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Note to readers: You should read the previous blog “Tbilisi – Georgia” before this one.
We set off from our little courtyard apartment in the still dark hours of the morning our head lamps illuminating our way along the rough street with crooked curbs, open manholes and dog poo. We hop on the metro, using the last ride on our tap and go card, ride in the correct direction, and miraculously emerge right beside the train station. Our train arrives on time. It’s a double decker and we have seats on the top deck. Our two seats face two other seats. A man sits in the one opposite Pat and keeps his feet to himself. A woman sits opposite me and decides she should remove her shoes and put her smelly feet on the edge of my seat. The trip is about five hours long. Every once in a while I fish something from my pack or put something back in, this requiring her to move her damn feet. She did not take the hint. I debate returning the favour but just couldn’t bring myself to be as rude.
We arrived in Batumi on time. The city is advertised as a show piece. Well the train station is not. It is in fact closed. There were taxi touts practically clambering onto the train with their shouted refrain, “taxi, taxi, taxi.” Each time shouted louder and closer to our faces than the previous. It is a constant here and just needs to be ignored. We shoved our way through the worst of them and accepted a ride from a less obnoxious driver who spoke a bit of English. “Bus station,” we say.
“Airport?” he asks.
“No bus station,” we repeat.
“Hotel?” he tries.
“No bus station,” we insist.
“New bus station?” he suggests.
“There are two?” This in unison. We only knew of one.
“New bus station?” he repeats.
“Sure. Yes,” we decide. It seems like a good place to start.
So we get a drive about two kms to a new bus station which is just as lively as the closed train station. We had by this time realized our mistake in changing the time of our 00:30 10 No bus ticket to the 17:00 hrs 9 Nov bus. You have realized our error too haven’t you? (If not you will soon enough.)
We ask at a couple of kiosks in the nearly deserted station to see if anyone can give us any info. They can’t. Nor are they interested in trying to find someone who can. We are used to an often unhelpful attitude at bus stations so take this in stride. We find out there is an even earlier bus departing shortly, at 14:30 hrs. If we get this bus, we reason, then get held up at the border, we will be able to catch the 17:00 hrs bus. (We’ve already been told it’s impossible to cancel the tickets.) What clever travellers we are. We buy tickets for the 14:30 hrs bus and once the tickets have been issued – they are small scraps of paper – the woman tells us the bus will come at 15:15. When we point out the 45 min difference she shrugs. Traffic is blamed. At 15:15 there is still no bus. At 15:20 another woman arrives and we are to follow her. We do and get on a local mini bus. The other woman pays our fare and we go to a spot on the road by a restaurant. The woman indicates that in 5 mins the bus will come. Ten minutes later she shows us that it will come in 7 minutes. The charade goes on for over an hour. At 16:45 a bus roars up the road and slams on its breaks. We are to jump on. We indicate our big packs have to go under. A man jumps off the bus, opens the cargo hold and we toss our packs in, we hug the lady, and climb on the bus which is already rolling. It is packed except for our two seats.
About two hours later we have cleared through Georgia customs and are in the zone between countries. We are approached by a boy of about ten asking if we can help him, concerned, we ask what he needs. His hijab wearing mother shows us her bulging bag of booze. She wants us to help her smuggle some across the border. You know that devout Muslims don’t drink alcohol right? Does anyone see the various hypocrisies here? Needless to say we decline her request.
We approach the Turkish immigration desk, hand over our passports and Visas and wait. Of course we are five hours too early, so of course it is impossible to enter Turkey. No amount of persuasion works. We show him our bus tickets. We wave pathetically to the bus purser who scowls back.
There is nothing to do except buy new Turkish Visas. Despite what the various websites say. This is easily done at the border if you have enough USD or Euros.
“What about Turkish Lira?” we ask.
“Turkish Lira, no. USD or Euro,” we are told.
“We aren’t American. We’re visiting Turkey. We have Turkish Lira,” we boldly counter. We aren’t really in a position to argue but…. The customs guy cracks a smile and we remain firm on the subject of the appropriate currency to be used for this transaction.
Truth be told we do both have a precious stack of USD but it’s the outrage that every freaking country we’ve visited wants the bloody things more than their own currency. Where is their national pride?
We are very soon buying our new Visas with Turkish Lira.
Despite the delay, we are among the first people back on the bus because we didn’t have masses of cigarettes and bottles of booze to declare.
We continue the drive south and at about 22:30 hrs the bus comes to a grinding halt on the road. The purser comes and tells us we are to get off. There is no bus station in sight. We remind the driver that we have our packs to retrieve, he’s sorely upset to have to climb out of his seat, flip on a light in the underbelly and help us dig our bags out from piles of duty free shopping. We are left at the side of the road.
We get out our IPads, open our wonderful Pocket Earth app and see that miraculously we are about 500 metres away from our hotel. A convenient pedestrian overpass presents itself and within 15 mins we are in our lovely room in a very nice hotel.
We are in bed within moments, another ridiculous adventure to add to the growing stack of odd stories of our journey along the fabled Silk Road.
There’s not too many places I’ve been that I’ve left with a mental promise to never set foot there again. Turkmenistan tops the list.
Our tour there was enjoyable on some levels but there’s an undercurrent of repression and corruption that isn’t even hidden beneath the dusty surface. With over 70% of the country being desert and mostly flat, a little wind creates a whole bunch of dust.
As we crossed the boarder from Uzbekistan, we quickly understood that while Uzbekistan has rolled out the carpet to welcome tourists, Turkmenistan isn’t that excited about the prospect of foreign eyes peeking at their country. Foreign cameras are particularly unpopular. We had to be very careful about where we pointed the lens. For sure there were no pictures allowed at the boarder.
We were ferried across the Uzbekistan side of no man’s land in a nice little van with seats. On the Turkmenistan side, the vans were deplorable filthy rust buckets with benches tied down with loading straps. The guy who accepted payment for our visa tried to short change us, but we were wise to his tricks so made him cough up the rest of our change.
Our guide Batyr appeared and took over. Soon we were in a nice vehicle driven by a manic. We quickly discovered that this type of driving is normal in Turkmenistan. The only place where there is some degree of caution is on the main highways that are monitored by cameras and gates at intervals. Speeders arrive from one gate to the next too quickly and are pulled over to pay their fines or bribes – whichever. While we were driving on the highways the speed was within normal parameters. On the side roads our drivers drove as fast as possible down the centre and slammed on the brakes for pot holes, cows, camels, oncoming traffic etc. Very uncomfortable.
We spent two nights in Mary – in a Turkmenistan version of a three star hotel. It was disgustingly filthy. The first room Pat and I had reeked of smoke so we were moved to nicer single rooms. Despite the revolting conditions of carpets and bedspreads we caught no bugs. We each had a fabulous view of an enormous mosque across the street and were treated to the call for prayer a couple of times in the evenings and at an ungodly early hour both mornings.
From Mary we took a long day trip out to the ruins of Margosh. For me the highlight was feeding the left overs of our picnic lunches to the resident dogs who were delighted.
We stayed a night in Ashgabat. It is a showpiece city of gleaming white modern buildings set within treed parks. The roads are wide and pothole free. Crossing them as a pedestrian is nearly impossible as vehicles are not required to stop at crosswalks. The only places we crossed were crosswalks supervised by policemen who stepped out into traffic and stopped it.
Yes I said policemen. That was not a slip up. We saw no police women. However our guide’s mum was a retired military major, so clearly some women get jobs in male dominated fields.
This brings me to what disturbed us most about Turkmenistan.
The systematic subjugation of women.
Have you read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale?” If not maybe you’ve seen the series.
In Turkmenistan, school girls must wear green dresses and wear their hair in two braids. Female university students must wear red dresses and wear their hair in a variety of styles. Both age groups wear the national beaded cap. The dresses for both age groups are full length – to the ground. They are not shapeless. In fact the women’s curves are evident beneath the somewhat clinging fabric. A State mandated dress code that both de-individualizes and sexualizes its educated women. Wow. How is that OK?
Back to gleaming Ashgabat. We went for a walk to a mall in search of an ATM, and crossed a wide section of land where it was obvious an older part of town had been torn down and flattened. Where has that community been moved to? There is no doubt that they have been moved to make way for another grand white edifice. Once at the mall we decided to buy a few snacks but quickly changed our minds. The prices were much more than what we’d pay at home. The next day our guide explained that all imports are priced high to encourage people to buy local lower priced products.
We did find an ATM. Here’s another remarkable aspect of Turkmenistan. At the ATM our official exchange rate was approximately 3 Turkmen Manat to 1USD. At a hotel desk the day before our guide bought us 200 Turkmen Manat for 20 USD. No one in Turkmenistan wants to receive local currency from tourists and in some cases – such as buying our 100 USD ferry ticket, as tourists we had to pay in USD. There are numerous reasons no doubt but none of them good.
One morning as we were finishing up breakfast, a person slipped into the otherwise empty dining room. Looking anxiously towards the kitchen the person quietly said, “I have five children.” The person then proceeded to remove all the bits of food we’d left. A scrap of stale cake, some stale bread, a couple of pats of butter, a hard boiled egg… this all went into pockets, before the person slipped away. I am deliberately not giving the gender or the city.
I don’t know what sort of internet monitoring goes on once a tourist has left the country but that person is still there and I want to preserve their safety. So why tell you this story? Because I think it is the reality of life for many people who live/survive under this rigid regime.
In contrast to in hand around Ashgabat, where there is a great deal of irrigation and millions of pine trees planted, the countryside is parched. We saw camels grazing in the sparse scrub. Sometimes we roared past shepherds riding donkeys as they herded sheep, goats or cows in clouds of dust from one grazing area to another. We drove past salt flats stretching to the horizon. At times the road was particularly covered with blown sand. At one point a large plot was clearing the sand, just as plots at home clear snow. We saw a couple of small nerds of wild horses eking out an existence from meagre desert fodder.
The traders of Silk Road fame crossed this land by camel train. We saw a few reminders that Alexander the Great had come here before that, and other ruins attested to various conquests through the ages. After the wonders of Uzbekistan, and the richness of ancient sites there, the ruins we saw in Turkmenistan were underwhelming.
Our seven days there did produce a couple of highlights.
One was a visit a farm for Akhal-Teke horses. These are a special breed of Turkmen horses known for their speed and beautiful glowing coats. We all had an opportunity to ride but the horses were very frisky and definitely one-person mounts. Pat decided to watch the shenanigans from the safety of the ground. Helen was walked around the ring and I went for a longer ride away from the farm but with the security of a lead rope as the horse did not respond well to my feeble attempts to command it. I eventually did get a few short canters within the ring, but only under the close supervision of two escorts. While the riding wasn’t quite what we’d expected, the horses were fabulous creatures. They pranced around, reared and spun on their hind legs. We enjoyed a show of superb horsemanship by their regular riders and were suitably impressed.
Another highlight was our visit to Yanykala Canyon. I’m not sure why the area is called a canyon. What we saw was heavily eroded white and red chalk cliffs which were once a sea bed. The cliffs rose out of the brown desert scrub land in bands of brilliant striated rock. We camped in three little tents on the flat top of one and enjoyed a desert sunset with our fire cooked kebabs. Despite everything getting thoroughly coated and impregnated with fine sand, it was the best night of the trip. We weren’t too keen on sharing our camping area with poisonous snakes – we saw one – but we coped. We’d spent the previous night sleeping on inadequate lumpy mats on the floor of a home stay so the tents in the desert were a treat. It was warm enough to have the tent doors open so we could watch the stars circle over head until the moon rose and then we admired that from behind the screens. The screens necessary to keep the scorpions and snakes outside!
I’ll send another blog about our departure from Turkmenistan as that is a story in itself.
We are now back in Bukhara after a wonderful few days exploring the much restored ancient Silk Road city of Khiva.
Our accommodation was right outside on of the city gates which meant no time wasted in travel to and from the tourist mecca inside the walls. Madrasahs, mosques and bazaars crowned with blue tiled domes and facades crowded the cobbled pedestrian streets. Along every street, within every courtyard and around every corner, craft shops and eager venders clambered for attention. Silk scarves, wool rugs, embroidered clothes, cloths and bags, fur hats, bright woven mats, pottery pots and bronze or copper jugs fluttered in the breeze or sat in enticing stacks. Deals to be made at every turn. We did not act as the ancient Silk Road traders may have done. We bought nothing except coffees and beers and other restaurant fare. But looking was fun none the less.
The old city flocks with tourists from around the world. Many are from Europe. Once again we are reminded of how eagerly Uzbekistan is welcoming us foreign travellers.
We shared our breakfasts at the hotel with a very interesting couple of antiquities experts from the Smithsonian in Washington. They were here assessing the many Khiva museums for a world bank that funds museums to assist them in improving how their collections are interpreted, displayed and protected from degradation. We enjoyed dinner with these two on our last evening and learned a bit about the world of artifacts.
Our train trip to Khiva from Bukhara was just a regular six hour train trip. We sat in comfortable seats and watched the brown dry landscape rush by. The area around Bukhara has many cotton fields and people were out in the harsh sun harvesting. Further towards Khiva it became desert.
Our train trip back to Bukhara wasn’t quite the same.
Here we go – another train trip story.
We bought 1st class tickets to ensure we didn’t have another uncomfortable experience.
Haha – we got on the train and noticed it was a bit rundown looking and the seats were set up for sleeping four to a cupe. Helen and I each had bottom seats (beds) in one cabin. Pat was supposed to have a bottom seat in the next. She had a top. We all sat in our assigned places and hoped for an empty train.
Not going to happen.
A young woman and an older (but not as old as us) woman shuffled in with Helen and me. I was asked to put my pack under the seat to make way for an enormous suitcase – seeing as my pack was on my seat I declined. The suitcase was lifted to the woman’s top bunk. She didn’t seem inclined or capable to make the climb so I offered her a seat with me. I wasn’t planning to stretch out anyway.
A family of four meanwhile arrived in Pat’s cupe. Pat wasn’t about to climb up top either so she came down to us. We three put our packs up on Pat’s bunk and she sat beside Helen. The young lady climbed up to her bunk. Then the old lady started to whine and carry on indicating that Pat was to go up, I was to go up, Helen was to go up – to her top bunk so she could make her bed and sleep on my seat.
“No. You can sit here, but we’re sitting here too,” we mimed.
Oh how she carried on. She even swung her feet up and tried putting them in my lap.
I quickly indicated that would not do. She was to sit up at her end of the bench or get up top.
After some time of much dramatic moaning and begging she decided she really needed to lie down. It was by now about 4pm or so. She had made a previous attempt, wanting Helen to lift her. Helen had not tried anything so foolish. Now her fussing and carrying on brought the little old man conductor. He looked horrified. This woman was very corpulent and short. The bunks have no ladders and are quite high. They are not easy for a fit tall person to get into. This was going to be a mission.
The bed began sagging as she started putting weight on it. I begged Pat and Helen to get out from under as I was sure it would collapse and crush them. After considerable effort, much groaning and some help from the little conductor she made it up. Then we all noticed that the bed was insecure at one end and indeed in imminent danger of folding down to dump its considerable load on the floor at our feet. Helen and the conductor pushed it up while he managed to fix the latch. Good grief. The woman then began an hour’s loud lament – she went on and on without pause until she finally fell asleep and we all got some peace.
We gladly disembarked in Bukhara and wondered if the woman would manage to get down safely to sleep for the remainder of her journey in the lower bunk or if someone else was bordering to take our place.
We are enjoying a relaxed pace back here in Bukhara. Yesterday we went to a 500 year old hammam for women. Every hammamming experience is a little different. At this one we sat to be washed, then lay on the floor to be slathered in ginger then massaged. As usual the rinsing is with buckets of hot water being dumped over us. This hammam’s long history is etched in its intricate brick worked domes and worn marble floor slabs. A domain of women, we sipped tea throughout the cleansing process while the voices of our washers mingled with the sounds of running water and scrubbing.
So is hammamming really a verb?
While we enjoyed our early dinner we watched an interesting vignette take place. A black car drove up to the curb. A man hopped out and placed two cauldrons on the sidewalk. He poked at them and then got back in his vehicle and drove away. Pat watched this and then mentioned it to Helen and me. We three all became curious and started looking around. A man with green runners came along, glanced at the cauldrons and kept walking to stop a little distance away to study them surreptitiously. Meanwhile we covertly studied him and took a picture. Then the man ran away only to return a while later with two other men. We took more pictures. The three men stood around, looked around, picked up the cauldrons and carried them away. The end.
We have no idea what that was all about but are pretty sure there are shady deals happening in the hotel where we are staying.
Today we were supposed to ride the Big Red Bus but it was a no show so we went for a walk instead and discovered a very interesting museum about water in Bukhara. There is very little water in this part of the world. The Aral Sea is nearly dry. Several riveters have disappeared. The Soviets are blamed for much of this due to the vast amounts of water needed for their cotton manufacturing. There is however a longer history of water diversion for agricultural and urban needs.
Tomorrow we head to Turkmenistan. We plan on crossing the border at about 8:30. We will spend a week there in the company of a mandatory guide. We have to stay in certain hotels and are only permitted to go to the places listed on our itinerary. Social media is blocked and foreign news is limited in Turkmenistan so we’ll have limited knowledge of what’s happening in the world until we get to Azerbaijan in a week or so. We hope to catch a ferry to Baku on 19 Oct but sometimes people have to wait two or three days for the ferry to go.