Saturday, 31 December 2011

Zugdidi - more death masks!

Compared to Gali, across the border in Abkhazia, Zugdidi is upmarket and bustling with commerce. In reality it is another scruffy Georgian town, plagued by road works and building sites. James had arranged to go on patrol with the EU Monitoring Mission, who watch the Russians over the border - Cold War-style. Understanding what the Monitoring Mission did would help inform his research on conflict prevention and stability. I was left to enjoy a sunny day to myself.

Walking around roadworks, trying not to get run over, I reached the end of the High Street where it ended abruptly and opened out into a park. Leaving the noise of the town behind, the park, with a country house and church at its far end, was reminiscent of English country estates. I sat on one of the benches and finish my book and people watched in the Autumn sun. The house was the previous home of the Dadiani family, but is now a museum. It contained the usual clutter, a consequence of centuries of collecting, but the stand-out highlight was a bronze death mask of Napoleon (one of three made), and acquired through a marriage to a descendant of Napoleon's sister. Just a few weeks earlier I had seen Stalin's death mask in Gori, which was the first death mask I had come across, now it seemed like every Georgian town had a big-hitting celebrity death mask for the death mask tourists of the world.

Our short stay in Zugdidi was concluded by a fantastic dinner in a local restaurant where we had a Georgian feast with some excellent Georgian wine. Afterwards we hurried back to the hotel to pick up our bags. The man behind reception produced our Lonely Planet which we had left in the room - we had been wondering where it had gone and I had made James return ask to all the Internet cafes we had used the previous day to ask about it. We had to catch the night train back to Tbilisi that evening, so continued onto the train station and boarded the waiting train.

James out and about with the EU Monitoring Mission

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Abkhazia - The Soviet Riviera

The Georgian border post officials checked our passports, asked us a few questions and then let us through, but they did not stamp our passports. We were not officially leaving Georgia. Two pony and carts ferried passengers across the kilometer or so of no man's land whilst others walked. As we crossed the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) into Abkhazia we passed various check points with armed guards. We helped two women carry their load of 20 enormous, plastic vats for storing jam or chutney before making it to the Abkhaz immigration. It was at this point we realised that the print out of our Letter of Invitation, which had been emailed to us a few days ago, was missing the far right hand details. It was now too late to do anything about it, we kept our fingers crossed that the Abkhaz would not noticed.

They did, but not before several other excuses were given in an attempt to extract a bribe from us. First, they stated that they had not been notified of our visit and, surprise surprise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be contacted. It was not until after listening to our protests that they noticed that the document was missing some details, and pursued a different line to prevent our entry. The official pointed out that the document was missing the first possible date of entry. However, as this date was 30th October 2011 (with the 30 missing off the letter) and we were now in November, we managed to argue that this should not matter; applying some common sense meant we were eligible to enter. Finally, the officials realised that one of the reference numbers was missing. We had no answer for this. Refusing to pay a bribe, we tried the 'getting in the way' tactic but the officials wouldn't let us wait at immigration, instead directing us to a hut, tucked away in the woods. Looking around at the soldiers with their mismatched uniforms - some Abkhaz, some Russian and even some Georgian uniforms, probably acquired during the last spat - we both decided that it was best to trudge back over the bridge to the Georgian side. There I sat with the bags whilst James got a marshrutka back to Zugdidi to find an Internet cafe and print out a complete copy of the letter. The Georgians, keen to show their hospitality after hearing about our trouble with the Abkhaz officials, bought me a coffee as I waited for James. James managed to get the paperwork sorted out very quickly and our second attempt to cross the ABL was successful.

The Abkhaz border town of Gali remains war ravaged and deprived even though the last significant clash with the Georgians was 12 years ago. Whole streets of houses lay eerily abandoned. Little else remained of them other then the four walls but now with the addition of substantial trees growing through their skeletons. Dogs with horrible deformities wandered the muddy potholed streets.

The delay at the ABL had resulted in us having missed the last marshrutka to Sukhumi. The taxi drivers were asking for an exorbitant amount to take us. It was now late, so we decided to stay in Gali; we had thought that the comments the taxi drivers had made about there being no hotel were lies. However, we soon found out that the taxi drivers were right; there are no hotels in Gali. In desperation James went to the Post Office and pleaded with the women, some customers, some staff, to take us in for the night. An older woman bullied the younger cashier to take us, pointing out that it would be a useful extra bit of cash for her. James agreed a price with her. Once we got to her flat, and saw how she was living we negotiated up the price. She needed the money more than us.

The flat was in a stripped out block of flats. There was no glass in the windows, only plastic sheeting, it was freezing cold and damp. A tiny black and white television flicked in the corner. The previous one, she told us, had been stolen. In this flat she lived with her two sons. No mention of their father. And she was lucky, she had employment, having worked in the Post Office for the last 15 years.

In the initial creation of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was designated as a part of the Georgian Socialist Republic, but ten years later in 1931 it gained Autonomous Republic status. It remained an ethnically mixed place with Abkhaz, Georgians, Russians and Armenians calling the region home. As the Soviet Union began to break up Georgia claimed Abkhazia as Georgian territory whilst Abkhazia struggled for independence. In 1992 Georgia declared a return to the 1921 Constitution and 3,000 Georgian troops were sent into Abkhazia to assert this.

The following morning we got the first marshrutka to Sukhumi. The marshrutka driver complained about our bags (one big one and one small one) and wanted more money. Fed up, we pulled that 'this doesn't happen in Georgia' card and he didn't ask again.

On arriving in Sukhumi, we wanted to go straight to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get our visas. James chose to ask the roughest looking guy in the whole of Abkhazia for directions. The man was as wide as he was tall, unshaved with scars crisscrossing his face. He was having two shots of vodka for breakfast and his voice sounded as if he had been drinking all night as well. However, he was very helpful and with his directions we found our way.

After toing and froing we finally got our Abkhaz visa. This entitled us to leave Abkhazia! It is a required document to exit and therefore useful to get on arrival in case it is urgently needed.

The guesthouse price had tripled from that stated in our guidebook, and this was after negotiation. We were the only guests. The heating didn't work. After the mornings administrative efforts I was exhausted but James insisted on some sightseeing - he must have been feeling unwell.

We got a marshrutka back into town, changed transport a couple of times and finally made it out to Novy Afon. There, on a lush green hill overlooking the Black Sea, was a monastery. It was surrounded by the sub-tropical forest of the region, where the climate can sustain both satsuma and hazel nut crops, but with little ability to export the produce much of the land remains uncultivated and the forest untouched. The monastery's gold domes topped with the gold orthodox crosses shone in the afternoon sunshine above the forest treetops. Some Russian tourists milled about outside.

As one of the most southern lands of the Soviet Union Abkhazia has a special place in Russian hearts and it is often looked on with nostalgia. Many sanatoriums were developed (the Novy Afon Monastery also became one during Soviet times) for the workers and the KGB had some there too. Stalin had a dacha on the coast where he spent many holidays, whilst rarely visiting other parts of Georgia, even his mother down the road in Gori.

Exploring Sukhumi the following day we walked along the sea front where some redevelopment had taken place. Posters of the recent World Dominoes Championships were plastered on building site fencing, announcing to visitors that Abkhazia was an international venue. The rest of the town was dilapidated through war damage, although hints of the previous grandeur of the town could be seen. Shells of ornate buildings now with trees growing through the windows, the white paint peeling from the exterior walls, lay derelict. The train station was the saddest structure of all. It had obviously been a stunningly beautiful building but now lay unused.

In 1992 Georgian soldiers were sent into Abkhazia to restore order around the border areas. They were under strict orders not to advance further into the territory. This was completely ignored and the Army continued to Sukhumi and ransacked the town obliterating buildings and infrastructure, including the train station. It was another year before Sukhumi was back under Abkhaz control. In the meantime Georgians had moved back their homes in the area around Gali but, just a year later, were refugees again.

When returning to Gali James visited a local NGO running projects to unite local communities. The local staff working for the NGO were mainly ethnic Georgians who had not left. James innocently asked about their thoughts on the political future of Abkhazia. An audible silence came over the entire office. This was not something which was ever discussed. The subject was quickly changed.

As we walked down the road to get a taxi to the ABL, carrying our backpacks, a white Danish Refugee Council Landcruiser went past. The 3 passengers and driver, all of which were Westerners, nearly drove off the road as they craned their necks to stare at us. I don't think they get many backpackers in Gali.


Me with the boys at our homestay in Gali

Gali - on the Administrative Boundary Line between Georgia and Abkhazia

Novy Afon monastery

Inside the Novy Afon monastery.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

How to obtain a visa for Abkhazia when in Georgia

Abkhazia is a breakaway region of Georgia. Internationally (with the exception of Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Transdnestria, South Ossetia, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu)  it is still recognised as part of Georgia, although it uses Russian Roubles as currency and relies heavily on the Russian military for security. Despite its close association with Russia, Abkhazia is desperately trying to assert itself as an independent country. This poses several administrative problems for people, like us, wanting to visit, especially travelling from Georgia and back. How do you cross a border, which the Georgians do not consider to be a border but the Abkhaz do? Luckily the Abkhaz Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a very good website in Russian, Turkish, English and Spanish. And it turned out to be much more straight forward than we anticipated, just a couple of administrative hoops to jump through. The following describes how we did it.

1. Fill out a online form here  http://www.mfaabkhazia.net/en/visa. Allow 5 days for a reply.
Top tip: When stating on the form the towns to be visited remember to spell Sukhum without the i, as this is the Abkhaz spelling, whilst Sukhumi is the Georgian spelling. Luckily this faux pas on our application didn't prevent us getting the paperwork.

2. Print out the letter of invitation received by email (we received ours within 24 hours although the website says to allow 5 days).

3. Take said letter to the border or administrative boundary line if being politically correct.

4. Visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi with the letter and pick up and pay for a visa (the visa has to be paid for first, in Roubles, in a bank a good walk away from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Top tip: You cannot leave Abkhazia without a visa so it is best to get it at the start of any trip, therefore if you need to leave urgently you can. Also, the cost of a visa for 30 days or less was stated on the website to be $20 but when we explained that we only planned to stay for a few days they dropped the price to $10.

5. The visa is not stuck in your passport and when returning to Georgia, on the border, the Abkhazia take it back.

Please note that this advice is for travelling to Abkhazia from Georgia and returning to Georgia. I should imagine the process is also quite simple travelling from and returning to Russia. I would, however, be very cautious of going from Georgia to Abkhazia to Russia or vice versa. This is because Georgia still considers Abkhazia part of Georgia, you do not get an exit stamp when entering Abkhazia from Georgia, therefore have not officially left Georgia. Conversely you would not get a Georgian entry stamp when entering Abkhazia from Russia, so if trying to travel onto Georgia, the Georgians could treat you as if you had illegally entered Georgia.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs - Kutaisi, Georgia

Kutaisi is Georgia's second city. Second cities are usually second for a reason beyond population size and administrative buildings, so I wasn't holding out for anything particularly exciting. I was wrong. Our stay in Kutaisi was very enjoyable, giving us more insight into Georgia and Georgians, as well as having a couple of great days out.

It immediately won us over when we found a couple of good cafes. As I people watched in a particularly cosy cafe I saw a very respectable mother and daughter take a seat. The girl was a about 9 or 10 years old and I watched them as they ordered lunch. A few moments later I looked up and was shocked to see that not only was the woman drinking a bottle of beer but so was the little girl. Not a taste from her mother's drink but an entire bottle to herself. I could only image the conversation when ordering, "what will you have to drink, darling? A coke or milkshake maybe?" "Actually I'll have a beer with my ice cream thanks mum."

In the same cafe we chatted to a British guy and an American girl both working on a Teaching English in Georgia scheme in a local school. They spoke of the different work ethic they had experienced. All they had to do was to turn up for work to be thought of as a conscientious worker. Many of their Georgian colleagues often didn't.

We were staying with Giorgi at his homestay on the hill overlooking the small town. The house was spacious with fruit trees growing in the garden. On his mantelpiece I spotted a compliments slip from a coffee company. I did a double take, realising that I knew the person who had written the note. Our London-based, exclusive coffee company employee friend, Guy, had visited Georgi a few years previously. It was nice to send Guy an email to say that Georgi had got his coffee. Georgi suggested that evening that we spent the following day at Sataplia.

The following morning, after a frustrating hour and a half trying to find the right marshrutka to Sataplia - no one could give us any information about where it left from and at what time but we eventually made it out to the Sataplia State Reserve, 7 km from the town centre. Initial annoyance soon subsided as we were taken to the first attraction; the dinosaur footprints. The guide claimed that this was the only place in the world where two different species of dinosaur footprints had been found; one a herbivore and the other it's predator. The footprints are not as large as I was expecting, just bigger than hand-sized, but they were extensive, showing a trail of prints where the creatures had scampered about on the muddy ground. This ground, over time, had turned to rock and preserved the prints with incredible definition.

Next the guide took us along a walkway to a steel door in the side of the cliff. After tapping a code into the key pad the door slowly opened. It felt as it we were entering a baddies lair, but actually it was the Sataplia cave attraction. Tasteful lighting lit up the stalactites and stalagmites in sequence as we followed the walkway. It eventually led us to The Heart. This was not only at the heart of the cave system but it was also a huge stalagmite grown in the shape of a heart. Not a heart draw on playing cards but a human heart.

The final attraction at Sataplia was the glass walkway. Not really comparable in scale to the one over the Grand Canyon but the same concept. The walkway had been constructed over a vegetated cliff looking out towards Kutaisi. I have to admit finding it a little disconcerting stepping out on to the glass. The Georgian/Russian couple with us were also cautious but the woman soon overcame any fear. Her Georgian husband, on the other hand, managed only a few steps on the platform, whilst clinging to the side, before scuttling back to safety. This had us all in fits of laughter which he took graciously.

So, for only $3 we had had a great day out. If Georgia can produce quality tourist attractions like Sataplia, instead of overpriced Stalin Museums, it may well become a mainstream tourist destination.

Back in Kutaisi we met up with Mary in our favourite cafe. Having grown up in Kutaisi she gave us some interesting insight. Of particular interest was that the incumbent President, Saakashvili, who was at the end of his term and could not be re-elected, was currently building a new Parliament building in Kutaisi, with plans to relocate the government there. The official line is that it will create job opportunities in Georgia's second city. Sceptics believe is to distance the government from from the prime minister as Saakashvili lines himself up to 'do a Putin' (become Prime Minister for a term when the Constitution does not allow for another term as President). Ironic really as no one despises Putin as publicly as Saakashvili. But our discussion with Mary wasn't all negative, she spoke of Georgia's transformation in the last couple of years from a corrupt state, where corruption was encountered by citizens on a daily basis, to its almost overnight eradication. We topped off our stay in Kutaisi with a few beers in new microbrewery next to the river.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

James meets Bond in Borjomi, Georgia

It was late when we got off the train in Borjomi and we jumped into a taxi. After driving about trying to find somewhere to stay the taxi driver asked whether we were married. We said we were. Reassured he offered us a room in his house. He introduced himself as Bond, James introduced himself as James, and much hilarity ensued. Bond and his wife had aspirations to open a homestay and cash in on the tourists visiting the area. We were their first guests. The house wasn't really suited to having people to stay; to access the bathroom they had to walk through our bedroom. Bond did not speak English but his son had worked in London, and spoke perfect colloquial English with a Cockney accent.

Bond was a fusser, and the next day it took us about an hour to extract ourselves from the house, eventually managing to convince him that we didn't want a taxi. The whole point of coming to Borjomi was to go walking in the National Park; a densely wooded area of the Lesser Caucasus, and one of the largest National Parks in Europe which encompassed nearly 8% of Georgia's territory. We popped into the National Park office, located just out of town, where we registered and picked up our free map. Whilst unsuccessfully trying to get a marshrutka to the start of the hike we also picked up a dog, a little black and white collie cross, who followed us along the busy road to where it turned down a track into the forest. We later found out that she was called Alma.

Not far along the muddy track I spotted a distinctive animal print in the mud. After many trips to North America I could easily distinguish a bear print. This discovery made our forest walk a bit more exciting. The leaves were wonderfully autumnal and the air crisp. We turned off the track onto a little path that zig-zagged up the steep slope eventually popping out on the brow of a ridge where we could get glimpses of the wooded hills beyond.

James complained that it was the hilliest forest he had ever visited. Alma, however, seemed to being enjoying her walk and would wait for us to catch up. The final leg took us through a steep sided gorge where the afternoon sunshine streamed through the autumn leaves, casting a dappled shade on the ground. There we saw the first other hiker of the day just before reaching the park gate. The park warden checked our registration form as we were exiting at which point his huge mountain dog attacked Alma. The howling and yelping eventually subsided and she seemed unharmed. The warden asked us where she had come from and we explained that she had followed us from the park office. He made some phone calls and a man from the village walked up the track to get her. Alma didn't want to be caught and she ran to me, where I reluctantly handed her over. It was I good thing really, I don't know how we would have got her back to Borjomi on the marshrutka.

Borjomi is most famous for its mineral water, which is one of Georgia's primary exports. Although a boycott of Georgian products by Russia after the most recent South Ossetia dispute in 2008 had reduced demand. James had trouble understanding its appeal, describing it as tasting like carbonated sea water. Still, we felt like we should visit the park where the mineral water springs were. This also gave Bond the chance to drive us somewhere, which he was so desperate to do. The park had the usual tasteless amusement rides in typical soviet decay, but we enjoyed the autumn leaves for a couple of hours, and watched people bottle their own supply of the water, before returning to the town to pick up our bags, say a lengthy goodbye to Bond and catch the marshrutka to Kutaisi.

James checks the map

Autumn leaves

Monday, 12 December 2011

Gori, Stalin and South Ossetia

So you would think that if a town was the birth place of Stalin it wouldn't be something the residents would want to brag about. Not Gori. The town takes its link to Stalin very seriously. There is a museum dedicated to the infamous Soviet leader, located at his childhood home, bang in the middle of the town - incredibly convenient of Stalin to have happened to be brought up in a house so well located. His little house is right outside the museum entrance, with a mausoleum-esque building protecting it. It is also incredible that the house was spared during the earthquake of 1920 whilst the rest of the town was devastated. Another attraction outside the museum is Stalin's railway carriage. Inside the rather over priced museum there is no mention of gulags or the like, and a spooky room houses Stalin's death mask.

Gori has more recently starred in the history of Georgia when nearby South Ossetia erupted into violence in 2008 and the Russians temporarily occupied the town. Buildings on the main street, called Stalin Avenue of course, still show evidence of this and are peppered with bullet holes. We climbed up to the fort which overlooks the town, and affords views of South Ossetia and the mountains to the north. James and I had invited ourselves to stay with a friend now working for the EU Monitoring Mission. Aaron had a cosy flat on Stalin Avenue. The one snag was that the water supply to the flat, and most of the street, had been inexplicably turned off, so we had to head across town to a local restaurant to eat, making sure we used the loo before we left. There we were able to chat about the current situation and what the future may hold.

Whilst in Gori we also managed a quick visit to Uplistsikhe, a UNESCO world heritage site comprising ancient cave dwellings. After a pleasant afternoon exploring the caves and underground secret passages, we returned by hitching a lift with a bus of primary school children, their teachers and mothers. All the Mums on board seemed drunk and insisted on dancing in the aisle to Justin Beiber.  They took a particular liking to James. He seemed to induce lots of giggling as the woman he was sat next to flushed scarlet.

James in the Staling Museum

Uplistsikhe, ancient cave town

Uplistsikhe caves and more recent church

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Kezbegi - a mountain and a church in the Caucasus

In Tbilisi the weather was warm for one more day and then, over night, the temperature plummeted and winter had arrived in Georgia. After some snow on the passes a clear but cold spell was forecast, so we decided to head to the high mountains of the Caucasus, before it worsened again. We caught a marshrutka up the military highway, directly north of Tbilisi, towards the Russian border. Riding in the front of the marshrutka so we could get the best views of the mountains, the driver, who lived in Kezbegi, offered us a place to stay. He and his family had a cosy house on the hill with spectacular views of the snow capped Kezbegi Peak.That evening was the first on the trip in which we experienced any form of heating and we slept terribly.

Georgia was the first Christian country we had travelled to so far and, as testament to a long devotion to the religion, churches dominate the sky line from the cities to the countryside. The Georgians have a knack for building Churches in the most spectacular spots. Kezbegi is the most famous of these. A little church perched on a hill, silhouetted against the 5000 m Kezbegi Peak. We walked from the village up to the church, enjoying the crisp air. Our stride was broken at one point when we helped push a Larda Neva out of a muddy rut, to the great appreciation of the driver, who was ferrying an ill prepared Isreali girl in sandels back down the hill.

After looking around the church I was keen to continue on but James was feeling sick. The snow was thick on the ground but the sun was blazing and hot. He managed a little further and then lay down on a warm rock and refused to go on. I left him to walk back to the village and joined two women, one British, one American, both working in London, and we continued until we were satisfied that we had walked far enough. Back in the village, James was pursuaded that he could manage a beer, and we all sat in a cafe together drinking beer and eating khincaly (over-sized dumplings).

The following day James was feeling much better and we got up early to hire bikes. The day wasn't as clear as the previous, and mist hung over the hills. We cycled south and then turned off the main road towards the Sno valley. The road turned into a track and took us through tiny villages.We climbed steadily, resting periodically, until the track steepened and narrowed. Eventually we reached the top where a small village clung to either side of the river banks. Fearing that we would be late returning the bikes we turned around and hurtled back down the track; Kezbegi Peak perfectly framed by the flanks of the Sno valley. We had, however, under estimated the incline we had climbed, and continued to free wheel it all the way back to the main road in no time at all. Arriving early in Kezbegi we decided to ride out the other side of the village on the road north towards Chechnya, and whiled away another hour or so.



Happy hog sleeping in the winter sun

Kezbegi church high above the valley

The church silhouetted against Kezbegi Peak

A crisp autumn morning near Kezbegi

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Georgia - first impressions

Everyone we had spoken to who had been to Georgia had raved about it, so we had high expectations when we crossed the border. Our first impressions of Georgia were fantastic. This was the first country we had travelled in that didn't require a visa. A quick glance at our passports, the satisfying sound of a stamp and we were on our way. As we entered Georgia we were surprised to see the EU flag flying. Throughout our journeys across Georgia we never saw a Georgian flag flying without the EU flag next to it. It was a strong signal that the Georgians considered themselves European and, despite the current crisis in the EU, still very much wanted to join. Some small print meant that they were able to fly the EU's flag.

Suddenly we were in a place where we couldn't read anything. The Georgian script (ქართული დამწერლობა in Georgian), as you can see, is totally unique, and completely baffling for a visitor. Catching a marshrutka from the border town to Tbilisi turned out to be equally baffling. Plenty of vehicles were heading for Tbilisi, that wasn't the problem. The problem was that the marshrutka driver didn't want to take us, or any of the other passengers, but mainly us (I think it was our bags which he was most offended by). He had a complete meltdown, stamping his feet, gesticulating and then refusing to get in the vehicle. Everyone was left bemused and another driver had to be drafted in to take us.

The drive took us through the vineyards of Eastern Georgia. It was harvest time, and lorry loads of grapes trundled down the road. We arrived in Tbilisi as the clouds blackened overhead. By the time we had emerged from the metro it was pouring with rain. Sheltering in the metro station until it had passed, we then headed out into the dark, sodden streets. The whole area was a building site and we picked our way around shaffolding and muddy puddles, disorientated. A student saw that we were lost and pointed us in the right direction of the hostel we were looking for. We found another lost Brit on our way and together eventually managed to find the hostel. Two motorbikes were parked in the courtyard, one of which was Morten's. We had first met Morten whilst queueing at the Turkmen embassy in Tajikistan. And then again he had been refused a Turkmen visa in Uzbekistan and this had resulted in an epically long ride through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and then a ferry across the Black Sea to Georgia, where we met again. The hostel was pretty average, the temperamental white cat sat on the toe of my boot to avoid sitting on the freezing floor. However, it was great to see Morten again and we went out for a good meal and a few beers.

The next day we invested a bit of time in finding a better hostel. We got up early and wandered the deserted streets. We tried to find a coffee but nowhere was open - it was 1030 amd we wondered whether we'd missed changing our watches. Walking around the city we couldn't find any pedestrian crossings and nearly got run over several times trying to negotiate the roads. When we tried to use the metro there were queues out of the door to buy tickets. And then there was the dog poo - dog poo everywhere. But worse was to come. At lunch time James headed into an Internet cafe only to emerge an hour later to find police tape everywhere and a forensic team. A man had been shot dead in the street after being pursued down the road by two other men. This was our second day in Georgia and was not only no improvement on the first but it was worse. We were disappointed (and a little bit concerned that people got shot on the main road in the middle of the day).

That day we did, however, find a better hostel. Dima was slouched on a comfy sofa surfing the net as he read out a review of the hostel, 'This is the best hostel I have ever stayed in. The guy who runs this place is amazing. He is really the best guy EVER,' he read. 'Who would write this shit,' he continued, and then shouted over his shoulder, 'Misha did you write this yourself?'

Misha was a 6ft 6 Pole who had a relaxed attitude to hostel running and was helped by a German, Benjamen, and Dima, a Russian. Misha was incredibly knowledgeable about the area and passionate about Georgia. He explained a few things to us. Firstly, Georgians don't get up early, nothing happens before 10am and cafes only start to fill up after midday. Secondly, there were underpasses, just they are not well signposted, so there was no need to risk our lives every time we crossed the road. Next, shootings were unusual. And finally, the queues at the metro were due to the President trying to woo voters by giving out free credit on their metro cards. And as for the dog poo, you just had to watch where you were walking. After we understood this and had moved to Why Not? hostel, life in Tbilisi became a whole lot more enjoyable.

Flowers at the market

Looking over the baths in old town of Tbilisi

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Pick your own pomegranates - Şəki, Azerbaijan

Needing to continue west to Georgia, we had time for one sight seeing trip in Azerbaijan, so we headed to Azerbaijan's top tourist town of Şəki. Jo offered to drive the 'work car', so we loaded our bags into a Red Cross Land Cruiser and hit the road. Driving along the back roads James suddenly shouted 'POMEGRANATES'. Jo pulled over and James jumped out and disappeared into the bushes. For the last couple of years James has become obsessed with pomegranates; there are worse vices but it did nearly jeopardise the trip. Feeding the habit in the UK virtually bankrupt us. Here in Azerbaijan, however, pomegranates are plentiful and the spiny bushes grow everywhere. This was the first pomegranate forest that James had seen and we lost him for a good half an hour as he picked the fruit.

Out of Baku, Azerbaijan is a completely different country. The roads are bad and villages ramshackled. There are very few women seen in public; this was noticeable even after spending so many months in Central Asia. Jo and I were often the only women in the Chaicanas, but the men who served us were very polite and helpful, and I found Azerbaijan to be a warm and friendly place.

The main attraction in Şəki is the Khan's Palace, an attractive, modest sized wooden building. Its unique beauty is only revealed once inside. The light streams through the most intricate and colourful stained-glassed windows, casting multi-coloured reflections around the room. We stayed in the caravanseri just down the road from the palace. A traditional caravanseri building and, although the rooms were not luxuriously furnished, the setting, a construction of sweeping arches around a lushly vegetated courtyard garden, was stunning.

We went out for dinner that evening to an obscure restaurant where we were seated inside a bizarre Swiss-style wendy house, which itself was inside the restaurant. That night in the caravanseri our sleep was disturbed when the room above us had major plumbing issues. Water poured through the ceiling of our bathroom. I was too tired to get up and do anything about it, and it eventually stopped.

The following day Jo drove us up the road, via a pretty Albanian church, so we could catch a bus to Georgia. We established at the bus station that there was a direct bus to Tbilisi but, after we had waved Jo off, the cashier decided that there wasn't one. We ended up getting a series of dilapidated buses to the closest town to the border from where we got a taxi. Driving up to the the border, the taxi slowly filling with fumes as it struggled on the gentle incline, the countryside rolling passed looked remarkably familiar. I told the taxi driver that it looked like England. This, he thought, was the funniest thing he had ever heard. He dropped us outside the border post still chuckling to himself and shaking his head.

Beautiful stain glassed windows at the Khan's Palace, Şəki

The exterior of the Khan's Palace

Our our room for the night at the caravanseri

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Nowhere in particular in Azerbaijan

Settling into our allocated beds on the scruffy sleeper train from Baku to Barda, I was given the baby. It immediately started crying, so I passed it on to James, where it seemed much happier. We were attracting a lot of attention on the train. Our carriage attendant, a young petite woman with 80s curls, an untucked shirt, her top button undone and tie loosened, was firmly in charge and concerned that we had a comfortable journey. We eventually managed to give the baby back to its owners and went to bed.

After saying our goodbyes we got off the train into the crisp, dark morning and headed to the station waiting room. We had come to Barda (say with a Liverpudlian accent for the correct pronunciation) to see a friend, Jo, who James had studied with in Moscow many moons ago. Jo had been working for the International Red Cross in Barda for the last 2 years. This town is located close to the disputed border with Armenia and has a large population of Internally Displaced People (IDP). The unresolved situation with Armenia means Barda is a sensitive area, combined with the fact that there is really nothing for tourists to see, any outsiders raise suspicions. Whilst we waited for Jo to pick us up a constant stream of taxi drivers popped their heads around the door to enquire if we needed a ride. Then three men in suits entered the deserted room and, instead of sitting in the empty row of seats across the room, they chose to occupy the sits either side and opposite James. After a long silence they struck up some small talk. After appearing to get the information they were looking for they got up and left abruptly.

At Jo's house we had all the home comforts we had been craving and had been denied since our stay with Phil and Alison in Tashkent. We completely indulged, having a great shower and devouring Jo's DVD collection. The sights of Barda were left for another visit.

At the scrapyard we met someone familiar.

Jo and James pose next to Jo's work car.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Old meets new in Baku

I didn't know much about the capital of Azerbaijan before visiting. I didn't have high expectations, imagining an ostentatious city built on oil wealth (BP has its biggest operations here). And yes there are some flashy buildings but there is also an old town which is an UNESCO world heritage site and a pleasant pedestrianised centre. After the empty streets of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan it was wonderful to see some life. People were sitting outside cafes enjoying a coffee, the shops were teeming and couples walked along the sea front. It felt very western compared to Central Asia, with many familiar brands. I hadn't realised how worn down I'd become over the past month. The food had become monotonous, constantly negotiating shared taxi fares tedious, visa paperwork onerous and some of the police tactics just plain ridiculous. Now, that was all behind us and there were no obstacles in our way to prevent us completing over overland trip I felt re-energised.

There were pastry shops everywhere and the Azerbaijanis had waistlines which attested to the fact that they were often tempted. We happily indulged too. Despite having a pleasant day wandering around the compact city centre and old town we were not going to pay the inflated hotel room prices to stay another day. With a ticket on the night train costing just a couple of dollars, it was the cheapest bed in town, so that night we were trundling westward again.

Friendly locals on the seafront

Friday, 2 December 2011

Voyage across the Caspian Sea

The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water on earth accounting for 40-44% of the world's  waters which can be classified as lakes. To cross from Turkmenistan it is necessary to get a passenger place on a cargo ship. There was the usual incomprehensible queueing system involving lists of names. But it wasn't busy so we didn't have any problems getting a place. The half a dozen or so passengers boarded the ship as the crew supervised the rail cargo being loaded via tracks on the gangway into the hold. We sailed out of Turkmenbashi on a sea as still as a mill pond and the rest of the overnight journey was just as smooth, which was fortunate given the modus operandi the crew had chosen for our voyage. Luckily we didn't discover this until we docked in Baku, Azerbaijan. If we had before going to bed we would probably have found it difficult to sleep that night.

As we slid out of the harbour, past the docks, dusty town and desert, we were shown to our cabin. The cabin cost an extra $10 on top of the $90 we had paid each for the ticket and it was exceptionally dilapidated. The holes in the wall had long ago stopped being patched up and the en suite bathroom was not anywhere near functioning. A draw in the cupboards was labelled 'life jackets'. Investigating this we found it to be empty. Taking a walk on deck the life boats didn't seem any more serviceable than our bathroom. Despite all of this I didn't have a bad nights sleep.

In the morning we packed up the bags and took a walk on deck to watch our docking in Azerbaijan. Walking to the rear of the ship we noticed that the hold doors were open. It appeared that we had sailed with the doors open throughout the night because the crew hadn't quite managed to fit one of the containers into the hold, instead it hang over the end of the boat, preventing the doors from being shut.

Bye Bye Turkmenistan

Last views of Central Asia

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Turkmenistan - Did chickens or eggs come first?

Turkmenistan is one of the most autocratic and isolationist countries in the world, second only to North Korea, and therefore not easy to travel in. However, it is key to many overlanders as it connects Asia with Iran and the Southern Caucasus. Other routes would involve travelling through Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. Our Turkmen visas gave us 5 days to cross the country through the desert to the Caspian Sea where we would try to get a place on a cargo ship to Azerbaijan. We had to enter at the specified border crossing on a specified date and then the race was on to get the boat out within 5 days. This was travelling at its most stressful.

The border crossing at Konye Urgench turned out to be one of the more straight forward ones we had experienced, especially considering it was meant to be a restricted area. Although at one point a thermometer was thrust under our armpit and the reading carefully noted. On taking a taxi into the town we headed to the market. People wore traditional clothing here more than anywhere else in Central Asia. The women wore bright red or green dresses with embroidered collars and had their hair in long plaited pigtails. Everyone seemed friendly enough and no police bothered us.

We negotiated places in a shared taxi and jumped in with a father and son heading to Ashgabat for a wedding. The drive took us past cotton fields where the harvest was in full swing. Unlike in Uzbekistan, where the cotton was harvested by teams of people picking the cotton by hand, here the process seemed to be completely mechanised with large, new-looking combine harvester type vehicles. When the irrigation channels ran out the landscape abruptly turned into desert and camels roamed serenely by. Our fellow passengers kept the conversation going with a constant stream of questions. Did we grow cotton in England? Did we have camels? How much is a litre of petrol? How much?!?

After a lull the old man, entirely seriously, piped up with, "in England do people think the chicken or the egg came first?"

This threw James for a moment, before he could reply with, "well we are not sure".

"No, we are not sure yet either," he said.

Our intention was to get the taxi to drop us off at the Darvaza gas craters. This man-made phenomenon  was caused when the natural gas was accidentally set alight, creating a fiery spectacle akin to the gates of Hell. After the taxi driver had asked a few people at the roadside for directions we stopped at a ramshackle hut and asked about staying the night and visiting the craters, as well as getting a lift to Ashgabat the following day. Everyone there was drunk. They quoted us an outrageous price. We got back into the taxi and headed down the road to the next hut to see if we could find a better price. The drunks pursued us in a land cruiser. At the second hut the men were also drunk but less aggressive, quoting us a more reasonable price, however, once the men from the first hut protested, he withdrew his offer. Everyone was drunk, there wasn't a woman in sight and, now finely tuned, travel alarm bells were ringing. The taxi driver was now asking for more money than our initial agreement. We decided that the best thing to do was to miss out the gas craters and reluctantly get back in the taxi to continue on to Ashgabat.

We arrived into Ashgabat late. Wandering around the empty streets of this bizarre white marble city we tried to find a reasonably priced hotel room. In the end we gave up and paid $60 for a shabby Soviet era room - the most we had paid on our trip so far. That evening we scoured the streets for some food. We ended up in an area with some ex-pat bars, the first of which was full of prostitutes, the second, in which we ate, was empty. Walking back to the hotel we popped into a corner shop to buy some bread and jam for breakfast. The shopkeeper followed James around the shop as if he was about to steal something, then short changed us when we paid.

The following day we were determined explore the city. The streets were eerily quiet. Roads were lined with government buildings which had names such as the Ministry of Fairness and each of these white marble monuments had a soldier on duty outside. If we strayed too close to the building the soldier would come running over, blowing his whistle and order us to move away. There was nothing visible to mark the point at which one was too close, so as we walked down the street we were followed by a succession of frantically waving soldiers. Other misdemeanours that we found made the soldiers twitchy included getting our cameras out to take photos. We had read that the police didn't like tourists taking pictures of the Presidential Palace but only so much of a wave of a camera in its vicinity would send a soldier scurrying over. Walking through the deserted parks we tried to find the Arch of Neutrality, on top of which the famous gold statue of Turkmenbashi rotated to always face the sun, but as rumoured, it had been removed and just an empty concrete pit remained. The ridiculous statue which depicts the baby Turkmenbashi on a gold globe between the horns of a bull, sited above the Earthquake Museum (which was closed), does still happily exist.

As we explored the city on foot we were suddenly aware of the sound of thousands of voices all chanting together. Following the noise we came across a military parade on the parade square outside the Presidental Palace. We were not allowed to get too close and could not, of course, take any photos but the police did allow us to watch from a distance. Thousands of soldiers marched in perfect time, platoons and companies of men and women in military uniform. The most spectacular sight, however, was of the Akhal-Teke horses a Turkmen breed of horse. Rarely seen out of Turkmenistan, Akhal-Teke horses were brown, bay and grey but with the most incredible golden sheen, like nothing I'd ever seen before. Their riders were no horsemen, sitting on the animals like sacks of potatoes and flapping at their sides which sent them skittering across the parade square.

Leaving the parade square we were left wondering why a supposedly neutral country needs such a big army. As continued our walk towards Turkmenbashi's World of Fairy Tales we past rows of military trucks which prompted us to be trailed by a not particularly conspicuous army officer. The World of Fairy Tales is a large attraction in the middle of the city. To clear the space for it to be built hundreds of people were evicted from their homes. The day we visited it was closed, apparently it only opened on Tuesdays between 3-5 pm. The guard let us peek through the entrance, revealing a scruffy fairground.

International opinion is that Turkmens are fairly content with the political situation, they get free gas and an allocation of petrol free, supposedly appeasing them into tolerating the dictatorship. The system of free utilities leads to incredible waste. For example, whilst gas is free matches are not and this results in people lighting stoves and leaving them on to conserve matches. With respect to a contented society, we found this not to be true on several occasions. In Ashgabat a taxi driver spontaneously launched into a tirade of criticism about the government. On a second occasion, a driver in a 4 by 4 stopped to give us a lift so that he could tell us his thoughts about the government. "This is no better than Saddam or Gaddaffi," he said, "you must write about how bad it is in Turkmenistan when you get home."

Having seen the sights of Ashgabat we didn't feel like staying another night in an over-priced hotel so headed to the train station to try to buy a sleeper ticket west to Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea. The first three cashiers at the station all told us the train was full and the best we could hope for was a seated ticket for our 11 hour journey. Having resigned ourselves to not getting a bed, the forth cashier we spoke to decided that there were in fact sleeper tickets available and we snapped them up.

Turkmenbashi is a tiny town on the edge of Caspian. Hot and dusty it had little to offer the tourist apart from pleasant sea views, crystal clear waters and over-priced hotel rooms. Luckily the notoriously irregular ferry was leaving that evening, so after a day wandering around the town we boarded the ferry and continued west.


Turkmen desert
How to transport a sheep Turkmen style

Someone is watching you James!

Typical Ashgabat municipal building

Park in Ashgabat - note the absence of any people

Ashgabat - marble city, gold statues, empty streets

Me with some women in traditional dress

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Turkmen visas - a riddle wrapped in an enigma

You will never get a transit visa if you specify exiting via the Caspian Sea - ferry is too unreliable.

Turkmenistan is closed for all of October.

Konye Urgench is a restricted area, you can't enter Turkmenistan there.

These were just some of the things we were told in the months leading up to applying for our Turkmen visa. There were so many myths and contradictions about the visa process that we didn't know what to believe, and by the time we were stood outside the Turkmen embassy, with our passport photos at the ready, we had pretty much written off our overland dream.

However, the reality is that many travellers require a Turkmen visa, as it is a key crossing point on a overland trip, due to other alternative itineraries having to include crossing Afghanistan. We therefore knew it was possible. This post is about how we did it, to try to dispell a further myths. Having said that, it certainly isn't an exact science and, as always, is subject to constant change.

To begin with there were a few things that all Centrel Asian overlanders agreed upon. Firstly, that there were two sorts of Turkmen visa, a transit visa (usually 5 days) and a tourist visa (longer than 5 days). The requirment for a tourist visa is that you are on an organised tour with a Turkmen accredited guide - read minder. The consequence of this is that it is expensive. Most people travel on a transit visa and although this only allows a short amount of time in the country, there isn't the expense or restrictions of a tour and, as we found out, there's not much to see in Turkmenistan anyway, so 5 days is plenty! Secondly, everyone also agrees that you require the visa of the country you are exiting to, for most people this is Iran but for us is was Azerbaijan, before you can obtain a Turkmen visa.

Now this is my advice for getting a Turkmen visa once in Central Asia -
  1. If you are in Dushanbe, Tajikistan apply for a Turkmen visa here as they are very helpful. There was only a small queue outside the embassy at 9 am when we got there (no need to go earlier).
  2. AVOID the Turkmen embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan at all costs.  
  3. You require 1 x passport photo, 1 x photocopy of your passport, 1 x photocopy of your exit country visa. You also need to know the exact dates you wish to travel in Turkmenistan and the border crossings where you will be entering and exiting Turkmenistan. 
  4. You can apply for a Turkmen visa in Dushanbe and pick it up in Tashkent, this is what we did.
  5. We applied for an express visa service in Dushanbe which meant that the visa would be ready for collection in 7 days time.
Our application for a Turkmen visa in Dushanbe was possible due to discovering that there was infact a Azerbaijani Embassy in the city, despite it not being mentioned in any guidebooks. We managed to get this visa on the spot, although the embassy official ignored the dates that we requested and we had to get him to change them (tipex was his solution). In Dushanbe we applied for the 7 day express visa service in the Turkmen Embassy. Once we had got to Tashkent we found out that the embassy there was only allowing a 21 day standard visa service, another reason to AVOID Turkmen related visa stuff in Tashkent. Back in Dushanbe the first official told us that we would not be able to cross into Turkmenistan via the Konye Urgench border crossing but we asked again and the second official allowed it - so always worth asking twice. They didn't bat an eyelid at our request to exit Turkmenistan via Turkmenbashi (i.e. by ferry across the Caspian Sea), disproving the idea that they would be concerned about the ferry being delayed. You only pay for the visa on collection and I believe that it is also possible to change the visa start date when submitting your passport after visa approval but you might want to double check this.

The procedure for applying or picking up your visa at the Turkmen Embassy in Tashkent.
  1. Get to the embassy by at least 6 am and put your name on the list (a piece of paper at the security gate). We got there at 6 am and were 17th & 18th on the list.
  2. DO NOT leave the embassy gate because at an undetermined time (it was around 9 am for us) some embassy staff will read out the names on the list and you will be asked to show that you are present with your passport (a French woman managed to just show photocopies of hers and a friends as the friend was at the Iranian Embassy trying to get visas there). From this a second list is made. If you do not get on the second list you do not get into the embassy.
  3. It was at around 10.30 am when we were called into the embassy to find out if we had been approved for a visa.
  4. For those PICKING UP visas your passport is taken off you in the morning (so make sure you have a photocopy in case the police check you during the day) and then you have to return to the embassy to collect your passport and, hopefully, visa at around 4.30 pm.
What actually happened when we gave in our passports that mornıng was that the embassy officials were not aware of our application. In Russian we explained that we had applied in Dushanbe. After they had made a few phone calls it got sorted out, however we needed to refill out all the forms, including more passport photos which we didn't have with us. The embassy staff allowed us to bring photos when we returned to pick up the visa. A Danish motorcyclist, Morten, who was with us was refused a visa - no reason given. Apart from poor Morten's visa outcome, we actually found the Turkmen embassies to be a lot more flexible than we imagined. A french couple we met outside the Embassy in Tashkent had applied for their Turkmen visas (3 weeks earlier) without their ongoing visa as they were having difficulty obtaining their Iranian visa. The Turkmen embassy had allowed them to apply on the understanding that they would have to show the Iranian visa on collection of their Turkmen visa. Again proving that it is always worth asking. Once we found out that we had been approved we left our passports at the Embassy and returned at 4 pm where we waited an hour before being called into the embassy to collect our passport with visa. Then a couple of beers to celebrate!!!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Avant-Garde Art in the most unlikely location

During Soviet times Savitsky collected over 90,000 artifacts and works of art, many of which did not conform to Soviet ideals. Some of the artists were persecuted for their art and many works were lost. But in the far west of Uzbekistan, on the Turkmen border, Savitsky was left alone by the authorities. Now this collection is one of the most important of its era and something we did not want to miss.

It was worth the journey. We were the only people in the gallery and spent a wonderful few hours drinking in the fantastic works of art. We had had a complete drought of contemporary art for 6 months so it was such a treat. Although works are lent to other galleries around the world it is fantastic that the main collection remains in the remote town of Nukus - a real reward for people that make it to this corner of Uzbekistan. The gallery seems to also retain its rebel streak with an exhibition on the environmental disaster which is happening in the Aral Sea.

Otherwise the town of Nukus has little to write home about. It used to be the site of a chemical weapons factory which is vaguely interesting. But we found it a breath of fresh air as, unlike the other towns and cities we had visited in Uzbekistan, there were at least people going about normal life.


Block of flats in Nukus

The Karekalpak Museum housing the Savitsky art collection

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva - mosques, madrassas and minarets


For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand

Eloy Flecker, 1913


The three ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva with their tiled blue domes and Great Game history were the initial inspiration for travelling to Central Asia. So it was with great excitement that we got the train to Samarkand. Rounding the corner in a taxi we finally saw the Registan, a huge blue domed monument of Islamıc architecture. We stayed in a homely backpackers hangout close by, with a vine the size of a tree in the courtyard and pots of tea and water melon brought out every time we sat down. It was there that we bumped into Mio, who we had first met in Khorog, Tajikistan, over a month previously.

We were now fırmly in the domain of group tours and large groups of grey haıred tourists, who were clearly spending the kids inheritance, and who were being ushered from one sight to the next around us. We took a more lesurily pace walking around the Registan, the Shahr-i-Zander Monuments, a narrow avenue of gleaming blue tiled mausoleums, the Bibi Khanym Mosque, the Islamic world's biggest mosque when it was built at the end of the 12th Century and the Mausoleum of Timur. Soviet archaeologists opened up the mausoleum in June 1941, despite dire warnings for anyone who did so. The following day Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.

One evening we were taking a walk down past the Registan and heard music blaring out of a restaurant. We thought we would go and have a look at what was going on - big mistake. It looked like a wedding and some drunk Uzbek men rolled out of the door and grabbed us, insisting that we joined the party. We were shown to a table where several other wide eyed tourists were being held hostage. It turns out that the party was a celebration of a circumcision. There must have been around 200 people at the event but now only the drunkest remained. We eventually managed to make our excuses and leave.

Next stop was Bukhara. We caught the train, appreciatıng every minute of a more familiar form of transport rather than the rigmarole of shared taxis. In Bukhara we bumped into Australians Ned and Morgan as well as Iranians Rita and Mo, who we had last seen in Dushanbe, Tajıkistan. This meant lots of drinks and a good catch up.

We did also manage to fıt some sightseeıng in, the huge Klyan minaret and surroundıng madrassa and mosque as well as the fortress known as the Ark. Bukhara is at the centre of many a Great Game escapade and James and I made a special visit to the jail into which the fated British Army Officers, Stoddart and Connolly, were incarcerated in the 'bug pit', which to our delight was still there. My favourite sight was the little visited Modari Khan madrassa. Clearly not on the tour group circuit, we had the run of this deserted building, climbing up the crumbling stairs onto the roof from where we could see across the city. Our hostel was opposite one of two sinogoges in the cıty and we had a look around, intrigued at the Jewish community in this ancient Islamic city. Although beautiful in every sense the old city lack something. After the bustling markets and cities of the rest of Central Asia it was disappointing that the only people in the old city were tourists and souvenir sellers. The old town felt like a sanitised museum.

On our last evening we went wine tasting in a tastefully decorated whitewashed cellar. That was where the tastefulness ended as Uzbek wine is not about to fınd its way into any Michelin stared restaurants. It is incredibly sweet and resembling something closer to sherry. However, with the Australians, a couple of other Brits, two Americans and our very kind Uzbek hosts we had a hoot and the drinking continued back at our hostel.

The following evening we caught the night train to Khiva. James had eventually managed to buy tickets after much confusion and had helped another tourist get hers too. Teressa was a air hostess from Spain and one of the most fascinating people I've met. She had had the most incredible life, including studyıng for a PhD at Oxford. After changing trains in the middle of the night we ended up on a stifflingly hot carriage chugging through the Kyzylkum desert. Bizarrely it was occupied entirely by women, children and James - as if a town somewhere had been evacuated. It was too hot to sleep and was told off when I attempted to open the window. It seems that  windows are for throwing rubbish out of - not for ventilation.

In Khiva we wondered around the sights but we were now at saturation point when it came to mosques, madrassas and minarets. Khiva was even quieter than Bukhara when it came to local life. We did climb the minaret by the East Gate for giddy views over the city and walked along the city walks one evening.

We left Khiva to take a tour around the many unrestored forts in the area, planning on stayıng ın a cheap hotel on the way to our next destination. However, were forced to return when we couldn't fınd an affordable hotel that would take foreigners. The next day we had to retrace our steps to get to Nukus.

The Registan, Samarkand

Mosque in Bukhara

James hangs out with some Uzbek tourists in Bukhara

The unfinished minaret at Khiva

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Tashkent; capital of Uzbekistan

The police immediately clocked a flicker of hesitation as we tried to make our first trip on the Tashkent underground. We were pulled over, our passports checked and bag searched. Despite the complete absence of any of the registration slips that you are bizarrely required to present for every single night of your stay in Uzbekistan we were allowed to continue our journey with a stern warning - we had 24hrs to get some. We didn't have the documents because we were staying with friends and after a couple of days of investigations we discovered that our visa didn't allow this and there was nothing the authorities could, or would, do about it. James had worked with Alison, who with her husband Phil, had recently moved to Tashkent for work. We had invited ourselves round and they had very kindly offered to put us up. Phil happened to be the Deputy US Ambassador for Uzbekistan and, needless to say, they had a pretty nice pad. It was the most luxurious accommodation we had had on our trip, so there was absolutely no way we were going to give up it up for a pesky bit of paperwork. In the end we had to resort to paying for a hotel room to get our registration slips; returning the key after a couple of days.

If it hadn't been for Phil and Alison's generosity Tashkent would not have scored highly as a destination on our trip so far. It felt as if the soul of the city had been removed by the town planners. Huge buildings and boulevards seemed deserted and lacked any sort of character. We eventually found some sort of life at the Chorsu market, where we went to change dollars on the black market. In Uzbekistan there is a vast difference between the official rate and the black market rate for currency. There are 2500 Uzbek Som to a single US dollar on the black market rate whilst only 1750 at the official rate. In addition to this inconvenience the largest note is 1000 Uzbek som. People have to carry about wads of cash, most men carry manbags for this purpose and money countering machines are extremely useful.

Although the police continued to be annoying, we soon worked out a few strategies to minimise this. Firstly, I would always carry the bag and money - they rarely searched women and secondly, we tried to look like we knew where we were going. Of course, as soon as we got the registration slips we were never asked to show them again but we probably looked less guilty. And in all fairness to the police they never asked us for a bribe.

Our days in Tashkent were filled with administrative tasks. After sorting out the registration issue we managed to post over 23 Kilos of mountaineering kit back to the UK and had a full day at the Turkmen embassy picking up our Turkmen visas. All of this was made much more difficult by the Uzbeks lack of understanding of the concept of queueing. In one queue James pointed out to a young woman that there was a queue and she rudely replied, 'what queue?' and continued to push in front of us. Luckily there were two of us so I went for the left arm block whilst James got to the front of the queue from the right. However, we did also meet some lovely Uzbeks during the many hours of queueing that week getting invitations to lunch and were often pointed in the right direction when we were lost.

Our final success of the week was obtaining our Turkmen visas. After an anxious day we got the elusive visa. This was the last visa we required to get us back overland to the UK and deserved a celebration. We eventually found a cafe with some outdoor seating and celebrated with Clement and Emilie, two French overland cyclists, with a couple of beers.

Loads of money - I'm rich beyond my wildest Uzbek dreams!!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Oybek crossing into Uzbekistan

With no more days left on our Tajik visa we had to continue our journey to Uzbekistan. Driving north of Khujand, through the Fergana valley, we could see that the cotton harvest was in full swing. The roads were good now, and the landscape flat and open. The taxi dropped us at the border and we exited Tajikistan. We then had to drag our bags through the across an excessive amount of no-mans land to find that everyone was squeezed into a tiny building where the Uzbek passport control was located. Badly laid out and organised, queuing would have been intolerable if it hadn't been for the Tajiks who, always polite and gentle, insisted on queuing fairly. The Uzbek officials treated them terribly. A French tourist fainted and was let through. Passport control closed for a lunch break. Eventually we made it to customs where we had to fill out the form several times, our bags were searched and then we were finally in Uzbekistan.

Luckily we only had to do that crossing once. I pity the Tajiks who have to do it regularly. In Uzbekistan there are many ethnic Tajiks, with majority Tajik areas being in the famous cities of Samarkand and Bokhara, but the Uzbek authorities make life very difficult for them which has separated families and stifled trade. Uzbekistan is also rated by Transparency International as the 4th most corrupt country in the world and is one of the worst for Soviet bureaucracy, all of which we were about to experience a lot more of.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Khujand - Last stop in Tajikistan

Yet another epic journey between main Tajik towns, via terrible roads and over mountain passes. The journey was only bearable with the knowledge that this was our last shared jeep journey on this trip. James and I were squeezed into the two seats at the back of the jeep with a third person. Various other bits of luggage were wedged in around us and a budgie in a cage was passed in for us to hold. We bounced along in the back of the jeep through the Fann Mountains. At one point the road dived into the side of a mountain. The tunnel was unlit and thick with fumes. It was several inches deep in water which concealed crater sized potholes. The air was so bad and the tunnel so long that I began to develop a headache. We began to wonder whether we were transporting a budgie for a reason. Luckily we all made it out the other side alive - including the budgie.

In Khujand we checked in to a rather politically incorrect hotel called the Leninabad Hotel. It was a crumbling Soviet building with bathrooms which were sure to be a breeding ground for Legionnaires' Disease. A more appropriate name would have been the Lenina 'Very' bad Hotel. Morten, the Danish motor biker we had met outside the Turkmen embassy in Dushanbe was also staying here.

After settling in we met with Azamov a NGO worker who James had met in Kyrgyzstan. He gave us a whistle stop tour of Khujand. Many new buildings had been opened to mark the 20th year of independence celebrations including a swimming pool. Azamov managed to get the museum opened for us. It was great to have the place to ourselves as, although small, the artefacts were much more imaginatively exhibited than the other Central Asia museums we had been to. Azamov won't let us pay for anything including the museum and an ice cream in the park, we were his guests he kept insisting.

Khujand was yet another Tajik town which resembled no other in Tajikistan. It is affluent with several universities and is located in the fertile Fergana valley. Azamov, a highly educated professional, had only been to the Tajik capital once, by train through Uzbekistan when the Uzbeks had allowed this. Now it was difficult for Tajiks to travel through Uzbekistan and the only way from the north of Tajikistan to the capital was via the potholed road we had taken.

After our whistle tour of Khujand, Azamov drove us back to his family home where we met his mother, children, wife, brother and brother's children. His mother spoke excellent English and enjoyed practising, whilst her grandchildren ran about giggling. We ate dinner together and then were introduced to the rest of the family via various DVD's filmed at family events.