Sunday, November 16, 2003

Turning pale in the Baltic winter

I hope all is well with all of you in your corners of the world. For me, I have finally come full circle. I passed through the refugee camp that is London Standsted Airport and am revelling in the land of natively spoken English and where I can buy vegemite.

I spent the last three weeks in the Baltic republics, where things were extremely civilized. No crazy grannies attacking me, no cops with guns shaking me awake at 2am, and definately no millionaires kidnapping me.

They do, however, have some
entertaining languages. In Estonia the national museum is called the "Kik in d Kok" and the bus station is the "Busijaam". I entered Estonia and marvelled for days how free I felt not constantly watched or in fear of the cops. I gapped open-mouthed at all the modern contraptions, the sparkling clean toilets, and total embrace of Europe. I went clubbing twice and listened to the bloke travellers crap on about the beautiful girls. In Latvia and "i" goes on the end of everything. Like "Britneyi Speari". Hum...sounds familiar.

I moved onto Latvia. Riga is a
beautiful city and with a massive dump down of snow it was magical. But I was getting tired of being a total tourist tied to the cities, and listening to the blokes crap on about the beautiful girls. So, me and three others divised a plan of escape. We hired a car and drove around Latvia and Lithuania for seven days; two very country Aussie boys who inflicted me and the groovy yank from Boston with the Dixie Chicks and "A Whole Lot of Country" CD compilation. We ran up and down gorgeous, freezing, endless beaches on a futile hunt for amber. Visited a defunct nuclear missile base, once extremely top secret where once missiles were ready to be launched at Western Europe at the push of a button.

Hunting for Amber on a Latvian beach

In Lithuania the main supermarket chain is the "iki"
and to say thankyou, you say "ah chu". I visited the old KGB headquarters where locals were tortured for any reason. This was the third museum to the occupation, even described as genocide, that the Soviets inflicted on the region. Very graphic stories, absolute misery. I have learnt a lot on this entire trip of the suffering humans can cause their fellow man; I visited mass graves and places with long histories of bloodshed. I understand that nothing is impossible.

I was getting really tired of only meeting other
travellers, and listening to the blokes crap on about the beautiful girls reached its crescendo here. By this stage, the girl travellers were in awe of how spectacularly ugly the local men where. How the hell did the mothers spawn the same breed? I moved out of hostels for good. The very lovely Hannah, a mate of a mate (thanks again Catrina!), took me in and I really enjoyed my trip's last days. I wandering the Russian market and said goodbye to what now felt familiar.

Baltics were lovely, but hardly a secret anymore and I feel I didn't get to know life there. I was initial glad to escape the mayhem of the Russians, but before long, it felt all too easy. I missed the mayhem, and I think I might even miss the Russians.

So, I am here in Blighty now, excited to be catching up
with mates and my brother, and people who have known me longer than a week! Not much of a clue what I am doing next, I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Oh....Those Russians

I hope you are all well and my updates aren't getting too long for you. I can't help it!

The time has come to leave Russia and give you all a wrap up on it. It has been a ride, I've felt like I have gotten to know Russians: lived like a Russian (on top of each other), eaten like a Russian (you cook at home), looked like a Russian (covered head to toe in leather), mostly only hung around with Russians, and, of course, drunk like a Russian.

The bulk of this experience is due to extreme good luck and a man called Boris. Boris, an enigma of a man in his middle age, and his young wife and little boy offered me a ride to Volgograd. Two weeks later I said goodbye to them. I could write an essay about Boris' numerous business dealings, complicated family intrigues and commanding personality. He says he was one of Russia's first millionaires. But, perhaps an overview will be to describe all the times I woke up with a "where the phark am I?" thanks to Boris.

Boris, his son George and me at a lunch stop at the Volgo River on our way to Moscow

In Volgograd, the site of 3 million deaths from one of the worlds bloodiest battles marked by a 72 metre statue of mother Russia, we stayed with some family. I was welcomed in, stuffed full of food and poisoned with vodka then passed out (tad embarrassing). I woke up on a mattress on the floor and got lost trying to get out of the room.

One thousand kms later, I spent the night in Boris's tiny apartment (even though he is a millionaire, he doesn't like to spend it on showy things - he says) on the outskirts of Moscow where I found two more kids, and discovered I had taken the girl's bed when I awoke to her trying to rest half of her on a corner of it.

I woke up the next morning in my own apartment. Without discussion I was taken to Boris's Moscow apartment and given it for as long as I wanted. Wooooo hooooo. It was a communal flat, a hang over from the Soviet days where four rooms share a bathroom and kitchen. I lived for about 10 days with the intrigues of my flatmates who have been here for a long time I think.

Boris tells you what you are doing. He took me on two whirlwind tours of the magical Golden Ring, the heartland of Russia dotted with golden domed churches and monasteries. On both trips I woke up under a vodka cloud in a dump of a Soviet-era hotel. The second stay was in some town he had business dealings but foreigners were not supposed to be. I forgot to keep my mouth shut while on the street after the second bottle.

In both Moscow and St Petersburg I have seen world best art galleries, observed the tourist hordes in the Hermitage that made it feel like a metro station, vulgar displays of wealth in the palaces, marvelled at the irresistible beauty of St Petersburg and at the jigsaw car parking in Moscow. The colourful autumn leaves all over the country are just stunning. I went to the ballet in Moscow and St Petersburg and it was absolutely magic. My Russian friend (another new one) Nadia took me clubbing in Moscow where everyone danced on the tables and they had a strip show. I went clubbing here in St Petersburg and made new Russian friends where we seemed to hang out at the 24 hour bottle shop longer than in the club.

My Russian look that got me into the Catherine Palace (behind) at the Russian price!

Thus, I have enjoyed finding breaks in all the stereotypes of Russians, even though they can be true too. They do get around sour faced and provide infamously bad service; but I have experienced extreme hospitality and generosity. The girls are still vain; but I have made down-to-earth friends who also scorn other's sledgehammer approach to sexuality. The men, however, are all short.

But, the most common catch cry out of me has been "For pharks sake!" for quite sometime now and I am looking forward to (hopefully) losing it.

I am now going to Estonia, a country that has no visa and an alphabet that doesn't look like hieroglyphs. NO VISA! After the king daddies of visa pain, this feels like an impossible dream come true. I love the place already. All you heading into summer think of me as I head somewhere rather....well...Baltic!

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Kazakhstan - Riding the Iron Bazaar

I trust all is well in your sections of the world. I felt the need to tell you all what the last 3 weeks have been about, by bursting into song.

"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"

That was Almaty, the big smoke of Central Asia: some kind of vortex that had me attached with a rubber band. Every time I tried to get out of the city it snapped me back in. I gave up trying to leave after...cue music....

"Tragedy! When the feelings strong and you can't go on"

All the trains were booked and I had to wait five more days and thus had no time to stop on the way to Russia. This clanged very loudly with my fear of missing out on something. Then again, there isn't much in Kazakhstan that I haven't already seen in the region. The desolation of the Aral Sea disaster, and poverty from ruined Soviet plans. Something different would have been going to where the Soviets deemed the country "uninhabited" and used it for nuclear tests. Hum, I might not have missed much.

But, back to Almaty. I arrived feeling like a country bumpkin lost in the concrete jungle. I marvelled at the western food and incredible displays of wealth paraded by some. From Gucci to BMW Z3, it was all there. Moreover, it demonstrated the huge gulf between the rich and still very poor. Stories of government and police corruption were astonishing. I hung out with expats and made a local friend.

The women were the most consistent wonder though. They can wear whatever they like, as long as it is skin tight, high heeled and caked in makeup. This was evident in the other Russified stans, but reached a crescendo here. I, the Amazon grot, did not fit in with them.

I toyed with the idea of trying to.

Step 1: Handbag. Easy, the Central Asian briefcase is a blue plastic bag with, inexplicably "A & G Amgen, Made in Italy" on it. I have one, 30 cents. No worries.

Step 2: High Heels. From 12 year olds to grannies, everyone is in them. But, I decided that even the drag queens would not have the ankle hobbling spikes in my size.

Step 3: Tight pants. I would get an ankle in where their thighs go. The skirts wouldn't cover my bum. Not an option really.

Step 4: Tight tops. This I could easily do, it wouldn't matter if it didn't fit.

So, that would give me a plastic bag and a booby top. Hum, I don't think you can match up to the locals in teva sandals. Gave up. But, I did think ahead. I bought the heaviest, warmest, most funky sheepskin coat with enough fluff to look the part in Moscow.

The climax of my dagginess was trying to attend the Opera. They very nearly didn't let us in we were so messy. My companion Charles, being Canadian and thus a perpetual apology, and I felt our embarrassment was almost tangible. We skulked to our seats and refused to move until everyone left. It was good though, a Kazakh opera in Kazakh language, a gripping love tradegy.

One very cool thing we did around Almaty was...cue music......

"Flash, arrr arrrrrrr, he's one of us"

A mad, defunct astronomical observatory is in the beautiful mountains outside Almaty. It looked like a ruined set from a 80's Flash Gordon: death rays and what looked like space junk lying around, odd scientists ghosting between buildings, cows grazing.

We were disappointed not to use the one telescope that worked to see Mars, it was too cloudy. I walked out in the morning to light snow that added an eerie feel to the place. I loved it.

Me on some fun junk

"There's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend"

So, I saw Kazakhstan from a train. For three days and three nights, this moving bazaar provided views of utterly endless steppe. The clear sky banged into the horizon in a precise line. Two-humped camels grazed as we passed. The numerous stops at tiny villages caused atom bombs of activity as people on the train sold goods to the villagers. I went first class, mostly because no other tickets were left, but it was very comfy and still cheap.

Looking down the train platform at the instant market the train brought to the village

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when"

So, I left Central Asia. The best thing about my trip in the region was it was almost an entire surprise. I had almost no pre-conceptions of what would be there and what it would be like. I wonder if I will get that feeling again; travelling an entire region that was a blank blob that has now been so richly coloured in.

But, onto Russia! It feels logical being here, like getting to the horse's mouth. I entered Russia in the most obscure way I could think of. I am in Astrakhan in the Volga Region. Overnight I stepped from Asia to Europe. The buildings are lovely, but run down. The desolate steppe has been replaced by the lush Volga River. I have perversely made it hard on myself by having no guide book here. A very thin armour of bad Russian is all I have. But it causes me to talk to people, ask their help, and I have met some lovely ones so far. Except for the old dragons behind hotel counters, they can go to hell with the taxi drivers.

There are tourists here, all Russian. I haven't talked to anyone at length in English for six days. Besides Charles, there hasn't been any others travellers for 3 weeks. It is a challenge, but this is what I wanted. It is rewarding.

Enough crap from me, I hope all is well, tell me all, as you can might guess, I need a little more

Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Kyrgyzstan - Disaster has struck

I have run out of Vegemite!

My last update let you in on the challenges one sometimes faces in Central Asia. I will make up for that with gushy, flowery words....I love Kyrgyzstan!

It is an exceptionally beautiful country, covered entirely in mountain ranges that always change: naked brooding rock, powerful folds in the Earth, golden velvet coverings, alpine trees, many glaciers sparkling and varying sizes of snow caps. I could describe my time here as a Lake Tour and, of course, mayhem is never far away either.

Lake Issy-Kul

Oh god, I thought I was in heaven when I walked into a village on this gigantic lake, stayed in the home of a lovely middle-aged couple who made me feel as safe as if I was staying with my grandparents (she was a food Nazi, "eat, eat, eat, Suzanne!" ) and wandered down to the beach.

My lovely hosts who welcomed me in when I showed up on their doorstep

I found an entire cove to myself, dramatic mountains behind me, the fresh water lapping in front and the snow caps of the colossal mountains on the other side mingling with the clouds. I proceeding to get really burnt at this altitude, nearly run over by a guy hurling out of nowhere over my beach on his horse, and joined by kids arriving in their horse and cart, dressed in the latest bikinis, playing volleyball in the lake.

Lake Ala-Kul

My usual approach for experiencing mountains is to stare up at them in wonder and think that the trekkers crawling up them are nutbags. Suddenly I realised that every bastard travelling here was into trekking and I was the weird one not doing it. So, I joined some others and our semi-prepared crew did a hike in four days; it takes fit Israelis only two.

The scenery was alpine. I picked edelweiss and thought it was all fine until we were shaken out of our tents at 2am by the police brandishing guns (scary). However, I was sharing the tent of a tattooed, shaven head, big bearded, Bavarian truckie so he handled the negotiations while I shivered behind, and the Aussie girl screamed into the night. The police are considered the biggest criminals here, but these did eventually leave us alone.

We climbed up 900 metres in one day into the hail (very cold), scrambled across the pass (very spectacular until it started snowing horizontally), literally dove down the other side with Russian porters laughing their guts up at me staggering down (nothing left of the outer sole of my boots) and finally make it to some hot mineral springs where heaven was found again.

Me, hair on end, high in the mountains on our walk past Lake Ala-Kul

Lake Kol-Ukok

I couldn't wait to get on horse back and find the remote summer pastures, called Jailoos. I rode with two dutch girls up to this remote little lake: blue skies above, shimmering glaciers staring down and marmot's shrieks piercing the silence. On the way local men crossed our path, proceeded to get drunk and our guide got into a horse whip fight with one of them. I decided this stuff is becoming normal.

Yurt life is fascinating. It is so far removed from our own lifestyles as they cook, eat, and sleep all in the little, efficient space. I love the beds they make up on the floor of piles of quilts, mostly because there is no foot boards; the beds in the houses are designs for the short arses around here! I have stayed in yurts a total of six nights, and could write an essay on it. Let me know if you want to know more.

Yurt life on the high Jailoo I visited

Lake Song-Kul

I went up to this big lake with a Aussie/Kiwi couple, not as huge as Issy-Kul but higher. We stayed in a tourist yurt, but got horses and a guide to find a more authentic one at the other end of the lake. Little did we know the crazy old bastard was a vodka terrorist. He directed us over to a shop yurt for lunch, vodka was produced and it never stopped: he kept us pissed for 24 hours.

Giggling across the fields, we arrived at a yurt for the night, the woman frantically tidying and 12 men crowding in to laugh with (at, more like) us. Vodka continued, there was no escape and I wasn't as much of a man as I couldn't get the huge shot glass down in one. The night blurred into ruddy faces in the single lantern light.

Our sleep was interrupted by comings and goings, and things got ridiculous as vodka was presented for breakfast! By 10am we were forced more shots, and I started begging for the vile fermented mares milk instead. Riding back, all the hills seemed to know us and had converged on the shop yurt where we had no choice in arriving at. But, this time we were seriously pissed; vodka terrorist victims rolling around on the grass. A man was singing Kyrgyz folk songs, we danced and ate salted, raw fish. Very wonky at remounting, we were given another shot while astride and, with vodka-fueled need for speed, I took off a couple of times with the couple bouncing along behind, then got called back. We hid out like timid mice that night.

A vodka terrorism victim: Ken with a local

Ken with the crowd at the shop yurt

Lake Chatyr-Kul

This was my last adventure and a truly remote location. At the far end of the country, I got very over-romantic about the Silk Road. I crawled around an historic stone caravanserai, picturing the camel trains arriving here, men crouching into the rooms in a mirage of wares and swords.

I was with another Aussie guy and we took horses and a guide into the dramatic, evil looking mountains of naked rock. Passed old camel skulls and into bad weather, I didn't realise we were crossing a pass at 4,300 metres. I had to walk the horse the last bit, heart pounding and the sleet hammering my face: it doesn't tickle. I understand the Kyrgyz skin tone now, and my hands resembled theirs: very ruddy red, and completed dried out.

These men don't leave home without their dog, and the one along with us was called Dingo. He got into a fight with a furry marmot, and I watched the cute little creature fight a losing battle for his life.

The lake was massive. China is over the mountains on the other side and not a scrap of civilisation was to be seen. Where the hell was the yurts? Some white dots in the distance became welcoming yurts with smoke from the chimney, the warmth inside nearly a shock. This was the most traditional yurt stay I had as I watched the woman work no stop, milking horses and making bread. The next day we crossed back over a different pass, the horses toiling almost straight up loose shale. We crossed with three other men, herding three cows and two calves, attended by Dingo and another dog.

Me and my steed on the way up to find the yurts around Lake Chatyr-Kul

By far one of the greatest experiences of Central Asia are the people. I am getting used to it now, but for the first month or so I was astounded at how consistently courtesy, generous, cheerful and genuine they are. I think I have never mixed with the locals so much before; it is a matter of course here. You live in their houses or yurts, and are not treated like a cash machine.

My Russian has extended from zero, on the first deaf/mute day without Jim, to about 40 words. It is getting exciting that people understand my one word sentences, English being little use here.

Wow, what an epistle! Hope you are still with me. I am onto my next stan tomorrow, Kazakhstan, to hang in cosmopolitan Almaty for a while. I will be fighting the infamous Russian embassy to get a visa and then cross Kazakhstan by train. I have a feeling this is a very long way. I have a feeling that Kazakhstan is as wide as Australia.

Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Uzbekistan - Where have all the vowels gone?

I felt the need to give you a closing update on Uzbekistan as I shortly head into Kyrgyzstan, a name where the first vowel is the second last letter and I still have to look it up to spell it, so don't worry if you can't pronounce it.

We have been hanging around Uzbekistan a bit. Due to the deep forests of bureaucracy that runs this area I haven't been able to enter Kyrgyzstan until the date on my visa. The borders in Central Asia are extremely absurd, they look like there were drawn by someone having an violent fit. A number of times when we have moved between major cities of Uzbekistan the road or train line crossed into another country. This can some times involve getting transit visas! We actually entered Turkmenistan for about 20 minutes, the time it took to sign us out and back in again was longer than the trip. Uzbekistan even has little "islands" of territory nestled in Kyrgyzstan. The paperwork must keep some logging industry going; we are registered in every town we enter, and it seriously took about 10 forms, and three different desks, to get my travellers cheques changed into US cash at the National Bank.

The shape of Uzbekistan

For the main reason of killing time, we have been hanging around the Fergana Valley for the past few days. This area has been a hot bed of issues and violet outbursts, mostly due to the spaghetti borders I am guessing. However, even though some people still seem scared of it, the only trouble I have had are the local crazies.

I will tell you a story of my one hour walk around pleasant and leafy Fergana City yesterday. I tracked down my favorite local dish (we know them all by heart now) in the bazaar and read my book in peace. No worries. In the park I became a tourist attraction myself as two boys, I think Russian tourists, asked to have their photo taken with me. Now I know what the locals think when we take photos of them in their funky skull caps: "What the hell for!?".

Anyway, walking back to the bazaar a lady passed making a keening / wailing racket and promptly striped off her dress (the mu-mu style thing Uzbek women wear). Now in nothing but her big undies she then proceeded to rip up her dress. Other women were starting as much as I.

That is ok, she didn't affect me as much as the little old women who rushed me and proceeded to claw my backpack, ranting and raving. Have you ever tried to get a little old lady off your back? They are surprisingly tough. Instantly I had a crowd of onlookers as I really tried hard to shove her off and even managed to drag her a few metres. Everyone was pissing themselves laughing and she seriously seemed to think something deadly or extremely offensive was in my backpack. Kindly people were trying to get her off too, to no avail. One man indicated I should just show her was is in my bag. Not a good feeling, but I didn't have much choice and somehow managed to not have everything thrown across the street. With me a bit shaken, she finally let me go with a look of bewilderment on her face. Some people even managed to apologise to me in English, I appreciated that. I wonder what had her so upset and ultimately so confused?

Jim was in bed due to very bad guts inflicted by our night on the town on rank vodka (we ended up in a nightclub called Hollywood that only had vodka, not a mixer to be seen). At least I could go and tell him about the ordeal. But, alas, he heads back to Blighty soon and I will continue into the sea of strangers myself. Really, they are generally very friendly people, but they had better lock those grannies up in future.

Anyway, enough crapping on. I hope this email doesn't give the wrong idea, I have enjoyed and been pleasantly surprised by Uzbekistan in many ways. Better get off now to dinner and the every day task of not getting run over by a Daewoo. They are mad drivers and there is an overt war against seat belts; they are all taken out, and in brand new cars never even installed. Lots of things to not understand here.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Uzbekistan - The saddest place on Earth

The title is how the Lonely Planet described Karakalpakstan (a stan maybe other stans haven't heard of). It is a "republic" inside Uzbekistan and we flew to its capital, Nukus, over arid landscapes in a Soviet-era propeller plane whose engine drone was deafening and reminded me of being in a 1970's James bond movie.

This is the site of one of the world's biggest ecological disaster, the draining of the Aral Sea. We felt a bit perverse, like going to look at a bloody accident. We mentioned to locals where we were heading, and a certain horrified look crosses their faces, even more so when we confirm we are not doctors or journalists.

Hotter summers, colder winters, the Earth coughing up salt, the people suffering high infant mortality, deformity, throat cancer and Médecins Sans Frontières seems to be focusing on TB. The MSF were kind enough to let us stay in their house in Moynaq, a town that used to be a thriving fishing port. We stumble out of the bus in the searing heat to a half ghost town; we really look like freaks. However, as what is proving usual with the Uzbeks, we are treated with utmost hospitality and fed continuously.

We walked out the next morning to the Grave Yard of the Ships. Rusting skeletons of fishing boats sink into the sand dunes. The shore is over 40kms, yes, that is 40kms from where it was. I wonder at what point did everyone give up? The sound of the wind is strangely like the sea. A little old lady stops us and Jim deciphers some of her Russian: "the weather is screwed, the ecology is screwed" and, tapping her head, someone is crazy. We weren't sure if that was the Russians for doing this or us for coming. Probably both, she was pissed off either way.

A local killing time in the rusting hull of a beached ship where the Aral Sea used to be. Photo courtesy of Jim.

Back in Nukus, we visited the world class art museum and bought some great stuff. That night a hooker tried to kick our door in. You can find anything in this desert. We have been happy with how things have worked out, chance meetings with locals and long term expats who point us in good directions.

We didn't see any tourists until we hit Khiva and now Bukhara. It is strange to think these impressive cities of highly decorated minarets, ancient mosques and medressas (religious schools) are not world famous. But, the middle aged French seem to have worked it out; they are here by the bus load.

Looking out over Khiva

The people are fabulous and even where they are used to tourists, there is none of the intense hassle - you can look at a carpet and actually leave the shop. One guy even gave us a carpet to sit on and then totally disappeared. We couldn't even find him to give the carpet back. The reverse psychology worked, what the hell was in his shop that he didn't need to drag us kicking and screaming in!

The kids are a laugh; still after lollies but give up pretty easy. We had fun teaching them English (I would get in trouble from Jim if he caught me teaching them to say "gudday"). We even nearly ended up invited to a wedding. The hospitably is overboard. Bloody hell, we are in their wedding photos! Jim sweating, me a usual grot standing next to the suited groom and the very demur bride in garish white (she isn't allowed to look up or happy for about two days).

Jim and a gorgeous little boy we fell in love with in Bukhara

Some of the beer is undrinkable (Afro travellers, recall to your nostrils the vomit-like aroma of shake-shake) and some French we met spat out the wine, but the food is plentiful with fresh fruit and veges. The music is very scary: mostly western pop, boy band medleys, and even a Russian cover of Kylie still in English for some odd reason. Girls fashion ranges from conservative sun dresses to Russian hooker style.

Right, now I am just going on.

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Uzbekistan - Bags of cash

I am finally in Uzbekistan! And I conned Jim into coming with me, even though he thinks it was his idea. Things started more than dandy when we were bumped into Business Class from London to Moscow, sweet! Hung around Moscow with a interesting Scot and then got back to earth with a bump in Russian Cattle Class to Tashkent. Moderate bedlam in the airport but survived. I now realise that pushing, shoving, screaming, and loads of big stripy bags all taped up are actually the norm over the world, it is just us crazy westerns who are weird standing calmly in line.

I think I am getting old; didn't battle with the taximafia at the airport, I had someone pick us up, take us to our aircon room and was served a major Uzbek breakfast all before 7:30am. Felt weird not being a total scumbag but the effect hasn't worn off yet.

After wandering the gigantic streets, jumping the ankle eating gutters, we found the bank and proceeded to musical offices only to be presented with PILES and PILES of som. Another office juggle to try and get it into bigger notes. Laugh of the day when Jim jokes everyone must carry their change in black plastic bags, then we looked around and found everyone DID have black plastic bags of briefcase proportions full of the stuff. One old dear even wanted us to do a black market trade, while in the bank!

Anyway, we need sleep and I have to get my bulging pockets home. It will soon be stinking hot, back to the aircon me thinks.

Can't wait to tell you more!

My array of Som