Wednesday, April 30, 2008


We are rolling along the old Silk Road now, and Samarkand is no disappointment. We arrive in the dead of night and get dropped off on the outskirts of the city, right next to a conveniently open chaykhana (teashop). We wait for daylight, which comes early, and at 6.30am we are staggering past wonderful tiled mosques and mausoleums in the cool of the morning, looking for a place to stay. Samarkand is the most evocative of place names for us - a destination we wanted to reach in the early days when we thought about this trip, and it's a thrill to finally arrive. The city was capital of Tamerlaine (Timur 'the lame') 's empire, and he built up a flashy collection of buildings using artists and craftsmen from the lands he conquered, by the end of the 14th century. Much has survived, just, and has been heavily restored.

We visit the Registan, a complex of mosques and medressas, at sunset. The huge tiled portals reflect the pinkish golden light. One of them features a pair of tigers, which is pretty unusual to see in Islamic buildings, as the portrayal of living beings is prohibited in Sunni Islam. It is peaceful and quiet, and the large buildings are impressive. It is a contrast to our earlier visit to a street of mausoleums which was jammed with Uzbeks and foreign tourists, all out together sight-seeing on a Sunday. The mausoloeums are surrounded by a cemetery filled with photo-engraved tombstones - an illuminating collection of people in various fashions and headgear, an ethnographer's dream.

Samarkand is a low-rise city and in the distance we can see the snow-covered mountains on the border with Tajikistan. The city is full of fairly quiet tree-lined roads and shops that are heavily disguised as old houses. The parks are full of fountains, flowers and grass - this is the greenest place we've been for ages. There's a provincial feel about the place which is conducive to lounging around. Lunches consist of mutton shashlyk and bread washed down with pots of green tea - absolutely delicious once you get used to the coating of mutton fat in your mouth afterwards. This is probably when the vodka comes into its own. We are staying in a family-run B&B with a small patio in which everyone hangs their washing. We eat our evening meals there and chat with some of the other travellers - a rare opportunity to meet other people passing through Central Asia - and swap news about the China visa latest...........

Saturday, April 26, 2008


We spend a few days in Bukhara, enjoying the relaxed feel of the place and dodging crowds of French tour groups. Some of the local women are wearing interesting outfits resembling Victorian bathing costumes - a short dress with matching short trousers - the best are in ikat designs, very colourful. Older men wear an embroidered box-like cap, but the young boogaloos are in beanies. We have also detected a predilection for gold teeth, sometimes whole rows of 'em - though whether this is due to poor diet or a lack of confidence in the local currency, we are not sure. This is the first country where we have needed a bag to carry our cash around - the largest note is worth 40 pence - the smaller notes are saved for those moments when when there's no Russian toilet paper to hand (and I don't mean for sanding down the floorboards).

Our next stop is Khiva, which alongside the khanate of Bukhara, remained a big slave-trading centre until the Russians finally arrived in the 1870's. The old city is surrounded by undulating mudbrick walls, and crammed full of medressas, mosques and palaces. There are two spectacular minarets, one built only a hundred years ago, but looking like a tiled lighthouse, and the other unfinished - a huge base that would have supported probably the largest building in the world if it had ever been finished. The base is tiled and its a wonderful sight. The hotels are full - we are definitely travelling at high season here - but we get a room after a bit of searching. Khiva is not large, and we spend a day seeing all the sights. There is a silk carpet workshop with information on the process of silk production. They are producing carpets using designs found in miniature paintings of Tamerlaine's era, or using the ornately carved doors, or intricately-tiled buildings that are dotted all over. Generally though, the crafts are not impressive and Khiva seems a little more down at heel than Bukhara, the old city more like an open air museum. It's still a great place to visit. Even though we are in the desert, the surrounding landscape is given over to farming. We are on the southern edge of the Amu-Darya (aka the river Oxus) delta which runs into the fast-disappearing Aral Sea. Cotton farming introduced by the Russians, and excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers, are causing a long term environmental problem in Central Asia, and this is one of the blighted areas. The earth is sometimes bleached white.

The travelling around here is not so simple. There are rarely any scheduled buses, trains are few and far between, and so we have been using the dreaded shared-taxi. These tend to be quick, you only have to wait for four passengers before you go, but they cost a bit more. The problem is finding one who will go for a decent price. Whenever I approach a parking lot full of taxis now the theme from Jaws comes into my head. Thankfully the Uzbek people are generally very friendly and helpful and we have great fun asking for directions and not understanding a single word of the reply. We take a detour north to Nukus (which sounds like an open invitation to George W. Bush) simply to visit an art gallery. This is a tough call, the journey back will be longer, and the town has nothing else to offer except for a funfair, a museum with the very last Caspian tiger (stuffed and mounted, what else?), and a collection of cafes and restaurants inside people's homes (so it seems). It's all low-key stuff after the oohs and ahhhs of Khiva. The art gallery houses a collection of Soviet-era artwork that was saved and protected by the gallery's director, Igor Savitsky, since much of it was banned by Moscow for not conforming to Soviet Realism. The collection is impressive and there are plenty of great paintings by Russian artists inspired by the Central Asian people and landscapes. It's staggering to think this has been achieved in such a remote place.

The evening before we meet other travellers passing through, and talk about some alarming news that China is refusing to issue visas for overlanders. This seems to be in response to the protests in Tibet and the international reaction - they seem intent to 'lock-down' the country before the Olympics to avoid further embarrasment and protest. To use an idiom that may be of interest to any English language students out there, this has pissed on our chips. We have to work out how to get to the Pakistani Himalaya between now and August. Michael, an American we have seen in other places, ends up taking the third bed in our hotel room, as there is nothing cheap left available. He assures us he is no psycho killer. Worse though, he is a snorer. I almost become the pycho killer. Luckily for all, we all survive the night.

Our journey back across the desrt is made in a very sweaty bus run by a family of women, and driven by two young men. The bus is going to Almaty in Kazakhstan, which seems like a long haul in the old tin can. We are dripping sweat from every pore, along with everyone else, while we wait interminably to depart. When we set off it feels like the driver has turned on a hairdryer, as the hot desert air blows in through his window. On a small hill we pass a walled enclosure - an ancient Zoroastrian 'Tower of Silence' where the dead were left to the vultures. It is the only remarkable feature in an endless journey through desert scrub and numerous police checkpoints.

Monday, April 21, 2008


ahhh, Bukhara. An oasis city, Central Asia's holiest, and now a tourist hotspot. Despite the high volume of French tour groups wandering the streets of the old town, the friendly locals have no problem guessing where we are from. "Aleman?" It's a bit of a shock after the last few days, but we are not complaining - a comfortable room with a comfortable bed and a comfortable pillow plus a great breakfast of fried eggs, stewed green apricots, apricot jam and lashings of apricot tea. Okay, green tea. There are old tiled mosques and medressas aplenty, in various states of repair, although only one or two mosques are still used for their original purpose. Many others are given over to handicraft stalls selling carpets, all kinds of embroidered textiles, miniature paintings, instruments and jewellery. Smoke billows from shashlyk stalls in the shade of mulberry trees.

Bukhara grew in the 9th century into a centre of Persian culture and Islamic learning. After suffering a setback at the hands of ol' Ghenghis, it recovered slowly in the shadow of Samarkand and by the 16th century had more than 100 medressas and 300 mosques. At this point it was the capital of the Bukhara khanate, but by this time the trade routes of the Silk Road were dying out. The Russians were not very sympathetic to its religious heritage during their time here, and since independence the Uzbek government have continued to develop it for tourism. The phrase "living museum" has been used. But the old city is still lived in and not all the bazaars are for tourists. At the weekend the centre is full of locals all dressed up and out for a good time.

We meet James, our compatriot, who has detoured through Pakistan and Afghanistan since we last met in Iran. He looks remarkably well on it. We spend the day sight-seeing, catching up on each other's journey, and discussing onward plans. You can climb an old Russian water tower (it looks like something I made out of Meccano once) for a view over the citadel and the blue-tiled domes of the mosques. Gayle resists, but James and I brave the spiral staircase to the top. The city spreads out, and there are trees as far as the eye can see. The city used to be supplied from springs by a series of canals and pools that have been reopened. Water looks a bit ropey mind. In the evening we consider the "Central Asia visa mind melt", as James describes it, with an aperitif of vodka. In theory it should be simple to get a visa for the next country you want to visit in each
capital city. But prices, application criteria, visa durations, starting dates and permissions vary country to country, and depend upon your nationality and route. We move on to a main course of vodka as we discuss potential routes through Kyrgzstan and Tajikistan, which interlock with Uzbekistan like those really unusual pieces you get on a 50,000-piece jigsaw. We move onto a dessert of vodka sat in the park under a full moon, theorising on the merits of travel by Land Rover, bactrian camel, bicycle, Soyu Space capsule, Tajik Airlines, Shanks' Pony with some fella called Stan. It gets a bit blurry after this...........

The sufi movement is big stuff in these parts. Sufis were extremely successful at introducing Islam to Central Asia and particular sufi teachers are still venerated. There are shrines dotted around everywhere and we visit that of Bakhautdin Naqshband, close by. A brotherhood was formed by his followers to defend the faith and it was foremost in resisiting Russian occupation in the Caucasus. As well as inspiring and leading guerilla groups over the years, the Naqshbandi were also able to keep Islamic religious practice alive in Central Asia throughout the Soviet era of repression. It is interesting to see that the current president is possibly as repressive as his predecessors when it comes to political and religious freedoms. The brotherhoods remain clandestine. The shrine itself is a collection of mosques around two courtyards containing a holy well and the tomb. A talismanic hoses' tail hangs from a flagpole over the tomb for protection. Many of the visitors circle around a holy tree three times anti-clockwise, tie prayer ribbons. These are pre-islamic rituals. It's fascinating to see........

never mind the quality, feel the width

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Halfway to Ashgabat

I hate border crossings and I am particularly nervous because I am using my old passport which contains valid visas for both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Regrettably, the British embassy saw fit to cut off all four corners off the cover and it looks a bit dodgy. I have bought a passport cover to try and hide this mutilation. A Turkmen soldier, looking like a Nepalese Gurkha, holds out his hands and I thrust the suspect document out to him. He ignores it and shakes my hand with both of his. "Welcome. How are you?" Big smile. It's the friendliest border crossing we've had, I think. But not the quickest. Bored customs officers and everyone else in the wooden hut gather round to have a peek at our stuff, and thumb through our books. Before we reached the Turkmens Gayle had thrown off her headscarf in a symbolic act.

A Turkmen traveller is heading to Ashgabat and we share a taxi with him. We have to haggle hard for the price of twenty dollars and then we're off down an endless road. We are looking forward to seeing some of the kitsch monuments and awful buildings created by their first president in a prolonged egomaniacal rule. There's also supposed to be a great bazaar. After about an hour we pull over at a checkpoint. I present our passports and the details are recorded in a book. And then the officer in charge looks angry. We have only transit visas, with fixed entry and exit points, and we have wandered off course. "Problem! Ashgabat No! " He crosses his arms in an X to emphasise his point. We plead and whine a little but there's no give. The taxi driver looks happy. He will take us to Mary instead, and we are too deflated to renegotiate with him.

Our journey is long and boring, through desert scrub. For a brief moment, in a small town, we see a group of women dressed up and crossing the road. One of them is covered in an elaborately embroidered and decorated hood. "Wedding" our taxi driver shouts in Turkmen, miming putting a ring on a finger. We arrive in Mary and are deposited beside a wide boulevard with low-rise buildings. We try to find a cheap hotel, and are helped by lots of friendly locals. In sharp contrast to Mashhad, the women are walking around in long colourful dresses, with brightly embroidered necklines. The people look almost south-east asian. Schoolboys are wearing colourful skullcaps. We end up in the old Soviet hotel - which is actually okay (there's some money-changing with a man in the carpark and a request for toilet paper, which fortunately I don't have to mime, as some kind Germans gave us a picture book to use to communicate. The toilet paper is standard dual purpose stuff, we find out later, as it's great for getting the hard skin off your soles) and head off to look for food. We immediately find a barbecue grill going outside a cafe and shashlyk skewers lined up cooking. We order with the help of another friendly customer, and sit down to lovely cold beers. The new sensations continue, when we are served more beer, courtesy of the friendly customer sitting next to us. Elman invites us to sit with him and Nazar who have started on a bottle of vodka. Within minutes we have shot glasses with "chut chut" (it's supposed to mean 'a little') of vodka and Nazar is proposing a lengthy toast. We knock them back and nibble at food and try unsuccessfully to have a sensible conversation. Nazar proposes another lengthy toast, and looks to Elman to translate. He points at Gayle and says "Her. Good!" We knock 'em back. After photographs, more vodka and beer, kisses, e-mail and telephone number swaps, and suggestions to go and dance in the disco above the cafe, we finally extricate ourselves before either of us falls off our chair, or ends up doing a John Travolta to some Russian techno. What a wonderful introduction to the Stans.

Next day is baking hot. We search for breakfast and settle down to meat pies and a pot of tea. We wander the bazaar and seek shade in a park. We consider a trip to Merv, a ruined Silk Road city, but the hangovers and heat put us off. We lack the verve for Merv. Mary is an odd place, full of grand empty-looking buildings on wide boulevards, shadeless parks with brash monuments and wonderful flowers and shabby side streets with broken roads, dirt pavements, and rundown lowrise blocks of flats. But it looks like a garden city compared to our next stop, Turkmenabad. After a long taxi ride across the desert, sand wafting across the crumbling tarmac, we end up in a desolate place where we find our shabby little hotel and then hunt for food. The streets seem inordinately long and empty. There's rusty pipes sticking out of the ground and running off in all directions. It has soviet Russia written all over it, except where the word Turkmenistan is - just in case the residents forget where they live, I suppose. We kill some time looking for biscuits and fruit and checking out our escape route to the border. We are kind of looking forward to leaving and we've only just arrived! A student sees us loitering outside the train station and approaches. She speaks enough English for us to sit down and talk awhile and she gives us information about train times for the morning. Firouza lives in the border town of Farab and commutes to an academy school in the big bad Turkmenabad. She says she wants to help tourists because Turkmenis are not so friendly, but we have to protest, because many people had been very nice to us and helped with directions. It's just the taxi drivers we don't like, but then that's an international dislike.

Boutique hotel Turkmenabad

Next morning Firouza is waiting for us at the train station and takes us to Farab. It was clear she really wanted us to stay with her family and hang out all day, but we were focussed on the border crossing and were determined to continue. I hope she wasn't too disappointed. At the border there are lots of women with shopping trolleys doing the border run with miocrowaves, mixers, telephones etc. We are thankfully waved through past them and sent on our way into Uzbekistan. "Do you have any religious books?", the customs officer asks, thumbing through a novel called 'Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend'. We shrug our shoulders and they let us through. It turns out the hardest thing about the border crossings in Central Asia is getting away from them. We try to haggle with the taxi drivers but they ask for silly money just to get to the next town. We start to walk, angry and anxious, and thankfully one of them picks us up and agrees a fare to Bukhara. Did Marco Polo have all this grief, we wonder?

Monday, April 14, 2008


Things are pretty quiet at the hotel, with occasional visits from western tour groups just to keep us on our toes. On the 13th day of the New Year the streets are empty, the city is silent. This is Sizdah Be Dar - it is bad luck to be in your house, and everyone traditionally goes out with the family for a picnic, even just to one of the green patches in the middle of a roundabout. This is the end of the holidays and we have more time to ourselves. Khouroosh suddenly starts selling carpets in a run of good fortune. He is saving up for a trip to India and the timing is perfect. Some familiar faces reappear at the sister hotel, travellers who find themselves returning to the calm and comfort of Magi (this is the fictional name for the real place), drawn like us to the relaxed pace and charm of the town. We practice making delicious date shakes (12 pitted dates, a glass of milk, a teaspoon of sugar and some ice - mmmmm).

An interesting character, Puyao, appears from out of the desert to stay for a few days. He looks like a sufi mystic, dressed all in white. One quiet night he suggests an impromptu meal of steaks and a few of us enjoy a candlelit meal on the roof terrace accompanied by some very good Esfahani grappa. Another day we awake to a rain shower. The skies are grey and dull and everyone is very happy and smiling. We are in topsy-turvy land! We think we should start travelling again, but we don't want to say goodbye. One evening we are sitting in a large group with other travellers, stories are told, tips exchanged, suggestions for places to visit in far-off countries. Puyao, Khouroosh and Danny are sitting with us, but it's a conversation they are excluded from - we are all relatively wealthy and free in comparison to them and this contrast makes us feel sad.

Finally we make a run for it. Our goodbyes are not protracted, but we feel depressed to be saying them. Danny and Khouroosh have been good friends to us, Reza has been the perfect boss. Typically we can't find the Ghost to say goodbye, but he appears at the last minute. We move on to Kashan, a small desert town, where we spend a couple of days visiting some restored palatial houses and some Persian gardens. We are staying in a simple guesthouse with mattresses and pillows made out of concrete. In one of the rooms is a student who introduces himself in very British English. He looks familiar. I realise he is Paul McGann, as the Monocled Mutineer, but he calls himself Farhad. Over a cup of tea and a box of freshly-baked biscuits we talk politics and religion, which is inevitably rather depressing, but segue onto Lady Di and Prince Charles for some light relief. His English is good and he laughingly explains how, when something "fishy" occurs in Iran, everyone blames it on the British. Indeed, we are told several times how it was the British who helped the mullahs take over Iran after the revolution. "The Old Fox." This image of Britain as some sort of a global powerbroker comes as something of a shock - but then we do have a history of interference and meddling that continues to this day.

We return to Tehran to collect my new jumbo passport and we call in on Saman at his language institute. We are invited to sit in on classes of young children and adults. I'm introduced to a young woman who has just translated a Stephen King novel into Farsi. I think I offend her when I ask her "why Stephen King?" Saman's enthusiasm and sense of fun is infectious. He thinks Iran can change for the better, but he also would like to live in Ireland. We can picture him happily supping Guinness. Once again we feel sad when we say goodbye, and it drives home how fortunate and free we are. At our hostel we meet up with Martine and Guy who are travelling in the opposite direction to us, along a similar route. They provide us with lots of detailed and useful information and are very good company. They are only the third couple we have met who have travelled through the Stans.

Our last destination in Iran is Mashhad, the second city and home to the holy shrine of Imam Reza, the eigth imam of Shiite Islam. This is a major pilgrimmage site, and the city expanded greatly during the war with Iraq, with refugees fleeing the west. We are staying with Reza, a young businessman, and we arrange to meet at his office. We step off the night train and it starts to rain heavily as we climb into a taxi. I haven't got the office address down correctly and we start to walk around to ask directions. The roads are now rivers and we find ourselves wading along the pavements. A man in a 4X4 stops in the street and offers help - he waves us into his car, but we can't reach it across the water. In Iran many roads have large gutters, a foot wide and two foot deep. The man pulls his car over to the kerb for our benefit, but he hasn't accounted for a gutter, and his front wheel drops with a crunch. To make it worse he then drives his back wheel into the ditch. The car looks like a sinking ship, listing heavily. To our shame, we wave goodbye and scuttle off, trying to hide our laughter. After finally finding the office and drying out, we visit the shrine. Unfortunately Gayle needs a chador, and we find ourselves accompanied by a "guide" from the International Relations Office. "Do you know anything about Islam? Have you considered becoming a Muslim?" We are told they have two conversions a week. The guide looks at us with hope. I look at Gayle, who in her words looks "like a twit", the chador wrapped tightly around her face, flapping around her feet. I look back at the guide with a smile - no conversions today. Around the shrine, which we cannot actually enter, are a series of large courtyards, mosques and medressas. A huge gold dome covers the tomb, and large portals are also coated in gold. The site is still being developed and expanded. This is a very special place for the Shiites. The other imams are buried in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, except for the last one, Mahdi, who slipped off quietly somewhere unknown with a promise to return at a later date.

In the evening we chat to Reza who is divorced with a young son. His father lost land after the Revolution - it was split up and redistributed. The state, Reza complains, creates too many rules to live by, and these rules are inevitably broken in private. They have satellite TV, illegally, and he teaches his son to lie at school "If anyone asks, we don't have satellite." Reza had been a star mathematics pupil and competed with other clever kids. He only knows one other who has stayed in Iran. "This country is losing all its intelligent genes" he laments. He may emigrate to Australia. In the morning he kindly drives us at breakneck speed to a shared-taxi stand across the city, and sends us on our way to the border.

It's a bittersweet farewell to Iran.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tehran, Tehran...'s not a wonderful town. I'm back here to apply for a new passport. First I have to collect our visas from the Turkmenistan Embassy, which is tucked away in the leafy northern suburbs of the city. I have taken a night bus from Magi, where Gayle has sensibly stayed, joined the sweaty mass on the metro to cross the city and ended up at the embassy in good time. There's no-one there. I form a queue. After a while I notice some information in English on the noticeboard. It tells me that I am at the payment stage (I have a crisp $100 bill in my hand) and that I should have the original application forms (I have) and two photographs (I haven't). With a few expletives I have to retrace my steps until I find a photoshop that can scan the photos in our passports and produce new photos. This takes an hour. When I get back to the embassy there is a queue of four people. The queue does not move and the 11am closing time is reached. I feel like crying. In desperation I wait and finally I am allowed to submit the forms and money. "Come back tomorrow" they tell me.

I spend a very pleasant afternoon with Saman, whom I met in Magi, at the English institute where he works. He is the most un-Iranian Iranian we have met (in a nice way) and very good company. A self-taught English-speaker, who winged it into university, he is now enthusiastically managing a small language school in Tehran. I am invited to stay with him and his wife, Rahalla, in their little appartment up on the slopes of the mountains overlooking the urban sprawl. On satellite TV we watch a Farsi programme, broadcast from the US, discussing women's rights in Iran. Iranians phone in to discuss the case of two women stoned to death for adultery. As Saman explains, their husbands forgave them, but the State didn't. In the morning I'm back bright and early at the Turkmenistan embassy for my fifth, final and thankfully successful visit. I hurtle back across the city to the big walls of the British embassy and submit my passport application with my current passport and two and a half million rials. It feels like a lot of rials for such a small thing.

Iranian streets are named after islamic revolutionaries, ancient poets, and folk heroes. This street is next to the British embassy.

Saman keeps me company in the afternoon before my nightbus back to Magi - we walk the tree-lined streets of northern Tehran, take tea, and talk. Sometimes Saman is mistaken for a tourist - he likes to pass himself off as an Irishman. When he was a youngster in Esfahan, a carpet-seller once tried to sell him a carpet because of this. He got interested and for a couple of years worked the bazaar in Esfahan, before going to university. He takes me to the Film Museum where I pick up a DVD of Secret Ballot, a souvenir (thanks for the recommendation Robin). Iranian cinema drew our interest to visit Iran, so it seems appropiate. We talk a lot more and then we say goodbye. Within 12 hours I'm back in Magi.