Asia travels 2019.

It’s been a while and I’ve covered a few miles but here I am, back again with you, on the mere speck of an island, Ko Mak, off the coast of Eastern Thailand close to the Cambodian border. The claim is that nowhere on the island is more than a five-minute taxi rides away; a taxi is, by the way, a converted pickup truck called a songtaew. It’s the Off Season here and many hotels and restaurants are closed, the money exchange office is boarded up and the frequent ferries to the mainland are reduced to one per day. Again I find that I am the only guest at my residence, something that has occurred frequently on this trip, a consequence presumably of traveling during the rainy season/monsoon.

Someone suggested that I haven’t written a blog post lately is because I am so far behind that I have no idea where to start, true statement. How about an edited précis of some highlights?

A very wonderful event happened back in mid April when I was in Borneo extending my Indonesian visa, my younger son, Sebastian, turned up for a visit. He of course lives in Berkeley, California, which is hardly a day trip to Borneo but he came, all the way. He was in fact vacationing in Thailand after finishing his college course and felt he deserved a break, and why not. The delight at seeing him arrive at the airport in Balikpapan was memorable. We had just about a week ‘bonding’ on a trip up the Mahakam River in a motorized canoe with my old friend Abdullah, a guide, and his wife Diana, plus boat pilot. We were about six hundred kilometers into the interior and the facilities basically didn’t exist in Western terms, it was all somewhat on the primitive side. We did see one other bule couple the entire time (bule, pronounced boolay, Indonesian for Caucasian.) Accommodation was available and we were happy to spend two nights in a Dayak Long House complete with wood carved statues of the Ancients and so much cultural history. There were monkeys, Kingfishers, Monitor Lizards and snakes amongst other wild life but no crocodiles. Sebastian, completely unfazed by the cultural differences charmed the local people, returning their bewildered greetings ‘hello mister’ at every other step, not many bules up river. At one warung (food shack) he demonstrated his talent, acquired in India, of eating his entire meal with his hands much to the amusement of the owner who filmed the whole event, took pictures and shared them with all her friends.

But all things come to an end and with just a bit of a wrench it was time to say goodbye, I felt somewhat bereft for a long while.

I was in Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands waiting for the ferry to Havelock Island and staying at the same BnB were an Italian couple, Eduardo and Paulo, plus two students from the famous University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The Italian couple, from outside Rome, own an olive farm and invited me to help with the next harvest, tempting. Joshua from the University was doing postgraduate studies in Astronomy and tagged his trip to the Andamans, with his friend Alexandrina who is studying Clinical Psychology, onto the end of an astronomy conference in Mumbai. I’ve never met a fully-fledged astronomer before and had to ask him if there was any truth in the old adage that there are more stars in the Universe than grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. Well, he said, in the known/observable universe there are two hundred billion galaxies each containing one hundred billion stars, but he said he hadn’t started counting grains of sand yet. I’m still trying to come to terms with that. We all met up again for my birthday on Havelock Island which was so kind of them, there was cake and the hotel staff filled my bed under the mosquito net with balloons.

Another people story this time from the Kei Islands where sitting down for dinner at the communal table at the homestay a guy walked in and said ‘ hang on, weren’t you here a year ago?’ Marco from Switzerland, a train salesman, was doing a month long Master Diver course on Kei Kacil and remembered me from my last visit to the edge of the world. Not only that but a few weeks previously I had answered an ad for a week long liveaboard trip around Raja Ampat from a woman who had been let down by a friend and was offering the trip for half price. I thought it sounded like a good deal but the timing was a bit off so eventually I had to decline. At the homestay there was a German couple, Ully and a very sick girl who was confined to her room for the duration. After a few days we determined that the sick girl, Cathrin, was the same girl I had been communicating with weeks before. I never did meet her I hope she recovered. It was suggested that she had Dengue Fever, maybe.

That’s probably enough of the people stories, How about a run down of places briefly.

New Delhi was the same as ever, crowded and polluted, five visits to the dentist in two days and on may way as quickly as possible. Varanasi, old Banares, was something of a let down after hearing so much about it over the years. Certainly the ghats on the banks of the Ganges were impressive, incredible architecture, quite beautiful but I couldn’t help feeling I was intruding. The city is perhaps the main pilgrimage destination for the Hindu religion and well, I’m not Hindu. Camera toting tourists abound snapping happily away at what I really considered to be private acts of worship, maybe I’m just being petulant. I did enjoy the back alleys, just about wide enough for a scooter and a person, the smells, the color and getting completely lost.

Kolkota, old Calcutta, was a revelation. I thought it would be hot and horrible, quite the reverse as it turned out. I stayed at a tiny hotel in the University district and I have never seen so many bookshops, bookstalls, and book tables, book booths. Many of the vendors specialized in educational tomes about the railways, which perplexed me until I realized that of course, Indian Railways is the biggest employer in the world and everyone wants to work for them. There is a massive Memorial to Queen Victoria set in a vast manicured park set about with statues of Her Majesty, quite surprising. I took a boat ride on the Hooghly River, crossing another item off my bucket list.

I see that I am way over my usual word count but can’t leave without an honorable mention of Banda Naira. There seems to be a problem with so called ‘fast boat’ which takes six hours from Ambon, the twice-weekly plane was out of action and that left the Pelni ship as the only alternative. The Pelni Shipping Line serves the whole of the Indonesian archipelago. Not all seventeen thousand islands but certainly the major ones and has suffered from a somewhat dubious reputation over the years. There were tales of rampant theft of passengers, gross overcrowding and a tendency for their ships to sink. Mita, the friendly owner of the Maulana Hotel on Banda Naira assured me on the phone that I would be just fine and after some vagueness about the sailing time we set off from Ambon, only four hours late. It was a night crossing so I slept most of the way and in the morning there was the welcoming sight of Mount Api, the active volcano that dominates the tiny island group. Happily there is little to nothing to do on Banda, liveaboards come to visit and the divers swim around at night watching the Mandarin fish. There are some old Dutch forts, a lively market but the main attraction is to just sit and watch the activity on the bay and around the harbor. I never tired of it even after ten days.

I mentioned the Andaman and Nicobar Islands didn’t I? Now there’s a place to get away from it all. It is just off the coast of Thailand but distinctly Indian and the only way in or out is via India, The main town, Port Blair, is not particularly inspiring, just a busy port and docks for the Indian navy. There are some gruesome reminders of the last days of the British occupation of India that I chose to miss out on. But Havelock Island is as near to Paradise as you can imagine. There is a beach there, Radhanagar, which frequently is mentioned as one of the best beaches in the world. Miles of the whitest and softest sand I have ever seen, the water is warm and clean (no plastic, yet) and there are no people. Extraordinary and a great place for a birthday.

I could go on and on but you might be losing interest so I’ll wind up with just mentioning Chettinad in South India. A truly remarkable place almost half way between Madurai and Pudicherry. If staying in a restored palace in the desert appeals to you I suggest you look it up.

Thanks for getting to the end!

seb

Sebastian at a Dayak Longhouse

IMG_4763

Holy men or Sadhus of Varanasi

IMG_4794

Radhanagar (or beach#7) Havelock Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands

IMG_4846

Need a banana?

IMG_4851

South Indian Temples in Madurai

IMG_4898

So many Temples!

 

 

 

Advertisements

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

 

IMG_0954

Mighty Genghis Khan.

IMG_0971

Ghinggis and me!

IMG_0045

Horses spooked by drone.

IMG_3858

Sunrise on the Steppe.

IMG_3857

Sunrise with distant gers.

IMG_3726

Horses on distant skyline.

IMG_3801

On the way to the river.

IMG_3821

A drink.

IMG_3776

A battle for mastery of the herd.

IMG_1073

Disdain!

IMG_1089

Happy!

IMG_1123

My ger.

IMG_1121

Interior of ger.

 

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.

IMG_0648

A country railway station. Varykino?

IMG_3474

A larger station.

IMG_0651

Booths on the platform.

IMG_0663

There were birch trees.

IMG_0688

Industry.

IMG_0694

Our Provodnista.

IMG_0717

The train climbing, climbing.

IMG_0719

A view of the cabin.

IMG_0762

The dining car.

IMG_0745

In a big country.

IMG_0749

Very big country.

IMG_0754

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)

IMG_3411

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

IMG_3404

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

IMG_3396

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

IMG_3386

Cathedral of the Annunciation, Kremlin Fortress, Moscow.

IMG_3372

Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow.

IMG_3327

The Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg.

IMG_3289

Is that Venice? No, Saint Petersburg.

IMG_3281

Church of the Savior, St Petersburg.

IMG_3260

An expensive egg. By Faberge.

IMG_3273

Another egg!

IMG_3200

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.

IMG_2643

Thunderclouds.

IMG_2657

Trying for the artistic photo.

IMG_2661

My beach, Ohoililir on Kai Kecil, Kai Islands

IMG_2663

Coaster Cottages.

IMG_2687

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

IMG_2700

Colorful fishermen’s houses in Naggur, Kai Islands.

IMG_2720

Writing blog on computer in a pondok.

IMG_0212

The sand spit on Snake island.

IMG_2749

Sand spit and tiny boat.

IMG_2762

A typical island.

IMG_2774

Pollution…

IMG_2785

Grocery store on a scooter.

IMG_2820

Leaving Kai.

IMG-9838

I think this is self explanatory!

 

Bukhara and Samarkand, a photo journal.

IMG_1604

Miles of trucks waiting to cross the border into Turkmenistan.

IMG_1608

The Ark in Bukhara.

IMG_1614

So many colors.

IMG_1619

Mosque in Bukhara.

IMG_1623

I loved the shopping bag stalls.

IMG_1624

The young girls always had a bow in their hair.

IMG_1636

The ruined walls of Bukhara.

IMG_1653

Peacocks and stalls at the Emir’s Summer Palace.

IMG_1658

Emir’s Receiving Room.

IMG_1687

One thousand year old Mulberry tree with magic powers.

IMG_1694

Touching the tree to make a wish.

IMG_1713

A view of the Chor-Bakr Necropolis.IMG_1719

Another view of the Necropolis.

IMG_1736

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

IMG_1742

The Registan, Samarkand.

IMG_1751

Sometimes the light was right.

IMG_1783

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

IMG_1861

So colorful.

IMG_1887

A Soviet bus stop. Shame they are disappearing.

IMG_1894

A market high in the Pamir Mountains.

IMG_1903

I really like markets.

IMG_1935

Registan at night.

IMG_1934

Quite spectacular.

IMG_1945

Trying for the arty photo…

IMG_1955

Not too much left of the city walls of Samarkand.

IMG_1956

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

IMG_1959

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

IMG_1973

A shop in the bazaar at Urgut.

IMG_2005

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.

IMG_1455

Archeologists at Abywerd.

IMG_1449

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

IMG_1509

Great Kyz Kala at Merv.

IMG_1522

The walls of Merv.

IMG_1533

On the walls of Merv.

IMG_1546

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

IMG_1547

Last wall photo. Promise!

IMG_1583

Colorful roadside stall. With melons.