houses, offering us food, driving us where we needed to get to, or just welcoming us to their countries. Often the hospitality we received was warmest in those places with the worst reputations in the West, and it forced us time and again to abandon our prejudices and preconceptions, our Western fear of strangers, and to open ourselves up to new people and experiences in a way we tend not to at home.

Much though we’ve enjoyed our interactions with people along the way, and are acutely aware of the privileges that being foreign and white can bring, we’re are though weary of standing out in the street and of being an outsider, and crave the anonymity of London. In the countries we’ve been, from Russia onwards, we’ve faced constant attention and been asked the same questions over and over again (what’s your name, where are you from, are you married, why don’t you have children...). There seems at times to be a perception too that foreigners are public property, so we’ve been poked and prodded and had our belongings picked over repeatedly. For some people too our mere presence was evidence of our (relative) extreme wealth, and so unsurprisingly we were asked frequently about how much money we had and whether we could give people some, and were expected to pay inflated prices for everything. And while we know that most people were simply being friendly and curious, at times we found it awkward or tiresome, and never found an entirely satisfactory way of dealing with the question of money, either to ourselves or to people we’ve met.

Spending time outside the UK we’ve also been forced to re-evaluate life at home and have become aware of quite how privileged life in the UK is in so many ways. It’s not just a question of having enough money not to worry about feeding or housing ourselves and to enjoy our leisure time, but about all the infrastructure we take for granted but that so many people in the countries we’ve visited do not have access to, like running water, reliable electricity, heating, refuse collection, and generally good roads and public transport. Having witnessed the environmental and social impact that an absence of planning legislation is having on countries like Nepal and China we’ve also become firm defendants of our own much maligned planning system. And travelling largely in countries ruled by fairly autocratic or repressive regimes has made us acutely aware of the freedoms we take for granted at home: the generally high standard (phone hacking aside) of an independent media; freedom of speech and opportunities to challenge authority through elections, demonstrations or strikes; that we don’t fear of the police, and don’t face corruption or open discrimination of ethnic and other minority groups.

Yet our travels have also challenged our preconception that democracy is the only effective and viable political system, and is an end in itself rather than just a means to success. For China and Vietnam are faring far better than most of their neighbours who have embraced democracy, and the majority of people seem happy under one-party rule. Similarly, most of the Russians we spoke to were happier with the current authoritarian regime than they had been with Yeltin’s democracy. And while this year’s Arab Spring gives weight to the view that ultimately democracy will triumph over authoritarianism, at present it seems both a long way off and not particularly desired by many of the people we’ve met who seem pleased just to see their economies growing and personal well-being and affluence growing. Perhaps in those countries where poverty and starvation are such recent memories, for many people material wealth understandably assumes primary importance, with environmental, democratic freedoms or other concerns overlooked in rush for economic development.

We’ve enjoyed our travels right the way to the end, yet we have also found ourselves becoming weary of travelling: of constantly moving on, working out how to get to where we’re going, packing up our things and squeezing ourselves into the next mode of transport, learning the layout of new places, where to buy food, where to stay and what the local prices should be. And strangely even things that are a pleasure usually: working out how to spend days without structure and eating out at restaurants can be tiring. In essence we find ourselves craving familiarity, a routine and everything that comes with having a home. So we have very mixed emotions about the end of this trip, sad to be finishing but pleased to be going home, and are sure that we’ll be off again at some point hopefully not too far away, to revisit some of the places we’ve seen over the last year and to discover new ones.

Our year in numbers

• Number of nights spent outside the UK: 348

• Distance travelled overland (excluding the distance we walked - perhaps another 2,000kms): 45,500km

• Furthest single overland journey: 4460km – Kunming (China) to Lhasa (Tibet)

Longest single journeys:
• Sea: 52 hours – Alesund to Bodo (Norway), Hurtigruten boat
• Rail: 42 hours – Chengdu (China) to Lhasa (Tibet)
• Road: 15 hours – Yerevan (Armenia) to Kars (Turkey), via Georgia

Geographical extremes:
• Most northerly point: 71° 1’ 8” North – Nordkapp (Norway)
• Most southerly point: 10° 2’ 0” North – Can Tho, Mekong Delta (Vietnam)
• Most easterly point: 121° 30’ 0’’East – Shanghai (China)
• Most westerly point: 0° 7’ 39’’West – London (UK)
• Highest point: 5420m above sea level – Cho La Pass, Khumbu Region (Nepal)
• Lowest point: 154m below sea level – Turpan (China)
• Hottest place: +38°C – Karakum Desert (Turkmenistan) & Yerevan (Armenia)
• Coldest place: minus 25°C – Everest Base Camp (Tibet)

Monday, 11 July 2011

Turkey

Our first stop in Turkey was Kars in the far north-east of the country, best known for its remoteness and as the setting of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Although Kars is just a hundred miles or so from Yerevan, with the border between Armenia and Turkey still closed we were forced to detour via Georgia, and with next to no public transport along the way the journey took us 15 hours and 8 vehicles. With no public transport at all or even taxis from the Turkish border onwards we hitched the remaining 150 kilometres: first with an ethnically Armenian family whose grandparents had moved from Turkey to Syria during the 1915 Genocide, and who had moved to Armenia ten years ago and were returning to Syria – slightly nervously given the current political situation – for a family wedding; next with two young men who somehow managed to fit us and our bags into their tiny car; and then with an elderly man who drove us the last 60 km and offered to take us anywhere we wanted to go in Kars. One of the things we’ve both particularly enjoyed about the past year is the contact we’ve had with “ordinary” people around the world who have been almost universally friendly and welcoming. Gradually we’ve learnt again to be more open and receptive to strangers than is common or encouraged at home where a culture of fear seems to infect any interaction with people we don’t know.

Kars itself is a small town of pastel coloured buildings, prettily situated in a shallow valley, surrounded by open grassland. The town’s skyline is dominated by minarets, with mosques dotted around the town, some housed in buildings converted from older Georgian or Armenian churches. Many of the town’s buildings date from the 19th Century Russian occupation, and have a distinct Russian feel to them. Overlooking it all is a ruined castle on the hill above town, from which the views of Kars and the surrounding steppe were lovely.



There are few if any real sights in the town, but it has a pleasant atmosphere and we spent an enjoyable couple of days just wandering about, getting a feel for the place and how different it feels to Western Turkey. Although by the time we reached the town at the start of July summer was in full swing we were aware of how brief the summer is here, with many people already appearing to be preparing for the long and isolating winter by making piles of dung fuel and harvesting hay for the winter feed for the animals.

Just a few kilometres from Kars on the Armenian border is the ancient city of Ani, built by the Armenians as their capital in the 10th Century. The site remains highly important to the Armenians and its inaccessibility due to the closed border is a source of continued upset. Yet the city itself was only controlled by the Armenians for a little under 100 years before being taken in turn by the Byzantines, Persians and Georgians before falling victim to destruction by the Mongols, Timurids and a 14th Century earthquake. Since then the city has fallen into ruin and now the only buildings standing are the handful of churches and the mighty outer walls, with the foundations of the larger shops and houses poking through the long grass. It is a vast sight, beautifully situated overlooking a gorge and walking around it, visiting the beautifully and still wonderfully decorated churches was a haunting and moving experience.


From Kars we travelled to Cappadocia in central Turkey, famous for its strange landscape of soaring rock formations. When we saw it all the clich├ęd superlatives came tumbling out: astonishing, surreal, spectacular, breathtaking, moon-like. Hundreds of thousands of years ago the ancient volcanoes of Mount Erciyes, Mount Hasan and Mount Melendiz erupted and spread a layer of sand coloured tuff which blanketed the countryside. Over the centuries the wind and rain have worn away the soft rock, carving out spectacular gorges and leaving behind the dramatic pinnacles of rock - the 'fairy chimneys' - that are unique to Cappadocia. They come in an extraordinary range of shapes and sizes but most are around 50 foot high and cone or cylindrical in shape.


For thousands of years, the area’s inhabitants have carved their homes, stables, store rooms and churches out of the rock, and today almost every cliff and chimney contains the remains of a cave dwelling. During the Byzantine era, Cappadocia was home to a large Christian population, reportedly even St. George, who carved thousands of cave churches and monasteries into the rock and decorated them with wonderful frescoes of biblical scenes and medieval saints, many of which have survived the iconoclasts remain in spectacular condition. We were amazed by the richness of the colours, the detail of the painting and how in many churches every inch of wall and ceiling was covered with images or elegant carvings.




















During the 6th and 7th Centuries, Byzantine Christians carved entire underground cities, up to eight levels deep and with room for up to 10,000 people into the rocks to escape the Persians and Arabs who periodically swarmed up through Syria and Capadoccia to Byzantium.

Today Cappadocia is a popular tourist resort with pretty villages set amongst the fairy chimneys, with boutique cave hotels and restaurants. After a year of travelling in some fairly difficult places with little tourist infrastructure, we found the comparative luxury and ease of Cappadocia very welcome, a real holiday to end our travels with, and made us realize the folly of underestimating the joys of easy travel. We spent a few days of active sightseeing: visiting the churches and monasteries, clambering about in underground cities and walking and cycling through the valleys until we succumbed to the allure of the pool, sunloungers and rooftop terrace bars.


Tonight we take the overnight train to Istanbul, a vibrant and fascinating city we know and know we like, and with its position on the edge of Europe it makes a fitting end to a wonderful year.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Armenia

Travelling in Armenia has been both fascinating and frustrating, for the country is a mix of beautiful scenery and rich history marred by staggeringly ugly towns, woeful public transport and an almost entire lack of tourist infrastructure or information. Armenia’s greatest tourist draw is its ancient churches and monasteries that lie scattered across the country in frequently stunning locations: in the midst of wooded valleys, overlooking lakes, at the foot of Mount Ararat, or carved into cliff faces. The Armenian Church became the first legal Christian Church in the world when King T’rdat converted in 301 AD and many of the monasteries date from the 500 AD or earlier, some built on the site of earlier pagan shrines. The domed cruciform Church plan that has become common across the world was also first introduced in Armenia, and remains the most common style of church in the country.

The monasteries we visited (including Haghpat, Sanahin, Sevanavank, Goshavank and Gerghard) tended to be made up of a collection of churches and chapels, usually accompanied by a refectory and library. The buildings were built of plain, unadorned stone, with floors of laid gravestones, giving them a beautiful if slightly austere appearance. Around the churches stand stone stellae known as kachkars, engraved with crosses and intricate motifs similar in appearance to Celtic knots. While some of the monasteries are no longer used for worship, where we explored alone in the damp, dark buildings and overgrown gardens, most remain in active use and the Churches we visited on Sundays were filled with worshippers.

Christianity remains the dominant religion in Armenia, with only minute Jewish and Muslim populations. Over 90% of Armenians align themselves with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which belongs to the Oriental Orthodox churches, along with the Coptic Egyptian and Ethiopian Churches, and which is distinct from the Catholic Church and from the Eastern Orthodox Church followed in Greece, Russia and Georgia. The services we observed were certainly reminiscent of those we’d witnessed in Ethiopia, with more singing than sermonising and the priests processing around the Church blessing the congregation, followed by a line of young men carrying banners, cymbals and incense.


Amongst our church visiting we also spent a couple of days at Armenia’s premier resort on the shores of Lake Sevan. There we joined holidaying Armenians, sunbathing on the stony beach and swimming in the icy water. Again we were struck both by how normal it is to drink alcohol in the morning across the Former Soviet Union (FSU), and by peoples’ generosity as vodka and food was forced repeatedly upon us. Lake Sevan also provided one of our more unusual night’s accommodation – we slept in one of the old shipping containers that line the shore and have been converted into tourist accommodation.


Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is a pleasant city where the Soviet tower blocks are intermingled with beautiful old stone houses and grand new buildings filled with expensive designer shops, where cafes and bars line the leafy pavements and the streets are full of shiny new 4X4s and people in expensive clothes. The city has an impressive collection of museums, and we spent an enjoyable few days sightseeing, and an evening at the ballet watching Prokovief’s Romeo and Juliet.

In marked contrast to the affluent and cosmopolitan capital, rural Armenia feels as poor as anywhere we’ve seen in the FSU. The buildings in most towns and villages are a mixture of dilapidated asbestos- or tin-roofed bungalows and high-rise concrete towers. Public transport is scarce, with at most one or two old buses a day, most as old as us and surely not able to last much longer, and almost the only cars on the road are Ladas that look as ancient as the buses. The shops too are dingy, poorly stocked and expensive for the region – in part a consequence of the lack of trade with neighbouring Turkey.

It was a surprise then to find, amongst the otherwise very non-descript shops, an Orange mobile phone shop in town we visited, with pretty much every street adorned with Orange advertising. The ubiquity of Orange was particularly surprising as, apart from a few designer clothing brands, the only Western retail companies that seem to have broken through in the FSU are Naf Naf, United Colours of Benetton, Debenhams and Mothercare – which all seem far more popular here than they are at home.

Travelling in Armenia we became aware of what appears to be a national preoccupation with what the Armenians describe as the “survival of the Motherland.” The red in the national flag, for example, symbolises the blood shed in defence of Armenia; the Mother of Armenia statue above Yerevan brandishes a sword and is surrounded by weaponry; and the National Museum in Yerevan made no mention of Armenia’s status as the world’s first Christian country but was instead devoted almost entirely to the various conflicts Armenia has fought with its neighbours. This stance can be explained at least in part by the loss of over 90% of the territory of historic Armenia (most of which now forms part of Turkey), and by the 1915-16 Armenian Genocide inflicted by Ottoman Turkey which occurred in 1915-16 when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were murdered and 500,000 deported – almost the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.

While the mass killings have been recognised as the 20th Century’s first genocide by much of the world including the European Parliament and the US (although not by the UK), Turkey has however neither acknowledged nor apologised for what occurred. This, together with what Armenians consider the continued destruction of their cultural and architectural heritage in Turkey, is responsible for the continued poor relations between the countries, with the closed borders contributing to high prices in Armenia, and Armenians unable to visit ancient Armenian sites like those on Mount Ararat or at Ani, the former capital, which now lie in Turkey.

The poor relations between Armenia and Turkey are not the only area of tension within the region. Instead, travelling throughout the Caucusus we’ve been struck repeatedly by the three countries’ fractured and complex relations with each other and with their larger neighbours. These continuing disputes were brought home to us by a shrine in one of the family homes we stayed in in Armenia, dedicated to the couple’s son who had been killed in the recent war with Azerbaijan. In this region not one of the countries is on good terms with all of its neighbours: in both Georgia and Azerbaijan the borders with Russia are closed (in Georgia’s case to everyone except the Armenians who are still allowed to cross); in Georgia, the autonomous regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain closed to the rest of Georgia and accessible only from Russia; and in Azerbaijan and Armenia tensions are increasing over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region (occupied by and only accessible through Armenia but recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan), with the border between the two countries firmly closed and renewed fighting expected.

Perhaps surprisingly, the international tensions evident throughout the Caucusus are in contrast to what we’ve experienced elsewhere on our trip where local tensions have been largely limited to internal disputes, most commonly between different ethnic groups, with generally good relations existing between neighbouring countries. Again it reminded us of how unusual Britain is, with a largely peaceful recent domestic history, and with geographically fixed borders unlike much of the rest of the world where borders have always and continue to move repeatedly, reflecting shifts in power as much as of demography.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Georgia

With fantastic mountain scenery, a fascinating history, great cuisine and a vibrant culture, we’d been long looking forward to visiting Georgia. And thanks in large part to the generosity and hospitality of our friends, Katie and Doug, who we stayed with in Tbilisi our two weeks in the country felt like a wonderful holiday.

Physically Georgia is both extremely beautiful and diverse (amazingly, although just the size of Ireland it is the 12th most bio-diverse country on Earth). The dramatic and permanently snow-capped Greater Caucasus Mountains form the country’s northern border with Russia, with the southern portion of the country dominated by the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, the semi-tropical western regions reaching the Black Sea, and semi-desert to the east along the border with Azerbaijan. And with much of the country sparsely populated we were treated to endless empty vistas out across wild flower meadows, wooded slopes and snow capped mountains.


Georgia adopted Christianity as its official religion in the early 4th Century, the second country in the world to do so (after Armenia). Religion remains an integral part of daily life, and has also had a profound impact on the landscape. Georgians seem to delight in building churches in the most beautiful but inaccessible places with endless hills across the country topped by old stone churches, and a series of underground monastic complexes. We visited one of these, Davit Gareja, on the border with Azerbaijan where scores of caves have been cut into the cliffs, containing beautiful pastel coloured frescoes dating back to the 12th and 13th Centuries, and with spectacular views out over the surrounding countryside.

The Georgian Orthodox Church appears to continue to play an important part in national identity. Since independence many old churches have been restored and new ones built, such as the magnificent gold domed Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. Most of the churches we saw were similar architecturally but very different to English churches, with small floor plans and a high central copula. Inside there are no pews or other seats, and they are decorated with gold paintings of Jesus and various saints hung on the otherwise plain, stone walls.

Prayer seems a largely individual practice in Georgia, with few services, but in every church we visited we came across people lighting candles or engaged in private prayer. Almost all car and minibus dashboards are adorned with religious icons, and many Georgians cross themselves three times when passing a church or cemetery. We found this particularly interesting given the low profile religion seemed to have in many other post-Soviet countries.

Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, is ten times the size of the next largest city and dominates the country’s political, economic and cultural life, yet remains a pleasantly manageable size. Set either side of the Mtkvari River and surrounded by green hills, the city’s an eclectic mix of architectural styles reflecting its complex history of Soviet, Tsarist Russia, Persian and Turkish rule and influence. Yet unlike many of the cities of the former USSR we’ve visited Tbilisi seems, thankfully, to have largely escaped the usual grey towerblocks and to have retained its own distinct character. In the Old Town narrow alleyways, ramshackle balconied houses and old caravanserais mingle with churches old and new, while wide boulevards lined with elegant neoclassical buildings and large Soviet public squares are interspersed with new and sleek modern buildings.


This mix of architectural styles is mirrored in the clothes worn by people in Tbilisi, with an individuality in dress that we’ve not seen since we left Europe last summer, and in the vibrant cultural life of the city, with independent art galleries, museums, theatres and cinemas. We spent an enjoyable few days wandering around the streets, peeking into Georgian Orthodox churches, visiting museums, going to the cinema for the first time since November, and watching a spectacular dance performance by the Sukhishvilli Georgian National Ballet.

Georgian cuisine was also a treat after the frequently greasy and bland Central Asian fare we’ve eaten for the past few weeks. Khachapuri, a calorific but addictive cheese pie, is served everywhere, as are aubergines, walnuts, beans, spinach and all kinds of salads, all washed down with delicious Georgian wines.


The Georgian Government and Georgian people seem very much orientated to the West and this is particularly evident in Tbilisi. EU flags fly outside every Government Ministry and on the top of the Parliament building and posters stating that ‘Our foreign policy objective is NATO membership’ adorn the streets. But Georgia’s economy and chances of joining NATO are undoubtedly hindered by its poor relations with Russia, its largest neighbour. Georgia’s two de facto independent regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which claimed independence with Russian support, are the major source of ongoing tensions between the two countries. These tensions flared into war as recently as 2008 and the Georgian economy continues to be stung by Russia’s ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, and the largely closed borders between the two countries.

An hour or so drive from Tbilisi is Gori, where Georgia’s most infamous son, Stalin, was born. The Georgian attitude to Stalin seems curious: in Gori we visited a huge, state-funded museum dedicated to his memory and built in 1957, the year after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. The museum provides a fascinating, if partial, account of Stalin’s life (we had no idea that Stalin, then called Iosif Jughasvili, wrote poetry as a youth and that he had studied at a seminary to become a priest), and there’s an almost ‘local boy done good’ attitude to his life. This stands markedly at odds with Tbilisi’s Museum of Georgia, which houses an exhibition of the Soviet Occupation of Georgia and which catalogues the persecutions which occurred under Stalin.

For us one of Georgia’s greatest attractions was the opportunity to walk in the countryside and it was refreshing to find that the Government promoted and encouraged walking and camping, rather than viewing it with suspicion as has been the case in almost every other country we’ve visited. More generally tourism is being heavily pushed by the Georgian Government making it an easy and appealing place to visit. While it hasn’t been quite finessed yet there seems huge potential for this sector of the economy to grow, especially in outdoor activities, and we’re already planning a repeat trip to explore more of the mountains.


We started our forays into the countryside in the Borjomi National Park in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains (www.nationalpark.ge), where we walked and wild camped for four days following marked trails through beautiful, wild country of forested hills and high alpine meadows covered with a mass of yellow and blue wild flowers. Originally established as a hunting reserve set up by Tsar Nicholas II’s brother, Prince Mikhail Romanov, the Park was only opened to the public in 2001 and is now part of the PAN Parks Network which aims to create a network of Europe’s best wilderness areas from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. (The Bear’s Ring which we walked in Finland is another member of the Network). The Park was wonderfully quiet and in our four days there we saw only a couple of other walkers and a handful of cowherds grazing their animals in the high summer pastures.

Our second trip out of the city was to the Kazbegi region in the Greater Caucuses, due north of Tbilisi and very close to the border with Russia. The high mountains of Georgia have always been wild, sometimes lawless regions, and on our walks in the region we passed countless tall stone defensive towers which once stood in every hamlet to house and protect the inhabitants in case of siege. Now most of the towers have fallen into disrepair but as a reminder of the continuing hostilities with Russia we came across several groups of Georgian soldiers, camped out near the high passes that lead into Chechnya and Dagestan and through which the Georgians fear the Russians might invade again.

We did some spectacular day walks with Katie in the wild, empty valleys around Kazbegi before meeting up with Doug and friends of theirs with whom we spent a fantastic weekend climbing above the valleys to the Gergeti Glacier which snakes down from Mount Kazbeg. During the day we were rewarded with spellbinding views of the glacier and surrounding snow-covered peaks, but that night as we camped at the edge of the glacial morraine, at around 10,000 feet we were hit by an immense storm. Travelling back to Tbilisi the next day we were reminded of how fragile the few roads are which connect the mountains to the rest of the country: many mountain villages are cut off by snow for much of the winter, and after the storm the road was again blocked by several landslides while several local villages were flooded.

Our time in Georgia, staying with Katie and Doug and meeting their friends, was the first chance on this trip to experience what it must be like to live in a country rather than to just pass through as a tourist. And while we’re still continuing to really enjoy our travels, and are so glad to have had the chance to visit so many different and diverse countries, it’s convinced us that we definitely want to try living abroad at some point in the future.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Azerbaijan

Baku was the liveliest, most cosmopolitan city we’ve seen for months. Even arriving after midnight we found the streets still filled with people out enjoying Saturday night – a complete contrast to Central Asian cities we’d visited which tended to shut down around 8 o’clock. At customs we found the border guards all glued to the Champions League Final, which possibly explained why our border checks were the most cursory we’ve faced so far!

We’d travelled to Baku on a cargo boat, the Dagestan, across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan. The only passengers on the boat, we were shown on board by the captain, whose breath reeked of vodka, but who was friendly and welcoming. The crossing itself was uneventful and relatively smooth, though we were pleased to have been given a cabin as the journey ended up taking 30 hours rather than 12 as we’d expected.


Exploring properly the next morning we discovered a beautiful city centre of newly restored sandstone buildings, many now housing expensive boutique hotels and designer shops. The heart of the Old Town is the walled city, a maze of narrow alley ways with small mosques and caravanserais, and the 15th Century Palace of the Shirvanshahs who ruled the area before the Russian invasion. Beyond the old city walls were smart pedestrianised shopping streets and leafy parks, surrounded by grand houses built during the first oil boom at the start of the 20th Century when Azerbaijan supplied half the world’s oil, while for miles along the sea front stretches a wide park lined with benches and ice cream vendors. Much of the architecture was European in style, and many of the buildings wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paris or Vienna.

With the expensive shops and restaurants and smartly dressed locals, Baku oozes wealth. Yet unlike Ashgabat the Turkmen capital, which also felt affluent, Baku has a life and vitality about it, which made it a much more enjoyable city to spend time in with the streets, parks, bars and cafes all filled with people out enjoying themselves.


We’d intended to walk across the mountains in Azerbaijan, from near the Caspian coast towards the Georgian border, a route which we’d heard was beautiful. The mountains were indeed stunningly beautiful, but very disappointingly we discovered when we reached Laza, a small village up in the hills, that the military had closed the region to foreigners so we were restricted to the area around the village. Even so we were able to spend a couple of days doing shorter walks, and to enjoy Azeri hospitality: we stayed with the local school teacher, whose wife fed us enormous and delicious (dairy dominated) meals of homemade bread, cheese, sour cream, butter and yoghurt, supplemented with kebabs, fried potatoes and vodka. On one of our walks we came across a group of men who invited us to join their picnic and plied us with more food and vodka. Again we were humbled by their hospitality, and reminded of the vast scale of the USSR when they told us that they’d served their military service from Eastern Europe to the Arctic all the way to the Pacific.


Unable to walk across the mountains we were forced to spend a bumpy 11 hour bus ride travelling round them. And while we’re both still really enjoying travelling we did find ourselves looking forward to leaving long bus journeys behind us, and to reaching a country where the roads are well surfaced – a luxury we’ve not experienced since Eastern China.

There seems an unofficial dress code amongst the men, at least, in Azerbaijan. Over 40 the style seems to be dark coloured suit jacket, shirt and over-sized flat cap, frequently completed with portly pot-belly, bushy moustache and mouth full of gold teeth. By contrast younger men seem to sport tight jeans, flip-flops and a fitted shirt. Amongst both Kieran felt distinctly out of place in walking trousers and t-shirt.


We spent our last couple of days in Azerbaijan in Seki, a sleepy pretty little town nestled in tree covered hills. As elsewhere in Azerbaijan we were struck by the popularity of dominoes and backgammon, with small groups of men, usually wearing flat caps, huddled round a board in every park and on benches by the side of the road. We stayed in one of the town’s historic caravanserais which has been restored and again serves as originally intended, accommodating travellers, and which was one of the most unusual and atmospheric places we’ve stayed on our travels.

Although Azerbaijan is 98% Shia Muslim we’ve seen little sign of Islam in the country, with vodka drinking seeming to play a much greater place in daily life than prayer. Instead we were reminded travelling here of the earlier religions that were once followed here: near Baku we visited a fire temple built around a natural gas vent that was sacred to Zoroastrians for centuries, that was also a site of pilgrimage for Indian Shiva devotees. In the hills above Seki we visited a beautiful and simple limestone church built in the 4th Century, apparently the oldest Christian building in the Caucuses, which was itself built on the site of a 1st Century BC pagan temple.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Turkmenistan

Before we visited we knew very little about Turkmenistan, a small, mysterious, desert republic squeezed between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Caspian Sea, except that it was a totalitarian state with leaders who sounded decidedly weird: the previous President had changed his name to Turkmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmen), renamed the days of week and months of year after himself and family members and – declaring his “reign” a new Golden Age of Turkmenistan – erected enormous golden statues of himself around the town. We’d heard that since his death in 2006 his successor had toned things down a little, and implemented some much needed reforms but with the media so controlled we had no real idea what to expect.

Unfortunately, the restrictions placed on foreign travellers meant that we were limited to just a few days in the country. Yet even in our fleeting visit we saw that the cult of personality of the President continues to be cultivated: photos of the new President are everywhere and he has even built a National Museum focused on himself. We were fascinated by the contrast and contradictions between the ostentation of the grand buildings of Ashgabat and the apparent paranoia of the regime, and the gulf between the wealth and grandeur of the city and the poverty of the provincial towns and villages we saw.


Ashgabat seems designed as a showcase city to show-off the brilliance and wealth of Turkmenistan. It’s a mix of lavish white marble palaces, gold statues and domes, huge manicured parks and extravagant water features. The city is so green with trees and glorious flowerbeds it seemed unbelievable we were in the midst of a desert. The huge Government Ministries, all white marble of course, line the central streets, with fabulous Orwellian names like the Ministry of Fairness. Yet the buildings all seemed curiously quiet and we couldn’t quite believe there were enough staff to fill them. On the edge of the city are row after row of neoclassical mansion blocks of flat, all 12-15 stories high and clad in the obligatory white marble. At night the city is illuminated in garish colours, which seemed reminiscent of Las Vegas and a long way from the old Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan.


The President’s “main goal is...reviving the cultural and spiritual heritage of our nation”. This is clearly visible throughout the country: women are encouraged to wear only the national dress, while the output of the five domestic tv channels is limited to folk singing and dancing, and the statues around Ashgabat depict traditional nomadic Turkmen and their glorious and ancient past. These conveniently ignore both the Soviet period and that nomadic Turkmen were notorious for abducting and enslaving Russians and Persians. Our first day in Ashgabat we chanced upon a parade celebrating the end of the school year and it was fascinating to see a large choreographed set piece. Thousands of students in matching national dress were assembled to march in the parade, line the streets waving huge flags, or take part in traditional dances. Bizarrely though, we seemed to be the only spectators as it was largely being filmed for national television.


Walking about in Ashgabat there is no doubting that you are in a police state. There are policemen or soldiers on every corner and guarding every building and park. On many streets they outnumber the pedestrians. Armed with frequently used whistles, they continually direct people to one side of the street or the other, often for no apparent reason, and become agitated if you venture within about 30m of any building or loiter near one. Photographing any public building is strictly forbidden and so we had to become quite clandestine about taking photos and confine ourselves to capturing the residential buildings and parks outside the centre, which are less grand and less well guarded. These restrictions were mirrored in the rules for foreign tourists, who are obliged to travel with a Government authorised guide and are only permitted to stay in the few hotels set aside for foreigners (all apparently bugged).


Turkmenistan’s wealth comes from its huge reserves of gas and oil (it has the world's fourth-largest reserves of gas and substantial oil resources) and on our drive to the Caspian we saw the oil rigs stretching out across the desert. A great deal of this wealth has been spent on Presidential ‘vanity projects’, such as the new 66,000 capacity Olympic Stadium, which is curious as sports have declined in Turkmenistan since independence and apparently no Turkmen has ever qualified for an Olympic event. Similarly, a huge amount of money is being spent on developing the Caspian Sea coast as a tourist destination but unless travel restrictions and exorbitant visa fees are waived we can’t see which tourists they will attract for a break in the sun.

Much of this spending has probably resulted in less investment in other much needed infrastructure in the country, but a lot of oil and gas revenue does subsidise life in Turkmenistan. Gas, electricity and water are all free. Food – even imported foods - are heavily subsidized in the shops (for example a 500ml bottle of coke or a Mars Bar are both about 20 pence), as is transport with car drivers entitled to 120 litres of free petrol a month (and petrol costing 12 pence a litre after that) and a bus ticket in the city costing only 4 pence. The Government provides credit for people to buy property and only charges 1% interest on loans. Taxes too are kept very low: the maximum rate is only 2% and those who work in agriculture pay no tax whatsoever.


Our guide, an ethic Russian with Turkmen citizenship, was – at least to us – an emphatic supporter of the regime and extolled the virtues of the high quality of life of people experience in Turkmenistan. It certainly feels much more affluent than either Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, not least on the roads where battered Ladas have given way to gleaming new Toyotas and Mercedes Benz. However these perks were less relevant in a village we visited in the centre of the country where there were no mains energy supplies, little public transport and housing looked extremely dilapidated. A group of American Peace Corps volunteers working in Turkmenistan we met disputed our guide’s account, and believed that most of the population remained very poor.


From visiting the President’s National Museum, we learnt that the current President was elected in 2006 following the death of the first President with a staggering 89.2% of the vote – even his main opponents supported him. The museum is hilariously packed with badly staged and photoshopped images of the President engaged in cultural pursuits: sitting outside a yurt, cooking plov, the national dish, on a mud stove, or riding a horse, as well as more modern pastimes like driving a speedboat, riding a bicycle, playing a guitar and at a shooting range. His target is even on display with the label noting his “unbelievable” perfect score! There are also photos of the President with all the world leaders he has ever met and the gifts he’s received from them.

Despite the President’s pre-election promises of reform, he remains all powerful and there is no separation of powers in Turkmenistan (the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary all report to him) and thus there are no checks and balances on his power. The museum even states that the role of Parliament is to “accept laws” the President has decreed. The President has said that “the greatest value of our society is an individual, its rights and freedoms. Today it is at the centre of our state policies”. Yet the Peace Corps volunteers we talked to suggested that life was still extremely oppressive for the people they lived and worked with, as well as for them as foreigners. Even after only a few days we found the continual police presence oppressive and were disturbed to learn that Reporters Without Borders ranked the country second to last in the press freedom index, only ahead of North Korea.


We’d entered Turkmenistan from the north, in a region that offers another example of Stalin’s damaging carve up of Central Asia. The ancient kingdom of Khorezm which existed in this region was divided up between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, meaning that there is a large Uzbek population in this part of Turkmenistan and that there are similarities between the local ancient architecture and that we saw in Uzbekistan. For example, a 12th century Mausoleum, the II-Arslan Mausoleum, features a conical dome tiled with turquoise tiles in a zigzag design, which is the first of its kind and was exported to Samarkand by Timur. It was also interesting to see the different approaches Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have taken to conservation and restoration. In Uzbekistan most ancient buildings have been restored (and even rebuilt) to reflect what they may have looked like when new. In Turkmenistan the focus has been on only rebuilding sections that threaten the collapse of the building. No new decorative work has taken place. This may make the monuments less awe inspiring on first sight but chancing upon an original and perfect piece can be even more rewarding, for example the original 12th century sparkling mosaic ceiling we saw in the Turabeg Khanym Complex.


From Konye-Urgench we travelled south to Ashgabat spending a night en route camping at the Darvaza Gas Craters. Sadly the village of Darvaza no longer exists (the old President didn’t like the sight of it when visiting the new nearby highway and ordered its destruction) but the gas craters, 10km off the highway in the desert, are one of the most surreal sights we’ve seen so far. The craters were dug during soviet gas exploration in the 1950s and one was set alight and is still blazing after 60 years. At night the inferno is particularly dramatic, drawing many comparisons to the gates of hell.


Similarly bizarre was the Kow-Ata underground lake, another contender for the most unusual sight we’ve seen, and certainly the strangest place we’ve ever swum. As we climbed down into the cave, the air got hotter and the smell of sulphur grew stronger until we reached the lake, 65m underground, which is naturally heated to about 36 degrees where we spent a very enjoyable morning swimming and lazing about while bats flew about overhead in the gloom.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Silk Road Cities: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva

Uzbekistan’s prime tourist attractions are the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. All three grew rich on the back of the trade that passed through Central Asia: gold, saffron, cucumbers, pomegranates, peaches and wine passing from west to east, while ceramics, cinnamon, rhubarb and bronze, as well as silk and the secrets of paper making, printing and gunpowder travelled from China to the West. Indeed, it was the cultural as well as mercantile exchange which made the Silk Road so remarkable – with Buddhism, for example, taking route in Central Asia, China and Tibet as it withered in India, while the ancient art of Central Asia is a fascinating mix of Indian, Persian, Chinese, Arabic and even Greek influences.

In reality, there was never a single, static Silk Road but rather a network of routes that evolved and shifted depending on the season, political considerations, and regional differences in rates of tax, piracy or both. Yet sited around oases at crucial crossroads of the various routes, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva all became mainstays on the various trading routes that passed through the inhospitable deserts of Central Asia.

Samarkand

Samarkand, the most spectacular of the Silk Road cities, is as old as Rome with urban settlements dating back to at least the 6th Century BC, and a history of human habitation going back up to 40,000 years. Until the 16th Century it remained Central Asia’s leading city in terms of population, commerce and culture, with its heyday during the 14th and 15th Centuries during the rule of Timur and his immediate successors. Proclaiming himself Conqueror of the World (though known more commonly known in the West as Tamerlane), Timur led his soldiers as far afield as Delhi and Moscow, plundering Syria, Persia, Asia Minor and Russia in the process, the greatest extent of territory ever conquered by a single leader.

From the areas he conquered Timur carried back to Samarkand not just wealth but also the finest thinkers and craftsmen to create his imperial capital. While just a handful of these buildings remain, they dominate the city with their scale and beauty, their huge vivid turquoise domes standing out against the usually bright blue skies.

At the heart of the city is the Registan, three enormous medrassahs (religious schools) set around a large open courtyard, described by George Curzon, Viceroy of India as the “noblest public square in the world.” It is the combination of the vast scale of these buildings – the portals of the two facing medrassahs are each over 35 metres high – and the delicacy of the tiling and mosaic work that is so breathtaking. The bulk of the structures are the colour of the desert sand, with the walls and minarets decorated with tessellating patterns and inscriptions from the Koran picked out in deep blue, turquoise and green, while the portals are a seething mass of geometric designs, and swirling, floral patterns. And while you might expect so many competing and conflicting patterns to clash, the simplicity of the structure and the limited palette brings instead a beautiful coherence to the buildings, with the endless patterns continually absorbing. We stayed just around the corner from the Registan, and found it wonderful to be greeted by the domes of the Registan every time we emerged from our guesthouse and to see these majestic old buildings at various times of the day and in different lights.


Interestingly, on the facade of one of the portals, two tigers are clearly depicted and above them human faces looking out over the square from behind two rising suns. Although this was the most dramatic example, we were to see similar breaches of the Islamic rule against figurative art on several other religious buildings in Uzbekistan – a sign of the multiple influences on architecture in the region, and the way that only elements of Islam were ever adopted.


Elsewhere in Samarkand, Timur’s own mausoleum and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque he built to be the largest in the world are both stunningly beautiful, and like the Registan are decorated with intricate mosaics and tiling and topped by soaring turquoise domes. The mosque, which is still the largest in Central Asia, with a court once fringed by over 400 cupolas and marble columns has been beautifully restored externally but left untouched inside, giving an insight into how all these buildings would have looked before restoration, with broken lattice windows, cracks developing in the brickwork and only some tiling remaining.

A short walk from the other monuments, the Shah-i-Zinda is a collection of mausoleums dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries. With each monument smaller and more intimate than the grand central buildings it was possible to see the detail of the tiling and frescos much more clearly. . Although at times the mixture of styles was overwhelming, the views along the “avenue” of mausoleums were stunning.

In the last few years the city has undergone large scale restoration and even reconstruction. As always we were torn over the merits of such dramatic rebuilding, though it was fabulous to see the grand buildings looking like they might in their heyday. Unlike many of the historic sites we’ve visited on this trip it was also wonderful that the streets around them have been pedestrianised so we could enjoy them without dodging traffic, making the city an incredibly relaxing and easy place to spend time. Yet the decision to build high walls around the monuments and the older, residential areas of town, segregating local people from their history and from tourists, felt sad and utterly unnecessary.

On several occasions we succeeded in finding the small gates that gave access to the warren of residential streets hidden behind the new walls, gaining a glimpse of a fascinating and very different side of Samarkand: quiet narrow alleys lined with houses set round courtyards, where water is piped in through metal pipes laid above ground, passing groups of men visiting the neighbourhood hammam and huddles of women squatting outside their houses talking with neighbours.



Bukhara

None of Bukhara’s buildings have the grandeur of Samarkand’s Registan or other key sites, yet it feels a more coherent city, with a greater number of historical buildings that remain much more integrated within the city than they are in Samarkand. And while there’s certainly been significant restoration here it too feels less ostentatious and obtrusive than in Samarkand. One of the delights of staying in Bukhara was wandering down the streets of the old town, and coming across an old mosque, medrassah or mausoleum, some restored but most in a state of partial decay, intermingled with the ordinary houses, and which we could explore, invariably as the only people there.


In the centre of the old town is Ark, the city’s ancient fortress. Most of the interior is in ruin, destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1920, but the great outer walls remain. Since reaching Central Asia, we’ve both been reading about The Great Game, the 19th Century Anglo-Russian struggle from dominance in Central Asia, and so it was particularly interesting to see the Ark, which was the location of one of the most famous episodes. It was there that two British officers and players of the Game, Charles Stoddart and Arthur Connolly (it was Connolly in fact who had coined the phrase “The Great Game”), were held in a vermin infested pit for 2 years by the then Emir before being publicly beheaded and buried somewhere under the square outside the main gate.


We stayed a short walk away near the Lyabi-Hauz pond, the traditional social heart of the city. In the ancient tradition we spent very enjoyable afternoons and evenings sitting by the pond under the shade of the ancient mulberry trees, drinking tea and people watching. Just south of Lyabi-Hauz we were surprised to find a working synagogue and to learn that Bukhara has long had a significant Jewish population, dwindling numbers of whom still remain and continue to speak their own, distinct language, and look like distinctly different from their Uzbek neighbours.

The absence of Bukharan Jews from the official history of the city is just one aspect of the retelling of Uzbek history that has occurred since independence in an effort by the Government to create a shared culture amongst the population in the absence of the USSR and communism. Timur is now heralded as the father of the nation though he was Persian, not Turkic, and his great-grandson Babur was driven out of Samarkand by the Uzbeks. In fact, historically both Samarkand and Bokhara have long been predominantly Tajik cities (Tajiks are closely linked to Persians, and speak a language closely related to Farsi rather than a Turkic language), and most of the population remains Tajik speaking. It’s another reminder of how the region was carved up by the Soviets (and actually by Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities) in a policy of divide and rule to minimise the risk of a pan-Turkism uprising.

It used to be said that there were enough mosques in Bukhara to worship at a different one every day. While this is no longer the case there are still certainly a huge number. Yet while there remain large numbers of religious buildings in the city, and throughout Uzbekistan, we’ve seen little sign of the practice of Islam. This has been noted too by others, with travel writer Colin Thubron suggesting that while there was an initial resurgence of Islam in the early 1990s, bound up with a post-Soviet nationalism, this declined as people became poorer, not richer, in independent Uzbekistan and began to look back more fondly at the Soviet era. Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, however, sees a more sinister reason for the apparent decline in Islam, claiming that the government has closed four in five of the country’s mosques, censors the mullahs’ addresses, has banned the call to prayer and discouraged attending prayers and observing Ramadan. Indeed, according to Murray, even possession of the Koran or growing a beard is likely to lead to arrest, detention and torture. Certainly we didn’t hear the call to prayer once in our time in Uzbekistan, despite the profusion of mosques and minarets, and even the working mosques we visited were often entirely deserted.

Most of the sites here operate a rather flexible approach to ticketing. At times it’s been unclear whether the person collecting our entrance money was even officially employed at the monument, while at most sites the price seems to depend on your interest in going in and the number of other tourists around. The concept of opening times also doesn’t seem to exist and we’ve been able to visit several sights early in the morning, or when they were officially closed, by paying the guards direct, enabling us to explore at leisure, the only people around. Inevitably this means that some of our entrance fees have gone direct to the guards and ticket office staff, rather than to the State, yet in a country where official corruption remains endemic and most staff badly paid we felt ok about this.



Khiva

Khiva is the most remote of the Silk Road cities, situated close to the Oxus River and surrounded by the Kyzylkum desert to the east and the Karakum desert to the west,. Whilst this isolation meant a bumpy eight hour car journey for us from Bukhara, its continued remoteness has contributed to ensuring that Khiva is the most complete and intact of the three cities as well as having some of the most homogenous Islamic architecture in all of Central Asia.

Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is a complete fortified city. The Inner City, or Ichon Qala, is wrapped in a one and a half mile belt of city walls, some of which date back to the fifth century. Inside the walls and set around the main street linking the east and west gates are a remarkable collection of original mosques, madressahs, palaces, mausoleums and the town fortress, while to the north and south run a maze of narrow alleyways with small mud brick houses and hammans. Particularly impressive is the Kalta Minor. Commissioned by the Khan in 1852 to stand at over 70 metres high, the biggest in the Islamic world, it was abandoned in the wake of his death at 26 metres. Though not the tallest minaret in Khiva, its great breadth and the glorious head-to-toe tiling mean it dominates the city’s skyline. Elsewhere, in the two palaces, the blue and white tiling was more intricate than we’ve seen anywhere else in the country.


Modern day Khiva feels a world away from descriptions of the town in even the 19th Century. Then, as capital of the Khanate of Khorezm, Khiva was a desert hideout for slave traders, brigands and thieves with a reputation for wanton cruelty, violence and sexual depravation. There were many Russian slaves who had been abducted and sold into slavery in the city, the release of whom became a frequently cited pretext for Russia’s involvement in the Great Game and expansion into Central Asia. Russian men were reportedly the most valuable slaves fetching a price of up to four camels, though Persian women were more sought after than Russian women. Amazingly slavery only ended here in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Khiva was designated a ‘museum-city’ in 1967 by the Soviets, which has led some to describe it as lifeless. However to us it felt very much alive. There are many houses within the city walls, which have apparently been re-occupied following Independence, and immediately outside the walls are a great many more houses as well as a bustling bazaar.


There is a remarkable consistency in the architecture of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. The main mosques and medressahs are fronted by enormous portals, usually decorated with mosaic and tiling but sometimes with frescoes, and surrounded by high walls. At the corners of the compound there are usually minarets, and inside, set around an open-air courtyard, small recessed doorways lead into small, plain cells, which in medrassahs housed the religious students. Above the doorways to each cell there is an arched window, echoing the shape of the main arched doorway, with more decorative tiling above, and at the back of the courtyard is usually a mosque, again fronted by a tiled portal. Many caravanserai we saw also had a similar layout. This consistency of structure is mirrored by a consistency in the colours used in decoration, which is largely limited to deep blue, turquoise and green, with occasional touches of yellow and orange. Yet the buildings are so beautiful, and so varied their decorations that they’re continually absorbing.

Now that the majority are no longer used for worship or study, most of the grand mosques and medrassahs now host tourist stalls selling carpets, ceramics, Soviet memorabilia and other trinkets, as well as the odd restaurant. In Khiva the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah – the city’s largest - is now the Hotel Khiva with student cells converted into luxury rooms. We treated ourselves to a night there and loved staying in such a beautiful and historical building. Whilst we were sad that like so many of these ancient buildings, the medrassah is no longer in use, we were glad that at least the cells continued to provide accommodation – albeit to a rather different clientele.