Onto the Steppe, Mongolia Day One

Let’s try something new:

 

Dear Bolormaa and Ishwanchig,

 

Firstly let me say thank you very much for waking up at 5.30am on a Saturday to meet me off the train from Irkutsk. I have to say it is always quite a relief to see someone carrying a sign with my name on it because I know I am in good hands for at least this part of the trip. From the very outset you both seemed determined that I should see everything there is to see and we headed straight to the War Memorial, set high on a hill, reached by how many stairs? You did tell me! Not taking any hesitancy from me you sped off up the hill and I attempted to keep up, I thought I did quite well considering I am about three times your age. The War Memorial was one of those curious circular designs featuring reliefs of the subject. I have seen these in many ex Soviet countries. Back down the stairs and driving out of the City I had my first glimpse of the steppe, my first reaction was green, how could it be so green? This was to be a recurring reaction all over the parts of Mongolia we visited. So green and verdant and so vast. Our destination was the enormous statue of Genghis Khan, or Chinggis as he is known in Mongolia, completed quite recently by an International team of engineers and designers. I am struck for the first time that Chinggis and his family created the largest land Empire the world has ever known, from way out here on the steppe of Mongolia. I see that it is the tallest equestrian statue in the world and my goodness it is tall. There was a museum and you explained the development of the ger, the Mongolian version of a yurt, you also threw a fur around me and took photographs as I pretended to be a world conqueror. Up and up then to the viewing deck, battling the tourist hoards from Korea where we had a fabulous view of the surrounding countryside and the river Tuul. You took more photos and seemed pleased with the result. Time to move on and we made our way back to the city, I remarked on the amount of traffic, you reminded me it was Saturday, I have completely lost track of the days. A visit to an upscale Mall featuring a supermarket bearing the Whole Foods logo, I wonder if they know. We bought a SIM for my phone and you spent at least an hour negotiating with the phone company as we drove along before it started to work. A break for lunch at a neighborhood supermarket where you informed me we were heading to a National Park for the night and away we went.

The roads of Mongolia are not, shall we say smooth, but there don’t seem to huge potholes it is just not smooth, a result I suppose of the harsh winter conditions. It is not as if they are going to repave the roads every year after the snows have melted and anyway our driver, Ishwan, avoided the worst bumps. Taking photos from the back seat was challenging though and I have had to delete many photos of the sky or road surface taken as we swerved, rocked or bounced. There goes my opportunity for National Geographic Photograph of the Year! We stopped at a temporary lake with horses drinking and you kindly stopped the car for more photos but some other tourists were operating a drone and scared the horses away. I do have to complement you Balormaa for your very professional use of the very low bushes, practice makes perfect I suppose.

Kilometers later we swerved off the road and joined a rough track out onto the Steppe. Oncoming vehicles required us to leave the ruts and take our chances on the grasslands, not a problem for our hero and driver Ishwan. More kilometers of the track and we came to a ger camp. I did explain gers didn’t I? A ger, or in other parts of the world a yurt, is a portable round tent. Balormaa, you did try to explain the difference between a ger and a yurt but the distinction eludes me apart from the fact that yurts have bent roof supports and gers have straight ones. After my short sleep the night before which was interrupted by the border crossing, on The Trans Siberian Express from Russia, which took 5 hours (they locked the loos!) I was exhausted but you helpfully suggested a short nap after which we would go and look at wild horses. Well, looking at wild horses is not high up on my list of exciting things to do but you seemed excited so I went along, go with the flow, as they say. A nap, some tea and back in the 4by4 for more rockin’ and rollin’ on the rough track to Hustai National Park where we attended a short introductory film and looked at an exhibit on how the Park was developed. My enthusiasm began to match yours Balormaa as we were given a short lecture on the Przewalski Horses, the only true wild horses in the world, but even so I had my doubts that we would see any, maybe one in the far distance. Oh no you said, every evening they come down to the river to drink and we may see many. There were other keen horse spotters out on the Steppe, some enthusiasts hiking up the hills for a chance of a horse observation. On we went along the rutted track until we saw a lone horse high up on the skyline. My heart stopped, this was absolutely the stuff of an Attenborough BBC documentary and I was wearing my blue shirt (!).

We parked and walked about cautiously, trying to be unobtrusive, as more horses appeared high in the hills and began making their way down to were we waited. Excitement built as more and more appeared from all points of the compass making their way down to the river, quite narrow, where we were. We were surrounded by these beautiful animals that looked at us somewhat disdainfully and just carried on with being wild horses. It was definitely a lump in the throat moment and I found it very moving. Ishwan took over my camera and I persevered with my phone but between us we captured the scene quite convincingly I think.

Balormaa and Ishwantrig that was just the best possible day, you showed me a side of Mongolia I would not have seen without you, your pride in your country was apparent and as a result I went to sleep keenly anticipating seeing more. I was not disappointed and that is a story for another day.

I hope more visitors to Mongolia will share your knowledge and enthusiasm and that your careers will continue to develop successfully.

Thank you again.

Much love and kind regards.

Tim

Useful information: Mongolia tour organized by Anard at Zaya travel.

zayahostel.com

 

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Mighty Genghis Khan.

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Ghinggis and me!

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Horses spooked by drone.

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Sunrise on the Steppe.

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Sunrise with distant gers.

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Horses on distant skyline.

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On the way to the river.

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A drink.

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A battle for mastery of the herd.

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Disdain!

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Happy!

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My ger.

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Interior of ger.

 

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The Trans Siberian Express.

I’ve never been in a forest before! Woodlands, copses and groves, yes, but never have I seen such trees as these in Central Siberia. They stretch as far as the eye can see on either side of the railway track as we pound eastwards, ever eastwards after four and a half thousand kilometers from Moscow on our way to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. This, the Trans Siberian Express, is possibly a misnomer, I’m not even sure there is such a thing. It could refer to one of those luxury trains that ply the route but those are so far above my pay grade, I didn’t even bother to look at the price. They say that if you have to check the price you can’t afford it don’t they? I am taking local trains I suppose, the first from Saint Petersburg to Moscow (8 hours), then another to Ekaterinburg (16 hours) and now all the way to Irkutsk on a third (60 hours). There is no big sign proclaiming its Trans Siberianness on the side of the coaches, there is in fact quite a small sign proclaiming Moscow to Chita. But I am going across Siberia so up to a point it is Trans Siberian.

There are fourteen coaches and in each there are eight compartments with sleeping accommodation for four. There are two lower bunks with a table between and two upper ones. The backs of the lower bunks fold down at night to provide a bed and then up during the day for seating. The lower bunks also fold up to provide storage. Bedding is provided; clean sheets, pillowcase and a heavy duvet type thing and I actually sleep well. The dining car provides a basic menu, many people bring their own food especially families. Of course you have no say in the choice of cabin mates unless you pay extra for a double cabin and pay for both bunks, if you are on your own. On my way from Moscow to Ekaterinburg I was joined by a young man who harangued the other passengers throughout the carriage for the whole ride except when he passed out, after two boxes of cheap wine. I had no idea what the harangue was about obviously as I only have about half a dozen words in Russian. Then, when I went out to the Romanov Memorial Monastery there he was, still haranguing! Turns out he was Russian Orthodox zealot/nutcase and wanted my guide to drive him two hundred miles to another monastery. That didn’t happen! For most of this particular ride I have had a Mom and two small children which might have been more enjoyable with a common language but alas no.

What is there to do you might ask during all these days and hours, doesn’t it get boring? I loaded up my Kindle with new titles, setup new traveling playlists imagining long tedious hours with nothing to do and climbing the walls with frustration at the slow rate of progress. Nothing could be further from the truth as it happened. I was captivated with the ever-changing show that took place out of the window. Dawn came at around 5.00am and already my face was pressed against the window, admittedly listening to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rimsky Korsakov or some other local composer, but seeing the light change over the Taiga as the sun came up. It was quite enrapturing and enchanting. Never the same for any length of time there was always something to see. Silver birch after silver birch for hundreds of miles, sometimes great expanses of just harvested grain, perhaps fields of potatoes, a small village, a herd of sheep complete with shepherd or juxtaposed, a massive industrial complex belching smoke and fumes high into the sky from immense cooling towers. We stopped periodically, mostly just for two or three minutes for passengers to embark or drop off, but every four or five hours there would be a lengthy stop for thirty or so minutes. Everyone would clamber down the steps to the platform, the crowd resembling evacuees from some dystopian apocalypse. But there was nothing to see! There might be hawkers of some sort selling anything from berries to fridge magnets. There would be the station itself, emblazoned with its name in large Cyrillic lettering that might be worth a photo. A booth or two selling prepackaged food, drink, trinkets and maybe newspapers but nothing too exciting. I actually found just being in places I had heard of over the years, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk or even Bogdanovich, quite enthralling, inspiring or even thrilling. Then it was time to scramble back on, coaxed by our carriage’s provodnista or attendant. Each carriage had one to keep order (!), keep it clean, vacuum (hoover), polish the windows or keep the loos (toilets) at least acceptable. Not well versed in the different languages of their charges they resorted to that very English solution of speaking very slowly and loudly, in Russian which I, unfortunately, found absolutely hilarious. Not disrespectfully I should add, nobody messes with the provodnistas, they might leave you behind. Yes there was TP despite all the advice I had read about bringing your own and additionally, despite aforementioned advice, there were power points to keep everything charged up. Yesssssss.

Finally there was Irkutsk, mid morning of the third day, and it felt rather poignant to be leaving. I liked the train; I liked the perpetual motion, the views as we sped along, the angry, noisy vestibules between the carriages, the chatter in a language I didn’t understand, the smells, and the activity and to some extent the camaraderie.

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A country railway station. Varykino?

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A larger station.

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Booths on the platform.

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There were birch trees.

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Industry.

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Our Provodnista.

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The train climbing, climbing.

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A view of the cabin.

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The dining car.

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In a big country.

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Very big country.

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The platform at a longer stop.

 

Western Russia.

Ah Russia, Rossiya, Mother Russia has always been a dreamed of destination and the Trans Siberian Express a fantasy from long, long ago, provoked by all those Russian authors I read. For over two years I have toyed with the various web sites proclaiming how simple it is to organize your own trip, apply for the multiple visas required, book tickets, hotels, excursions and a myriad of other details. Unfortunately I have a somewhat limited attention span and this method just took too much time, far too much time. I applied to a travel agent who implied that for not much money they would organize everything. I filled in their form and the returned price was, for me, astronomical. Forget that then, fifteen thousand dollars to ride a train! You jest. But my luck changed and I came across an agency in East Anglia, UK, who seemed very sympathetic to my requirements and after multiple emails we established a very basic schedule that Odette, my new best friend, claimed would satisfy my adventurous spirit. (She had been reading my blog.)

Here I am then, one week and one thousand five hundred miles into the journey, in Yekaterinburg hard up against the Ural Mountains and it is absolutely stunning, Russia that is. I started out in Saint Petersburg for three nights, Moscow on an overnight train for another three nights and then another overnight train to here. It was all so new to me and there was so much that I wanted to see that I have barely touched the ground. In Saint Petersburg is Nevsky Prospekt; a famous street oozing with history and my hotel was half a block back from the thoroughfare, no street noise. I could have spent hours on Nevsky in one of the many tea shops people watching, in fact I probably did and any preconceptions I may have had vanished soon after my arrival. There were all sorts, punks, nerds, fashionistas, head bangers, 24 hour party people, skateboarders, hipsters, hippies, Moms arm in arm with daughters (lots of them), there was a Harley Davidson convention down the street so bikers from all over Europe were displaying their talents, loudly. I expected Ladas belching fumes but no, Audis, BMWs, Volkswagens, and all manner of modern cars. You see, it was just like any other major European city, London, Paris or Rome. My misconceptions, banished.

Top of the list in Petersburg is the Winter Place that contains the Hermitage museum. I headed straight for that and while I wasn’t disappointed there was a massive concert in the big square adjacent preventing me from taking a decent photo. No big deal, I took a few bad ones! There was Kazan Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (a memorial to Emperor Alexander 2, assassinated on that spot), St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Admiralty building, the Peterhof Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress, the Aurora warship, the Faberge museum and so much more that I didn’t see. I did take a cruise on the canal, I caught the buses and trolley cars, they have conductors who issue your ticket, I took the hydrofoil to the Peterhof and of course a taxi driver classically ripped me off. No more taxis, I’ll use Uber.

The night train to Moscow with three millennials in my sleeper cabin, pleasant but no English, a glass of wine and I slept all night waking up to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto, well you have to don’t you. My hotel was three metro stops from the center and at first I just tried too hard to figure out how to use that fabulous system, but I soon worked it out and was soon changing routes with the best of them. My stop was Avtozavodskaya and soon the names of the stops were quite familiar, Kropotkinskaya and Tretyakovskaya etc. I found it very romantic but the nine million people who use it every day probably don’t agree with me. It is incredibly efficient, the trains come every two minutes, and it is very fast and very clean. Again I didn’t see everything in three days but spent much time at the Kremlin Fortress, the largest fortress in Europe, Lenin’s mausoleum, Saint Basil’s, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Karl Marx statue, the Bolshoi Theater, Red Square, GUM and the Pushkin Art Museum.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from this whirlwind tour it has to be don’t do what I did, three days is just not enough to do justice to either of those two cities and my only justification is that I have another two weeks and three thousand miles to go.

More from the train, The Trans Siberia Express.

 

Some useful information:

Hotel in St Petersburg Vesta Hotel

Hotel in Moscow             Maxima Panorama

Agent                                 Trans Siberia (co.uk)

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An upside down wine glass on the roof of an apartment building.. The owner stopped drinking, business boomed! Good story.

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Presidential Palace. The Kremlin Fortress. Mr Putin’s house.

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There are still examples of Brutalist architecture in Moscow. Nice river views tho.

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Cathedral of the Annunciation, Kremlin Fortress, Moscow.

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Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow.

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The Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg.

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Is that Venice? No, Saint Petersburg.

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Church of the Savior, St Petersburg.

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An expensive egg. By Faberge.

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Another egg!

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Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, from a bus, sorry!

 

Kai Islands. Maluku.

Sunday afternoon at Ohoililir Beach on Kai Kecil in the Kai Islands and the pondoks, or parapara, are filled with local people from the town enjoying their Sunday off. Pondoks are wooden platforms raised about two feet up from the sand measuring about 8 feet by 8 feet with a corrugated iron roof holding an entire family with ease and providing adequate shelter from the sun or rain. They stretch the entire length of the two-mile beach side by side and throughout the week are completely deserted. There are refreshment and snack bars dotted here and there and the warm blue/green waters attract everyone, young and old, for a splash or a swim. Interesting to see the happy mix of religions and it is not unusual to see a young hijab clad young woman ambling along the sand holding hands with her female friend in short shorts. Bob, the manager here at Coaster Cottages, is performing routine maintenance, spreading sand on the steep steps up to the rooms and replacing a few blown lamps. This actually is a ruse and what he is actually doing is keeping the, shall we say, less desirable elements from stealing items from his business. A large group of women, of all ages, came to a nearby Pondok and started singing what I can only assume were traditional songs with perfect pitch, harmonies and in tune. It sounded to my ignorant ear distinctly Polynesian, not that I have ever been to Polynesia. The singing only lasted a short while, ending up with the Happy Birthday song, in English! As people move up and down the beach they spot me up here on my balcony, wave and utter the familiar greeting “hello Mister” I wave back. Large black and white butterflies flit between the coconut trees; the waves lap on the intensely white sand and the sound of laughter permeates the air. It is all rather perfect.

The Kai Islands, situated in the Eastern part of Muluku, Indonesia, are actually nearer Australia than the Capital, Jakarta and feel like the end of the world. The main city on the island, Langgur, has a busy port, an airport with connections to Ambon three times a day, a thriving, bustling atmosphere and wide, well paved roads to the outlying parts of the island. It also boasts a speedy Internet connection via undersea cable which unfortunately does not extend here to Ohoililir where there isn’t even cell phone service, thereby enforcing a compulsory ‘digital detox’ on yours sincerely. It’s not too painful, I can always get a ride into town to exchange messages with friends and family, but I do miss perusing the news sites in the mornings. On arrival at the airport I was encouraged to sign the visitor’s book and noticed that I was #145, that is this year, 2018, not many Westerners therefore, in fact there are currently five! A Hungarian, one Spanish, two Germans and me. We got together a day or so ago and hired a small boat to take us around the nearer islands, Ngaf, Er and Ngodan, there was much snorkeling over the reefs, we chased a school of dolphins, got wet, and marveled at the tiny white sand, uninhabited, islands with their jungle interiors. Truly Robinson Crusoe.

(I tried to upload at this point, I failed so will continue)

Did I tell you about the weather or the trash? When it rains it pours. Quite honestly I have lived through strong Pacific storms that wreak havoc on the California Coast, mudslides, widespread flooding, headline news for many days, also Force ten, eleven and twelve storms in Orkney but those pale against the rain here. The thunderclouds line up on the horizon like invading armies, impossibly high and come ashore in a tumult. It is truly a deluge and the noise is deafening as the drops hit the corrugated iron roofs. It can last up to an hour but on occasion will last all day or night.

Then there is the trash, garbage, rubbish, call it what you will but it really is shocking. I went out on another boat ride to Snake Island, so called for the huge sand spit that stretches out from the coast for about a mile, only visible at low tide obviously. In passing let me say that six hours in a small boat, open to the elements, in somewhat stormy seas was a challenge. We almost had what in the UK is called a sense of humour failure! It was as if someone threw a large bucket of warm water over me every five seconds. I have never, ever been so wet. I digress, sorry; we stopped for lunch at everyone’s idea of a deserted tropical island, coconut palms, colorful birds and butterflies, and the whitest, whitest sand you ever did see. A picture postcard type scene. But, after the recent full moon high tides the strandline was high up, almost inland, and was an appalling collection of plastic bottles, old shoes, polystyrene packaging, fishing nets, diapers (nappies) and just general trash. So upsetting and certainly avoidable with just a tiny bit of education but no, doesn’t happen. The ocean is a garbage dump and it is on every beach I visited in the Kai Islands. There were miniature garbage islands forming in the open sea between the islands similar to the extensive and infamous ‘Pacific Garbage Patch’ and the new one recently discovered in the Caribbean. There was talk around the dinner table of Crowdfunding one of those devices that turns plastic waste into pellets for road building or even houses. Some local people try to burn the waste with the resulting toxic fumes that surely is not the answer. I am aware of devices being developed that scoop up plastic waste but it is early days and expensive. There you go younger generation, a legacy of my generation, so sorry. See what you can do…

At some point I would like to explain where I have been since the previous blog from Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Seems a while ago but there are lots of stories to tell.

In the meantime I am heading for Biak in North Papua. More from there.

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Thunderclouds.

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Trying for the artistic photo.

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My beach, Ohoililir on Kai Kecil, Kai Islands

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Coaster Cottages.

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That is a dolphin though you might have to look closely!

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Colorful fishermen’s houses in Naggur, Kai Islands.

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Writing blog on computer in a pondok.

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The sand spit on Snake island.

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Sand spit and tiny boat.

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A typical island.

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Pollution…

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Grocery store on a scooter.

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Leaving Kai.

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I think this is self explanatory!

 

Bukhara and Samarkand, a photo journal.

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Miles of trucks waiting to cross the border into Turkmenistan.

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The Ark in Bukhara.

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So many colors.

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Mosque in Bukhara.

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I loved the shopping bag stalls.

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The young girls always had a bow in their hair.

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The ruined walls of Bukhara.

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Peacocks and stalls at the Emir’s Summer Palace.

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Emir’s Receiving Room.

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One thousand year old Mulberry tree with magic powers.

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Touching the tree to make a wish.

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A view of the Chor-Bakr Necropolis.IMG_1719

Another view of the Necropolis.

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A sandstorm, or Devil Wind, blew in from the desert as I left Bukhara.

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The Registan, Samarkand.

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Sometimes the light was right.

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The Mausoleum of Bibi Khanym, Tamarlane’s favorite wife.

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So colorful.

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A Soviet bus stop. Shame they are disappearing.

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A market high in the Pamir Mountains.

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I really like markets.

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Registan at night.

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Quite spectacular.

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Trying for the arty photo…

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Not too much left of the city walls of Samarkand.

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The sextant of Ulugh Beg, Tamerlane’s grandson who was an early astronomer.

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The grave of the arm of St Daniel. So big so no one could find it!

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A shop in the bazaar at Urgut.

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Lastly, this lady gave me permission to take her photo.

 

Merv the Mighty.

My son commented that Ashgabat was a strange place to select for a vacation and I have to agree. It was with some relief that I climbed into Vladimir’s car the next morning and we hastened out of the city back out into the Karakum Desert. The foothills on our right marked the Iranian Border and of course they have built a wall between them. We stopped, somewhere, about 10 miles from the City and Vladimir managed to communicate to me that this was a cemetery and that at weekends it was a popular picnic spot, he showed me the ranks of BBQ pits and tables. People come to commune with their relatives who are buried there, or to prepare the recently deceased for burial. In fact there were some of the recently deceased in an area of ancient monuments and the like, covered with mats. I don’t know how long they were left there before burial. Again as with most places in Turkmenistan I never did find out the name and my timeline on Google maps remains ignorant.

On then across the desert and we stopped at what appeared to be a ruined city with quite large tumbled down defensive walls. From the glossy “Welcome to Turkmenistan” pamphlet Vlad’ gave me I determined that I was at Abywerd but that was all until I spotted people digging so ambled over. They were archeologists and spoke some English inviting me to take a seat at their table and drink some tea. I determined that they were not only finding artifacts from the Seljuk Empire (9th – 12th Centuries CE) but also from the Parthian Empire (247BCE – 224CE). I found this to be really exciting as I have been reading about the history of these ancient civilizations and now I was actually at a place where they lived. I had a long revel about the Parthians defeating the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE during which Crassus was killed leading, some say, to the death knell of the Republic.

On then, pounding through the Karakum towards Mary and the adjoining ruined city of Merv. Apart from the Door to Hell this was my main reason for coming to Turkmenistan as it is possibly the only major Silk Road city I haven’t visited, apart from those in Iran where I am a persona non gratis. At the height of its power it was the biggest city in the world (1200CE) due to its position at the meeting point of two of the major Silk Road routes. The city walls extended for five miles, in fact there were two walls, the inner and outer between which the caravans would leave their animals to graze. There are many descriptions of life in the city which featured more than ten libraries, bath houses, gardens, orchards and even an ice house where they stored snow from the winter. It was with some anticipation therefore that I produced my ticket at the entrance and drove into Merv the Great. Massive walls remain from the time that it was the capital of the Seljuk Empire and in places there are the remains of the Sassanid Empire (3rd – 7th Centuries CE). I could wax on about the history but instead will leave a link to a quite succinct article if you want to read more. The actual reality is somewhat underwhelming because there really is nothing left apart from the walls. Genghis Khan sacked the city (1221) in his usual style, slaughtering all the inhabitants and burning the city to the ground. That said it was an incredible feeling to just stand on the walls and just let my imagination run riot.

Read more here:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/12/lost-cities-merv-worlds-biggest-city-razed-turkmenistan

Sorry again, photos will not upload. Will try again next week from Tashkent.

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Archeologists at Abywerd.

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Iranian border and patrol in background, railway line in foreground.

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Great Kyz Kala at Merv.

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The walls of Merv.

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On the walls of Merv.

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Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar who ruled Merv at the height of its power.

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Last wall photo. Promise!

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Colorful roadside stall. With melons.

 

 

Ashgabat.

Dawn came at the Door to Hell in the Karakum Desert and I could hear the guides moving about making the cooking fire so I climbed out of my tent to watch the sunrise and to sit beside the fire, it was really, really cold. Tea was made, toast too, though not much conversation was attempted, sore heads all round after the previous night’s vodka. Eventually camp was struck and I set off with the Argentinean’s guide, Vladimir, in the Argentinean’s car, bigger than Mr Ishan’s, a Land Rover in fact. I didn’t see them leave but assumed they went back to the border with the brothers Ishan. Incongruously Vlad’ started playing music from what is described as the New Romanticism period so we bounced out of the desert to the tunes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Flock of Seagulls, that sort of thing, it was quite a nostalgic trip back to the 80s. The Kiwi couple was in another car in the convoy and we sped, once again flying over the ruts and potholes, on through the desert in the direction of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. There was a small village on the edge of the desert where we stopped for water and amazingly a replacement brake light bulb for the Land Rover. The drivers also took the opportunity to wipe the dust off the cars and clean the windows in preparation for the capital where I can only assume dirty cars are not approved of.

I had done some research on Turkmenistan before the trip and determined from various guides and blogs that Ashgabat resembled a cross between 1930s Germany and 2017 North Korea and I wasn’t too far off the mark. On leaving the desert we were stopped at a police roadblock about every ten miles where we were photographed and on occasion had to produce passports and papers. On arriving in the capital I was advised to only take photos when the Vladimir said I might, on one occasion he quickly lowered my arm as I was about too click. Photographing policemen can land you in jail and there were frequently four police at each intersection. Ashgabat has been described as the white marble city of the world. This is an understatement; there were enormous white marble faced buildings everywhere I looked. The airport roof was a vast white marble silhouette of a bird; actually there were three vast birds, one for each terminal, but no planes. Vladimir pointed out the library, ten stories high, filled he said, with books in Turkmen. I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow and wonder how many of the people riding donkey carts out in the countryside appreciated a ten story, white marble faced library.

I was abandoned at my hotel that proudly proclaimed ‘Hotel of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan’ on a plaque outside. Vladimir said he would return at 9.00am the following day, told me not to take photos and pointing to the plaque said jokingly that I would be well protected. After the usual mime pantomime with the rather surly receptionist I determined that there was no wifi but if I strolled about a mile down the street to the Grand Turkmen Hotel I may be allowed to use theirs. I walked down the street in Ashgabat gazing about in typical newcomer fashion but nobody would look me in the eye, no hello mister, no smiles, it was all a bit unnerving. But I did find the five star hotel, helped myself to the wifi password from the reception desk because nobody wanted to talk to me and logged on briefly. Texts to family back home to assure them I was safe and well, I tried the usual Social Media sites but they were all blocked.

There was an element of the Handmaid’s Tale that I noticed, a large percentage of the women were all clad in a sort of red uniform tunic type of garment. Vladimir said they were students but they were everywhere, going in and out of the buildings and now I come to think of it he never showed me a university. I couldn’t get that dreadful song out of my mind, a Lady in Red earworm, ghastly. Ashgabat has been created to show the world and presumably the populous how great Turkmenistan is and how well developed it is. There seemed to be only one TV station that was showing a large conference center with rows and rows of gentlemen with long beards and the president as it were, presiding. Everyone was watching it. The event was called the  Maslahat and is held as a demonstration of the democratic process in action. It is not.  It turned out that what I thought was a conference center was in fact a massive yurt, set in the desert outside the city and holding up to two thousand people. Quite a yurt! The basis for the system of government seems to be based on the cult personality of the president who displays portraits of himself all over the city and names schools and streets with the names of his relatives. There is only one political party, dissent is not tolerated and freedom of speech is non-existent.

Ashgabat is a very strange place.

More reading here: http://bit.ly/2kQF1Dn

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Kettle’s on for tea at dawn.

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The bakery in a desert village.

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The airport.

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White marble with President.

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White marble.

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A bit of color and white marble.

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A lady in red.

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Ladies in red.

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Wedding chapel.

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The big yurt in the desert. Putin had just visited apparently. Those mountains are in Iran.

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Just some of the papers I had to carry.