Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Grand Union Canal - June 2017

In June 2017 Nancy and I made a short trip on a canal boat on the Grand Union Canal.  Just a mid-week trip, picking up the boat on Monday afternoon and dropping it off on Friday morning.  On the Monday morning we drove down from Staveley to Linslade a small town near Leighton Buzzard where we were to pick up the boat.  We met my college friend Steve D and his wife in a pub in Linslade and caught up with them over lunch before setting off for the boatyard.  

We rented the boat from a company called The Wyvern Shipping Company.  I found them on the web and they seemed to offer a wide selection of boats of different sizes and amenities.  Our boat was called Daffodil and it was a 40ft boat, 6 ft wide with sleeping for 4 people.  It came fitted out with bedding, pots, pans, cutlery, etc and had everything we needed for a comfortable existence except for food and beverages which we provided.

We were guided through the boat’s amenities and operation by Dan from the company and then he took us out to show us how to negotiate a lock before setting us free.  We were heading north so the Leighton Lock was about a quarter of a mile from the boatyard.  Everything seemed pretty straightforward and since the boat was made of steel it was basically indestructible.  We did on occasion bump into lock gates or the side of the canal but you really couldn’t do any damage to it.  The locks too were quite logical provided you stopped and thought things through.  The only problem that could befall us was to get the end of the boat stuck on the sill at one end of the lock while you are letting water out of the lock - that could tip the boat up and flood the other end.  We didn’t do that.
Soulsbury Locks

We motored along, probably around 3 to 4 miles per hour, and within a couple of miles we were at the Soulbury Locks, a flight of 3 locks one after the other.  It had the added bonus of a canalside pub with customers sitting outside to watch the spectacle of novice boaters trying to manipulate the locks.  We handled things pretty well gliding through the locks with another boat and avoiding too much embarrassment.

We pushed on in the early evening through Stoke Hammond and then Fenny Stratford both of which had locks.  We finally settled for the evening in Little Woolstone where there was quite a nice old pub, The Barge.  The pub was old but it was in the middle of a fairly modern housing estate.  It was pub quiz night and I was humiliated by the difficulty of the questions - I couldn’t answer hardly any.  The steak and ale pie however was excellent and the blackberry cobbler made a fine end to the evening.

Next morning we were under way relatively early and made our way up to Gifford Park where we found a shop for supplies and a pub open for breakfast, and a pretty good breakfast at that.  We pushed on through the more urban environment of Milton Keynes and then out into the countryside on the other side of town.  We stopped in the village of Cosgrove where there was nice sandstone bridge which had some nice ornamentation.  The bridge was called Solomon’s Bridge and was apparently so ornate because it was close by the residence of the local Lord of the Manor.  Also in Cosgrove was a fairly unique pedestrian passage under the canal.
Solomon's Bridge, Cosgrove

Pedestrian Underpass

While we were in Cosgrove we had stopped the boat and when we came to restart it, it would not come to life.  We tried everything and ended up calling Wyvern Shipping for ideas.  They told us to jiggle a few fuses in the engine compartment, and then switch to the second battery bank.  Something worked because we eventually got things started and were able to move on.  

Another 5 or 6 miles along the canal and we were at the bottom of the Stoke Bruerne locks.  These are a flight of 7 locks up into the village of Stoke Bruerne.  We tied up and rested for a while in the heat of a very hot afternoon.  When we again came to start the boat, you guessed it, it wouldn’t start.  This time nothing we could do would make it go and so Wyvern Shipping decided to send a mechanic out to see what he could do.  

We waited in the heat of the afternoon until the mechanic arrived (about 1 ½ hours).  He pretty quickly diagnosed it as a starter motor problem.  He had a spare motor but what he didn’t have was the right sized socket to remove the old one.  That was a bit of a frustration, but we were fortunate enough to get the engine started by tapping the starter motor with a hammer.  We decided to push ahead up the locks and then see what happened the next morning.

Of we went again and worked our way up the 7 locks into Stoke Bruerne.  We were the only ones going up and all the locks were set against us so we had a bit of hard work at the end of the day.  We moored up in the very quaint village of Stoke Bruerne and ate at one of the canal side establishments (The Spice of Bruerne - a quite good Indian restaurant - a little out of character in a world of canalside pubs and English food).
Entrance to the Blisworth Tunnel

Entering the Blisworth Tunnel

The next morning our engine started first time so we set off to navigate through the Blisworth Tunnel.  This tunnel is quite the engineering masterpiece being some 3000 yds long.  It was opened in 1800 and since it had no tow path, the barges were walked through the tunnel by so-called Leggers who laid on their backs and pushed with their feet on the walls of the tunnel.  What a strenuous job that must have been.  

At the other side we emerged into the small village of Blisworth.  We continued on through to the next turnaround spot which was at Gayton Junction (the junction where the Northampton arm of the canal cuts away from the main canal).  This being just before lunch on the Wednesday we had to turn around to get back to the Linslade boatyard by Friday morning.  On the way back we stopped in Blisworth and did some shopping.  A nice little town with renovated canalside warehouses, a lovely church and rectory, and a shop that sold everything you might need to feed yourself on a boat.
Exiting the tunnel on the way back

It was a pleasure to ride through the cool tunnel back to Stoke Bruerne where we stopped to take in the Canal History Museum before heading down the flight of locks.  On the way back Nancy did all the hard work opening the lock gates while I guided the boat into and out of the locks (the easy job).  Some of the lock paddles are difficult to open and sometimes the gates require quite an effort to move.
Operating the Locks

We pushed on during the afternoon and early evening to Cosgrove and moored just below Solomon’s Bridge.  We walked into the village and dined at the only pub in town - the Barley Mow.  It had been a very hot day (the hottest of the year and the hottest June since the 1970’s I believe) and it made for a hot night’s sleeping on the boat.  Fortunately the forecast for the next couple of days was much cooler.

On the Thursday we headed south from Cosgrove.  The starting problems for the boat seemed to be behind us now and the boat sprang to life at the first turn of the key.  Just south of Cosgrove was the first lock of the day where we encountered a wide boat (10ft or more) coming the other way.  The owner was living on the boat and was moving to a new location (you are required to move every 2 weeks).  It sounded a difficult life to hold down a job, perhaps own a car, and move the location every 2 weeks.  There are rules about how far you must move and when you can return to a location so it can’t be easy.

After the wide boat passed we entered the lock and were joined by two older ladies who each had their own smaller cruiser style boat.  They were aged 85 and 86 and were quite spry.  They had started in Yorkshire and had been on the go for many weeks.  They were heading towards London and then going back up to Yorkshire in the autumn.   Quite the inspiration to be doing that in their mid-eighties and they were single handing their boats.

Traveling on we passed through Milton Keynes again, and over the Great Ouse Aqueduct and the Grafton Street Aqueduct.  Quite strange to floating over other rivers and roads.  At Soulbury in the late afternoon we passed through the three locks with a young couple who had just bought a boat to live on and were heading towards London.  They couldn’t afford a house but they could afford 30,00 pounds for a boat.  I wish them well.
Operating the Locks

We tied up below the Soulbury locks and then walked back to the lockside pub, appropriately called The Three Locks.  The food was very good - some of the best Fish and Chips I have ever had.  On the way back to the boat we passed another boat that had been following the same route as us all week.   We had occasionally chatted with them as our paths crossed.  They were Pat, the Englishman, and Penny and Laurie, the South Africans from Durban.  They invited us on the boat for a drink and we joined them in their larger 60ft boat - very comfortable.  We got on great and I must admit I overdid the Aberlour Malt a little.  They piqued our interest for visiting South Africa one of these days.
Wildlife along the way - Great Blue Heron

On Friday morning we had to get the boat back to the marina for 9:00 am so we were on the way early.  We only had a couple of miles and one last lock to reach Linslade.  We pulled into the marina and offloaded our belongings and immediately the cleaners were aboard preparing the boat for its next customers.

A great way to spend a few days and something I would certainly do again.

There are some more pictures here.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Kashgar, China - April 2017

My entry into China was a walk across the border from the Irkeshtam border crossing with Kyrgyzstan.  I had thought that I was getting a ride from the Kyrgyzstan customs, but the car I was in drove me to another border gate and dropped me there.  I had a kilometer or so of walking across No-Man's-Land to get me to the Chinese gate.  At the Chinese gate there were two very young soldiers in a little shed.  They unchained the gate to let me in and scrutinized my passport and visa and then told me to wait until a truck came through.  They then told the truck driver to take me to the Custom’s Station a few kilometers down the road.  The truck driver gladly took me, never asked for money just stopped the truck as we approached the Custom’s Station and signalled for me to get out.
Chinese Border Control, Irkeshtam
 I walked into this very large facility where there were quite a few customs officers and no one else.  I might have been the only pedestrian crossing that day and judging by the condition of the road through the pass not many trucks did either.  

I was supposed to cross the border around 11:00 am and there was supposed to be a driver waiting for me.  Thankfully at 3:30 pm the driver was still waiting for me.   Actually there were two people waiting - a driver and another man, Sadik, who spoke very good English. I thanked them for their patience and off we headed on the 250 km drive to Kashgar.

After the relatively stressful drive through the snowbound mountains of Kyrgyzstan, it was a pleasure to speed along on nice new Chinese roads.  I was quite relieved that I was going to make it to Kashgar that night.

The border checks and security checks however were not over with.  There was a more significant border post some 150 km down the road and then after that there were two more security checks where all the traffic on the road stopped and cars were checked and all passengers went through a security screening.  There was certainly a significant security presence in this Ouigour province of China.  As we approached the city of Kashgar, which was way bigger than I had expected, the security presence was even more obvious.  Every 400 meters or so in town there was a very conspicuous Police Station.

My hotel was not very carefully selected by me.  It was quite a ways from the center of town and it was very large (1500 rooms).  When I checked in they had no record of my reservation and no one spoke English, they had rooms but both my credit cards didn’t work in their machine (their problem not my cards).  If it hadn’t been for Sadik who picked me up at the border I would have been in trouble.  As a consequence I hired him to give me a tour of town the next day.
Kebabs on the Grill, Kashgar
 At night I walked around the streets near the hotel looking for food.  I went into a couple of restaurants and tried to get it across what I might like to eat but without success.  No English, only Chinese Menus, and no pictures of food.   I ended up eating some very tough lamb/mutton kebabs which I could point to on the grill.  Not very good meat at all.

The next morning my guide, Sadik, and his driver picked me up as arranged 10:30 Beijing time, 8:30 local time and off we went for a tour of Kashgar.  It is a huge city but there are not many things to see.  The first stop was the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum and Mosque where I got to see yet another example of a tiled mosque and a graveyard.  Not quite as good as the ones in Uzbekistan but interesting nevertheless.
Afaq Khoja Mausoleum, Kashgar
From the mosque we drove to the railway station to get my ticket.  I had purchase a ticket from Kashgar to Urumqi on the internet and had been delivered a code number that had to be exchanged for a paper ticket at the station.  After going through two security screenings to get into the ticket hall of the station everything went quite smoothly without me needing any assistance.  I handed over the code number with my passport and I received a paper ticket in return.
Old Town Kashgar
From the station we drove over to the old part of town.  The old part of town sits next to a river, not a very big one, but probably the reason for the town’s placement.  We walked over the bridge to the crumbling buildings of the older part of town.  This part of town was quite dilapidated and the condition of the homes and the roads were quite bad.  We walk around for a while just to get the flavor of what it is like to live there and then move over to the renovated part of the old town. This part of town had been fully refurbished and was quite nice.  They have tried to maintain some of the look and feel of the old city by preserving some of the old crafts and trades (woodwork, pottery, metal work, bakers, herbal medicine, etc).   
Old Town Kashgar
As we wandered around you had to be careful to avoid the electric motor scooters.  They were everywhere and they were fast and silent and all you heard was the soft whoosh of rubber tires on the road.  I saw no accidents but I can’t believe they don’t have an issue with so many quiet scooters.  Apparently a few years ago it was decreed that there would be no more polluting petrol engine scooters so everyone had to switch to electric ones.  That is the way to do it.

Sadik took me to a restaurant which was supposed to have the best meat in town.  Lamb or mutton of course.  I didn’t see much beef and with the Ouigours being Moslem there is no pork.  The restaurant served one dish as far as I could see, a round of bread with a dollop of lamb stew in the middle.  No utensils, just eat with your hands.  Toothpicks and water for washing found by the door as you leave.  Actually the meat was not that good - tough and grissly with bones and lots of fat.   Everyone else seemed to like it but me.
Dried Snakes, Kashgar Market
After lunch we walked around the stalls in the main street of the old part of town.  We sampled some pomegranate juice which seems to be a local favorite.  We walked around the square where there is a mosque but didn’t go inside.  Then we headed up a street where the money changers hung out and I changed some money - not much only $50.  The street rate was not much different from the rate in the hotel.  We had a quick look at the old British Consulate building which sits behind a large hotel and then, since we were saving the markets for tomorrow, Sunday, there wasn’t a lot more to see.  They dropped me back at the hotel for my afternoon nap.

In the evening I took a cab downtown and walked around many of the places I had seen earlier in the day.  I did find a restaurant that had pictures of food dishes on the window and the food looked like I could eat it so I went in.  I pointed to some noodle dish and the waiter shook her head.  I pointed to another and again she shook her head.  I was just about to leave when another waiter brought out another dish for someone else.  It looked edible so I pointed at that - success.  It was actually langman - a type of spaghetti noodle dish that was common in Kyrgyzstan.
Mao Statue, Kashgar
I walked towards my hotel past the statue of Mao Tse Tung.  There didn't seem to be much of a presence of Mao in China these days, but there he was in all his splendor pointing the way forward.  
Spice Vendor, Kashgar Bazaar
 The next day I check out of the hotel and Sadik and the driver met me again to take me to the Sunday Markets and then to the train station for my train to Urumqi.  The first market was adjacent to the old part of town and really it wasn’t that special.  It was a large covered market with lots of stalls selling all manner of items - cloth, hats, clothing, spices, nuts, herbs, watches, everything.  The second market was quite a way out of town and it was the much more interesting Sunday Animal Market.  
Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar

Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar
Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar
The Animal Market was quite large with a sheep section, a cattle section, a horse section, a donkey section, and then a few exotics like camels and yaks.  It was fascinating to wander around the crowded market and see all the dealing in animals.  The horse dealers were showing off their horses and galloping them up and down.  The donkeys were braying and looking very sad and forlorn.  Lots of manhandling of animals too - feeling and probing different parts of the cattle, carrying sheep, shearing of sheep.
Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar
 There were also food stands where lamb kebabs were available.  Plenty of butchering of lamb too.  Very weird to see live sheep tied up next to a stall, with a pile of sheep heads and skins on the floor and then a butcher chopping up the meat and hanging it on hooks.  
Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar

Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar
I spent a most enjoyable hour or so walking around this market and it really was the most interesting thing in Kashgar.

I was dropped off at the station and Sadik accompanied me into the station to make sure I was in the right place.  There were three scans and pat downs to get into the station and on the last one they discovered I had some scissors in the bottom of my bag.  These were the elaborate Crane (the bird) shaped scissors that I had bought in Uzbekistan.  The police at the station made me take them out and didn’t want to let me keep them.  Sadik was helpful in explaining that they were a gift from Uzbekistan and so they eventually agreed to me keeping them but before they gave them back they taped them up with a serious amount of packing tape.

I had a couple of hours to wait in the station before my train.  Various sections were marked off in the waiting area for the different trains and then just before departure of the train everyone got up and went out to the platform.  I found my compartment, which I was sharing with a couple of other men.  At least I had one of the bottom bunks.  The train pulled out on time and we rolled across the barren landscape towards Urumqi.  All went well till around 11:00 pm when there was an awful disruption in the next compartment - lots of shouting and screaming and it sounded like punches were thrown.  The excitement eventually died down.
My Companion on the way to Urumqi
 Around 9:00 the next morning we rolled into Urumqi and I set out to discover what the town had to offer.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find a left luggage area and I didn’t want to walk around with all my luggage.  The police at the station were also all about moving people out of the station so I didn’t really have a chance to figure out what to do until I was outside.  There I found an airport bus and so despite what would be a long wait for my flight I figured life would be simpler just waiting rather than struggling around a not so attractive Urumqi with heavy bags.  As we passed through Urumqi to the airport we were held up while a procession of police and army vehicles slowly passed through the street with their alarms sounding.  I had seen this previously in Kashgar.  I think they are just letting the people know that the police and army are watching and they have a presence there so don’t try anything that might incur their wrath.  That is not a nice environment to live under, particularly if you are a Ouigour feeling lost in your own country.

So then it was a long wait at the Urumqi airport until I could check in for my flight to Beijing and get into the rather meagre China Airways lounge.  Meagre but more comfortable than the rest of the airport.   An uneventful flight to Beijing where I arrived at 2:00 in the morning for a midday flight to San Francisco.  At least customs were open and I got to go through to the much better equipped lounge to wait for my flight home.  There was comfortable seating, showers, sleeping pods, and food so the waiting was not a hardship.

We were delayed an hour or so on leaving Beijing which made me miss my connection in San Francisco for Sacramento.  I didn’t wait for the next flight but got BART to Richmond for the Amtrak train.  The BART trip was perhaps the trip that made me most uncomfortable of my entire journey - smelly, dirty carriages, homeless people sleeping in the train, not at all pleasant.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan - April 2017

I arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Monday (10 April) afternoon after a short 2 hr Air Astana flight from Tashkent.  There were no visa requirement to enter Kazakhstan and the whole entry process was quite efficient.  I stepped out into the arrivals area and immediately was set upon by taxi drivers.  I tried to fend them off but one of them was persistent and offered to take me to town for 1000 tenge (around $3).  That sounded too good to be true but he was persistent.  I confirmed the price and agreed to go with him.  When we left the airport things changed and it became 1000 tenge per kilometer.  When I understood this I got quite irate and demanded he take me back to the airport.  I even opened the door at a traffic light so he couldn’t proceed.  We argued and we settled at 5000 tenge which is about what it should be.  I just hate it when taxi drivers try to take advantage of people like that.  It leaves a bad taste in your mouth about the entire country.
Zhibek Zholy, Almaty
Almaty looked a little shabby and scruffy, like it had just emerged from under the winter snows - which it probably had.  I stayed at a modest hotel, the Hotel Kazzhol, near the center of town.  In the evening I took a walk around the hotel.  There is a street called Zhibek Zholy which is modeled on the Arbat in Moscow - a pedestrian street with restaurants and bars and street vendors.  Pleasant enough but it wasn't the Arbat and as I said everything was a little shabby.  

Zaliskay Alatau Mountains, Almaty
The next morning (Tuesday 11 April) I awoke to clear skies and a nice view of the mountains from my hotel room window.  They are the Zailiskay Alatau mountains and they looked impressive.  By 10:00 am however they were hidden in haze.
Zinkilov Cathedral, Panfilov Park, Almaty
Almaty itself is not that impressive.  It looks very Soviet with lots of drab and dreary blocks of flats.  I headed off to see the limited sights that the city had to offer.  There was the Arbat Street again and then Gogol Street to the Panfilov Park.  In the park there is the colorful Zinkilov Cathedral, a very picturesque Orthodox Cathedral one of the few Tsarist era buildings left in the city.  Adjacent to the cathedral was the war memorial to the fallen of the Civil War and World War II.  As is often the case in Soviet countries, the memorial itself is quite fearsome and foreboding.
War Memorial, Panfilov Park, Almaty
I stumble upon the Green Market (or Kok Bazaar) which is a huge market selling all manner of produce and paraphernalia.
Meat stall, Green Market
Nearby the market is the Central Mosque - a fairly impressive though quite modern building by Almaty standards.  The other site to see in the city is the view from the top of the adjacent hill, Kok Tobe.  It is served by a cable car which alas on this day was closed for “prophylactic repairs” to the cable.  It is quite the trek to the top by car or bus so I give that one a miss.
Almaty, Near Republic Square
In the afternoon I headed back out to the airport for my flight to Bishkek.  I only spent 24 hours in Almaty but to be honest that was enough to get the flavor of the place and really it doesn’t have a lot to offer.  A drab Soviet city with little evidence of its Tsarist or pre-Tsarist past.

The flight to Bishkek was short, an hour or so, and the entry into Kyrgyzstan was easy.  No visa requirement, just a quick review of the passport, a stamp and “welcome to Kyrgyzstan”.  I got some money from an ATM at the airport ($1 = 60 Kyrgyzstan Som) and got a taxi into town.  Again there were no meters in what was supposed to be an “official taxi and the price was 1000 som instead of what I found should be a 600 or 700 Som trip.  The airport in Bishkek is a long way out of town (over 30 km) but the road is good and we are soon in the congestion of Bishkek rush hour.  My hotel for the night is the Hotel Solutel, a modern hotel down a side alley.  
Manas the Great, Bishkek
The next morning (Wednesday, 12 April) I walk over to the center of Bishkek.  I had to locate my travel agent (Advantour) and pay for my driver out of Kyrgyzstan into China.  I paid the travel agent $490 in cash and she assured me that someone would pick me up in Osh on Friday morning and drive me to the border.  On the Chinese side of the border someone else would be waiting to take me to Kashgar.  It is a 500 km trip over rugged terrain (on the Kyrgyzstan side at least) so $490 might be a reasonable price.
Lenin, Bishkek
After completing that transaction I had the rest of the morning to explore Bishkek.  The main center of town is not that big and it had a nice feel to it.  Plenty of parks and avenues of trees.  I think I covered all the sights in the guide book in a couple of hours - the Lenin statue, the statue of Manas the Great (another Tamerlane type figure), Ala Too Square, Panfilov Park. a few museums (none of which I went into).  
Park, Bishkek
After exploring the city, I made my way back to the hotel for lunch and then took a taxi to the airport for my flight to Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan.  It was about an hour’s flight on a beat up old 737 with Air Manas.  Manas is the airport for Bishkek and it was once the main exit point for US troops coming out of Afghanistan.

Arriving in Osh, I was surprised to see someone from my hotel/guest house waiting to pick me up.  That made getting into town easy and I realized that I would have struggled without someone to meet me.  The Guest House I was staying in was in a back street that had no name and the house had no number or sign - nothing to identify it as a Guest House.  The guest house was named the Guest House VIP and I had a flat above the owner Raffi's main house.  It wasn’t luxury but for $15 per night what can you expect and I didn’t see any better places that I would have wanted to stay at in Osh.  It’s not a big town.

In the evening I go to a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet guide and have an order of kebabs - beef, lamb and duck meat.  They were pretty inedible.
Suleman Too, Osh
On the way back home I stop into a little shop to buy some snacks for the night and to my surprise they put my stuff in a Morrison’s plastic bag (Morrison's is a UK supermarket chain).  Apparently when Morrison's changed their logo some time ago, they sold off all their old bags to Kyrgyzstan where they are still in use today.  
Osh Street Scene
In the night it started to rain and it got windy. With a tin roof on the house it sounded really bad.  In the morning it finally calmed down a little so I went off to see what the town had to offer.  As I leave the power in the area goes out.  I walk through town on Lenin Street out to the square where there is a large Kyrgyzstan flag flying, a government building and a statue of Lenin pointing the way forward.  It's interesting that Kyrgyzstan is one of the few places that still has Lenin statues.  I did not see them elsewhere.
Lenin Statue, Osh
Next to the square is a war memorial.  Typical Soviet style - a bit fearsome.  Adjacent to it were half a dozen busts of presumably war heroes.  As I took a picture of the scene a policeman appeared and asked me what I am doing.  He insisted that I delete the picture from my camera.  He is joined by more police and plain clothes officials and they want to see my passport which was conveniently back in my room.  I showed them my driver’s license and they want to keep it so we get into a tugging match over it - me pulling on one side and the policeman tugging on the other side.  I won and I put my license safely in my wallet.  They don’t let up though and they insist they want my passport so I tell them let’s go to the Guest House.  They don’t want to do that so we are at an impasse.  Then one of them gets someone who can speak English on the telephone and I tell her my story and she translates.  That still doesn’t make any difference.  Then I remember I have a picture of my passport on my phone so I show them that image.  Finally that seems to calm them down and they let me go. What a fuss.

Back at the Guest House, there is still no power and what is now worse, the water supply has been shut off.  Apparently when it is stormy, the river that supplies water to the town gets a lot of sediment in it and they shut off the water to the town to avoid contamination.

Osh Bazaar
I walk to the south side of town to the Osh Bazaar.  It is quite a large market constructed from old shipping containers that are laid beside each other and modified to make small individual stalls.  Quite ingenious.
Osh Bazaar
In the late afternoon, the weather brightened and I climbed up the large rocky outcrop that sits above the town.  The rock is called Suleman Too and it has a small mosque on the top.  Apparently the Prophet Mohammed might have prayed their once upon a time so it is quite the revered site.  There was a good view of the town from the top.
View from Suleman Too, Osh
In the evening there still was no water or light in my room so I washed from a very cold jug of water.  Finally just as I go to bed the water and power came back on again.

Next morning the driver I had arranged for in Bishkek promptly picks me up at 6:00 am.  I bid farewell to my most gracious and apologetic host, Raffi, and my driver, Mohammed, and I set off for the Chinese border.
Horses on road from Osh to Kashgar

Sheep on road from Osh to Kashgar
Everything went well for the first couple of hours.  There was the occasional flock of sheep, horses, or yaks wandering across the road but nothing to hold us up.  Then as we started to climb conditions worsened until snow eventually covered the road and our progress was slow.  We crept over a pass of around 13,000 ft and then dropped down the other side where thankfully the road conditions got better.  We arrived in the town of Sary Tas where the road forks to the right for Tajikistan and to the left for China.  We headed east to China and for a while all was well until again we started to climb.  The weather was quite fine with clear blue skies but there was a lot of blowing snow and again our progress was slow.  I was getting a bit worried that my driver at the Chinese border would give up and go home, leaving me stranded.  

We climbed higher until the road became a single track through banks of snow. Then we encountered a truck coming the other way that was stuck in a snow bank and we couldn't proceed.  Things did not look good - the Army were there trying to move the truck out of the way but they were all a bit amateurish and the truck was going nowhere.
Worsening Snow Conditions

Stranded Truck blocking the road
I started to wonder about alternate plans - returning to Osh and fly to China was always an option but then vehicles came in line behind us and we couldn’t really turn around.  My driver tried to pass me off to the Army and have them take me to the border but they wouldn’t have anything to do with it.

Finally a Caterpillar tractor arrived on the scene and he pushed the stranded truck out the way.  We then had to wait another hour while the tractor helped a series of trucks that were coming towards us move on through.  At about 1:00 pm we finally got moving again.  I had arranged to meet my driver at the Chinese border at 11:00 am and we were still a long way away from China.  

Kyrgyzstan Border Checkpoint
We made good progress for a while and then about 20 km from the border there was a military post and a gate across the road.  The soldiers kept us waiting and waiting and didn’t seem at all helpful (the border is closed until 2:00 pm they said).  Finally at 2 o'clock they looked at my passport and gave me the go ahead to proceed but my driver’s papers apparently were not in order and they wouldn’t let him pass.  I began to think I would never make it to China.

Somehow my driver managed to arrange with a ride to the border with a Chinese truck driver so I was loaded into the cab of his truck.  We sped along for the remaining 20 km to the main Kyrgyzstan border control.  I left the truck and proceeded on foot to the customs station.  They were closed until 3:00 pm, so yet more waiting.
Loading me onto the truck to the border
Finally I was free to proceed and I use my last 10 Som to get what I thought was a ride across no-mans-land to the Chinese side of the border post.  They only took me a couple of kilometers and then dumped me at another border post where I had to walk another kilometer or so to the Chinese border gate.  At the gate there were two very young Chinese soldiers with very bad teeth who unchained the gate and let me in.  This border gate is in the middle of nowhere so the soldiers arrange for the next truck driver that comes through to take me to the main Customs Hall which is a few kilometers down the road.

Walking across the border to China
After my second truck ride of the day I arrive at the main Customs Hall. Very modern, very large, and as far as I was the only customer. It was now 4:00 pm and to my delight I found my driver and his English speaking colleague still waiting some 5 hrs after I was supposed to be there.  That was a huge relief and I sank into the back seat of their car for the 250 km ride to Kashgar.

More photos of the trip in Kazakhstan are here and in Kyrgyzstan are here.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Uzbekistan - April 2017

Uzbekistan was the most difficult country of this trip to arrange travel to.  A visa is required and in order to get a tourist visa a letter of invitation is required.  This requires a contact in the country who can issue the letter, usually a tour company.  A web search led me to a company called Advantour and I had given them a rough itinerary and asked them to provide hotels, transportation and guides for the trip.  They had responded with everything I was looking for - hotel bookings, train tickets, guides and of course the letter of invitation.  This enabled me to get the visa which I had picked up at the Uzbek Embassy in Rome.  However before my arrival in Uzbekistan I had not paid any money so I was a little apprehensive as to whether everything would work out.

My flight from Azerbaijan (via Istanbul) arrived in Tashkent around 1:00 am Sunday morning (2 April).  We were bused from the plane to the terminal and when we arrived it was a mad rush to the customs hall - old ladies, women with children were literally running down the corridor.  I figured they knew better than I so I joined the fray.  It actually was a relatively quick passage through customs and all went quite smoothly.  Welcome to Uzbekistan.

It was a great relief to walk out of the airport and see a waiting driver with my name on a card.  I was taken to my hotel (The Wyndham) and there in the lobby of the hotel I gave the driver $1450 in cash and in return he gave me an envelope of train tickets and hotel vouchers to cover my next 8 days in Uzbekistan.
Khast Imom, Tashkent
 I had a late breakfast and lazy morning and then at 1:00 pm my driver picked me up with my guide for the city tour - a lady named Delia.  She spoke excellent English.  The weather was not particularly good - it was cold and drizzling with rain and as a result the city did not appear that attractive - a rather drab Soviet city.  We drove through the streets of Tashkent to our first stop at a mausoleum and madrassa one of many I was to see in the next few days.  Beautiful tiled buildings and wonderful minarets.  The guide called it Khast Imom.  Uzbekistan is all about the 4M’s - Mosques, Madrassas, Mausoleums and Minarets.
$60 in Uzbek Som
The driver arranged to change some money for me.  There was an active black market for money changing in Uzbekistan.  The official exchange rate was 3,500 Som to the US dollar.  The black market rate was double that at around 7,000 Som to the $ so it didn't make sense to change on the official marketplace.  The main denomination of bank note is 1,000 Som so that makes for a lot of notes.  I literally had a 2 inch stack of notes for changing only $60 - around 400 notes.  Too many to even bother to count, it just felt about right.
Chor-Su Bazaar, Tashkent
 We visited the Chor-Su Bazaar next.  A large domed market with sections for the various products - vegetables, meat, cheese, bread, nuts, dried fruit, spices, etc.  The meat area was the most interesting of course.  Lots of slabs of meat and lots of weird and wonderful looking stuff.  The horse meat sausage looked particularly disgusting.  The Uzbeks like a sweet treacle-like substance made from boiled wheat grass called Sumalec.  I tried some and it was alright by the spoonful but the locals were buying it by the pint.  I bought bread and fruit for the evening’s train journey.
Interior, Museum of Applied Arts, Tashkent
After the market we visited the Museum of Applied Arts.  Some beautiful examples of embroidered and printed cloth, jewelry and metalwork all housed in a wonderful ornate old building.  The rooms in the museum were quite wonderful - carved and painted plaster and wood, ornate tilework - quite beautiful.  
Amir Temur, Tashkent
Next stop was Temur Square where there is a statue of Amir Temur or Tamerlame as we call him in the west.  Temur was quite a violent and ruthless person in the 14th Century but he has been rehabilitated in the minds of the Uzbeks as a great leader and someone who did a lot for Uzbekistan.  The Russian Tsars and the Soviets did nothing that the Uzbeks could be really proud of, so Temur, much like Ghengis Khan in Mongolia, has become a heroic national figure.  Anyway there he was, sitting on his horse in the middle of a square surrounded by examples of Tsarist and Soviet and modern era architecture.

We then drove out to a modern mosque complex.  It was an impressive white marble structure but it was only a few years old and frankly I could have skipped it.  That was the end of the tour and Delia left me with the driver who took me to a restaurant near the train station.  I had some mutton dish that wasn’t particularly appealing washed down with a local Uzbek beer which was quite nice.  After dinner the driver took me to the very modern railway station where I waited for my train.

The train left on time and I had a comfortable night en route for Urgench in northern Uzbekistan.  I remember feeling that it was more like a proper train trip than the Italian trains.  The clickety-clack of the rails, the swaying of the carriage, it’s all much better than the smooth welded track of the high speed trains of Europe.

In the morning, I awoke to find us traveling over a flat desert plain with nothing but the occasional low scrub vegetation.  There wasn’t much sign of habitation either - only the very occasional small settlement.  Just before we arrived in Urgench we crossed the Amu Darya river, the major river of this part of the world flowing north into the now disappearing Aral Sea.   Much of the river’s water has been stolen along the way to irrigate the cotton fields of Uzbekistan - one of the disasters of the Soviet period.  Thank you Mr. Khrushchev whose idea it was to bring a cotton mono-culture to Uzbekistan.

At the very modern Urgench station a driver was waiting for me and he drove me the 30 or so kilometers to Khiva where I was staying for a couple of nights.  We arrived in Khiva in the mid afternoon and I got installed in my hotel, the quite adequate Hotel Asia which sits just outside East Gate to the old walled city.
City Walls and East Gate, Khiva
I went out to walk around the old town in the afternoon.  Within the city walls the old town is fairly small and it that can be walked in a couple of hours.  Beautiful mosques and minarets but since I was supposed to have an official tour the next day I stuck to exploring the back streets.  The streets were primarily earthen, and while the wealthier homes had plastered walls most homes were mud and straw.
Minaret and Satellite Dish, Khiva
In the evening I found a restaurant that was listed in the Lonely Planet Guide.  I was the only diner until at the end of my meal a group of German tourists came in.  I escaped before the ethnic music and dance show started for the Germans.  As for the food, all I can say is that you don’t come to Uzbekistan for the food.
Islam Khoja Minaret, Khiva
 On the next day (Tuesday 4th April), my guide, Ali, showed up and we started a tour of the city.  As I mentioned old Khiva is not a large area and we covered much of the ground that I had walked around the previous afternoon.  This time we took our time and entered the various mosques. madrassas and minarets.  The most memorable thing was the two minarets (Islam Khoja and Juma) which you are allowed to climb - narrow and low spiral staircases, old wooden steps, the absence of any light except for the occasional opening in the wall.  I pretty much felt my way to the top.  No health and safety issues there and fortunately no one else coming down as I was going up.  The incomplete minaret, Kalta Minor, was also impressive - wider than any of the others it was designed to be the tallest in the city until the benefactor of the construction died.  Now it is just the immense fat stub of a minaret with a beautiful tiled surface.
Kalta Minor, Khiva

Tile Decorations Madrasssa, Khiva
While walking around we heard the muezzin call to prayer somewhere outside the city walls.  This apparently doesn’t happen too much.  My guide said they have been clamping down on the overt evidence of Islam as they are paranoid about Islamic fundamentalism taking hold.  He also says that in the big cities the muezzin’s call is banned.  I am not sure that is true but then I didn’t hear the call anywhere else.

We stop for lunch in a restaurant and I sample the local speciality - plov.  A bed of rice and vegetables with lamb/mutton.  It was actually quite tasty and the meat was good quality.
Mausoleum of Makhmud Pakhlavan, Khiva
 After the tour of the city was completed Ali left me and I wandered around the old town for the rest of the day.  By the North Gate you could climb up onto the old city walls and walk around the perimeter.  The entire construction is earthen mud and straw and there were signs of serious erosion in places.  It left me wondering how often they have to shore up the walls.  Surely they need some frequent maintenance, but who does that.
Islam Khoja Minaret
 The next day (Wednesday 5th April) a driver arrived to take me from Khiva to my next stop in Bukhara some 450 km away.  We drove back to Urgench and then picked up the main road south to Bukhara.  For the first 30 km or so the road was in very bad condition then it suddenly changed to a very modern dual carriageway where we made very good time.  The driver had a radar detector which saves him from a ticket a couple of times.  

Nearly every car in Uzbekistan is a Chevrolet and nearly every Chevrolet is a white one.  Apparently the Korean company Daiwoo built a factory in Uzbekistan but later sold it to Chevrolet.  Now Chevy dominates the car business in Uzbekinstan.

The drive to Bukhara was relatively unremarkable.  We crossed the Amu Darya river just south of Urgench and from time to time we saw signs of it in the distance to the west.  We cross the large expanse of the Kyzylkum Desert so there was not a lot of variety in the landscape.  In places we must have been very close to the Turkmenistan border.  About 40 km outside Bukhara the road turned bad again and we slowly dodged potholes the rest of the way into the city.  
Kalon Minaret, Bukhara
 I am dropped at my hotel, the Omar Khayam, in the center of old Bukhara.  In the afternoon I walk around the old town to get a feel for the city.  Bukhara is larger than Khiva and there are some wonderful sights - again mosques, madrassas, minarets and mausoleums.    In the back streets the houses are similar to the ones in Khiva but perhaps a little more prosperous.  More of them have plastered walls and more roads are paved.  Lots of overground piping throughout the old homes which supply gas to the homes - that seems a little scary.

I had a nice meal in the evening.  The dish had the unfortunately name of Jiz but it was basically beef and fried vegetables.
Mir i Arab Madrassa, Bukhara
 The next day, Friday April 6, my guide for the tour of Bukhara arrived at the hotel and we set off on foot to explore the city.  The guide, Jama, is a young guy with pony-tail (very unusual in Uzbekistan) also with an iPhone, and an Apple Watch (not so uncommon).  First place on the tour was Lyabi Hauz around the old pool, one of many that once provided water to the old city and that were supplied by a series of canals.  We spent a lot of time there talking about everything from caravanserais, Sufi teachings, Soviet control, and modern Uzbek politics.  Jama had a lot of opinions.
Lyabi Hauz Pool, Bukhara
 Next stop was a small synagogue in the Jewish section of the town.  Not a very impressive building though I don’t really know what a good synagogue looks like, but there are pictures of Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright paying a visit so perhaps it is an important one.  Possibly because there aren’t many Jews in this part of the world.

We walk through town through various bazaars each specializing in different products or trades - woodwork, metalwork, carpets, jewelry, gold, spices, hats (hats must be very important in Uzbekistan).  
Kalon Minaret, Bukhara
The Kalon Mosque and the adjacent Kalon Minaret and Mir i Arab Madrassa are the most spectacular sights in the city.  Definitely the highpoint of the old city.  They are impressively large and impressively well restored.  The tile work is wonderful.  Unlike the minarets of Khiva you could not go up this one.

We visited the Citadel (or Ark as it is sometimes called).  It is basically a walled complex within a city.  It houses the King’s Palace, a couple of sections of which are now relatively mediocre museums.  The Guide indicated that the Citadel has the honor of being the first place to suffer an aerial bombardment when it was bombed by the Red Army in 1920.  Searching on the internet later finds that this was not the case.  The Italians dropped grenades on the Ottomans in Libya much earlier.

We walked out towards the old city walls and a couple of mausoleums that are nearby - Chashma Ayub and Ismael Simani.  

That was the end of the day’s tour and I headed back to the hotel.  I had a late lunch of Plov at the Minzifa Restaurant  - quite good.  The afternoon was spent walking around the backstreets of the city.  I wanted to buy a silk scarf - the ladies at the stall were such good sales people that I ended up walking away with three of them.

In the evening I visit the local hammam bathhouse.  It was in a very old building with a large room with large marble massage slabs and a series of hot, warm and cold rooms leading off from it.  After warming up for 15 minutes I was laid out on one of the marble slabs and soaped, rinsed, pummeled, stretched and twisted into all sorts of contortions.  It did feel very good - and this is from an Englishman who is not entirely comfortable with having another man touch his body let alone being naked at the time.  It all finished off with a cool down and dry off before partaking of a cup of tea.   Very nice and relaxing.

The next day was a Friday, the day for Friday Mosque, so the mosques we visited today were busy.  Since we were going further afield we (Jama my guide and I) had a driver for the day.  The first stop was the Bakhoutdin Naqshbandi Mausoleum and Mosque.  It was fairly impressive but I was getting used to these beautiful buildings by then.  We couldn’t go into the mosque as it was Friday and prayers were in session.  The Mausoleum was a series of unadorned mud/straw graves as I had seen in many places previously.  
Prayer Times at Mosque, Bukhara
 Onward to the King or Emir’s Summer Palace.  This was built in the Russian Imperial time and it was an interesting mix of Bukharan and Pre-Revolutionary Tsarist architecture.  Behind the Summer Palace a group of women were making a huge vat of Sumalec.  This is the sweet treacle like substance I had tried in the bazaar in Tashkent and is basically boiled wheat grass.  The boiling process takes 24 hours and it needs to be stirred continuously so it is an all night affair and they make a bit of a party out of it.  In an adjacent cauldron they were preparing a huge cauldron of Plov - the meat, carrots, raisins and rice dish.
Summer Palace, Bukhara
 We next drove to the Chor Bakr Necropolis.  A not very memorable collection of grave sites.  Apparently some religious person of note was buried there - I don’t know who - and then everyone else wanted to be buried nearby so it turned into a large graveyard.

As we drive back into town we pass a lot of small single story modern homes.  Apparently these are made available to young couples to encourage them to settle in the suburbs.  
Char Minar, Bukhara
 That was the end of the guided tour and so I spend the rest of the day walking around.  I did explore a couple of new places.  One was Char Minar, a wonderful small mosque with a minaret on each corner.  It is apparently modeled on an similar building in India.  The other was the Zindon - the old jail nearby the Citadel.  Zindon is where Stoddard and Connolly were imprisoned in the so-called “bug pit” before being executed.  The Stoddard and Connolly story is well worth reading about.
Stoddard and Connolly's Bug Pit
 In the evening I again visited the hammam bathhouse.  The prior day I had been the only customer and it was nice and quiet.  On this day it was full of boisterous Russians who made a lot of noise.  I like it when it’s more peaceful.

On the next day (Saturday 8 April) it was an early start to catch the train to Samarkand.  The very modern train station is quite a way out of town.   Also traveling on the same train were the two Pakistani ladies (Durdana and Shurdana I think) that had been following the same route and hotels as me from Khiva to Bukhara.  The train we were on was not one of the fast modern Sharq trains but we did get the privilege of being shunted into a siding for an hour while the Sharq train sped by.
Amir Timur's Mausoleum
In Samarkand I was picked up by another guide and driver - both were named Anvar so it made things easy.  We started our tour with a visit to the mausoleum of Amir Timur (Tamerlane).  This is a magnificent structure with wonderful tile work.  The tile work here was radically different from the work previously seen in Khiva and Bukhara.  The patterns were created as a mosaic which gave nice sharp lines to the design.   The work up to this point, the so-called majolica tiles, were made by painting colors patterns on tile prior to firing the tile and the edges tended to bleed a little and give a more fuzzy edge.   
Detail of Mosaic Tile
 We walked from Tamerlane’s mausoleum down to the Registan.  The Registan is the most impressive site - three immense madrassas facing a large square.  The tile work, again mosaic tile, is stunning and has been impressively restored.  This one site is probably the most spectacular location in Uzbekistan.  We spend considerable time here visiting each building and marveling at the splendour of the place.  
The Registan Complex, Samarkand
Madrassa at the Registan, Samarkand
From the Registan we walk to the Bibi Kharym mosque and mausoleum.  This is not so spectacular but it has not been restored to the same level as the Registan buildings so you get a good idea of how these buildings were prior to the recent renovation.  

A short distance away was the Siob market and we wander around and visit the various sections spices, dried fruit, nuts, bread, meat, dairy and, an unusual section, snuff.

That completed the tour for the day and I went to my hotel - the Grand Hotel Samarkand.  Not too grand but good enough.  In the evening I dine with the two Pakistani ladies (Durdana and Shurdana) and their guide (who went everywhere with them) at a restaurant nearby my hotel.  It was a bit up market for Uzbekistan and we had a wonderful meal.  We even had a decent bottle of Uzbek wine - very drinkable.
Sound and Light Show at the Registan
After dinner we went to the Registan again where an impressive Sound and Light show was being put on for a group of visiting Japanese tourists.  We get to stand at the back and witness a wonderful program about the history of Uzbekistan and the Silk Road projected onto the backdrop of the wonderful madrassas of the Registan.  The story omitted entirely any mention of the Tsarist Russian period or the Soviet period.  That is why Tamerlane is so popular - he is the last person that did something just for the advancement of Uzbekistan.

Samarkand is a larger city than Khiva and Bukhara.  It is very modern and there is no remaining old section of town as far as I can see.  It feels quite safe.  I walk the couple of kilometers to my hotel late at night and feel perfectly safe.  One of the Pakistani ladies left a bag on the morning’s train and after a couple of phone calls it is located intact in Tashkent.  We all speak of how safe and secure it feels.  Back in my hotel room I turn on the TV to find news of a Terrorist attack in Sweden, the perpetrator of which was an Uzbek citizen.  The prior week’s terrorist attack in St Petersburg, Russia was also perpetrated by an Uzbek living in Osh in Kyrgyzstan.  Perhaps things aren’t quite as calm as they appear.

On Sunday morning I took a walk around some of the places I saw on the previous day - Amir Timur’s statue, Timur’s Mausoleum, the Registan.  It is Amur Timur’s birthday so his statue was bedecked with flowers.

At midday I am picked up by the guide and driver, the two Anvars, and we visit a few more sites.  First is the Observatory of Ulugbek.  Ulugbek was a king in the 1400’s who was quite the astronomer.  The Observatory houses what is left of his impressive 30 meter astrolabe.  Ulugbek was well known in Europe as one of the greats of early Astronomy.

Next stop was a paper making museum which made quite a nice presentation about making paper from mulberry bark (a sideline of the silk business?).  The final step where the paper is polished with a smooth stone makes all the difference to the end product.

We moved on to the burial site of St. Daniel.  How he ended up there I don’t know but he is there in the longest tomb you ever did see.  From the graveyard on the hill above Daniel’s tomb you can see the location of the old city which was once on the hills outside the current city.  They moved to lower ground to take advantage of a better water supply.

Next stop was the Afrosiab Museum where there are the remnants of a 7th century mural or fresco of the Sogdian King Varkhouman.
Shakhi Zindha Complex
 The final stop for the day was the Shakhi Zindha Mausoleum complex.  There are about 6 or 7 mausoleums and a mosque in an avenue stretching up the hillside.  We go inside the mosque and sit and listen to a cleric chanting a prayer from the Koran.  Though I and presumably all the Uzbeks there do not understand the meaning of the Arabic prayers, the sound was indeed quite moving.
Shakhi Zindha Complex
 We killed some time in a coffee shop in the late afternoon before going to the station for my train to Tashkent.  Again the train station was quite modern and this time my train was also a new high speed train - the Sharq train that was recently built by the Spanish.  We sped along through the late afternoon countryside - mountains in the distance, springtime green lowlands, setting sun behind us.  Quite wonderful.  It was dark when we arrived in Tashkent and again my driver was waiting to whisk me off to my hotel one last time.

The Sharq Train to Tashkent
 The next morning, my last in Uzbekistan, was sunny and warm and the city looked so much better than my first day there the prior week when it was cold and grey and damp.  I walked towards the train station where nearby there is a train museum.  It had a nice collection of old steam engines from the Soviet era with a few lesser interesting diesel locomotives.  It was pretty cool because you could climb all over some of the steam trains - again no health and safety worries there.

Tashkent Railway Museum
On the way back to the hotel, I walk past the Temur Square, the Romanov Palace, and some very modern government buildings.  There are some nice parks and pedestrian streets but you couldn’t get near to the government buildings and they didn’t look very welcoming.

My driver arrives one final time to take me to the airport for my short flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan.  This trip in Uzbekistan was quite the collection of cities, trains, drivers and guides and everything worked perfectly - great job Advantour.