Three Rough Blokes on the Amazon January – February 2015

Three rough blokes were having a beer one day and Roger was saying how he’d like to do the other half of the Amazon from Manaus to the coast. The other two didn’t take much persuading so in January 2015 we met in Manaus, Cam flying in from a week in Guatemala, AJ arriving after a few days in Panama and Roger after the shot show in Vegas and a few days in Panama.

Check out the full story below.

Amazon 2015

Screen Capture by Snagit

A better Life For Cats and Dogs. Busan Korea Nov 2019

Tuesday 26 November 2019

A bus picked us up from the Intercontinental Hotel in Seoul and drove us the 6kms to the Suseo station. There are two high speed train operators in Korea, which I had discovered on a previous visit when I turned up at the wrong station. This time its all organised by the staff at Royal Canin, eliminating any Roger mistakes.

I have been invited along on a field visit by Stan and his Korean Royal Canin team. This is a big chance to see just what Sylvia does in her life as the Asia Pacific boss. Bang on time the train begins its journey south. Out come laptops as the entourage of 12 put their heads to work for the 2 plus hours to Busan. I spark up the speed app on my phone to see how fast we are going but as with most apps of this type they only work a few times then want money! It’s really hot in the train and looking around over half the passengers are asleep.

Arriving at the main station in Busan a bus branded “VIP Royal Canin” picks us up for a short journey to a traditional restaurant where we enjoyed a great lunch of don katsu (pork cutlets) along with some other very tasty dishes including kimchee. After lunch we headed over to Our worst Veterinary clinic. This place is impressive with play areas for the pets to come if they are feeling stressed out, full medical and post op areas for both pets and owners. It was the first vet clinic in Korea to be awarded cat friendly status. The team look around as i tag along in the background taking the odd photo and trying not to get in the way. The retail area is well-stocked with Royal Canin products. A very dominant, “don’t touch me” cat commands the counter.

Back on the bus, a short journey across town takes us to a dog and cat selling business. We are greeted by a number of cute, free-ranging dogs that seemed to have the run of the place. Sylvia is presented a nice bunch of flowers prior to the tour of the premises with lots of rooms and an array of dogs and cats I had never seen before.  This business sells about 200 puppies and kittens per month and rehomes another 70 or so rescued animals. One fluffy cat is undergoing a blow dry and grooming on a table in a room full of sleeping dogs. The staff here, as in the last place, are very friendly and pleased to welcome the team from Royal Canin.

Across town a little further and we entered another Animal Medical centre. Now if you have a broken dog or cat this has to be the place to bring it. This time we are welcomed by a dominant dog behind the counter just checking us out with a loud bark to make sure we were not a threat to any of the animal patients. This place is really well equiped with an operating theatre that looked like something from the latest ER show, a large cat scanner (yes it does dogs to) and in the room next to that a new MRI machine. Apparently it is quite unusual for an animal medical centre to have such state of the art equipment, especially in a small city like this. With a recovery and post op area this place takes good care of any sick or broken pets.

 

The visiting over for the day we headed to the Paradise hotel. Surrounded by armed police, with bag scanners in the foyer and several military ships anchored offshore one could have been led to believe they take these Sylvia visits quite seriously. Fortunately that is not the case – it just happens that there is an ASEAN conference on in town.

After checking in we were back on the bus and down to the local marina, where we embarked onto a 45′ launch for a tour of the harbour. Because of the ASEAN conference we were a bit restricted as to where we could go. The skipper took us under the double deck motorway on high piles with a suspension bridge spanning the main ship entrance to the middle of the harbour. There we enjoyed a chat and a few refreshments as the sun went down and the city lit up with is vast array of night lights.  The crew man strapped a bunch of fireworks together, stood on the bow and fired them off before we headed back to shore.

Next stop was a Korean BBQ restaurant (some of my favourite food). Here we gathered around a couple of low tables, sitting on the floor. The waiter brought out a tray with many dishes on it including salad, kimchee and various pickles. I thought we must be sharing this until one was placed in front of each of us. Next arrived four buckets of burning charcoal which were placed in the holes in the table. Raw beef ribs arrived and were cooked on the top of the charcoal holder. After we had gorged on beef there were noodles and then a Korean style soup. We had a great time chatting and laughing while Sylvia, Dan and I quizzed the locals on how they could possibly eat so much, especially as they are all so slim. They then went on to say that after this they were going out for fried chicken and beer. After dinner we all strolled back to the hotel. Sylvia and i headed up to our room while the local team headed off for the aforementioned fried chicken and beer!!


Wednesday 27 November 2019

Back on the bus we headed northeast to Deokseon to visit the local RC distributer. They occupy a medium-sized warehouse and have a number of small trucks to distribute the cat and dog products to the shops, vets and breeders in the Busan area. Here too they had a cute dog that had the run of the place in its RC logo clothing.

Jonathon, Elyse, Chris, Kyle

Heading back towards the city we stopped at A pet shop where the team examined this well-presented and well-stocked pet shop. It was here I had an interesting conversation with Dan (Regional Sales and Marketing) and Sylvia about marketing of products. I asked the question “is there a large english-speaking population in this part of Korea?” as many of the products had english writing on the front of the packaging. Here in Korea the regulations state that a local manufacturer must label the front of the product in Korean. Dan explained that here even though most people don’t read english they believe that if it has english writing on the packaging then it is of a higher quality so some Korean manufactures are flouting the rules and labelling mostly in english with the instructions etc in Korean on the back or side of the packets.  Dan then went on to explain how now in western markets people are looking for packaging with asian writing on them as they think it’s more natural especially with what is brown packaging with the recycle sign on it. Sylvia then went on to point out “just because it has the recycle mark on it doesn’t mean everyone can recycle the packaging as some so called recyclable material needs special plant to process it, which most places don’t have. This is a major challenge that many manufacturers, including Royal Canin are working to address.

RC has a policy of making sure they get it right not only regarding the precise nutrition for the pets but also to ensure that they meet all the rules and regulations in each market.

Kiho (Vet pillar head) and Jihee (Korean CFO) check out the big dog  .

Rock, the local sales guy

Alfred, the  regional legal brain, and Stan, the Korean GM check out the product

DH (Distributor Manager), Dan (Regional Sales and Marketing Director), Sylvia, and Joyce (Specialty Pet Pillar Manager)

Next stop was the Headong Yonggung Temple, where despite the fried chicken and beer last night the woman all raced to the local stalls to grab some of the local delicacies as we made our way past the stalls and the statues of the Zodiac to the temple, which is situated on the hill above the sea, making for a pretty stunning location. Interestingly here there is a place where you can buy a little statue which has a wish on it and place it on the rocks. Joy pointed out that most of the wishes were for a good education.

We visited a lovely Italian restaurant our final stop before heading back to the train station. Here the bus driver deserves a mention; not only had she guided the bus through the many narrow streets with great skill but at the restaurant we headed down a narrow lane for several hundred meters the wrong way and she was not even slightly fazed as she backed the bus all the way back, casually glancing from mirror to mirror.

A big thanks to Stan and the Korean team for inviting me along for what was a very enjoyable experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“He who ran away” – my conversation with a North Korean Defector: Nov 2019

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Having arrived late yesterday from Singapore and caught up with Matt, from Australia, in the bar briefly we had had an early night. Sylvia and her Asia Pacific Leadership team were all here for a meeting.

Sylvia and the team headed into their meeting this morning while I did a few hours work before going for a stroll around the hill in front of the Hyatt hotel. It had rained here on Sunday and washed the smog out of the sky leaving clear blue skies and a crisp day. The air is dry so the 2 degrees C feels a lot warmer. It is autumn here and the trees are losing their leaves with the forest on the hill showing off the bright fall colours. Not far from the hotel i got onto a track leading around the east side of the hill. Along the track at intervals are small covered and uncovered gyms with weight and exercise machines.

The track eventually leads up the centre of the ridge to the Seoul Tower. Purchasing a ticket i headed up to the observation deck along the way to the lift going through what looks like a large disco room with lots of changing light patterns. The day is still clear with minimal haze. A sign tells me there is a revolving restaurant above the observation deck. A chat with the person on the desk and its back in the lift and up to the restaurant. This is indeed a great place to observe the sights of the city from and gives one a good idea how they have managed to cram over 25 million people into the greater Seoul area. Interestingly the towering apartment blocks run out through the many valleys of the surrounding hills. As the restaurant did its complete revolution I enjoyed some really great food. Running down the ridge back towards the hotel is the Hanyangdoseong, the Seoul City Wall. this is the longest serving wall in history. It served as a defensive wall for the city from 1396 to 1910, 514 years; apparently no other wall has ever done that. I am sure that it has been rebuilt a few times over the years as what we see now looks recently restored.


Wednesday 20 November 2019

At around 8am Scott, from the DMZ tour company, picked me up at the hotel. Originally i had booked a trip to the JSA (Joint Services Area) having tried twice before to go there. Last time it was closed as the leaders were having a peace chat, this time its closed as the north has an outbreak of swine flu. Hence we are on an alternative tour. The first stop is an intersection just behind the Blue House (Presidential House) where on the 21st January 1968 31 North Korean commandos came wandering down the street aiming to attack the blue house and kill the then president. They were challenged and a gunfight broke out. A senior policeman was killed and the commandos withdrew up the road and into the hills with, by now, soldiers in pursuit.

We headed up the road a few kms and stopped at a look out where Scott pointed out a ridge in the distance where 9 of the commandos were killed. He also pointed out an old anti-aircraft gun on a local military base justified by the fact that the north only has old planes!

A little further up the road we again dismounted and headed up a track on a ridge that the commandos had used. We walked a few hundred meters and at a rock face Scott tells me this is where another 3 were killed and you can see the 50 odd bullet marks in the rock. in my opinion the holes have been somewhat enhanced and the holes marked with red and white paint.

After the attack bunkers were built along the ridge just in case they came back. Out of the 31 twenty nine were killed, one captured and one made it back to the north, later becoming a general and later again executed.

Next we headed north to the border, driving alongside the Hangang River with, as we got closer to the border, its barbed wire fence and pill boxes – no longer manned but covered by numerous cameras and heat sensing devices. This road runs all the way to Pyongyang; there is just a bit of a problem getting across the border. We headed off the motorway and up to the Unification Tower, up on a hill where the Hangang River meets the Imjin River, which flows from the north. The border here runs down the middle of the now Han river as it heads out to sea. With this still clear day the views from the tower are impressive. Through the binoculars provided free of charge one can see the peasants of the north working in the fields. There is a cluster of buildings with a large hall in the middle complete with monument to the great leader. The tower we are in has several levels with a museum on the ground floor, which hosts, among other things, a piano with barbed wire for strings. The views from the top floor and the terraces are impressive.

Next we headed to the Imjingak Peace Park and Freedom Bridge. I had been here a couple of years ago but things have changed a bit. It now also hosts a large kid’s amusement park and a gondola is being built to take people across the river towards the DMZ. The DMZ is two kms on each side of the border but added to that on the south side is the CCA, Civilian Controlled area, where access is restricted. The old railway bridge with the old bullet riddled train pulled out of the DMZ has been enhanced and the bullet holes in the old bridge piers marked with red paint. Just to the east is the new railway, which one day they hope will run all the way to Paris. It did operate a few years ago when the south was helping run factories in the north.

After lunch and a look around we headed back to the city and the War Memorial Museum, which I had visited before. There, after a brief look around, we met Seo Jea-Pyoung in a cafe. He now heads the association of North Korean Defectors. The next 90 minutes flew by as he told his story and Scott interpreted.

Graduating university as a geologist and, having only had to complete 3 of the 10 years required military service due to an injury, he was employed in the R&D department at the Hamheung city university. In NK there is only one radio station and all radios will only tune into that station. One day Seo purchased, on the black market, a radio that would tune into the SK stations. His plan was just to listen to the news once!! He could not believe what he was hearing and how nice the people on the radio in the south sounded so the once became twice and so on. One night he had fallen asleep on the couch with the radio beside him but fortunately not turned on. A common practice is for the police to routinely raid houses in the early hours of the morning. So, caught he was, but told the police how he had found the radio and it didn’t work. The police took the radio and over the next few days he had to report to the police station and was told that if he told the truth he wouldn’t be sent to the punishment camp. He then found out that the man he bought the radio off had been caught and ratted on him.

He bribed a soldier to get a travel pass to Namyang on the Chinese border. There a broker organised, for 20 USD, a 7-day pass to China. Arriving in a village in China he was shocked to see that the dog was being fed white rice, bearing in mind at that time in the year 2000 NK was still suffering from a drought and famine that had started in 1994 and he had never seen white rice. He ended up in Yanja city where he had an aunt. He talked about watching TV all day as he had to hide and couldn’t believe they had 52 channels. Street lamps and neon signs were something else he had never seen as the only place in his NK city to have power was the local statue to Kim Il Song. He couldn’t believe that at dinner one night the people he was staying with started bagging the Chinese leadership. He then became defensive when they started bagging Kim Il Son.

After 3 months he was moved to Mishan, a small country town where he worked in a local coke making factory, receiving one tenth of the wages of the locals as part of the deal for hiding him. With the workers he joined the local church where there was a SK priest who, after 9 months, organised him and 5 others a passage out of the country. They headed back to Yanja city and caught a train from there to a place called Allen near the Mongolian border. From there it was just a day’s walk across the Gobi desert into Mongolia. Unfortunately their navigation skills weren’t too good and it was some three days later when a Mongolian police patrol discovered them, saving their lives. After being checked over they were taken to Ulan Bator and the SK embassy there, and on the 24 July 2001 his first aeroplane ride took him to Seoul.

Once here he spent 3 months in a refugee centre learning the skills required to adapt to his new life. He was then given the equivalent of 25,000 USD, rented an apartment long term for 13k then spent another 10k getting his wife and son out of NK, this time by boat -much more expensive but safer. I asked the question as to why NK hadn’t put his family in prison or executed them. Apparently that is not done. There are some 33,000 defectors in Seoul and none of the families have been hurt.

He went on to explain in detail how he goes about sending money to his brother in NK. That bit I am not going to share because I don’t want to endanger his brother. Nowadays there are some ten thousand cell phones in NK along the Chinese border so communication is possible.

During the famine of the nineties many people died as the government couldn’t provide food as they had done in the past so out of that rose a black market, which nowadays has evolved into a capitalist market. Soe went on to explain that there are now a large group of wealthy people in NK who control the economy.  Kim Jong Un controls the people. interestingly Seo went on to say that the standard of living in NK has risen to where China was in the late 80s. He said you spot the wealthy people nowadays as they are the ones that have solar panels on their roof. He has offered to get his brother out of NK but he is quite happy to stay there.

We then went on to have a long discussion on the nuclear  weapons issue. Seo kept saying that Kim can’t give them up. Although I couldn’t fully establish his reasoning my interpretation is that Kim really needs the sanctions to help control the people. If the sanctions come off all the modern stuff will come flooding into the country allowing the people to see that maybe they haven’t quite been told the truth over the past 70 years and along will come a revolution.

Another interesting thing Seo explained was that during his childhood his parents knew the truth but never uttered a word to him or his siblings that was in contradiction with what they were being taught.

I must say I really enjoyed the encounter with Seo and also a big thanks to Scott who did a great job interpreting, especially as it was his last day as a guide.

 

 

The last two Stans: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – October 2019

Saturday 19 October 2019: Sylvia

I was sad this morning to leave Kazakhstan and the stunning Ritz Carlton hotel. I feel there is so much more to explore in this vast land with its steppes, mountains and friendly people. We enjoyed one last delicious breakfast, savouring the food, the views and the impeccable service, before heading to the airport for our one-hour-thirty flight to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Flying initially over Kazakhstan it was obvious once we crossed the border into Tajikistan. The majestic, towering, snow-capped mountains that cover roughly 93% of this country stretched on as far as I could see. I was glued to the window but unfortunately it was so filthy it was impossible to take photographs.

We landed smoothly and were met by our guide, Alfred. After a quick check in at the Hyatt Regency we headed out to explore this city of roughly 2 million inhabitants, one-fifth of the total population of the country. Tajikistan until 1924 was two separate regions. In 1924 it became an autonomous region of Uzbekistan, then in 1927 became a separate state under the USSR. It has strong connections with Afghanistan and Iran, sharing the same base language. After independence in 1991 there was a period of civil war with the government ultimately winning over the religious extremists who wanted to make this a Muslim country. Despite having a massive majority Muslim population (about 90%) it remains a secular country. Still we saw many more women in traditional dresses with head scarves than we did in Kazakhstan.

Our first stop was the museum of antiquities, showcasing many different exhibits that have been unearthed in the country, dating back to about the 5th century BC. One of the most well-known exhibits is the 14m long sleeping Buddha, the largest Buddha in Central Asia.



We next visited Rudaki Park, which was known as Lenin Park under the Soviets. Rudaki was a famous poet, who lived from 858-951 AD, and whose statue now features prominently in the park, where once Lenin’s stood. The park is huge, with beautiful gardens and some rather interesting light features as well as many fountains that seem to be ubiquitous in these countries. To one side of the park is the Presidential Palace. At one end is a memorial to the first Tajik king, Sonoma from the 10th century. There is also a very tall monument called the ‘Signs of Tajikistan’ and featuring representations of cotton, wheat, the sun, knowledge and mountains. The last major feature is a giant flagpole, currently the tallest in Central Asia.


There are many interesting buildings in the city, which is a mix of Soviet architecture and more modern buildings, many painted in bright, warm colours. The Tajik flag, red, white and green, features frequently as do massive photographs of the president on many buildings. Given the number of photographs, in different locations and poses, on display he must spend a lot of his time posing for the camera.


Our last stop was the central market. Like the markets in the other countries we have visited this was a hive of activity, even fairly late on a Saturday afternoon. They are all same, same but different with their piles of fruit, nuts, dried fruits etc. This one stands out for the massive building it is housed in and for the unique way the spices are displayed.


Sunday 20 October 2019: Roger

Alfred picked us up at 10am and we headed north through the town, passing brightly coloured buildings, which were mainly universities and other institutions. Still in the city we struck a large cement works. Large amounts of earthworks were taking place along the river banks to try and stem the effects of spring flooding.

As we departed the city boundaries heading up highway P501, which is a road squeezed into a narrow valley beside the river, narrow bridges often with locked gates led to the houses on the other side. Up the valley only about 20km was a large structure being built which turned out to be the summer palace for the president, who incidentally has been the president pretty much since independence. What intrigues me about this part of the world is the money that the presidents of this, and the last three Stans we’ve visited, seem to spend on big grandiose type structures.

As we pushed further north up the valley the hills became mountains with really impressive rock faces, rising at this point over 2000m. We then started periodically going through avalanche tunnels designed to protect the road from rock and snow avalanches as the land on each side of the valley became steeper and more aggressive looking. We reached a point where the guide pointed out the old road that headed northeast that used to go over a pass some 3,200m high and was often closed for 3 months of the year. At this point we struck a large flock of sheep being guided along the roadside by shepherds, horsemen and dogs. Incidentally here, with the threat of wolves and bears, man is the sheep’s best friend, despite the fact that more sheep get eaten by man than ever by wolves and bears.

We pushed north up the new road that climbed steeply up the right hand side of a valley through more avalanche shelters, numbering 20 in total, with a new one under construction near the top of the hill. We entered a 6km tunnel built by the Iranians in 2004. This tunnel with virtually no lighting rose from 2,600m where we entered to 2,750 where we exited.

All along the journey we had ben passing big, orange Shacman trucks. These we discovered are government trucks that transport coal from the open-cast mine we were approaching to Dushanbe to supply fuel for both heating and power generation. There was also a large stockpile of coal at the bottom of the pass as the trucks can’t access the tunnel and the pass in the middle of winter. We lost count of how many of these trucks we passed. As we headed out of the tunnel and down the hill to about 2,000m there were lots of trucks (not just orange ones) parked waiting to load coal from the mine high above the road. The non-orange trucks were from villages and small towns and owned by private operators taking coal to sell to get the villages through the winter.

Further down the hill we passed what look like a little village with lots of shacks and stone buildings. Still above the 2,000m mark this is where the local farmers bring their stock to graze during the summer months before returning them to the valley for the winter.

As we headed further down the hill we passed a ruby mine with large holes in the hillside, with tailings running down the hill looking a bit like rabbit burrows. As we hit the bottom of the pass we met up with the other end of the old road, which in its day was 30km longer. A little further down the valley was a large, old ruby processing plant from the Soviet days – we couldn’t actually establish if it was still operating.

Further down the valley, high on the hill was another open-cast mine, and water gushed out of the hill apparently from a pipeline that was supposed to feed a hydro power plant that was never completed.

Eventually we reached the turn-off to Lake Iskanderkul and stopped for lunch at a cafe, where we were served some very high fat food including a dumpling soup and supposedly lamb chops that I think actually came from old sheep, coated with a thick layer of fat, something the locals look on as a delicacy.

I took a stroll down the track to the toilet – there is definitely no porcelain in this part of the world, just a hole in the concrete covering what I assume was a long drop but is now probably short!

At the intersection there was also, what had been, a huge truck maintenance plant back in the Soviet era and is now a derelict complex with its old boilers lying on the river bank. We crossed a steel suspension bridge heading onto what once was probably a sealed road but has deteriorated significantly over the years.

People smiled as we waved to them. We were really surprised by the intensity of housing and the size of the houses up this valley. Alfred explained to us that a lot of people from this area, and throughout Tajikistan, who have qualified as builders etc, head off to Russia to work and then return with a fair bit of cash in hand and the experience to build these big houses that often house 2-3 generations of families.

 

As we pushed further up the valley there were lots of stone shacks, often with hay stacked on top, used to house stock overnight and during the winter. The autumn colours were, in places, quite spectacular with a variety of deciduous trees clumped together in little oasis-type settlements. The mountains rising on each side were quite impressive with large patches of red earth interspersed with patches of grey clay that had been eroded over the years by the weather.

Maintenance on the road is obviously kept to a minimum as the higher we went the worse it got. In places concrete slabs had been put in to stop rock slides blocking the road, or in other places to stop the road tumbling into the valley. At one point a broken down car sat with a red rag tied onto the door and rocks placed around it as simulated marker cones.

We came over the hill and were looking down on Lake Iskanderkul, an impressive view. We wound our way down the switchback road, across a little bridge and up a rough shingle road where Alfred told Sylvia “free massage included” as she was being thrown from side to side in the back of the Rav 4. We stopped at a gravel carpark looking over both Lake Iskanderkul and the smaller Snake Lake nearby. Sylvia and I opted to walk back down the hill to the main lake and as we were walking along the road a large group of people approached us laughing and waving as we took photos. Some of the group had limited English and we made out that they were from somewhere in Tajikistan and were keen to have their photo  taken with me. A large flag flew on a hill above the lake and near it was a rock painted in the colours of Tajikistan.

All too soon it was time for us to head back on our return journey. With the lake at 2,200m and the turn off at just over 1,000m we started our trip back down the rough, mainly gravel road. As we wound our way down the hill we spotted some workers maintaining one of the new pylons heading up the valley. It was through a discussion about the pylons we discovered that somewhere, we are not too sure how far from the lake, is a large, Chinese-owned gold mine, which these new-looking pylons feed.

Travelling back down and along the valley and up to the portal of the tunnel, we entered with a large truck in front of us. Even with the weak lights of the Rav 4 on it was pretty black inside. It appears the tunnel has no ventilation system but relies on the 150m elevation over the 6km to create enough airflow to get rid of the fumes from the large trucks and cars passing through it. The driver flashed his lights and we passed the large truck in front of us and then another and then another, our lungs filling with the fumes as they rushed towards the portal. As we exited the tunnel and stopped for some fresh air at the south end Alfred explained that it is only recently they have put lights in it. These lights are tiny and provide very little illumination but prior to them going in it used to be known as the tunnel of death.

As we headed back down the side of the valley I asked Alfred if any trucks have brake failures and end up going over the side. He said yes, one or two a year. It’s a long way to the bottom.

Arriving back in Dushanbe we headed to what was once a famous tea house and apparently people came from all over the country to try their lagman (noodle soup), edible but not something that I would travel very far to eat.

Alfred dropped us at the airport where we waited for quite a long time to enter the check in area while numerous ‘stand-around men’ and the odd ‘stand-around woman’ with badges of authority walked around not really knowing what they were doing but very willing to exert their authority. We eventually boarded the plane, which is probably one of the most chaotic boardings I’ve ever seen with people randomly swapping seats to the point that Sylvia said “some people should just not be allowed to fly”.

Landing in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan we had a pleasant surprise. As we descended the stairs to the tarmac a man was waiting with our names on a sign and whisked us away to a VIP lounge where we were processed through immigration, our bags collected, and then we were transferred to our hotel.


Monday 21 October 2019: Sylvia

There is something different about this city and I cannot figure it out. Even at 1am in the morning when we were driving to the hotel from the airport there was a lot of traffic on the road and people out on the streets. Bishkek has a population of about 1.2 million, a significant chunk of the country’s 6 million inhabitants. It does not seem small in size and with the traffic it can take quite a long time to get anywhere but it seems remarkably busy. Apparently you can see the mountains from the city on a good day but today they were shrouded in cloud.

We headed out with Alberic, our guide at about 10:30. Kyrgyzstan, much more than the other countries we have visited this trip, seems to embrace its Soviet roots and has maintained many old Soviet era buildings, and even a statue of Lenin. Apparently under Tsarist Russia many Kyrgyz were killed and so they have more respect for the Soviets, who gave them more freedom. It is also apparent that Kyrgyzstan is less wealthy than many of its neighbours, not having the oil or gas reserves that the other countries enjoy. Apparently unemployment runs between 30 and 40% with many Kyrgyz heading to Russia to find work.

Our first stop was at a recently completed mosque, built by the Turkish government and currently the largest mosque in Central Asia, until the one currently being built in Tajikistan is completed anyway.

Next stop was Victory Square, commemorating the victory in WWII. Approximately 130,000 Kyrgyz lost their lives during the war, a significant impact in a country with less than 3 million at the time, but only a small portion of the 28 million USSR citizens killed.


We also stopped at a circus building, another vestige of the Soviet era, still operating shows during the weekends.

Heading towards the centre of the city we wandered past, and sometimes into, numerous Soviet era buildings including the Museum of Modern Art, the Opera House, the library and many others. There is also a large open park area, showcasing the autumn colours in its tree-lined pathways. This particular park is full of large sculptures






We headed past the parliament building and the Lenin statue to the main square, with its mandatory large flagpole and guards standing sentry. It is refreshing here that there seems to be much more freedom. Alberic is decidedly more forthcoming about the country and government than our previous guides and there doesn’t seem to be any issue with us taking photos of anything. This country is on to its fourth president since independence. There was an uprising in 2010 and about 100 people were killed. Since then the country has mandated a single term presidency only of six years to ensure democratic freedoms. This has been memorialised in a striking monument.






We then headed about 40km out of town to the Ala Atcha National Park. We had planned to have a picnic lunch and go for a walk in the park but as we arrived it started snowing quite heavily. Roger, as usual, was well-dressed for the weather. Luckily the local hotel allowed us to eat our picnic lunch, which had been prepared by Alberic’s wife, in their dining room and we were able to enjoy watching the snow settle outside while we ate. A few quick photos outside and we headed back down the hill.


Alberic had arranged a small local folk band to play for us – one of the members is apparently a very famous singer. They were incredibly skilful, playing a number of traditional instruments and we were mesmerised for the 20 minutes or so they performed. One piece that they played with small metal things they put in their mouths was particularly impressive.



Bishkek is a bit of a mix – we see many more people in European dress than in Dushanbe but fewer than in Almaty. I was particularly taken with the Kyrgyz style hats, which represent the mountains that cover 94% of this country and seem quite striking. Several of the older men wear them all the time here but they are worn by all the men for special occasions.


Tuesday 22 October 2019: Roger

Alberic picked us up at 9:30 and we headed off to have a look at the Philarmonic House, outside of which there was a statue of Manas, a hero of Kyrgyzstan, slaying a dragon. Because we were early it was closed so we could not go inside. Across the road was a University with a lot of Indian and Pakistani students. There were also a lot of other Soviet era buildings in the area.

Next stop was the Osh Bazaar. This is a kind of indoor-outdoor market. Although you wander into these places thinking ‘just another market’ they are all a little bit different with their own subtleties. We stopped in a little shop, stocked totally with locally made goods and purchased some small gifts to fit in our carry-on luggage, the first bit of shopping we’ve done since leaving Singapore nearly four weeks ago. Alberic led us through a maze of indoor and outdoor passageways till we ended up in the bulk food area. It always intrigues me in these places the amount of stock they carry – surely some of it must go off. Alberic explained that when people here have a wedding they invite 500 plus people so buy heaps of dried fruit and nuts. But I am sure there are enough sunflower seeds in this particular market to feed many, many weddings of 500 people. We wandered through some other parts with meat and bread and brooms on trolleys, finding all the people very friendly.

The next stop was the Museum of Modern Art. This Soviet style building, with its parquet floors, turned out to be even larger than it looked. We wandered from hall to hall looking at a large variety of paintings, all of which seemed to be dull in colours. There were also many sculptures of different types placed throughout the galleries. One painting that stood out was of a shepherd, his dog and a flock of sheep. Peeping out from under the lapel of his coat was a medal. Apparently during the Soviet era people used to get medals for doing their job well, be they farmer, cook or carpenter. Back in those days everybody effectively worked for the government and they were all provided an apartment. When independence came and the first civil war was over people got to keep their houses.

All of a sudden our holiday was over and we were heading along the wide highway to the airport for our flight to Istanbul and then on to Singapore.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Almaty, Kazakhstan – October 2019

Tuesday 15 October 2019: Sylvia

We had a very leisurely start this morning. There is not that much to see in Tashkent after the wonders of the older cities we have been to in recent days but it has provided a good opportunity to rest before we head off to Kazakhstan and beyond. Our first stop was a monument to the 1986 earthquake that ravaged the city. Although only 5.1 on the Richter scale it demolished 80% of the buildings, killing somewhere between 15 and 200 people and leaving some 300,000 homeless. There was a concerted effort from the USSR to rebuild and this is commemorated in the memorial.

Next we headed to Khast Imam Square and the Kazmati Imam complex. This area, set inside lovely gardens features a mosque, Madrassah and Islamic Institute but is most famous for the small museum featuring one of the world’s oldest copies of the Koran. Most of the buildings here are all relatively new and, whilst impressive with their turquoise domes, they do not hold the charm of some of the older buildings we saw in Bukhara and Samarkand. Roger even managed to take a sneaky peak of the Koran, despite the watchful guards.

We next headed to the Chorsu Bazaar, where we spent a considerable amount to time wandering and observing the clamour of daily life, the huge, domes meat market was particularly impressive with stall after stall of sheep, beef and goats meat in various cuts and forms. We were also taken with the large hall containing stand after stand of small wrapped chocolates and large unwrapped cookies, piled high.



We took the metro back towards the hotel. Like the underground in Moscow this was created during the Soviet era and each station is decorated with different mosaics, marble etc. After a relaxing lunch we wandered through the Amir Timur memorial gardens, passing another statue and several impressive buildings as we made our way back to the hotel.

A massage and a few drinks in the lovely hotel bar rounded out a fairly gentle day.


Wednesday 16 October 2019: Roger

After a good breakfast at the Hyatt Regency we took a stroll down some nearby streets. This city is big on ostentatious buildings, wide streets, lots of parks and has some pretty amazing water features. Great attention is paid to keeping the grounds free of rubbish and leaves. At one point all the local clean up workers were gathered with their trucks while the women swept the streets with their handmade brooms. Some of you may have noticed the trees in a lot of pictures that we’ve put on this blog are painted white up to about a metre high. In the past when I’ve seen this I always thought it was to make them look good but in fact it is line painted on to stop the pests climbing up and damaging the trees.

Ar noon we were picked up and transferred to the airport for our flight to Almaty. Astana airlines had the best and most simplified safety video I have seen on any airline for many years. Airborne we headed north and were soon over the Tian Shan mountains, which seemed to go on forever. We then headed east continuing along the mountain ranges over Kyrgyzstan, and then crossing the border into Kazakhstan and descending, through the smog into Almaty, beneath the snow capped mountains, which around here rise to about 5,000m.

The immigration process into Kazakhstan was easy and the border guards were very friendly. We were met by our guide, Zhadra, and our driver, Ernest, and driven through the town to the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Along the way we received a briefing from Zhadra on the area, which was also invaded by the Mongolians, who were thrown out by the Russians who have been in this part of the world since the mid 17th century. With a population of about 18 million, Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world by area. Almaty has a population of about 1 million, who still burn coal on their fires for heating creating a constant smog here. They also boast a 10,000 sqm ice skating rink. Based on our drive through the town presents as a reasonably affluent city.


Thursday 17 October 2019: Sylvia

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with an outstanding view of the mountains and the city from the 30th floor restaurant of the Ritz Carlton where we are staying. The service here is incredible, all the staff have good English and are chatty and obliging.

At 10:30 we headed off to our first stop, the cable car at Koktobe Hill. We wanted to beat the smog and from the top we enjoyed more wonderful views to the mountains and over the city, even while we could see the smog starting to roll in.  At the top of the cable car is an odd collection of monuments, side-show stalls, some animals, a few restaurants and plenty of viewing platforms. It felt a bit like the sort of place that might have been popular back in the 70’s.





Our next stop was Panfilov Park, names after one of the generals in the army during WWII. This large, beautiful park houses monuments to WWII and the Afghanistan war as well as a beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox Church, the Ascension Cathedral, originally built in 1906 and recently restored. Like many of the other cities we have visited on this trip Almaty lies in an active seismic zone and has suffered a number of major earthquakes. After a large earthquake in 1887 destroyed most of the city Zinkof, a Russian architect, determined that wooden buildings were safest and set about designing and building many, including the Ascension Cathedral, that still exist today. He was proven right when another large (9+ on the Richter scale) earthquake hit in 1911 and none of the buildings were damaged.



Being autumn here in Almaty the colours are incredible and we enjoyed strolling through the park and admiring the vegetation. We came across a gentleman playing the accordion. After responding to his question “where are you from” he proceeded to play Pokarekareana for us.


Next we headed to the local market to again watch the daily goings on. This was similar to what we had seen in Chorsu  Bazaar in Tashkent although smaller and less chaotic. There are apparently 130 different ethnicities in Kazakhstan so quite a melting pot in terms of different people.


We enjoyed a traditional Kazakh lunch, much more flavourful than the Uzbek food we have been eating, at Natan restaurant, with its vibrant interior decorations.

Then we headed out of the city and up into the mountains, passing numerous resorts and hotels along the way. Not only has Almaty been impacted in the past by earthquakes but also by mudslides flowing down from the mountains. Now there are large dams and walls along some of the rivers to stop this occurring again. We headed to Big Almaty Lake, which, at up to 40m deep, is one of the main water reservoirs for the city. A series of pipes manage water flow back to the city, some also powering turbines to generate electricity.

The lake itself is stunning, a deep milky blue colour and nestled into the mountains making for some picturesque photographs. There were several others around, all looking for the ideal instagram shot, striking multiple poses and taking shot after shot. We found it all quite amusing and very different to our ‘one shot and move on’ approach.

We headed back down the mountain, stopping near the base to attend a very entertaining raptor show. Pedro, our articulate and amusing host kept up a steady patter as he demonstrated a number of different raptors, from a tiny owl through to the majestic Golden Eagle that, once trained,  is capable of hunting a wolf. He had several of the birds fly low right over our heads. It was a highly enjoyable forty minutes.

Zhadra had mentioned during the day that Kazakh wines are much better than Uzbek so we decided to try some out and headed to Arba Winery for a tasting. Four whites and four reds each, all passable and some extremely drinkable. My preference was a very nice Gewurtztraminer, while Roger’s favourite was a Pinot Sape, which is a blend of Pinot Noir and Saporavi grapes.  It was a fun way to finish the day.


Friday 18 October 2019: Roger

Assel, the maître-d at the hotel restaurant, greeted us with a smile and a welcome as we arrived early for breakfast – early being 0800. Downstairs, or should I say 30 floors below by lift, Zhadra and Ernest were ready and waiting. We headed off through the thick traffic. All the cars on the road are modern and in good nick; this place looks like it is thriving. According to the net it is the 70th richest country in the world. We stopped at a set of lights and a quite well dressed woman was walking down between the cars, hand out as if asking for money, I asked Zhardra if there was a shortage of work here, “There is plenty of work just some gypsy types don’t want to work and beg for money”. Just like NZ i thought but we don’t have any gypsies.

We stopped at the local supermarket to get some snacks for lunch – a really well presented and stocked place it was too.

We headed north past the edge of town then turned east on AH5, a 2 lane each way, very smooth concrete highway, Ernest pushed the banana Merc along at a comfortable 150kph – the road was pretty quiet. We passed a large plant with a huge plume of steam heading into the sky. I asked Zhadra if it was a gas power plant and was informed it was to heat Almaty, 50kms away. I doubted the answer and Wikipedia  informed us that in fact it was a gas power station.

Second language guides are not always good with questions off topic. We cruised east on the AH5 for about a 100k. The land is flat and all farmed, crops, sheep, cattle and an unusual number of horses, many of pony size, I presume for the horse meat market.

Interestingly mobs of cattle grazing in large paddocks were normally accompanied by a mounted horseman, often with a dog, who just seemed to sit and watch them graze. Just after a large abandoned flour mill from the Soviet days we turned right and headed southeast on a two lane road, which in places was a bit rough. A couple more turns and 3-hours into the journey we reached the Castle Valley Road, having climbed to 1300 meters over what seemed like flat land through this extensive valley.

At the end of the road a gate barred our way. Zhadra went over to a building and a bloke in military uniform drew the gate aside and we drove the few hundred meters to the car park. Some steps took us down into the Charon Canyon, or as Zhadra had described it, miniature Grand Canyon. I don’t think she really realises just how big the Grand Canyon is. Now, for the first time since we entered Central Asia some 14 days ago, it had rained last night and the skies were overcast and not the bright blue we had become accustomed to. We wandered down past these small but unique cliffs as Zhandra pointed out how with a bit of imagination, or in my case a huge amount, the various shapes of the rocks balanced on rocks were everything from a dinosaur to a Russian Lada car. We strolled the 3km to the rather picturesque Charon River where there is a little camp set up. We relaxed enjoying the scenery and some snacks.

Sylvia had spotted some people walking up around one of the large rock features and suggested we night go back that way. Zhadra was quick to point out it was way too dangerous, we would have to go the way we came. The camp was at about 900 meters so it was a gentle climb back to the car park at 1300m. Not far up the track one of the local taxi vehicles came past and Zhadra jumped aboard leaving us to enjoy the stroll. By now the sky had cleared showing up the colours in the rocks much better.

Along the way there were a couple standing atop a cliff in formal wear with a drone circling around above them. Was this a proposal or was it the end and he was about to toss her from the cliff?

With winter approaching we spotted lots of small rodents, often carrying large pieces of vegetation back to their burrows in preparation.

We drove down to the observation point from where we looked north to the mountains of the Chinese border and then it was time to journey back to the city. As we headed west to our south there were two rows of high voltage pylons. I wondered if they were exoprting power to China. I asked the question but was told they were for the small villages up north, which didn’t make sense. A check on the net and Kazakhstan exports not only power but also gas and minerals to China. It had been great to have a day out and look at a little bit of this vast country.

 

Silk Road: Samarkand, Uzbekistan – October 2019

We would like to dedicate this section of the blog to those that live and have lived by the Ode below. thank you for your service to our country.
The Golden Road to Samarkand [1913])
“The Master of the Caravan said:
But who are ye in rags and rotten shoes,
You – dirty bearded, blocking the way?
The Pilgrim answered:
We are the Pilgrims, Master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand”

Saturday 12 October 2019: Roger

We departed Bukhara at around nine. Heading east the city went on for a long time. We crossed a large rail freight area and went through industrial areas. There is construction of new buildings going on everywhere.

In about 40 minutes we hit the desert – a little different that the last one as there was more growth and it only went on for 50 or so kilometres. Then we would hit an oasis type area where water was present with fields full of cotton, corn and other crops, then back to desert again for a short time etc.  We stopped for a brew at one point not too far into the journey and across the road was a massive oil refinery.

Continuing on we passed through several large towns including Koson Qarshi. Interestingly, since the formation of Uzbekistan, the country has developed its own cotton mills producing fabric. Prior to that only the raw cotton was exported. We passed flour mills and lots of other industry as the population concentration became denser as we went further east. Kids headed home from Saturday morning schooling in their nice uniforms. As we had seen often before there were towns with rows of houses all the same.

There are lots of police check points along the way but as yet we have not been stopped. Produce stalls on the roadsides are common and there are large hot houses and covered horticultural areas, many recently or still under construction.

During the Soviet rule there was no vehicle production in Uzbekistan, now over 200,000 vehicles are produced a year with a large GM plant and some others employing over 7000 people. Exports go to Russia and other CIS (Commonwealth Independent States) countries. Cars here are expensive with the average Chev SUV costing around $30,000 USD while the average income Is only about 7500 USD. Cars are mainly white because of the dust. You can however still buy a trusty Lada from around 10k.

We arrived at Shahrisabz just after noon, stopping for lunch at a local restaurant, after which we headed to the Ak-Saray Palace (White Palace), originally constructed by Tamerlane or Timur in 1380. Timur was once the most powerful man in Islam, driving the Mongolians out of the area. He lead military campaigns across western, southern and central Asia, the Caucasus and southern Russia, and was said to have been responsible for the deaths of around 17 Million people, roughly 5% of the worlds population at the time. He referred to himself as the ‘Sword of Islam’. Today he is recognised here as a hero. His palace and the large grounds and mosques are in the process of being restored.

We walked the two plus kms to the end of the grounds and back, checking out the mostly rebuilt rather than restored buildings. Some have had wallpaper made to replicate what would have been interior tiled walls and domes.  Along the side of the grounds are apartments, shops and restaurants. I stopped to photograph a wedding party taking place and a bunch of young men raced out asking me to join in. I politely declined knowing that my dance moves were never going to be as slick as theirs.

That over we headed north into the foothills of the Pamir mountain range. Climbing from 600m to the top of the pass at 1400m. We stopped at a lookout to enjoy the view back down the valley. Even in the hills there are blocks of state type houses.

Arriving at the top of the pass we were greeted by a massive outdoor produce market selling an amazing selection of herbs, seeds, nuts and cheeses. I did try a ball of goat cheese which tasted more like acid than cheese. We had arrived in the Samarkand Province.

Heading down into the valley there was a prominence of purple-roofed, new buildings, which continued into the city, either a passion or there is a real good deal around here on purple paint. The other fun thing here is to see how people get the best out of their vehicles, loading them up to the max. You will note on the truck under the deck are a number of red gas bottles. Many of the diesel trucks run on both diesel and compressed natural gas.

 


Sunday October 13, 2019: Sylvia

We headed off at about 10 this morning to explore Samarkand. Our first stop, after driving past another huge statue of Tamerlane, was the Gur Emir Mausoleum, his tomb. He was supposed to have been buried in Shakrisabz, where we visited yesterday, but winter storms when he died prevented him being taken there so he was buried here, in the city he made his capital. The tomb he had initially prepared for his favourite grandson, Jahan Gir, who died during battle and is also buried here, as is another of his grandsons, Ulugh Beg.

We next headed to the magnificent Registan, or main square. This was once the centre of the trade world and is bordered on three sides by huge Madrassahs. It is awe inspiring to look at and I wanted to sit and drink it all in as photos cannot do it justice.

The Ulugh Beg Madrassah is on the left and was the first we explored. Today it is full of little shops with the keepers plying their wares and trying to drape me in scarves as I walked past. In truth the people here are very gentle and nowhere near as pushy as I have experienced in other parts of the world. We were able to go inside and see the little rooms where 3-4 students would live and study (upstairs for living and downstairs for studying). Madrassahs are not like universities today – there were no lectures or group teaching but students were expected to do their studying and contemplation on their own. On the second storey more little rooms and more little stalls offered great views over the ornately decorated courtyard interior.

The second Madrassah we entered (at the rear when entering the square) is the Tilla Kari Mardassah, this one only single-storeyed  but still beautifully decorated. It has a beautiful turquoise dome, which is decorated with gold and cobalt on the interior. There were a number of old black and white photographs inside showing the state of the ruins over the years before they were restored to their current state.

The third and final Madrassah is the Tilla Kari Madrassah, which has mosaics of tigers on its facade, unique in the Muslim world as generally it is forbidden to have pictures of living beings displayed. This is the only Madrassah we have been in that does not have trees in the inner courtyard so it was easier to get some photos of the interior.

I left the Registan reluctantly and we wandered down towards the Bibi Khanym mosque, which was built in the early 1400’s for Tamerlane’s favourite wife. Along the way we passed a statue of the first President of Uzbekistan and numerous wedding parties. Apparently Bibi Khanym was a great diplomat and would often stand in for Tamerlane while he as off conquering the world. Although the exterior of her mosque has been renovated like all the other buildings we have visited, it was refreshing to visit inside and find it still in semi-ruined state. We also visited the surprisingly simple tomb of Bibi Kahnym just across the street from her Mosque.

 

At this point we decided to give Nazira the rest of the day off, and after stopping for lunch we headed off to explore the Siyob bazaar, which has been operating for some 600 years. It is a bustling place full of people selling a wide array of dried fruits, nuts, spices, cheeses etc. It was fun to watch the locals haggling while being encouraged to try all the different things on offer.

We then wandered past the impressive tomb of the first president of Uzbekistan to the fascinating and slightly macabre Shahr-i-Zindar monuments, rows of incredibly decorated tombs build in the 15th century.

We headed through the remarkable clean back streets of the old town to the Hammam. Roger was keen to repeat his experience from Bukhara. Unfortunately it was closed so we were out of luck. We opted to walk back to the hotel getting a better sense of this city and it’s eclectic architecture on foot.


Monday 14 October 2019: Roger

After a cold shower and a typical breakfast we departed the Dilimar “Premium Luxury” Hotel – quite new with its composite look-alike marble and lots of bling they just haven’t got it quite right.

Our first stop was the Samarkand Paper Factory on the banks of the Siab river. This place with its teapot waterwheels was very nice. First they took us through the very old way of making paper. This art was copied from China around the 8th century. Small branches are cut and stored for several months then soaked in water for a few days. The soft inner later of the wood is then stripped from the bark by a lady with a sharp knife. This is then boiled for several hours before being pulverised in a vessel by a large water driven piston. The mashed pulp is then mixed with water and scooped up with a kind of flat sieve. From there it was stacked in layers separated by cotton sheets. Weighted with a large rock the stack of sheets are then separated and laid on a board to dry. A final polish with a smooth rock and one was ready to write home. Many products such as dolls, masks and clothing are also made from this paper and sold to tourists.

Through the garden a bit we found another waterwheel, this one driving a mill, which was being used to extract oil from grains.

Next stop was the observatory museum dedicated to Ulugh Beg. This guy built a kind of sextant in a large building in the late 1300’s. With a hole in one place he could mark where the light from the sun, moon and some stars struck the rail-like device inside. From this one of the things he worked out was the length of the year, accurate to within 25 seconds of what we know today. Only forty years after building the observatory he upset some of the religious zealots and lost his head. His device was rediscovered in the 60s and partially restored and a museum has now been built in his honour.

Not far down the road is where The prophet Daniel is laid to rest in a tomb 16-meters long. There is a bit of a story behind this bloke. Apparently when Timur was expanding his empire he came across a city called Sousa, in Iran, which in spit of being seiged for several months with water and food supplies cut off refused to capitulate. Timur was informed that it was because Daniel was buried there that the city would never run out of food or water. He then cut a deal with Sousa, they gave him the hand of Daniel and he left them alone. The hand was brought back to Samarkand and entombed on this spot in such a large tomb as apparently it grows a little every year. Holy water now still flows from a spring at the bottom of the hill.

We headed to a restaurant for a long relaxed lunch after which Sylvia headed back to the Registan while I sampled a nice drop Of local beer at a bar across the road.

Last stop for the day was the House museum of D. L. Filatov, a large winery. Founded by Filatov, a smooth looking Russian, in the 1880’s it still survives today. I was somewhat sceptical as having sampled some of the local wine over the last few days has been a less that pleasant experience.

After a tour of a display room showing the history and the many medals won in the region, we were lead into the large tasting room with its grand table. Ten glasses were lined up on a nice wooden tray, each with a small quantity of mainly wine except the last 3 being cognacs.

Probably the best was to describe this experience is that I didn’t consume one full sample of any on offer. The cognac was like nothing have ever tasted. Maybe we just have different ways of appreciating taste but I would not recommend coming to this part of the world on a wine tour. The polite young Japanese man and his girlfriend across the table did consume the lot and he took notes.

Tasting over Sylvia and I were lead down the garden path to the cellar. This part was impressive with several rows of 6000 litre barrels, which originally came from Russia in the 1920s.Down the back of the cellar room we came to a small door that lead to a dirty tasting room. The story goes that when Filatov fled to Europe in 1918, when the Russians occupied the area, he bricked up his cellar and tasting room with the intention of coming back one day. He never returned. In the 60’s a guy turned up at the vineyard and told the staff of the, by then Russian administered, winery that his father had told him how he had built a cellar in the back of the winery. The bricks were removed, and in the cellar on the table was a book detailing every one of the 3600-plus bottles of wine stored there. We sat in the dingy space surrounded by mould clad wine bottles and sampled some more wine, this time the first, a 1997 Torquay, was drinkable. The 91 and 68 not so good. In spite of that it was an interesting and enjoyable experience with our friendly host keen to impart through Nazira as much information as we wanted. Interestingly during Gorbachev’s reign as Russian leader in the late 80s he banned all the production of wine, vodka and other spirit+based drinks, hence all the grapes were pulled out. It is since independence that the industry has started again.

It was then time to head to the station and catch the fast train for the approximately  300km, 2-hour journey to Tashkent, a surprisingly smooth and comfortable trip.

 

 

 

 

Silk Road: Bukhara, Uzbekistan – October 2019

Wednesday 9 October 2019: Sylvia

We left Khiva at 9am this morning to drive the ~480kms to Bukhara. The first part of the trip was quite interesting, driving through the city of Urgench and passing areas of intensive agriculture with rice paddies and fields of corn, carrots and cotton. There is an incredible irrigation system with water from the Amu Darya river being fed via large and then small canals into the fields. Most of these canals were developed during the Soviet era when the focus was on maximising agricultural output but the earliest canals were developed in this area over 2,000 years ago. We crossed over the largest canal at one point but were not allowed to take photos. We did get a reasonable photo of the river though.

At one point we stopped to take photos of some people picking cotton. Three men, the bosses, wandered over to chat to us. Apparently the harvest has gone well and they have already exceeded their target. They are having a big party at midday to celebrate and invited us to join – but unfortunately we had a long way to go and couldn’t join in.

After about 90 minutes we hit the Kyzylkum desert. Like the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan it stretches on for miles – two thirds of Uzbekistan is desert. There is a fairly new, good quality road for most of the way and we trundled along quite comfortably at about 120kmph. At one point we came across a big area of pipeworks. Apparently this is part of the pipeline the Chinese are building to get the gas from Turkmenistan to China.

A little further on we stopped at a large lake that forms part of the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. According to Nazira we were lucky today as the soldier on duty let us take photographs. I must admit I wonder sometimes about the things we are not allowed to photograph! The lake is formed by one of the seventeen dams on the Amu Darya river that provide 21% of the electricity in Uzbekistan. The rest is provided by gas.

We passed a convoy of five trucks carrying massive cylindrical vessels, nearly blocking both lanes of the road. We were told they were reactors but were not convinced.

We also drove through the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. Apparently this region has its own government and president but open borders with Uzbekistan. It doesn’t show up in our world map as a separate state so must not be officially recognised outside of Uzbekistan.

About halfway into the trip we stopped for shashlik along with many other tourists at a roadside restaurant. I was again reminded never to book a bus tour as hordes of European tourists took a table at the back of the garden and unpacked their sandwiches while we feasted on fresh salads, freshly baked bread and cooked skewers of lamb.

One hundred or so kilometres out of Bukhara the good road ran out and we were back onto a narrow, bumpy, potholed road at a much slower speed. The scenery though stayed the same – scrubby desert on both sides of the road as far as we could see. At least we were in a comfortable air-conditioned car. Back in the day they did this trip on the back of a camel!

As we got closer to Bukhara the irrigation and agriculture started again with small towns dotted around. Groves of apricot and pomegranate trees broke up the cotton plantations.

On arrival in Bukhara we checked into Hotel Volida and set out to stretch our legs and explore a bit of the city. Not far from our hotel we came across Lyabi Hauz, a charming area built around a reservoir and surrounded by old mulberry trees. It is full of character and both locals and tourists frequent the bars and restaurants flanking the reservoir.

Nearby there are enticing bazaars, madrassas, and loads of old domed, brick buildings. We enjoyed wandering around and getting a general sense of the area.

Eventually we headed back to Lyabi Hauz for drinks and dinner, while being entertained by the many cats scavenging around the tables.


Thursday 10 October 2019: Roger

After an as expected not too flash but better than yesterday’s breakfast, Nazira picked us up at 0900 and we drove to the start point of our tour for today,  a few kms from our hotel, the plan being to walk back and look at the many many buildings of interest. Arriving at the start point, the Ismail Samoniy Mausoleum, we discovered that we were not the only people with this plan. Originally built in the 9th to 10th century the mausoleum has survived well as by the time Genghis Khan rocked up in the 12th century it had been buried, either deliberately or by the elements. It survived his rampage through the area relatively unscathed and, when uncovered in 1934, it was restored with a new dome.

Most of the buildings in this city are restored to some extent or another. Many are, I think, completely rebuilt, not surprisingly as over the last 50 years they have had 3 earthquakes of over 7 magnitude and numerous ones of 4+. I did notice on our drive that new buildings being built, of which there are many, have concrete columns and beams, the voids filled with brick.

 

Picking up the pace we headed off through the park to get a bit ahead of the crowd. We stopped to have a look at some coppersmiths making rather picturesque and well-crafted trays and bowls, a craft the area is apparently famous for.

In a kind of cot or bassinet on display was a doll with an ingenious wooden device designed to fit on the baby boy’s penis and another device for the baby girls that had a tube attached to drain the urine into a vessel under the mattress.

Then we came to the Chashma Ayub Mausoleum, built in the 12th century and added to in the 16th century. It now houses a museum telling the story of water in the district. Interestingly for centuries there were 114 water points or small basins around the city for people to collect water from, fed by the many canals. In the 1920’s under Soviet rule people started contracting bilharzia (a long worm that eventually pops out through the shin and has to be sort of wound out of the body leaving an infected wound), hence the Soviets had all the basins filled in. In the late 20’s piped water was put into the city, fed by a large tank on a tower.

The other interesting piece of info here was about the Aral Sea. In 1960 water in the sea covered 68,900 km2, by 2017 it had dropped to 8,600 km2. During the Soviet era in the 60’s and 70‘s thousands more kilometres of canals were put in. Unfortunately these are soft-sided canals so large amounts of water seeped into the ground before even making it to irrigating the fields.

Next was the Boloi Hovus Mosque, built in the  19th century and dedicated to the last Emir (leader of the region) mostly restored with its miniature minaret.

Next was the observation tower, which once held the water tank I spoke of earlier until it was destroyed by fire in 1975. Once again, like most old cities, the old part is quite small so as one looks from the tower the real city extends as far as one can see. There are great views of the new and the old from here.

Across the road is the Ark  Citadel, the last photo above. I don’t really think anyone has a real idea of the history of this place but as best as we can establish it has been around in many forms for some 1500 years, built and razed numerous times. Some say the mound it sits on has been created from the remnants of what has been destroyed in the past. Prior to the Russians bombing it in the 3-day war of September 1920 the whole 3.9 hectares had buildings on it. Most were destroyed and, since the forming of Uzbekistan in 1991, part has been restored or rebuilt. The brick outer walls are a new feature, only being added in the past few years. Prior to that it was just dirt with a wall around the top and entrance gates. Back in the day it contained dungeons, stables, a mosque, reception rooms and all the other things that went with a king type leader. Now different parts are different little museums with some artefacts going back to 5000 BC dug up in the area.

One can see by the locks on this door that the practice of cutting off hands for theft has now been banned.

The Kalon Mosque built in 1514 was next. This huge indoor – outdoor building is quite impressive with hundreds of columns with small domes on top.  It is built around a courtyard with an area at one end where the imam would say his bit from. Nazira told us that the acoustics were so good that even the person in the far corner could hear the words. “Not quite sure I believe that one!” The well in the small building in the second photo is where Genghis used to throw the bodies of the people that he didn’t like and the mosque was built around it as a mark of respect to those that died during his rule, apparently many thousand. As far as we could establish when Genghis arrived he destroyed everything in the area but for some reason the minaret, also in the second photo, survived. This was one of the few buildings we went into that was not full of stalls.

Across the courtyard is the Mir Arab Madrassa (university) built in the 14th century and still operational so we were only allowed a look in the entrance.

Just down the road we were lead into a carpet or rug shop. Sabine, with her perfect English and great knowledge of rug making, gave us a run down on the process with a helper holding up different rugs as she explained the quality, material and how long it took to make. The cheapest wool rug started at about 300 USD and they went up from there. A double knotted silk magic carpet with a different pattern each side was around 12k and took over a year for two people to make. The big 4x5m ones on the wall ran to 78k. The really interesting bit was when she took us out the back where a number of women sat making rugs, some on the floor, some on chairs, some even with head phones on and music videos playing on their phone as they worked. She showed us the difference between a double and a single knotted rug and how the maker picks up the back and front thread with a fine tool then knots the fine silk she has in her hand around it. We really got to appreciate the time and effort that goes into one small rug, which one girl may work on for over a year. In Uzbekistan nowadays everyone must attend school from 8 to 18 years and in the rug business people usually stop working when they reach 40 as their eyes fail and the flexibility goes from their fingers. There is no child labour used here as in Afghanistan and some other places.

After a nice lunch at one of the many local restaurants, where a guy strummed or picked away on a rubob, we headed off to look at Abdulazizkhan Madrassa, built in the 15th century. This one was very interesting as it is only partially restored and a look around the side gave me a good appreciation of how these were built. Nazria insisted that all the buildings were built of mud bricks made with mud and straw. I wasn’t convinced. With the unrestored part of the building revealed it seems that they were very similar in style to Rome, where concrete is laid with stone and other rubble. This appeared to be the same although I am not sure if it was concrete but it looked similar. Basically a pile of stones finished with a veneer of brick stone, or in some cases a plaster made from mud and straw. A stroll down a back street the previous evening had also revealed that some local houses are built in a similar way.

One last Madrassa, where a very serious couple in wedding garb were strutting around, as just now it’s wedding season for the locals, then we left our guide and headed to the  Chashmai Mirob Bar overlooking the Kalon minaret and mosque, where we enjoyed a drink as the sun went down.

Warning: Do not trust the compass in your iPhone. As we were sitting chatting I decided to check the compass in my phone as I had been a bit suspicious a couple of days ago that it wasn’t correct, As the sun was setting we knew where west was and the phone was 180 degrees out. Despite waving it around a bit nothing changed. Checking Sylvia’s phone, hers was right.


Friday 11 October 2019: Sylvia

We met Nazira at about 10am and headed about 15km outside the city to the huge complex of Bahauddin Nakshbandi, a great Sufi saint. This vast area contains several mosques, a Madrassah, a higher education centre and the mausoleum of the man himself, as well as those of many other prominent religious leaders. A separate area has his mother’s tomb and those of other family members. He founded the Naqshbandi Brotherhood, a religious order that encourages followers to become diligent farmers, artisans, traders and politicians. This area attracts huge numbers of pilgrims every year and despite encountering many while we were here it still seems a fairly peaceful place. Many people come to pray and pay their respects.

During our visit I reflected that it was probably good today was my day to write and not Roger’s although he did manage to maintain a fairly neutral expression throughout. I imagined he was wondering how he could attract so many visitors to see him once he has been buried in his stainless steel coffin.

Our next stop was the Sitorai Mohi-Khiva, the Palace of the Moon and Stars, which was the Summer Palace of the last emir of this area. He lived the rest of the year in the Ark Citadel that we visited yesterday. The place is immense and ornately decorated. It was built in the late 19th century by teams of architects from Russia and Europe as well as locals. The emir, Abdulahad Khan, really wanted to ensure his great wealth would be on display and no expense was spared. During Soviet times much of the palace was used as a sanitarium, but the main area was kept as a museum so is still in it’s natural state and has not been restored. Many of the valuables were taken to Russia and are apparently now in the Hermitage museum but there are still many large Japanese and Chinese vases on display.

What was the guest house now holds a small museum dedicated to clothing and shoes for the everyday locals and for the emir himself. The robes of the latter are all embroidered with real gold and weighed up to 10kg.

The old harem is now a museum showcasing the traditional suzani, or embroidery, which is one of the items most commonly for sale in all the small stalls around the tourist areas. There were many such stalls in the grounds of the palace and one group of tourists was making several purchases as we passed through.

Just after midday we stopped at Chor Bakr, a large mosque and necropolis dating back to the 16th century, where a number of religious leaders are buried. Today, being Friday, the mosque was in session. While Roger was allowed to roam freely, Nazira and I had to hold back. We decided not to wait for the preaching to finish to look inside. By now Roger is nearly as done with mosques as he was with Ethiopian churches last year.

Our last official stop for the day was Chor Minor, a charming Madrassah built in 1806. Most of the small chambers have since been destroyed and all that remains is the small central building with its four turquoise domed mini minarets. We were able to climb up on to the roof for a look around the surrounding area.

After dropping our things back in the hotel we headed out again through the bazaars to get some lunch and then wandered through some of the back streets of this incredible city finding more old Madrassahs and mosques in various stages of renovation.

Later in the afternoon Roger visited the local Bozori Kord Hammam, dating from the 15th century, for a massage. He wrapped himself in a cloth, headed into a tunnel and was directed into a steam dome with granite slabs to sit on in the alcoves. He sat for about 10 minutes, then stood for about 10 minutes to work up a good sweat. Then he went into the main room and sat on a slab while a guy threw water on him, washed his hair and and then gave him a massage. Then a combination of honey and ginger was rubbed into his body. He went to another dome and lay on a marble slab, wondering why he was getting so warm and then realised it was the ginger seeping into his body and working its magic. Then the guy came back and threw more water over him, after which he headed to another dome to dry off, get dressed and enjoy some tea. Apparently it was a great experience.

 

Silk Road: Khiva, Uzbekistan – October 2019

Monday 7 October 2019: Sylvia

Slavl picked us up from the hotel about 8am this morning for the short drive to the airport. I had hoped to get a glimpse of rush hour in this near-deserted town but it was a holiday so potentially even less traffic around than we had seen during the weekend. Women swept the road with twig brooms and polished the railings that run alongside. A young man was busy polishing one of the statues. I have never seen such a clean place.

Arriving at the airport we went through the usual security rigmarole three separate times but although the people seemed to have no concept of queuing politely, and were in fact quite pushy, the process was pretty smooth and it seemed no time at all before we were landing in Dashoguz after a brief 40 minute flight. Unfortunately there are no direct flights from Turkmenistan so we had to fly to Dashoguz and cross into Uzbekistan by land.

It is desert all the way from Ashgabat until the last few kilometres around Dashoguz where there is irrigation and agriculture, particularly cotton. There is a significant canal infrastructure providing very effective irrigation but it has resulted in the Aral Sea nearly completely drying up. As we landed at the airport we saw rows of biplane last, apparently used as crop dusters for fertilisers and to spray the cotton plants to remove the foliage before harvest.

As in Ashgabat there are large marble buildings and monuments in Dashoguz but not to the same scale. There are also a lot more older Soviet era buildings and as we neared the Uzbekistan border more stand alone homes.

This more than made up for the simple immigration process on arrival. We passed through the Turkmenistan emigration process reasonably easily – luckily Slavl stayed with us as we had to complete forms with no English. We then walked about 50 metres and passed another checkpoint into the neutral zone. There it was chaos. We watched as a crowd of people tried to board a dilapidated bus to cross the kilometre or so to Uzbekistan with lots of yelling. Eventually that bus left and Slavl spoke to the guards. Apparently tourists around here get some sort of priority. After waiting in the scorching sun for about 25 minutes the old bus returned, disgorging its passengers making the trip to Turkmenistan. We were then ushered onto the bus and sat in the back seats with our bags on our knees while I reckon about 100+ more people climbed on (it was at most a 20 seat bus), pushing and shoving until every inch of space was taken. The driver yelled loudly and obviously quite aggravate fly to get people to stop climbing aboard and we headed off. On the Uzbekistan border side things were a little smoother. We were again ushered to the front of the queue and once our passports were stamped walked the rest of the way to be met by Nazira, who will be our guide for the 10 days we are here in Uzbekistan.

As much as I found Turkmenistan interesting it was also somewhat unsettling and in many ways I am happy to be somewhere different now.  Having said that, a significant degradation in the road conditions was apparent. We drove through some fairly ramshackle villages and past a lot of fields of cotton and rice, eventually arriving at Khiva, where our hotel is right in the heart of the old city.

It is immediately inspiring with towering mud brick walls, tall minarets and turquoise domes. After checking in to our hotel, Malika Khevat, we headed out to explore, stopping first for a bite of lunch at an outdoor restaurant. It is always unnerving when looking at a menu in local currency for the first time – we both ordered a beef kebab dish for 45,000. I was relieved to check the conversion and find that was less than US$5. And I found out later we had picked the most expensive place in town!

We wandered around and took loads of photos. Tomorrow we have a proper tour so I will leave it to Roger to explain the details. However I am completely charmed by this place. There is something almost magical about it and I feel like I have been transported back in time.


Tuesday 8 October 2019: Roger

Thank you to all of you who write comments on our blog they are very much appreciated.

After a lazy start and a breakfast that was to the standard we were expecting (a bit less than tasty) we were met by Nazira who was full of enthusiasm and eager to overload us with every bit of information she had ever absorbed. It only took Sylvia about three polite goes at getting her to tone it down a bit – we really didn’t need to know who drew every flower on every mosaic tile in the fort.

Like the rest of this region the area has been fought over, captured, conquered, traded and ruled by all the great ancient rulers and leaders. Alexander the Great, the Arabs, led by Outabyba Ibn Muslim, Genghis Khan, Amir Timur and many others including the Russians and finally the Soviets, until 1991 when the country of Uzbekistan was formed. To give you the full run down I would have to first go to university and learn it all by which time, as there is so much to learn, I would have expired.

But here are a couple of interesting bits we discovered: the first is in this area around 400BC the Khorezmian occupied the area for a couple of hundred years. They developed farming, handicrafts and trade as the economy grew. On the right bank of the Amu Darya river they constructed the Koi-Kirilgan and DJjanbaskala canals, which irrigated some 3.5 million hectares.As a result there were many fortified towns in the area to keep both the products and the traders safe. Until 1598 Khiva was just a small town but then the Amu Darya river changed course destroying the then capital Kunya-Urgench. Khiva then developed into a small but well-fortified city.

Our first stop was the Kuhna Ark, the residence of the king, containing the summer mosque, the winter palace and a watch tower.  First we entered the summer mosque with a large stage area decorated with glazed tiles where the the Iman would have given his sermon as the selected disciples listened intently from the courtyard. Out the back of the stage was a large, again ornately tiled room where the Iman would have held court. At the back of this area was also the royal mint which is now a museum with a collection of coins and notes.

Back in the main courtyard was a well, supposedly found by Shem, the son of Noah way back – not quite sure about that one! We headed through a door and up some steep stairs to the watch tower where we looked back over the whole 2 hectares of the fort. It is really hard to know what is original and what has been rebuilt whether from battles or just the passage of time. I am sure most of it has at some stage been rebuilt. There are good views along the northern walls, most of which have been rebuilt over the past few decades.

Back down the steep stairs and down a passage we entered the kings reception hall with another mosaic stage area but this time a built up area in the courtyard where a yurt would be erected for the king’s guests to await his audience.

Exiting the palace we headed across the street to one of the many madrassas in town. These are like a university where people received a higher education. This one is now a kind of museum with a bit of history on some of the many rulers.

Back out on the street we walked back past the large what looked like a chimney but was in fact supposed to be a 150m high minaret that was never completed.

At a stall I got to try on an old herders hat, made of sheeps wool to keep the heat and dust away from ones face. It also had a lining designed to absorb the sweat and keep one’s head moist and cool. Now I know why I never grew my hair long!

Stopping for a brew at an outdoor cafe we were entertained by a group of countrymen and women who had come to town for a wedding, complete with TV type camera. They danced on the street for some time, the men cutting some slick moves.

There are hundreds of stalls around the main restored or rebuilt area of the fort. The keepers are friendly and not pushy like they are in many parts of the world. Some sit hand painting fridge magnets that they fire and sell for a couple of dollars. In one stall a guy sat hammering out copper and brass vessels.

A bit further down the street we visited the Stone (summer) Palace, not even a km away from the winter one. It had the same same stage area as the winter palace for the king to hold court with a room to the side for the scribe to record the wisdom of the king and disciples. A passageway lead us to a room containing old wagon wheels, carved wooden columns and a camel driven mill for extracting oil from seeds such as sunflower.

 

We also discovered here that a lot of the tiles in this building had been nailed on. By now you may have noticed that a plumb bob and a level did not come into play when it came to putting in windows and doors, even one of the minarets is on a lean.

Next stop was the Djuma (Friday) mosque, the roof held up by a hundred-plus carved wooden columns, each mounted on a stone base. This too has been rebuilt, at least twice. When the Persians invaded here a thousand or so years ago all the locals headed into the mosque assuming Allah would protect them. The Persians simply burnt the place down killing all inside, or so the story goes. Genghis Khan also razed the place when he invaded.

Next to the main minaret is the madrasa Kutlug-Murad Inaka which was originally an university of art with individual rooms for the students. Cuts have been made into the thick walls that would have separated the rooms and a passageway runs through what is now a fine art museum.

The last stop with Nazira was the mausoleum built between 1810 and 1830 in memory of Pakhlavan Makhmud (1247 to 1326), an undefeated wrestler. Looking at the place wrestling must have been well paid back in those days. He was also a poet and philosopher, and well respected through the region.

“It is easy for me to smash 300 mountains
It is easy for me to paint the sky with blood from my heart
It is easy for me to be in prison for a 100 years
But it’s difficult for me to spend a moment with a stupid man.”

At the end of the courtyard is, I presume, a tomb, which is covered floor to ceiling in glazed tiles of various patterns and colours. Off to the left and right are two more tombs, where other rulers from the region are laid to rest. On the west side of the courtyard a two-storey building is also decorated partially with glazed tiles.

 

We headed of to the Bir Gazum restaurant, enjoying a dish of lagman and shashlik, and me some Uzbekistan Chardonnay. We waited for the sun to get around to the west to go back up the watch tower and take some more photos across the town, after which we walked around the inside of the fort wall, eventually finding some steps to the top.
Looking out across the outer city we realised that we have only had a glimps of Khiva and the tourist part at that.

We walked the wide walkway round the top of the wall, which has mostly been rebuilt and, in parts, the walkway cobbled. Where it is not cobbled it is starting to deteriorate quite badly. The inner and outer walls are I think encased in brick and plastered over with a plaster made of mud and straw in the traditional manner, as are a number of buildings in the town. In places the plaster has washed away.

There are thousands of people living in the many residences within these walls with many small hotels spread among the houses. We strolled through the back streets the short distance to our hotel noticing that each house or dwelling had a very nice door. Door making is obviously a real craft in this part of the world.

In the evening we were sitting in the hotel restaurant when a voice behind us said “you sound like kiwis”. Margaret from Wellington and Leslie from Auckland, who lives about 400m from us, are on a long 3-4 month annual holiday having rented their houses out and spent time in Turkey, now here, then Germany and on to Sri Lanka before heading home mid January.

A point of interest. back in the day none of the buildings here had locks on the doors. it was pretty simple – if you stole you lost your right hand, if you stole again you lost your left hand – bit cruel but it worked!!

The Silk Road: Turkmenistan October2019

Saturday 5 October – Sylvia
We landed in Ashgabat at about 2am in the morning after transiting through Istanbul. I had read horror stories about long waits at the visa queue but for us it was a remarkably painless process. We handed over our passports and letter of invitation, the passports were stamped and we were sent to the bank next door to pay, then returned to collect our passports. There was very little queue at immigration itself and the staff were all friendly and returned our smiles brightly. I wish the immigration staff everywhere else were as friendly.
As we had come in to land we had great views of this city of huge white buildings and coloured lights. The airport itself was a huge shiny white building – about two years old with stylised falcon wings for the roof. Inside it was immaculate and spacious with high ceilings and lots of marbles decoration.

We were met by our guide, Slavl, and driver for the twenty minute transfer to our hotel, The Yyldyz. What we had seen from the air was even more impressive in the ground. Huge, wide streets dotted about with large marble buildings, decorated with different coloured neon lights. Lots of monuments and fountains stand imposingly in their spots. We can see our hotel, which is shaped somewhat like the Burj in Dubai, from quite a distance but we have to pass the most incredible looking building first – apparently a wedding hall!
Our hotel is just as impressive inside with huge marble columns and friendly service. In no time at all we are in our large suite and settling in for the rest of the night.

After a decent sleep we were picked up again just before midday and driven to the museum. Another incredibly imposing building that was built about three years after Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early nineties. There are three museums in one but we focused on the history section. I was struck again by how much of a baby New Zealand is. This part of the world has had human habitation in some for for nearly 100,000 years – NZ for only about 3,000. The exhibits were well laid out with clear and detailed explanations in multiple languages including English.
Next we headed into the older part of the city for lunch in a traditional Turkmenistan yurt restaurant, where we try some traditional dishes including a mutton soup, a type of mutton pie, pumpkin pastie and spinach dumplings.
It is generally pretty quiet out – I don’t know where the million inhabitants of this city spend their time. At many of the bus stops around the city we see groups of young women in long red dresses and young men wearing suits – apparently the university uniform. They all have an embroidered type of skull cap on their heads. Further on we see younger people, the boys dressed the same and the girls in green dresses, school uniforms.
In 1948 a massive earthquake devastated the city. It measured 7.3 on the Richter scale but had a Mercalli intensity of X and completely destroyed the city. Over 100,000 people lost their lives. The Soviets repopulated and rebuilt the city which in part explains how it is so well laid out. Since gaining independence as a country in 1991 there has been a concerted effort to upgrade. All new buildings are completely clad in white marble. The wide roads have been planted with trees creating a significant green belt, and there are ornate lampposts and other decorations. It also seems to be the city of monuments with many massive monuments dotted about the city commemorating different historic events. The scale of everything is extremely impressive. The eight-sided star features heavily in the decoration, one of the main symbols adopted but the state. The Kopet Dag mountains provide a fitting backdrop for the city and act as the key border between Turkmenistan’s and Iran, only about 30km away. It is definitely the most different city I have ever been to and it is really hard to describe it adequately – either in words or pictures.
We headed out towards the desert, as we go t further from the city centre the houses got bigger but all the houses in any area are identical: row upon row all with neat tidy lawns, and all in white.
We left the city completely behind and drove for mile after mile with only sand dunes and scrubby bush for scenery. The Karakum desert extends for miles. The road is wide but it entirely smooth and we hurtled along at about 90mph. In some places thick straw has been ‘planted’ in clumps to prevent sand blowing back on to the road.
After about 270kms we reached our destination, the Darvaza Gas crater. In 1978 the Soviet geologists were drilling for gas. Unfortunately the underground water in this region made the drilling unstable and the ground collapsed creating a massive crater and swallowing the rig. In order to avoid an ecological issue due to the gas they set a fire expecting it to burn out in a couple of days. Forty years later it is still burning and is now attracting tourists from all over the world, many of whom camp out in yurts overnight.

Our driver prepared a BBQ meal with the local shepherd’s family while we explored the area. The crater is really quite impressive with temperatures inside apparently reaching 400 degrees. You could certainly feel the heat up on the surface. It was impressive enough in broad daylight but after dinner when it was nearly dark it was really at its best.

We were not staying though and had to make the return drive to our hotel in Ashgabat. All in all a long day but a good day.

Sunday 6 October 2019 – Roger
Breakfast on the 4th floor of the hotel was a bit of a slow affair as the bloke that was making the omlets had done a runner. While they were trying to find him I decided to go out onto the deck to take a couple of pictures. I got as far as opening the door when intercepted by the waitress. She spoke not a word of English and me even less than of the local language but it was obvious that no way was I stepping out that door. We had had a notice not to open any windows before noon in the hotel!! The English speaking waiter came over and explained that it was Memorial Day and the president was at the local memorial and no one was allowed to open the windows or go onto the decks overlooking the memorial some 500m away.
At 10.30am our guide, Slavl, was waiting to take us on a tour of the city. I remembered that 61 years ago today this city with a population then 198,000 lost 110,000 of its people to a 7.3 earthquake – hence the Memorial Day. The city, then built mainly of brick and mud block houses, was basically flattened. The Soviets sent people from Russia to rebuild the city with a promise of a free house if they settled here. The city was rebuilt and over the next 40 years various styles of buildings were constructed, often known by the Soviet leader of the time, Stalin, Gorbachev, etc. In 1991 when independence was granted apparently a bunch of Turks visiting the new leader and government made a persuasive suggestion that future buildings in the city should be clad in white marble from Turkey. They must have been bloody good salesmen as that is exactly what happened.
Interestingly this whole part of the world, until formed into states by the Soviets a in 1924, was just known as Turkistan. It was only when the Soviet block collapsed that they kept the names given by the Soviets and became independent countries.
We headed off from the hotel along the wide streets, past the wedding hotel, which two night’s ago changed colour several times as we drove from the airport. There is definitely no shortage of electricity or water around here as this city has more lights and fountains per head of population than any I have seen. In fact the whole place makes Las Vegas look somewhat of a beginner when it comes to space, fountains and lighting. The electricity is gas powered and with large reserves of natural gas in the country is partially funded by the sale of such to neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and Russia, and also to China.
Across town the first stop was the Turkmenbasy Ruhy Mosque, built as a memorial to the first post-Soviet president,. He and his family are laid to rest here in a mausoleum which is part of the complex. The main mosque with its 60m gold dome has a massive carpet covering the whole floor with a space or prayer mat marked out for each of the 7000 worshipers. There are another 3000 such spaces upstairs on the balcony where the woman sit and pray. The complex is surrounded by water features, paved areas, trees and gardens.
Heading off to the outskirts of the city, still on wide roads, we eventually headed down a side road past a small market and some trucks loaded with hay. I am sure my mate George back home in the South Island could get much more hay on his Mac truck if he stacked it like this.
We arrived at the local horse stud farm to be offered tea and bickies and a parade of nags brought from the stables, mostly one at a time. On the occasion a mare and a stallion were brought out together there was a bit of a scrap, maybe part of the show.
The Ashyr stud has been around for 300 years and was one of the few to survive the Soviet area as most were taken over by the government. The horses, although very thin in the forequarters, are used for mainly racing, some dressage and a bit of showing. It is illegal to export them from Turkmenistan although some have been given as gifts to various world leaders. One nag presented to us was apparently valued at US$100k. The last came at the gallop from the stables, rider on board, did a couple of circuits then stopped in front of us the rider leaping from the saddle. This one Sylvia was supposed to take for a ride, but I think having seen the previous stallion roll around in the dirt it was all I could do to get her to sit on it, although she did look the part in the costume provided.
Next stop was the Saparmurat Haji Mosque. which was built as a memorial to the 12,000 people who were massacred here by the Russians in 1881 when they took over this part of the world. Back then Russia was wanting to invade India and take it from the British but were stopped in Crimea. They still took over this part of area, which then was not a seperate country . The Russians didn’t really invade but the area became a protectorate and it was the objection to the building of the railway line linking Russia that sparked off the war and siege of Gokdepe where the massacre took place. Until recently there was a memorial day for this event every year but now not wanting to offend Moscow it has been shelved.
A drive back across town took us to Old Nisa, a fortress that was occupied around 200AD and discovered by a Russian general in the late 1800’s who recognised the shape of the area as a fended area. It is now a UNESCO Heritage site and parts are being reconstructed as the excavation takes place.
Just over the hills in the background about 30ks away is the border to Iran – “yes tempting”, but not this trip.
History in this part of the world is long and complicated but for those interested we did manage to extract a summary from our very helpful and knowledgeable guide.
  • 6-3c BC: Part of the Persian Empire
  • 3c BC – 3c AD: Part of the Greek Empire
  • 3c AD: Part of the Parthian Empire (This is the era Nisa is from)
  • 3-7c AD – Part of the Sasanian Empire (Persian)
  • 7-10c AD – Part of the Arabian Empre
  • 10-13c AD – Part of the Seljuk Empire (which  became the Ottoman Empire)
  • 13-15c AD – Part of the Mongolian Empire
  • 15-16c AD – Salor Confederation – Large Tribal Union
  • 16-18c AD – Ruled by Khiva and Bhukara (Now part of Uzbekistan)
  • 1800’s – Russian leadership
  • 1920-1991 – Part of the USSR
We stopped for lunch at the local Nusay Restaurant, enjoying some nice local food. I had the sturgeon, which is rather tasty but actually not local.
As we headed back into town our hotel stood out from lots of locations and on the hill nearby was the local TV mast that looked more like a monument than a transmitter.

As we headed down Bitarap Turkmenistan Avenue, which with 4 lanes plus another two lanes off to the side in each direction, is the main street, but not the only one this big. Five water tankers head down the road in a staggered formation cleaning the already clean street. We cut down the side lanes to pass them. This, our guide explains, is also part of the green belt where they are planting millions of trees. From what we saw the green belt runs through the whole city.
Each ministry has its own large marble and often domed building, as do universities, medical centres and more. Below in the background  is the Ministry of Culture and the University of Gas and Petroleum exploration.
Our next stop was the Monument of Independence with large grounds and many water features, plus the ceremonial guards on duty as with all of these sites.
Passing many more marble buildings and apartments Slavl explained that a government worker stays in the job for ten years and then qualifies to get an apartment at half price. No shortage of workers in the government here. Apartments start at two bedrooms of about 100sqm and go up in size from there.
Last stop of the day was the Memorial of Neutrality. As you have gathered by now they are big into statues and memorials around here, which include a statue of the first president. I think the current president is only the second one since independence.
Its quite hard to do this place justice with a few words and pictures but I have added in a few more photos from around the town to help give one an idea of the grandness of this place.

 

 

The Fortress of Morans and Surprising Arles – October 2019

Tuesday 1 October 2019

We dropped into Marseille around midday Sunday having flown from Singapore via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, who have the best food in the sky. And I really mean dropped in – I think the pilot of the Airbus  321-200 came in a little fast and missed the normal touch down spot. I reckon to save the embarrassment of pushing on the power and going around again he went for option two “throw it on the ground”. That worked to the point that when we hit the ground the cockpit door flew open. Full reverse thrust and lots of brakes and we were taxiing.

We headed to Nimes, to the Vatel Hotel as the service in the Pulman hotel in Montpellier is so bad. Our room was not yet ready so we drove to Sommières for a late lunch, then back to the hotel and checked in.

Sylvia’s daughter, Beka, and boyfriend, Tom, and their two dogs, Daisy and Turtle, had arrived in Amsterdam last week and bought a van to embark on a two year European rock climbing gig. They were driving south so we headed to a small town called Bollene to meet them and drop off some extra kit we had brought with us for them.

Just south of Bollene Is the town of Mornas, which has a huge cliff behind it with a fort on top. It inspired me on Sunday when driving past so today I thought it was time to check it out.

I headed up a narrow road “luckily no one was coming the other way” past the large church to a car park. There I dismounted, headed up a steep concrete road to the fort, where I was greeted by a friendly lady, and paid the 5euro fee.

No-one seems to know when this first became a fort. It was however pre-Roman times and was occupied by them. In the Middle Ages it may well have been a wooden structure. By the 20th century Mornas was owned by the Earl of Toulouse and over the next 300 years the Earl along with the Archbishop of Arles and the King of France all claimed and scrapped over Mornas. The Papacy got hold of it and did it up to ward off vagrants who roamed the area. In the 16th century the Catholics and Protestants fought over it. By the French Revolution (1789) it was abandoned.

I always look at these places and appreciate just how hard it must have been to get all the stones up there, let alone make them into walls.

 

A path between the walls takes one up to the east side where the parapet walls have been built right on the cliff top. It’s always hard to get the perception of depth when photographing down the side of a cliff but no one was going to come up the east side in a hurry.

A tower had a spiral staircase which leads to a room complete with throne.

Some more stairs, then a ladder take one onto the roof with stunning views.

A chapel has a stairway which leads to what maybe was once a secret passage.

Some of the signs were amusing.

Again I was lucky on the drive down not to meet another car.


Wednesday 2 October 2019

After dropping Sylvia off at the Royal Canin head office and factory, where she has meetings all week, I headed south to Pic Saint Loup. At 658M its the only hill in the area.

I parked up at the bottom of the track on the east side, near the quaint little town of Cazevieille. The track starts at 300m so its a fairly easy stroll to the top. Yes I have written about this place before but it’s always nice to come back for a bit of exercise and the good views from the top.

After a good look at the views from the top and a look in the church I decided to take the track back along the east ridge which runs along the top with the vertical drop on the south side making for a good walk. The track however, although on the map, petered out where a rock slide had interrupted it. I cut down through the bush to the track I had come up on in the process losing a hearing aid, bugger!


Thursday 3 October 2019

About 40ks back toward Marseille is a town called Arles, which we pass every time we come here. Having been to just about every village and town in this part of France I wasn’t expecting anything special. Crossing the river Rhone I turned off the N113 with the road taking me to the centre of town. Heading down Boulevard des Lices, suddenly in front of me was the worlds ugliest building.

Obviously the person that designed it and a few on the local council like it. Tour Luma Ales is in fact the local tourist office and a new experimental art centre. I parked the car took a pic and walked away from it – nothing inspired me to go inside.

Just down the road back towards the motorway I saw what must have been a fortress wall so headed down that street, eventually finding some stone steps that took me up and around the back. I headed along a street to an open area with great views over the city.

I walked around the corner and there in front of me was the local Amphitheater.  I shouldn’t have been surprised as back in the day these things were built like soccer stadiums are today; every even not very large town having one to entertain the locals.

Built in the 1st century AD it has had many uses over the last two thousand years. After its use by the Romans for feeding the lions, among other things it became a stone quarry -hence all the upper stone seating has gone. Then during the Middle Ages a town was built on site with four fortress towers being built into the surrounding walls, 3 of which still remain. Now scaffolding type seating has been placed in the upper galleries and it is apparently used for bull fighting among other things.

Just up the road is a half amphitheater, built a little early and without the sophistication of  internal rooms and passages.

Next I came across the Cryptopotrigues. This, set under a building on the edge of the town square, is basically the foundations of a building built around a square in order to level uo the ground. Two 90 meter tunnels and a 60m cross tunnel at the end make up the foundations of the buildings above. Over the centuries they have been used as storage, bazaar markets, air aid shelters and many other things. These towns were built by the Romans with amazing attention to detail and great engineering.

From here I wandered the streets realising again why I like these old towns so much, as each street or alley, although it is just a street or alley, but in these places each one has something unique about it. Captured in a time capsule and although now occupied by people of this day and age, they will always hold the secrets of the often long and interesting past.

 

Singapore Grand Prix – September 2019

Our good mate, Mitch, very kindly gave us a couple of tickets to the race. The first were walk about tickets which allowed us to walk the track edge in the green area.

Arriving at the Marina Square Shopping centre we followed rather a lot of signs through the shopping centre, up escalators and over bridges, finally ending up beside the track. The whole track is surrounded by concrete median barriers with steel posts about 3m high set into them and a heavy wire mesh between the posts to protect spectators from debris should cars collide. Set back from that is another barrier so spectators can’t get close to the mesh.

We arrived as the Porsche racing got underway. The cars raced by and in what seemed like no time at all they had completed the 5.063km loop and were back again. We wandered around watching the race from various spots, always through the barriers.

There is lots going on: just the number of people in some sort of uniform helping out is overwhelming plus there are thousands of spectators roaming around. In typical Singapore style everything works and flows smoothly.

Our second set of tickets are yellow and give us access to a lounge at the base of the Singapore Flyer. We make our way through the purple area with the thousands of people on the move. One thing that often amuses us about Singapore is which side of the path one should walk on. They drive on the left here like in Japan, Malaysia and a number of Asian countries. In the shopping centres they often have arrows to stay left but then some escalators will be on the right. Around the track most of the barriers had signs up directing one to the left but every now and again there would be one putting the foot traffic on the right. Not to worry, when I first visited London in the 80’s everyone kept left on the footpath, now with the influx of Europeans it’s also just a shambles.

After a good wander around we headed to the lounge, with food and drinks provided and a large deck from which to watch the racing. Being quite high up we got an unobstructed view of the track in a couple of places. We were overlooking the last straight, about 400m long with the cars slowing down before heading around the final bend either to the pits, or the finishing straight.

We watched a bit more racing as the sun went down, hidden largely by the smog, which has been really bad this week as the Indonesians do their annual forest and vegetation burn.

The Grand Prix final started just after 8pm and is run at night so people in London can watch it in the middle of the day. Around 7pm the drivers are driven round the track in old cars to give the crowd a good look.

A buffet dinner was served at 7.30 in the lounge, after which we headed out onto the deck to watch the racing get underway.

After a couple of warm-up laps to get the tyres and cars warmed up the race gets underway. Over the PA they give us a few stats on what is about to take place. I once drove a cat at 260km on a long straight road in a country I won’t name. I thought that was quite fast. These guys are hitting over 300k on some of these short straights. The temperature in the cockpit apparently reaches over 60 degrees. They change gear thousands of time. The fastest lap of the night is Kevin Magnussen at 1.42 with an average speed of 178.168km/h, not bad as there are 23 corners on the course. It costs around $150 million to put this show on with about a 100,000 tickets being sold.

As the racing is underway the Gardens By the Bay light up with their nightly light show, Our friends Frank, Deb, Natasha and Keir, who are visiting from NZ, are over there watching the show with the noise from the track no doubt interrupting their evening.

The 61 laps totalling 308.965km is over in around 2 hours. Photo taking was a bit tricky as there was only a small gap where the cars were not obstructed by the fence or poles. It was also a bit hard to work out who was in front especially as cars stopped in the pits to change tyres and refuel and towards the end the field was very spread out.

Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari won the race in 1.58.33.667. 1.58.33 would be close enough surely!!!