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.

 

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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.

 

Turkmenistan Road Trip

A whirlwind visit to Turkmenistan because that is all that my visa permitted. My Letter of Invitation arrived in my email inbox and as instructed I was at the border at 9.00am almost convinced that something would go wrong and I would have to return to Khiva. As I arrived a large bus unloaded a group of tourists and I joined the line behind all of them feeling that already things were going awry. Sure enough the process took an inordinately long time, as most of the tourists had not filled in their forms correctly. Eventually my turn came and I ate humble pie, my forms were wrong too. Endless passport stamping and photos taken and I went out only to find that the group ahead of me was stopped for “rest room breaks.” I got ahead arriving at the Turkmenistan side watched with some incredulity as the Turkmen bureaucracy lumbered into life. No less than four hand written forms were generated on the spot and I was instructed to carry them to the payment station across the room were more forms were generated and eventually I had a visa in my passport. Walking nervously toward the customs officials, all eight of them, a young man asked me if I knew anything about computers! Say what? There I was at the Turkmenistan border fixing Customs and Immigration computers, funny old world. The reward for my efforts was a very cursory glance at my bags and I was out and away to find Mr Ishan waiting for me and off we went.

The first stop, in Turkmenistan, was outside a city called Koneurgench and consisted of three interesting looking sites but I had no idea what I was looking at. Mr Ishan, though friendly enough, couldn’t tell me, I had no cell phone reception, and there was no sign of a shop selling guidebooks or even trinkets and postcards. He indicated that we would be there for three hours at which point I protested slightly in best mime. He handed me his phone and there was a heavily accented English accent asking me what was the matter. The situation got cleared up and I negotiated just a half hour at the Tyurabek Hanum, Solton Tekesh and the Gutlug Timur Minaret historical site. Walking around trying to work out what I was seeing I stopped under a tree and noticed a group of women doing ‘something,’ which consisted of putting their hands near the roots of the tree and then walking around it touching all the branches within reach. Odd I thought, are they Animists here. Then again in the middle of a very large adjacent field there was a woman obviously praying. Praying is fine but I have never seen it performed in the middle of a field. Have I led a sheltered life? I now know that the Gutlug Timur Minaret was, in 1330, the tallest building in the world and is all that is left of the ancient city of Gurganj. It was sacked by both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane after which the inhabitants, any that remained alive, moved away and it was abandoned.

Such was my introduction to Turkmenistan.

Mr Ishan and I sped off down the rather rough road and after a while he seemed to be getting tired and making mistakes which caused some anxiety. He failed to obey the speed limit at least twice and was pulled aside by the police immediately. The police, ha, the police in Turkmenistan, they are everywhere, there is a joke there “see a tree see a policeman, see two trees see two policemen.” If you are caught taking a photo of one you are liable to end up in jail. Mr Ishan avoided any serious trouble by simply bribing the officers to let us go on our way, $10 in local money seemed to do the trick. He was on his phone continuously, which I found mystifying until we came to the large city of Dashoguz, the second largest in the country, where things became clearer. We stopped at a supermarket for supplies and met up with his brother who had brought two tourists from the border outside Khiva, two New Zealanders, we chatted and bought supplies as instructed. Chocolate, biscuits, wine, vodka, you know, all the major food groups and roared away in convoy.

 

A couple more hours through cotton fields and what I took to be rice but Mr Ishan wasn’t too forthcoming until another stop for melons. The brother announced that this was the last stop before the desert so the lady Kiwi went to the loo, and returning looked grossed out demanding antiseptic wipes! Sure enough we were immediately in the desert, the Karakum, there were dunes, there were these odd looking square things beside the road to prevent the sand inundating the pavement, and there were goats, sheep and camels, lots of camels. Lots of photo opportunities except that the road was terrible, not just the occasional pothole, the whole road was a pothole which made taking photos impossible. To avoid the usual pothole experience of slowly sinking a wheel into the hole and then coming up the other side, we went faster, much faster, about 80-85 MPH and virtually flew over the pot holes swerving to avoid the deeper ruts and speeding along on the wrong side of the road. The noise was incredible as Mr Ishan battled with the wheel and I tried to be nonchalant and read a book. That didn’t last long! There is suitable metaphor somewhere that I can’t come up with, is it about peas or a can? He did slow down occasionally so I could take a photo of camels but that meant we fell behind the brother so we had to go even faster to catch up. It was all a rather cacophonous, roaring blur which went on and on for over a hundred miles. But we had a goal and needed to get there, so fast we went; I did see some Europeans driving along and enjoying the usual pothole experience at about 25 MPH. Oh, and did I mention the dust cloud we kicked up?

Finally our little convoy slowed and we turned off the road onto a desert track, engaged 4-wheel drive and ground out into the desert proper. After a few miles there was our destination, The Darvasa Gas Crater more popularly known as ‘The Door to Hell.’ Back in 1971 The Russians were drilling for natural gas in the Karakum and found a vast reserve of methane gas, which started leaking, and killing the local wildlife. It was decided that the remedy was to be a process called ‘flaring,’ basically just set fire to it until the leak stopped. It never has. The result is this enormous crater in the wastes of the desert that is on fire, flames, heat and a curious popping and crackling sound. It is really quite eerie. The brothers Ishan went off to pitch our camp leaving the three of us to gape and exclaim, take photos, pose as if warming our hands, etc etc. As darkness fell we were picked up, taken to camp, introduced to our tents, fed and watered and taken back to the crater. The nighttime crater experience was even more dramatic as the flames light up the desert night and the noises seemed louder. Taking photos was difficult because of the size and of course the darkness, I wasn’t very successful. Then the same group of tourists I had met at the border crossing surrounded us and it just wasn’t the same anymore. Our isolation was broken. There is only so much looking you can do at a gas flaming crater in the middle of the desert so we went back to our camp where the vodka was broken out. It had got quite cold; I was wearing my coat and gloves so the vodka was quite warming. However, these guys, the brothers Ishan and another guide who showed up with a group of Argentineans, were built like linebackers (rugby second row forwards) who seemed determined to make a night of it. No way was I going to keep up with three Russian-speaking giants so I went to bed and fell asleep to the sounds of the Door to Hell.

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The ladies and the magic tree which apparently has healing properties.

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Prayers in a field.

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Gutlug Timur Minaret. The tallest building in the world in 1330. Spared by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane who both were impressed with its size.

desert stall

A very small stall in the desert.

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This is a blurry photo of the strange square things that were beside the road throughout the desert to stop sand encroachment. They seem to made of upright twigs. Anyone know?

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Camel and camel fodder truck for the winter.

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More camels.

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The Door to Hell, with New Zealanders.

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Another view.

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The crater at night.