A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Nomadics

The Road Awaits...

Pre-trip blog marketing

It's all getting exciting. I'm all packed and have already left the UK, currently writing from Moscow.

For this trip I want to make full use of the blog and internet resources in general, so I'm opening this as a platform for any suggestions and tips for the trip.

One of the reasons I thought up of this trip is for the cultural changes we'll see along the way. From Slavic Ukraine to the mountains of Caucasian Georgian and Armenia, culturally unique in their own right with their own alphabets and languages, but still Christian and ex-Soviet.
Then descending from the Caucasus Mountains we will get into Eastern Turkey, and enter the lands of Islam, although still with scattered ancient Armenian ruins. Then onto the Arab lands of Levant, its baking deserts and plains having seen mark of human civilization from the very beginning.
It should be very interesting to see the gradual change of cultures and peoples along the way.
A lot of ground to cover in one and a half months, but it should be managable.

One cool idea we have for the trip is trading: We'll buy some small Ukranian trinket, and try to trade it for another object in every other country and see what we end up with at the end. Yes, it's likely we'll get ripped off by pretty much every merchant, but it's worth a try.
Also there are some ghost towns (due to ethnic cleansing in the 90s) in Abkhazia that look awesome to climb in and photograph, but as a separatist state it's fairly lawless and dangerous (bandits in the mountains), we'll decide if it's worth going when we know the situation on the ground. Also, we can do some amateur journalism with the local people there to get some view of what's going on there.
I have recently learned how to use my camera properly too, so of course I will try to step it up with my photography skills.

Anyway, if you have any other ideas for our trip, I'll be glad to hear them, so leave a comment or email me.
This promises to be a good one.

PS: Check out the Georgian and Armenian alphabets:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgian_alphabet
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_alphabet

Posted by Nomadics 23:57 Archived in Russia Tagged preparation

I am firing up the blog again!

Back on the road soon.

Very exciting things are a foot. In a few weeks time I will be flying to begin a new adventure.

From Kiev I shall try to get to Beirut over land and sea, going across the Black Sea, through the mountains and valleys of the Caucasus, into Eastern Turkey and eventually the baking deserts of the Levant.

Here is a preliminary map of the trip:

Once again, I will be blogging, this time with another friend of mine, Chuck.

We've got lots of interesting ideas and plans for this trip.

A

Posted by Nomadics 08:57 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged preparation

Urumqi and Turpan

Big Cities! Skyscrapers! Grapes!

40 °C

Arriving in Urumqi was like arriving in New York for the first time (except on a smaller scale: Urumqi is definitely no New York). Skyscrapers! KFC! Bright neon lights! Shopping malls! Motorways! Civilisation (kind of)!

That wore off after a while. The city wasn't particularly exciting. For the "Uighur Capital" it didn't have many Uighurs. The Han Chinese have moved in, and are now in the majority, getting all the good jobs and living in high rise appartments that have popped up everywhere. There's even an expat community, and a Curacaoan Restaurant (Curacao is a random island in the Netherlands Antillies, that's even more random than Urumqi..).

Our only reason for going to Urumqi was to meet up with Max, a friend of ours who would be travelling with us down to Shanghai (and provide help with the Chinese).

Anyway, after a little shopping and time wasting, we jumped on a bus to China's hottest place: Turpan (of Tulufan to the Chinese, who can't pronounce most Uighur names).
It was hot. Very very hot: 45C. Ouch.

In Turpan we signed up for a tour to see the sights, which was a huge mistake. The Chinese 'style' of tourism seems to be this: Hop into a minivan, get driven to a crappy and expensive attraction (places that are "symbolic" to the Chinese people, as all the real attractions were trashed in the cultural revolution, so basically there's nothing there except for a modern building), and then pay a fortune for this "privelidge".
We saw a hill, a empty cave, a grape farm, some modern buildings, and some mud. Great. Actually the mopsque wasn't too bad.

The next day we did our own thing. We rented bikes from John's cafe (legendary along the Chinese silk road), and cycled around. I got pretty sweaty in the heat, but we saw a lot more of Turpan. We met a Uighur grape farmer who showed us around, and even gave us some of his grapes (sour, wrong season).

Even Turpan is very "Chinesefied": the Uighur old town is reduced to the southern part of the city, and horrible dirty modern Chinese buildings are everywhere (they are white tiled, badly constructed and are never washed).

We moved on.

Posted by Nomadics 04:06 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

China so far...

in pictures

Sorry for the slow updates, Kyrgyzstan knocked us off track, and we're catching up (slowly).

To make up for it, here are some photos of China so far (proper explanations to come soon, I promise)

Crescent Moon Lake, Dunhuang:
DSC02259.jpg

The Fort of Jiayuguan, last outpost of the Great Wall, and the traditional entrance to the Middle Kingdom:
DSC02313.jpg

Modern China:
DSC02302.jpg

Xiahe, a Tibetain pilgrimmage site just on the start of the Tibetian Plateau (incredible):
DSC02335.jpg
DSC02347.jpg
DSC02385.jpg
I like this one. Even Buddhist monks are human:
DSC02384.jpg

Posted by Nomadics 09:11 Archived in China Tagged photography

Karakol to the Irkeshtam

Kyrgyz Potato Farmers, My Dad and China.

After a purchace of our huge and hugely awesome Kyrgyz hats(ak-kalpaks) in Kochkor, we went to Karakol. We had no reason for going, and chose on the spot over Naryn. We had heard it was quite nice, but had no idea about what to do there...

After a quick taxi and a unexpectedly long minibus around lake Issyk Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world. It took 4 hours to get from one end to the other. Huge. Scenery was pretty nice, as the lake is surrounded by pristine snow capped mountains and pine forests. Something even the Soviets couldn't ruin, even though they tried (there are a couple of derilict factories around, and a 'polygon', a secret Soviet military reaserch base where they used to test torpedoes).

Karakol is a funny town. Its a collection of dirty wooden shacks, separated by wide, leafy unpaved roads, with the occasional Soviet statue or squat appartment block. It was pretty empty most of the time, and competely unlit at night, apart from the main street, so navigating around at night had to be done solely on the headlights of cars that occasionally drove by.

In one of the few (the best apparently, with the usual lonely planet reader crowd) restaurants in Karakol, we met a French sailor who we had previously met in Samarkand (there really aren't many tourists in Central Asia...). He'd just spend some days hiking in the valleys around Karakol, and recommended us some good sites. Now, we had something to do.

It was worth coming to Karakol after all. After purchasing some bread, cheese and ham for our lunch, as well as plenty of water, we set out to walk the Karakol Valley, aiming to get to the alpine lake of Ala Kol.

After a few hours, we realised that the Ala Kol was miles away. 18 km to be precise, all uphill (i think we would have had to climb over 1000 meters), anyway, there was no way we could do it in one day.

Anyway, we decided to slow our pace and enjoy the scenery, which was fantastic. On the valley sides were lush pine forests, and clear river bubbling through, with snow capped peaks in the distance. Eventually the forest opened up onto a flat clearing, with the river lazily meandering through the grassland, where we decided to have lunch. Somewhat outside of the spirit of this country idyll, we were invited to a picnic by some drunk Kyrgyz potato farmers, who were having their yearly 3-day holiday there, and had just slaughtered a goat.

After a meal and their endless questions about the west, like whether everyone with short hair was a loser, or if dirty t-shirts like the ones we were sporting were cool, we hopped on their hardcore KAMAZ truck (made in the USSR, circa 1960 by the looks of it, but I could see it ferrying munitions to the Eastern front) to get a lift back to town.

It broke down. A lot. They had to wind up the engine every 10 minuites, hit it with a big metal bar every so often, but it all worked out in the end.

Eventually we made it back, after the bumpiest ride ever (the valley wans't exactly paved).

Next day, we got onto a bus to Bishkek, where strangely enough, I was going to see my Dad. Yes, in Bishkek (it's the capital of Kyrgyzstan). He was on some business in Almaty, which was only 300 km away, so he decided to drop by. Unfortunatley, he came in a car with Kazakh licence plates, which meant that EVERY cop in Kyrgyzstan stopped them and wanted bribes, for made up reasons such as that tinted windows are illegal.

Anyway, after a nice, if short dinner, to prove him I was still okay, and the opportunity to unload a few sweaters from my backpack, he was gone...

Next day, so were we. To Osh, in a ride that proved that all taxi drivers are dicks. It's a long story, but it was expensive, long and unpleasant.
Back in Osh, we quickly organised some transport to China for the next day did some errands, like sending photographs to our Kyrgyz Potato farmer chums.

The road to the Irkeshtam pass was unpaved and mostly empty, but as usual in Kyrgyzstan, within sight of huge, lonesome snowcapped mountains (the Pamirs this time). After a quick night in a village on the way (very quick), we were off to China.

The border was a mess. It didn't look like a border per se, but an impromtu parking lot for truckers, patrolled by soldiers checking passports. They were quite surprised by us, but quickly let us go. After hitching with a trucker to the Chinese side (7km away), we entered the People's Republic. A big clock tower showed Beijing time (+4 hours, rediculously), and the immaculately unifromed solders showed us the way...

Posted by Nomadics 01:54 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged backpacking

Fergana Valley

Wedding Crashers

From Tashkent the drive took us up the mountains, through some refreshingly green mountain scenery that was all the better after about a month of deserts. The Fergana valley is famous for having some of the most fertile soil in Central Asia (sub-tropical apparently), and more recently for being the scene of a massacre of protestors against the Karimov regime in Andijon. Muhammedjon, who worked in our B&B in Khiva, referred to it as an 'accident'. Yeah, the fingers of the soldier's accidentally slipped, and they accidentally all fired at the crowd.

We arrived late in the town of Fergana, and had planned to stay in the LP recommended guesthouse (Olga and Valentina's), but when we arrived it was empty. After a phone call, Olga and Valentin appeared, very drunk. They proceeded shouting abuse at our driver (who was a very good guy, and had driven us all the way from Tashkent) because he drove 50 meters past their door. Anyway, we made a quick getaway and found another decent guesthouse not far and settled in.

In our shared taxi, we also met Abror, a young student studying in Tashkent, but from Margilon (15km from Fergana). He offered to show us around and even invited us to a wedding on the next day, which we gratefully accepted.

There's not really much to see in the area, so our "tour" consisted of eating some proper Margilon plov (complete with large greasy chunks of mutton fat...), and seeing a mosque and a bazaar. After killing a little time, we were off to this wedding.

The Uzbek wedding system is complicated, but I'll try to explain. The type we went to was an all-male affair. We started at the groom's house, then moved onto the bride's house, but at no point did we actually see the bride. The format was the same, and pretty strange. Basically, there was a singer and a band who blared out loud Uzbek music, whilst the friends of the singer and of the groom took turns to dance frenetically to it.

Then, some people got around in a circle and started to throw money at the dancer, which would be collected by a minion for the singer. Only about 80 of the 500 or so guests actually moved, most seemed to sit around unhappily and not eat the food placed before them.

Suddenly, after 5 hours of pretty much non-stop singing and dancing boxes of gifts were heaped on the groom, and some old people ran up and took him away. signalling the end of the wedding.

Interestingly, no one was drinking, apparently since it was too expensive, and if they would, they would get violent. Nice. Our hosts did find us a little vodka though, which got some dark looks from the other guests though. They were probably jealous.

Anyway, our hosts seemed to think that we were bored, but it was a really fun experience. There wasn't much we could actually join in with, but the atmosphere was really lively and vibrant.

This is actually the third time I am trying to post this entry. First time there was a power failure in a Kyrgyz internet cafe, the just now I re-did it (twice) and some Chinese came up. Urgh. Hopefully this will work.

Posted by Nomadics 05:17 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Big City Life - Tashkent

Corrupt Cops and Money Machines

We were warned about going to Tashkent. It was apparently full of militsaya (police) that shake traveller's down for cash, there was nothing to do and that it was dirty, sprawling and dangerous. Well, we're rebels without a pause (thanks Chuck D). So, we decided to go.

That was part of the reason, we needed cash, and the only ATMs in Uzbekistan are in Tashkent. Also, it was in our way, since we needed to go to the Fergana Valley, and there is no way of getting there without going through Tashkent.

So, we arrived and quickly got ripped off for a taxi to a nice hotel (we decided to treat ourselves in Tashkent after 2 months of roughing it), but we were turned away, because they were apparently full. I think I'll call Amnesty International about discrimination to dirty backpackers. On second thoughts, they probably have something better to worry about, we went to another decent hotel.

We actually had a daily routine in Tashkent. Wake up, waste a little time, go to the bank, eat (usually in the same place), change money, waste more time, then eat again.

Withdrawing money is a pain. There are ATM's, but they never have money, and eat your card (actually, Alex's card was eaten and the slip said "YOUR CARD HAS BEEN ARRESTED BY THE NATIONAL BANK OF UZBEKISTAN!!!", but he got it back). So the only way to get money out of your account was to go to a bank and go through some beurocracy.

If you think it's that easy, not all banks have money. Eventually we found a small room (room 211) in the main branch of the National Bank of Uzbekistan, where they could help us (after we got the forms signed by someone else, then take these forms to the cashier for our money). Eventually, after two days, we managed to withdraw a decent amount of money that should last us to China. Job done.

Everything else in Tashkent was a bit of a dissapointment. We didn't get accosted by corrupt cops, the museum was crap and we weren't even mugged, despite walking through a few dimly lit parks at night.

The main roundabout of Tashkent is Amir Timur Maydoni, with it's massive statue of Timur on horseback. Right next to it was the Amir Timur museum, which has nothing interesting in it, but is quite funny. It portrays Timur (who is estimated to have killed about one million people) as a really nice and generous Uzbek, a pious patron of the arts (he did make Samarkand nice, but only by abducting artisans). It had modern paintings of his many children, with description's of how pious and well educated they were, with little bits at the end that they were murdered (about 4/5 were murdered, the rest died in battle, nice). It also showe the cheap crap that foreign countries give Uzbekistan as diplomatic gifts. They are generally cheapo books, plates, small medals, or sometimes carpets that depict Amir Timur (It looked so cheap, it was probably about 10 dollars, but it's the thought tha counts, right?)

Anyway, after the fun we had in Tashkent (there really wasn't much to do, even nightlife wise everything was closed), we hopped into a shared taxi to Fergana.

Posted by Nomadics 03:48 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Bukhara

Pure Silk Roadness

After a rather expensive shared taxi through the dry Kyzylkum Desert, we arrived to the fabled city of Bukhara, the classic silk road city.
We were dumped in the centre and soon found some cheap accomodation in a traditional house.

Bukhara is clean, nice and yellow (from the bricks). Lots more tiled timurid mosques, medrassas and a half restored castle (Red Army blew it up). Most of the old courtyards have been turned into bazaar-shopping malls for tourists, selling overpriced 'traditional goods', which included everything from shoes and hats to animal skins.

Bukhara does have a gruesome past though. During the age of the Great Game (Russia vs Britian imperialist maneuverings in Central Asia), the Emirs were known to be especially depraved. Two British men, accused of being spies, were thrown in the Emir's special bug pit (a large hole in the prison 5 meters deep that was filled with all sorts of nasties, now filled with small change), which, according to the sign (understatement of the century), it was reserved for the "least favourite jail inhabitants". The prison was surprisingly small, but apparently thats because 50 to 100 people are meant to be crammed into each cell.

There is also a beautiful minaret that may have been Bukhara's famous "tower of death" from where those sentenced to death were thrown from to splatter onto the pavement below.

Central Bukhara seems orientated solely towards tourists, and was completely dead at night, but fortunately we managed to find a hotel with some old Europeans who up for the Champions League final, incluging an Italian engineer who worked on particle accelerators in CERN...

In all, Bukhara was fairly touristic, but not as fake as Khiva. It still retains some of it's mystique and charm, and on a nice sunset evening, you can really feel the magic...

Posted by Nomadics 05:07 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged backpacking

Darvaza, then to Uzbekistan

Burning Craters and Giant Spiders

From Ashgabat we drove north on the lonely road that goes through the Karakum Desert, which actually had a fairly decent surface, but only for half the road. The drove in Dima's Soviet UAZ Jeep (apparently it was better as his Nissan was 'stupid'), which was big, loud, and had no seat belts. On the way we stopped at possibly the most depressing place ever. A village in the middle of nowhere in some bushy dunes, which was empty save some trash, a few kids and two immobile camels, crying loudly, who were tied very firmly to wooden posts. Apparently all the water in the village is driven here from the nearest source. What are people doing there?

Halfway across Turkmenistan, we turned off the road, into the desert, and after about 10 minuites, we reached our destination.

In the desert, on a flat sandy plain ringed by hills, there was a large crater, which was on fire. It has a diameter of about 50 meters, and a depth of about 20, and looking inside, it seems that the rocks are on fire...

Apparently, when the Soviets were exploring for gas here in the 50s, "something happened", which left a massive burning hole in the ground, and it's been burning ever since. No-one really cares about it now, since the transportation of the gas would be too costly (it is in the middle of nowhere). But the crater is definitely man made, as there are twisted pipes on one side of the crater, which is also why it's not a Zoroastrian pilgrimmage site.

The crater is most impressive at night (but you can still see the flames in the day), you can see the smoke and bright orange-red light from miles around. When you're just on the edge, and the wind blows in your direction, the heat unbearable. You can also hear the flames and the wind it causes from a considerable distance.
(We have some good pictures).

After a good, fresh shashlyk (barbeque), we camped out next to the crater. Not too close though, I didn't want to be barbequed myself. The Karakum is crawling with all sorts of nasty things. Snakes, scorpions, and giant spiders (se saw one running around devouring moths, it was about 10cm across...), Dima slept in the car, whilst we had to brave it outside. Ok, we're not really such heroes, our tent was pretty secure.

Next morning (after 2 hours sleep...) we head off north to the border with Uzbekistan along a 'stupid' (Dima loved that word) road. The road was stupid. It was the bumpiest ride I have ever had in my life.

After 5 hours of bone-jarring ride, we got to Konye-Urgench, another aincient city. Again, it was trashed by the Mongols and Timurids, so there's not much left. There are a few restored mausoleums, and a huge conical minaret (largest in Central Asia), but they look pretty new.
One interesting thing we spotted was a large tattered overcoat for rent. The locals kept on taking it, then rolling down the hill in it. Apparently it wards off evil, but it looked really fun (but the overcoat was so dirty we didn't participate).

After that, we drove the remaining distance and emotionally (not really) parted ways with Dima at the border.

The Turkmen border was very friendly (Dima knew the guards well), and they waved us through (not without some beurocracy, of course). The Uzbek border was a completely empty, not even ay flags (we found out the guards had to go and fetch water), save for a few people watiching TV inside the main building. There we had a good chat about life in the west, and they let us fo free.
There some soldiers made camera signals at us, could they have wanted to check our cameras, as we had been warned might happen in Turkmenistan? No, they wanted to take a photo with us. Awesome, and strange since it is illegal to take photos near borders, but it didn't seem they cared about much here.

After another successful crossing, we drove into the post-industrial wasteland of Karakalpakstan...

Posted by Nomadics 07:35 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged backpacking

Crossing into Turkmenistan

Into the dream of Turkmenbashi

We spent out last Iranian night in the surprisingly good (if expensive) hotel in Sarakhs, a town split in half by the Iran-Turkmenistan border.

Unfortunately, when we came to leaving, the hotel refused to give me my passport back. That's because they didn't have it. The police did. After a long and futile phone conversation with the police it seemed I had to go to the station.

Yep, I had overstayed my visa, and the hotel manager took me to the station on his bike. Luckily the head policemen was quite friendly guy, and I pleaded with him to let me out of the country. The other option would be to send me back to Mashhad to extend my visa, which would waste money and a day. Plus there was a chance that we could not be allowed into Turkmenistan because of this since our visas and our tour started that day.

The policeman chatted and joked with his superior, and eventually said it was okay, as long as I got out of the country immedeately. Since we were planning to cross anyway, it wasn't a problem. My bags were packed. Iran wasn't that great anyway.

Anyway, the Iranian side just some formalities, although they did X-ray our bag (for alcohol and pork apparently). At the last Iranain point some soldiers took away our playing cards (they're also illegal). I guess they were bored. They were assholes, but they also had big guns so we didn't argue.

After a rediculously expensive minibus trip across a small metal bridge through probably the most mined border on earth (in the cold war this was the border of the "free world" and the USSR), we were in Turkmenistan. I don't blame you if you've ever heard of it, but it's the craziest country on earth.

The first Turkmen border post was straight out of a James Bond movie (from the 70s). A small wooden shack containing a huge guy containing a mouth full of gold teeth. He tried using his little wind up phone, but unfortunately it didn't work until he smashed it against the wall a couple of times. Whilst this was all happening, illiterate Turkmen tennager's with AKs walked around harassing the Iranian truck drivers crossing the other way. I hit one of them in the face with the bus door when I opened it, but it looked like he was used to being hit, so it was fine.

Anyway, the wind-up phone worked (when he shouted loud enough), and our initial check was successful, so we moved to the main border post. Where, we spent 2 hours.

First, a medical check, consisting of us talking football with the doctor (I didn't know it was a medial) until he asked if we were healthy, and then let us through. Then we had to pay some guy to enter their amazing country. Then we had to fill out about 10 forms, declaring everything we owned, short of underwear. Then, after a bag check, and about 10 passport checks, they let us through. That sounded a lot quicker than it was.

As expected, the first thing we saw on the other side was a statue of Turkmenbashi. That’s Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov, Father of all Turkmen, the crazy (now dead) dictator that ran Turkmenistan like his own amusement park.

There, we met our guide. He was a standard issue homo-soveticus, Dima. He was pound of being Turkmen, but wasn't, didn't speak the language and wouldn't look out of place in Archangelsk. We jumped in his jeep and drove into the emptiness that makes up most of Turkmenistan (that and police checks every so often).

Yeah, Turkemenistan is mainly nothing. You drive and drive and see flat and endless nothing, not even road signs. Occasionally there is a person in the middle of nowhere, but they add to the randomness. After a whole load of nothing, we got to the village of Mary, the third biggest city in Turkmenistan.

Mary is a pretty nasty Soviet city (concrete buildings, random wild weeds everywhere), except that in the centre there was a gold statue of Turkmenbashi, and a memorial to his mum. Our hotel was a fairly decent (by our standards) falling apart soviet hotel generally frequented by Turkish truckers.

Anyway, after walking around Mary for the day, we didn't really see much. There's not much there. We had some decent shashlyk though, paid for with notes all depicting Turkmenbashi, of course.

The next day, we drove to Old Merv, one of the greatest cities of the olden days. The level of development of the area was at a similar time and scale to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India (on the Amu Darya River, whilst the others had the Tigris, Euphrates, the Nile, the Yangtze and the Ganges respectively). Unfortunately, the remains are in Turkmenistan, so no-one has ever heard of it.

The ruins aren't great to look at either. Just big mud hills covered in tiny pottery fragments. The hills kind of resemble the walls and buildings of a city, but there isn't really much there. Only a tiny part of it has been excavated, so you feel like you could be treading on ancient treasures. The site is huge (100 km squared), and when we were there, there were only two people excavating: Two bored looking Turkmen with shovels sitting around drinking tea.

As usual with things in this area, it was trashed by Genghis Khan, rebuilt, then trashed again by Timur. After that people gave up. There is one solid building though, the 10th century mausoleum of Soltan Sanjar, but the extensive reconstruction makes it look very modern, and apparently the Uzbek reconstructors got it wrong anyway. But it still seemed like a pilgrimage site to some Turkmen people, who touched the tomb, moved their hands over their faces, then walked around it three times before leaving. People in this region (central Asia that is) have a strange mix of customs that have roots in Paganism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism (Zarathustra apparently lived in Merv for a while) and Islam. That's what Dima said anyway.

After that, we got onto the biggest highway in Turkmenistan, which connects Ashgabat (the capital) to the second and third cities (Turkmenabat and Mary). It wasn't really a highway, just a small road, devoid of anything except some random unexcavated archeological sites, and some nice views of the mountains marking the beginning of the Iranian plateau to the south. Oh yeah, and of course there were police checks.

Eventually, we reached the surreal marble and gold crazyness that is Ashgabat.

Posted by Nomadics 09:45 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged backpacking

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