Friday, September 27, 2002

Golden Statues and Sand Blasted Gas Holes

Currently in Ürgup, very close to Göreme in Kapadokya, Turkiye. Everything is fantastic - perhaps I'm still on a high after this morning's dawn balloon ride over the bizarre landscape of this region - fairy towers, cave dwellings and fields full of melons.

Anyway, update time - albeit a little time-lapsed. From Ubekistan we crossed into north-eastern Turkmenistan (eventually, after about 6 hours at the border getting rubber-stamps and filling in forms to carry from one person to his neighbour).

Turkmenistan. A very strange place. In our first afternoon we visited the bazaar in Dash-Orguz a small city separated from the rest of the country by the black desert. Small city, big tower blocks, quite a lot of sand, huge posters of Turkmenbashi everywhere (the president-for-life, who's changed his name to mean 'head of all Turkmen'), incredibly happy, smiley people and lots of melons (often given away free if you take a photo of a melon seller). After
shooting off rolls and rolls of film as the sunset at the bazaar and the crowds of locals wondering who on earth would want to visit their city grew our local guide finally returned, having registered us with the local authorities.

Bush camp in the desert then the next two days spent driving through the black desert (it's BIG, about 40-50 degrees at this time of year and very sandy). Stopped off at Konye-Urgench, and old capital city almost totally annihiliated by Genghis Khan then finished off by Tamerlane. There is now just an expanse of sand and about 7 or 8 buildings, most post-dating the conquerors' rampages.

Then Darvaz. ... Hell on Earth. Used to be a mining town, then there was an ENORMOUS gas explosion (the crater is more than 30 metres across and almost twice as deep) so the Soviets pulled out. Now there are just people living in houses in the shadow of rusting industrial equipment and Soviet vehicles with no tyres. And the wind blows. And there's no food or water - everything has to be driven in from the south (more than a day's drive) or the north (about a
day's drive). And the wind blows. And there did not appear to be anything to do - no jobs, no tourism, no industry. And the wind blows. And blows. And blows sand over, under, round and through everything. Houses full of sand, bread full of sand, eyes, fingernails and hair full of sand, cameras full of sand, teeth full of sand. But they still live there, and some of them say they
don't want to move - they like it there. A kind of localised patriotism of the highest degree. Admirable in a way, but I cannot see the attraction myself.

Also, considering the conditions, the locals were incredible - happy-go-lucky and full of smiles, joking and laughing with me, showing me their houses and puppies and village - despite an almost complete language barrier and no mention of money.

So, on we went, to Jerbent just before sunset on the second day. A much more pleasant desert town. Lots of sand, but in a somewhat more manageable way, lots of camels (who's milk, even fresh from the camel, tasted like a sort of fizzy liquid cheese. Won't be tasting that again in a hurry!), women making woven and felt carpets, yurt hospitality (ie. tea and bread in a nomadic
tent), and an old woman trying to convince me that her youngest daughter (about 17) was the best one for me (in sign language). I tried to explain that I prefer older women and I think she gave up with more smiles and laughs.

OK. out of time (again). Will be in Istanbul soon, so I should be able to catch up to date before I head into the middle east. Thanks to everyone who's been emailing me, I haven't had the chance to read them all yet, let alone reply, but I've got plenty of time in Istanbul so hold tight!

Still to come -

the golden statues of Turkmenistan and Ashgabat - the capital city, whose name means 'city of love'

Azerbaijan - land of fire, where men have been worshipping oil and natural gas since the year dot - it's not solely an obsession of modern capitalism after all!

Georgia, land of St. George, precariously perched churches and incredible hospitality (even compared to central asia)

and Turkey!

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Uzbekistan update

Gamar jobat! (That's hello in Georgian, where I am atm)

Right, where to begin? It's been far too long since the last update, partly because we've been in towns, ferries and deserts without email and partly because the days have been packed leaving no time for email... which makes this difficult. ok, here goes - country by country...


Words are of little help trying to explain the majestic ancient cities of Uzbekistan - Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Mosques, medressas (sort of islamic universities), caravanserais (a type of travel lodge for wandering merchants and their camels) and mausoleums that are as grand in scale as they are ornate in realisation. Walls and towers 30-40m high completely covered in multicoloured tiles and decorative brickwork. Archways and gates that pushed the limits of the engineers of the day. And tiles made with arcane knowledge that modern potters cannot reproduce - such that the patches of 1980s restoration are more faded than the original tiles - which are more than 500 years old.

Then there are the people. It's the oldest travel cliche in the book to talk about the friendly natives, but the Uzbeks have a tangible joie de vivre that makes every interaction, from making purchases in the bazaar to walking down the street an experience to be savoured. Where else would 3 hours of attention and shouting from kids trying to sell you things be recorded in your journal as part of a 'perfect day'? Or where would you run into a group of people, talk to them for 5 minutes then have them show you around their city for a few hours and buy you dinner at the end of the day?

But (and there's always a but), Uzbekistan is still undeniably an ex-soviet republic. There are police checks stopping cars and our truck at every regional border and in the cities, there are plenty of vodka drunks and a huge number of prostitutes plying their wares in every hotel bar and night club after dark. There's also the distortion of the local economy by tourism and the import of goods from abroad - the average monthly wage for a state employee is about $50 a month, but imported food, toiletries, etc all cost the same (or more) than they do in the west. However, these are symptoms of all the CIS countries in central asia and, in a way, most of the poorer countries I've visited - I just hope that these fantastic people can find some way up.

No McDonalds in Uzbekistan (nor Kyrgystan or Turkmenistan).

President of Uzbekistan is trying to make the country less Islamic, and as such the call to prayer is not played in cities and most Islamic groups have a tough time. Meetings broken up, etc - nothing too rough.

Our local guide (an ethnically Russian Uzbek) fears for the future - and has a contingency plan to move to a relative's house in Russia at the first sign of trouble. Trouble from the Taliban. The fear he, and apparently several Uzbeks, holds is that any remnant of the Afghanistan forces will create insurgent groups in Uzbekistan (which has large pockets of strong belief) because of the
proximity to Afghanistan and because Uzbekistan allowed the US to use it as a base.

I met the future president of Uzbekistan - a 13 year old girl selling souvenirs in her school holiday.

We had a perfect day on the 1st of September (Uzbek independence day).

Local food includes shashlik (shish kebab), pelemeni (like tortellini), monty (giant pelemeni), shurpa ('lazy soup' made with big chunks of mutton and vegetables) and french fries.

Vodka is 75 cents for 100ml in most bars.

The going rate for pros is $25 a night (we found out by accident - honest!)

Yikes - time's up!

Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia will have to wait till the next post!

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Turquoise Towers (tbc...)

Currently in Khiva, where they used to swap the heads of foreigners for coats (7 for a cotton coat, 11 for silk and 22 heads for gold-embroidered silk...). Now they just over-charge for kebabs (and internet connections) and follow you around trying to sell hand-knitted socks.

Anyway, proper update email (there's much to tell!) when I find a sensibly priced and reasonably fast connection - assuming I survive the perils of the Black Desert (dun dun DUN).