Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Central Asia

Back in the happy capital of Uzbekistan. I don't want to disparage it but the best thing I have seen so far is the metro. The sovs were useless at many things (like keeping their system alive) but they could build a good underground when they put their mind to it. Some of the platforms are quite spectacular so it's a bit of a letdown when the place you went to see is not as nice as the nearby station.

Tashkent for me is a place were things get done. In Central Asia unprepared cretins like me are often stuck getting visas or sorting out tranport. In my case the Turkmens told me to sod off so Tashkent is the place where I will depart Central Asia. This might sound like the easy way out but Uzbekistan Airways ensured this would still be a hurdle.

Should a reader find himself in the position of having to buy a ticket from Uzbekistan's national carrier there are 2 options.

Option 1: Go to the main booking office, conclude that it looks like a Chinese train station at New Year and try to work out how things work as there are no English speaking staff.

Discover that you need to elbow barge your way to a counter, say what you want, get a chit, go to a different counter to pay, discover that the credit card machine is broken, go to nearby exchange, get a shoebox-sized wad of cash (the biggest note here is 1000 Sum which is less than a dollar), go back to pay and then return to collect your ticket.

After you have figured out the system you must choose a counter and spend a long time defending your position. Wait for an hour or so then, just as you might be next, understand that their computers have crashed and see everyone sit down for a long wait.

Option 2: Agree with a nearby Russian businessman that this is a piss poor way to do things, decide to sod this for a game of soldiers and storm out. Spend an hour walking in Tashkent mentally rethinking options and cursing impotently. Have an idea.

Walk into a 4 star hotel, go to the resident travel agency and book it through them for a $5 fee. Save more than $100 dollars on the cost of the actual ticket as they can get good deals and go through the whole painless process in 10 minutes sitting in a comfy chair and looking at the pretty Uzbek lass doing the work.

Beyond giving sound advice I suppose I should do an Uzbekistan and Central Asia post. The Uzbek one will be brief. For all its famous sights and the quite nice Uzbek people, I didn't really enjoy the place that much. I did the usual getting drunk and seeing wonderful things but for some reason I couldn't get enthusiastic about this country. I would recommend others to come here but I don't think I will come back.

I will be even more succint about the politics of this place. The guy in charge is a cunt and has been since he was the Soviet appointed cunt. Very simple.

In a sense Karimov is also very representative of Central Asian politics. The merry bunch who were in power when the USSR collapsed are still in charge and do everything to stay where they are through various methods. Kyrgystan likes to change constitutions regularly presumably so that the head boys get more power each time. The leaders of Kazakhstan just subvert the judiciary to do their dirty work and seem to model their methods on Putin. Uzbekistan uses old fashioned brutality and laughably rigged elections. Turkmenistan is just crazy.

So what did I make of my little jaunt in Central Asia?

It was nice being back on the trail again even if it a bit stranger than the East Asian one and despite the above Central Asia has got a lot going for it. I liked the sights and scenery and the folk are a fun bunch. There's no silly face bollocks here so there are no headaches working out what the people really want. I also enjoyed the combination of high police presence with their utter uselessness. The problem with being a bunch of corrupt thieves is that you hardly command respect. The sensible way of dealing with the fuzz here is to be openly contemptous. It's always fun to laugh at the impotent.

I also liked the boozing here. For A Muslim area the place is swimming in alcohol and it's wonderfully cheap. It's quite common to drink very early in the day so you don't create the misconception that westerners are a bunch of degenerate alkies.

Paradoxically it's also one of the things I will definitely won't miss. The locals tend to force booze down your throat and get slightly huffy if you decide that for one night you are going to stay off the sauce or, evcen worse, decide you've had enough. Stopping before they do is a wise course of action as they drink prodigious amounts.

I guess they mean well but I get rather defensive when drunks start trying to make me drink. I have had a few guys get quite shouty which, after a bottle of vodka, doesn't produce the best reaction in me. I have often felt sorry at the young guy who speaks English (there's nearly always one hanging about) being forced to explain to me that refusing the next round is insulting and then having to diplomatically convey to someone that I couldn't give a toss about whether or not I offended them.

There are other aspects of Central Asia I am glad to see the back of.

The local music is qute excrutiating as there are many languages that are suited for pop but those in the Turkic linguistal group are not. The food is OK but just lacks variety (it's not a good sign when people are glad to see Russian restaurants). I am often annoyed at the way the train and/or bus stations are fecking miles out of town. Bloody Soviet town planners. But these are all trivial whinges and haven't really got to me.

My biggest gripe with Central Asia is that it forced me to plan. One of the greatest aspects of travelling is that you can dispose of your time as you see fit. It's great to stay or go on a whim and that is something I have done a lot. The insane visa regulations of Central Asia make this unwise if not impossible. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they are so bloody awkward about who comes into their country. Uzbekistan is even worse as they want to know where you are at all times. As per the custom of this place I have in my passport the registration chit of every bloody hostel I have stayed in as not having them allegedly guarantees problems when leaving the country.

In case anyone wondered I am not morphing into some "No Borders" hippy. My objections are quasi colonialist. Who do they think they are? I'm hardly going to work illegally in any of the countries of the area. The last problems any of these countries face is unregistereed foreigners and I resent police states that can't even make their police scary let alone competent.

Anyhoo it's been nice coming here but as Central Asia is famous for being a place of transit I will now depart. The Silk Road was important in itself but the places at the end are why it existed. Henceforth tommorow I will get back on the way to Damascus. I will go from an area I knew precious little about to one where my ignorance is quasi American; the Caucasus.

Next stop, Baku. Then again the next stop might be bottom of the Caspian Sea if Uzbekistan Airways maintains its planes the way they run their ticket office.

Take care,


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

If Samarkand was built on Timur's skill at arms then Bukhara was built on the more generic foundation of human gullibility. Religion is what made Bukhara so worth a peek.

There are many grandiose sights here and I am now one of the many folk to give it the thumbs up. Some of it's monuments were spared the usual Mongol destruction allegedly because Genghis took a shine to the Kalon Minaret. Being a steppe tent dwelling oik he was a bit gobsmacked by Arslan Khan's massive erection. So am I. It's very big indeed.

Over the centuries the Karakhnids, Shaybanids, Astrakhanids and other easily mispelt dynasties have chipped in their own share of mosques, madrassas and caravanserais (even the faithful need some income) to the beautiful jumble that is Uzbekistan's holy city. The caravanserais are now tourist gift emporiums but many of the religious buildings are still in use. Mosques are full of pilgrims from Uzbekistan and a few from other Muslim countries. Some madrassas are still educating the youth in the ways of Allah as I deduced by the drying laundry in the courtyard and the very polite way they tell infidels like me to fuck off.

What distinguishes this place from Smarkand is the great strolling it offers. I enjoyed getting lost in the old town. Any random walk will throw up some old building and there is plenty of scutty alleys to compensate for the excessive tweeness of some of the beaatified parts of Bukhara. In 5 minutes I went from a kitschy plaza with a large pool and statues of camels to a dcrepit plaza with communal water pump and tethered goats.

The not so quaint part of the old town is also where I found some signs of life. Bukhara is remarkably empty. The tourist season is definitely over which has pros and cons. The good side is that I am in a position to negotiate nearly everything just by looking at the vast amount of competitors for any given good and service. The flip side is that I can't hover around French tour groups (France is Uzbekistan's main source of paunchy sightseers wearing bush jackets) getting the service of their guide for free.

The best I get is cops trying to solicit a bribe in exchange for access to locked areas. Karimov has declared that the usual Central Asian of police extortion is something that displeases him (not a good thing in this neck of the woods) so rozzers have branched out to offering something for cash instead of just stealing it.

The other activity here is locating the few backpackers, drinking cheap beer and whining about the crapness of the Lonely Planet maps of Uzbekistan's cities. In my case the maps are one of the main reasons to get the guide in the first place so I get particularly irate at the way LP's resident cartographer has decided that scale is somewhat passe and old-fashioned. I accept that the names of streets tend to change a lot as a result of de-sovietisation and personality cults but I do think that the backpackers holy scripture should be written by those aware that there is a connection between cardinal points and the way the arrow points on those trendy compass thingies.

Anyways I tore myself away from this place and headed to my next stop: Khiva

My first impression of the walled city of Ichon Qala was a mixed one. I got there at night after a long drive through the desert. The guesthouses are located inside the old city so I made my way to the place and entered through a very large gate. Inside it was like some sort of film set of Sheherazade. The visible humans consisted of me, 2 babushkas on their way out and a cop with what looked like a rifle wrapped inside a rug. I then walked about the place under brilliant moonlight (cool and useful has there is no public lighting 50 yards away from the main monumnets) to find a still open hostel.

If Bukhara was feeling a bit empty then Khiva by night redefines deserted. A lot of the hostels are closed but some are there to pick up the strays like me. The notion of having an entire walled city to yourself might sound fun and to a certain extent it is but the joy gets killed off by hunger. I tried to find a chaikhana without success within the old town then expanded my search towards the modern part of Khiva. No luck. I decided to settle for a shop but still no joy. the only places open were hairdressers. I could starve but I could get a perm while I was doing so. Hooray.

At day some life is breathed into the place though not in the way I expected. I started to get curious after my 3rd encounter with some Uzbek hottie in full bridal dress. Khiva was swarming with brides, grooms and the usual cohort that follows. Apparently it's a very nice place to get married here and the best season is now. The absence of tourists means that nothing will spoil that video of the newlyweds walking through the scenic old streets. Except for the other wedding parties doing the same thing.

I have decided that Khiva also has my favourite minaret of all. It's unfinished, very fat and very turquoise. I like it because it sticks out and has a great story about it. Granted this is one of the many, many legends about Uzbekistan's many, many monuments but I choose to believe this one. The thing is unfinished because the architect snuffed it before completion. It was going to be the greatest in all Central Asia but legend has it he was ready to do the same job for the Emir of Bukhara. The local Khan got wind of this and, being a bit of a rival of Bukhara's boss, had the architect sentenced to death by being thrown off his own unfinished minaret. The building was tall but not tall enough to guarantee a kill so they had to lob him off the thing a few times before the poor sod died.

This tale is very Khivaesque in the sense that the city was known for nasty stuff. Khiva pissed off the Russkies no end by being the best place to buy a Russian slave. They alos have a perverse pride in the various horrors committed by the degenerate rulers that sometimes had the run of this place. The Zindon (jail) hasn't got a bug pit like Bukhara but they compensate by piccies of the various nasty ways the Khans of Khiva punished people. To contrast, Bukhara's Zindon is sort of out the way and the only pictures they have are photos of people who were imprisoned or whipped for trifling religious infractions.

The downside of Khiva, beyond difficulty of finding food, is that internet is non existant and electricity infrequent. Transport is also apain in the arse to acquire. I spent some time trying to work out a way of getting to the Aral sea and back in time but eventually gave up after missing buses and one wonderful occasion where me and another chap curious about ecological disasters set up a 6am meet with a car only for some guy to turn up 3 hours later to say he couldn't be bothered.

For the first time in a long while I am under obligation to be at a certain place in a certain time and it's playing havoc with my custom of going somewhere because it sounds fun. I decided to play it safe and backtrack to the Bukhara.

My next stop and the last one in Central Asia will then be Tashkent.

Take care,


Friday, November 16, 2007

Samarkand, Unconvincingly Fake Democracy of Uzbekistan

There are many reasons why people go to Central Asia and Samarkand has been one of them for millenia. Over th centuries, folk have put up with crap transport, weird entry requirements imposed by cuntish rulers and endless variants of mutton just to come to this place. Alexander the Great heard of the place and , like many after, just had to come here. Admittedly he conquered it instead of simply having a look but the bisexual megalomaniac started a trend.

In a lot of places backpackers are a strange reflection of the inequality of the world. Boys and girls from societies so prosperous they feel secure enough to ditch it all for months go to places 2 steps away from basic subsistence . Here the rucksack crowd and the tour groups are just the latest lot of moths drawn to Samarkand's flame. The travel bug owes a lot to this place.

Samarkand has been important since Christ was but a gleam in the archangel's eye but most of what can be seen here is from after the 14th century. Samarkand was one of many amazing places razed to the ground by Genghis Khan. He might have been invincible but he was still a unwashed tasteless prole. Luckily for the world, what one bloodthirsty conqueror can destroy, another bloodthirsty conqueror can resurrect. Enter Amir Timur AKA; Timur the Great, Timur the Lame, Tamerlane.

Timur is a bit of a cult figure in Uzbekistan. In a scary way he is the most famous local and they have to make the best of it. They focus on his conquests, the long overdue kicking he gave to the Golden Horde and the way he made Samarkand into a centre of Islamic culture and a place of beauty. They tend to gloss over his less admirable actions such as having Delhi put to the sword or they way he liked to play Jenga with human skulls. Anyways, Timur and his descendants plowed cash and slaves into making Samarkand even greater than it was.

If Samarkand embodies the Silk Road then the Registan symbolises Samarkand. It is a square surrounded on 3 sides by huge madrassas. Google it if you want to see what I am writing about but what you will never get on a screen is the sheer scale of it. However nice, a picture cannot give you the feeling I felt when I walked under it's stupendously big gates which are twice the height of the buildings behind. That is why it's worth coming here beyond the "I've taken the road to Samarkand" inner medal travellers award themselves.

The same feeling can be had at Timur's prezzy to Allah that is the Bibi Khanym Mosque. Once again you walk under insanely big arches to get to the courtyard and the turquoise domes it holds. This is actually a tried and tested trick from the God Squad all over. Cathedrals in Europe use the same method. The name of the game is to get you feeling all small and awestruck before a nice session of endoctrination. Illusionists and con artists know the importance of prepping the punters.

I must confess it worked with me. The awe and feeling tiny part, not the religion bit. That's patently nonsense.

A more contemplative experience can be had at the Shari Zinda in the cemetery which is a street of tombs and mausoleums for Timur's family, mates and lackeys (Timur and his offspring get their own separate and astonishingly discrete mausolem). The quiet atmosphere and the absence of absurd bigness let you contemplate and appreciate the delicate architecture and beautiful mosaic work.

Kudos to the artists and artisans who have create something so esthetically pleasing in spite of Islamic proscriptions on depicting, well, pretty much anything. These people were doing abstract art long before a bunch of poncy beret wearers decided to claim that putting random shapes on a canvas was significant. It also looks far better.

Mind you they do sometimes make the odd infraction to Allah's strange rules. I saw a few birds inside some tombs and one of the Registan's gates has a couple of lions/tigers on it. Lions if you believe the King who commissioned it, tigers if you believe your eyes. I suspect that the tendency for rulers of these parts to behead people willy nilly meant that if if he said lions where orange and had stripes then few would be bold enough to disagree.

There is also a bazaar here but to be honest I cam getting a bit bored of them. They are great for wandering and people watching but when you have to get a few necessities they start to be a tad tiring. Imagine going to a supermarket but having to go to the till each time you choose an item and having to bloody negotiate it.

Next stop, Bukhara

Take care,


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tashkent, Karimov's Subjugated Fiefdom of Uzbekistan

Another shortie. Reasons below.

I have been told to bugger off by the Turkmen Authorities before I even set foot on their turf. The mere mention of Azerbaijan had them moving me towards the door of the consulate. Repeated assurances that I was not going to take the ferry were in vain. I have been denied.

This cocks up my overland trip and forces me to fly from Tashkent to Baku at soem point at the end of the month. This is why I will do only a very short post on Tashkent as I will have to return here to fly out. Bollocks.

At first glance, Central Asia's biggest city is suprisingly sedate. Few people are out and about and I have even spotted tethered sheep in the centre. It's pleasant in a sense and long walks to find the Turkmen Embassy and other essentials have led me into very cute neighbourhoods.

I have not done much sightseeing yet as I am feeling a bit under the weather and I want to make sure I don't get Mosque Fatigue (the Central Asian cousin of Temple Fatigue) before I finish the Uzbek grand tour of Samarkand, Buqara and Khiva.

The one reason I even bother to do this post is that I have wanted to write the following line for a while.

Next stop, Samarkand.

Take care,


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tashkent, Tyranny of Uzbekistan.

Just a quick post on Osh as I promised to do so. The interweb being very fickle in Osh I have had to prioritise what I do. Odes to myself are fun but not that high on the urgent list. Other things must come first.

As stated in the previous post, Osh has a very Central Asian feel. Once a trading post, always a trading post. This is great fun and gives one the impression that the Silk Road never really died but just revamped itself into the legendary Assorted Crap Road. Oh to follow the trail of the cheap pair of socks.

As you might guess the bazaar is the focal point of Kyrgystan's second city. It's wonderfully chaotic and haphazard but it's a bit tricky to quietly browse here. There are loads of pushcarts (and the odd taxi) ferrying stuff around and your ears become sensitive to their cry which sounds like a reminder of where you are (OSH! OSH). If you value your shins you start to mind their call.

It's a paradox that I love bazaars and markets with the same intensity that I detest shopping but there it is. Being limited on lugagge space and being stingy I bought nowt but managed to get my knife sharpened and also to get some trousers repaired. I had ripped a pair getting out of a mashrutka and the Kyrgyz love affair with smallness and jeans prevented me from buying a replacement. The bonus is that I got a giggle from the sewing ladies who at first were trying to get me to drop trow publicly then, when I convinced them that the trousers in my bag were the ones needing their expertise, they decided to become some sort of matrimonial agency. Apparently they know eligible ladies with many gold teeth.

I have also scrambled up Suleyman's throne, Osh's answer to Edinburgh's Arthur's Seat. It's wonderfully craggy and and peppered with significant caves and one stone slide where women would woosh down repeatedly. I thought it had something to do with fertility but seeing the age range (10-60plus) of the lasses polishing the chute with their bums I am either wrong or Kyrgyz women badly need some basic Sex Ed. Also of note on Solomon's little chair were the odd couple who go for some ilicit heavy petting.

Because of this I had a very strange argument. Me and a Swiss guy were climbing up to one rocky top and from time to time paused to check that we hadn't gone up anything we couldn't get down of. We then spotted a chap dryhumping his lady on another highspot and, predictably yet childishly, had a laugh about it. Said chap noticed and started to yell at us, presumably for being pervy, to which we responded. It's hard to have a bit of argie-bargie from highpoints 200 metres across from each other and with no common language but we decided to give it a go. We somehow managed to point out that if he wanted to feel up his girlfriend discreetly he should consider options other than the one spot than can be seen from anywhere in Osh. He buggered off and we continued upwards.

I suspect couples have to be a tad subtle here as it is way more islamic than Bishkek. It's all mosques and muezzins here and the ratio of women bearing headscarfs to women from the Russian school of hookerware is heavily in favour of Allah's lot. There are a few things who's origins I am unsure of though. At the waterfall in Arslanbob I had seen a lot of rags tied to bushes and in Osh there are people going about with a pan of burning herbs connected to a tube. They blow into the tube to produce smoke which they then waft around departing cars and businessnes in exchange for some notes. These look like remnants of traditions older than Islam.

Osh is religious by day but at night it's a different story. It's very badly lit and the streets belong to groups of aggressive drunken men. A bit like a UK high street without the slappers. The classic Central Asian battle between the Arab import of Islam and the Soviet import of joyless alcohol abuse has resulted in a division of the day in Osh. To highlight the point there is a very loud bar just across the street form the mosque and I am sure some people patronise both.

I'm not against a wee bit of religious hypocrisy but here it's a little irritating here for no better reason than they don't just make the odd exception in order to have a bit of fun with their friends and family, they get bladdered Russian style. This way of getting drunk is in my opinion one of the worst kind. Alocohol is not a social lubricant but pretty much a drug. It is consumed with little or no cheer and there are precious little jolly drunks around. A truly miserable way of getting sozzled.

Off to explore Tashkent,

Take care,


Monday, November 05, 2007

Osh, Fergana Valley, Kyrgystan

Osh is what a Central Asian city should be. None of this rundown Krakow look. Here it's all chaos, commerce and cacophony. More about this place in a later post.

I had a nice 11 hour share taxi drive from Bishkek to Osh. We passed high peaks at dusk and then skirted reservoirs whose clifflike banks were made eerie by very strong moonlight before getting in the breadbasket that is the Fergana valley. Overall a nice trip but slightly marred by the fact the driver and another passenger decided I should be the judge of what was the best song out of an album that sounded like a playlist for mid eighties action flicks. The other drawback was the driver got there 4 hours earlier than expected so that my masterplan of arriving in Osh at dawn went tits up.

I got to Osh at stupid a.m, found some old Soviet hotel, crashed then spent the next day walking about the place trying to work out how to get to Arslanbob and having sullen teenagers in internet cafes telling me there was nyet internet in Osh today. Crashed again and set off bright and early to Arslanbob.

Though it's not far on the map, getting to Arslanbob was a half day trip consisting of taking ever worsening tranport. I grabbed a standard Merc 16 seater to Jalalabad then made my way to Bazaar Korgon (the names are fantastic) on some sort of ex-soviet truck/bus and finally spent 2 hours getting up into the mountains in a Daewoo micro combi designed for 6 people but ended up holding 7 adults and 5 kids. The arrival in Arslanbob and the disembarkation had an element of a clown car act.

In the interest of fairness I feel obliged to mention that Kyrgyz hospitality means that I often get to bagsy the best seat in whatever transport I take. My paranoid self thought that this was compo for being royally fucked on the fare but everyone else was handing over the same sums. Maybe the Kyrgyz are genuinely nice people. Central Asia is indeed a strange place.

So here I was in Arslanbob to experience what most people go to Kyrgystan for; bucolic mountains. I am too late in the year for yurt time but I got to stay with a family through some homestay programme. The house was a 3 klick hike up the hill but has a great view of the huge wall like mountains to the north. A nice stroke of luck was that the grandaddy of the house had learnt some German in his youth so my first afternoon there was a pleasant affair of drinking loads of tea, eating assorted dried fruits and nuts, and mangling the language of Goethe and Hitler.

The next day I trotted down to the village centre and pottered around the place and a few surrrounding promontories. I then returned to the main square where I had a pleasant hour or so watching folk, having bloes coming up to me for a "salam" and a handshake and getting the elders to teach me to crack walnuts with my hands. To be honest I don't really like walnuts but since they had sent a 5 year old up a tree to breakleg heights so that the little urchin could shake the branches I felt obliged.

I should mention that walnuts are a big thing here. The founder of the place Arslan Bab Ata apparently set up the huge walnut forests that surround the village before snuffing it and getting himself a small mausoleum where locals go to talk to his bones. It's also walnut harvest time so the unpaved streets of Arslanbob were full of donkeys carrying huge sacks of the not so tasty treats.

My fave moment in the hills came the next day when I followed the riverbed up to a holy waterfall. It was at the waterfall that I had a seriously cool experience that made all the arsing visa probs, vodka hangovers and shit transport of Central Asia worthwhile.

The last leg of the walk to the waterfall is a 500 metre ascent up a steep scree slope. One of the plus sides of being plump and wheezy is that once you get to the top you get a nice endorphin buzz. I was enjoying this as well as the view of the valley when a huge eagle flew past 15 metres to my left and 5 metres below. The scenery, the sound of the waterfall and the majestic birdy all came together in a truly great Wow moment.

I gingerly descended again and had a nice rest in yet another stupidly bucolic spot. It was all gurgling stream, shade from trees and wonderful calm. As the sweet melody of water over rock lulled me I had a quick thought for those I know still stuck in the job and smog world. Of course I gloated internally but now I want to share the feeling.

He He He.

Anyways, I am now back in Osh enjoying the blackouts and working out the cheapest way to get to Tashkent. I will do a post on this place before I sod off to Uzbekistan and hopefully put down some thoughts on Kyrgystan.

Take care,