A Travellerspoint blog

Turkey

Merry Christmas from Istanbul!!!!

Once famous for where Europe meets Asia, capital of the Ottoman empire and home of the Greek Orthodox church it is of course now better known for being only the 2nd international city (after Venice) to appear in more than one Bond film. And ever since 1999 I’ve wanted to have Christmas in Turkey but then Denise Richards got married to Charlie Sheen, so I thought better of it and will fly home tomorrow.

When writing these kind of emails it’s very easy to become quite solipsistic, and whilst I’ve tried to avoid that and focused on the countries I’ve visited, this one will be different and be more about me. But like the others will feature lots of irrelevant stats of my time away e.g:

No. of times I was stung by wasps, on the lips, in Pakistan: 2

The dream plan was to make it all the way to Paris overland and get the Eurostar home but I simply ran out of time as I promised my Mum I’d be back for Christmas. I could in theory have ignored that promise but on a practical level traveling in Winter is a very different beast to warmer weather and also a couple of months more in Europe would’ve left me flat broke whereas now I’m returning with at least some money.

Average spend per day: $22

And it’s not as if Istanbul is a bad place to end things; the fascinating street life, history on every corner and its beautiful ‘hills and water’ natural setting (I’m writing this with a view of the Bosphorus) means it’s been a very enjoyable last week. Whilst the capital Ankara is deeply forgettable and I decided not to head to either the Med or the Aegean I’ve done some other fantastic stuff here in Turkey. Aside from seeing Troy and Hierapolis I also headed to Europe briefly at Gallipoli to see where Mel Gibson died and the Aussies suffered their worst defeat til The Oval, 1938.

Coldest temp: -12 degrees (Central China)

Hottest temp: 51 degrees (Southern Uzbekistan)

However, the undoubted highlight was hiking around Cappadocia for a week; one of the most memorable landscapes I’ve seen on this trip, every day I found myself clambering around the gorges and valleys as the fairy chimneys and home caves of the ancient troglodytic Hittites loomed above me. It snowed a lot and whilst that made some of the descents very scary (my vertigo seems to get worse as I get older) it also added a nice counter to the natural reds and pinks the rocks are colored. And then to end everything at the ‘end of Asia’ here in Istanbul does feel quite cathartic.

No. of countries visited: 36

I do have quite mixed feeling about Turks; the ongoing problems with Kurds and Armenians I’ve written about before and like so many other countries (Iran, Israel, US etc.) the endless crass nationalistic propaganda based around the military is a deeply unattractive part of the culture. It also seems to be a pretty violent society too. Cops toting guns seem to be everywhere and reminiscent of Russians they seem to be totally unable to talk issues through with one another. In the short time I was there I saw 4 fights break out (over next to nothing), earlier this season the Turkish FA banned men from the stadiums as the fans kept fighting too much and it didn’t surprise me to see MPs starting to fight in parliament on the news one night. I said to the guy next to me they’d probably be sacked in England if they did that and he replied by saying it happens quite frequently in Turkey. But then having recently been to other Muslim countries there’s a lot to like about Turkey too.

No. of days I’ve been away: 927

Whilst I’ve never been much of an England fan I’d definitely have to disagree with the sentiments of one of English fans most famous songs: ‘With St George (a Turk) in my heart… I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk”. Having recently been to the likes of Pakistan and Afghanistan where their slavish literal devotion to a 7th century Arabian prophets version of God (or imaginary friend as Jimmy Carr would call ‘It’) seems to have caused poverty, neverending bloodshed and other not very good things, in the 21st century it’s easy to see why the West has so much invested in Turkey, in every sense of the word.

No. of volumes in my journal: 15

The idea that you can be religious (as many Turks are) but that religion shouldn’t be the basis for everything else in life is the greatest legacy of the Father of the Nation Kemal Ataturk and is much of the reason why Turkey is probably the most successful Islamic country in the world. Whilst it’s secular constitution which doesn’t allow women to wear the veil in school or in government offices and the banning of religion in politics or the law is rightly famous and perhaps a model for some of the countries involved in the Arab Spring, even simple things like seeing people having dogs as pets or having a beer in public felt strangely uplifting after the restrictive codes of behavior in the Muslim countries further East.

Shortest time in one country: 4 days (Brunei)

Longest time in one country: 5 months (India)

In recent years its economy has been doing very well but the governing party is much less pro-Western compared with previous governments and draws its support from the more conservative countryside. Whilst the recent shift away from being allied with Israel is understandable, their relaxing of the ban on the veil and pushing other Islamist policies as well as their appalling press freedom record means Sarkozy and others putting the breaks on them joining the EU is probably justified, even if it has some in the West quite worried about the countrys’ future direction. As the designated ‘bridge to the Muslim world’ from Europe and America its geopolitical role is crucial to hope for closer integration with their Arab neighbors so ultimately the West has to persist in trying to encourage the Turkish brand of Islam throughout the Middle East and let people there have the individual freedoms that Turks enjoy and Pakis don’t.

No of times I phoned ‘the family’: 2 (both Xmas Days)

Perhaps the stat which stands out the most (aside from how I didn’t follow that Bob Hoskins BT ad too closely) was how long I’ve been away for. It works out to just over 2.5yrs which, unless you’re a gypsy (in which case you won’t be able to read this but I hope you liked the pictures!) is a long time to be on the road- to put it in some sort of context, MJ was still alive when I left England.

No. of times I thought about returning home: 1 (when Orient drew Arsenal in the cup)

As you can probably imagine my thoughts about returning home are very mixed; on the plus side I get to see my dog and Leyton Orient and I’ll no longer have to deal with some of the negative sides of traveling. Certainly no longer having to carry ‘my life in my pocket’ (passport/cards etc.) will be appreciated as will sleeping in the same bed and I sincerely hope I don’t have to exchange a word with a taxi driver or cop for a good while. I have taken a heck of a lot of risks on this trip in different ways; hiking solo in various wildernesses, going to Afghanistan etc. and somehow I’ve come through essentially unscathed. I couldn’t get an insurance policy for the last year of the trip so not getting my passport or money robbed (tho other stuff was) during that period and even more importantly never getting injured or ill (that’s cos I’m vegetarian) over such a long period has been crucial in the success of the trip. I have been very lucky.

No. of times I was robbed: 2 (1 minor, 1 major (and that was on day 17!)

But then on the downside I’ll have to shave more frequently than ‘when I can be bothered’, live a life more ordinary and having to get a job has the inevitability of an unloved season (poor me). Of course 2 and a half years is a fair chunk of my life to leave in Asia and so the smallest things are getting me quite emotional about finishing the trip; put it this way just listening to China Girl by Bowie nearly brought me to tears a couple of days ago thinking about China! In writing these emails I can only hope the interest and enjoyment I felt in traveling in the region came across.

% increase in No of tattoos: 100%

The reason I write these is based on the idea that if you’re gonna go away for so long you probably should make a bit of effort to let people know what you’re doing, but if you managed to read every word of the 36 (I think) missives plus the ‘bonus’ sporting one then you probably have both a cushy office job and can consider yourself amongst the more loyal members of the immediate McKendry family. Thanks Mum!! But I hope the overly passionate polemics about issues you’ve never heard of and gratuitous digs at Michael Howard and Hilary Clinton haven’t been too unbearable and maybe you even enjoyed the odd line. No? Oh well.

I started with a Bond reference and so I’ll finish with another (very laboured) one by saying it won’t surprise anyone who’s known me longer than 10 minutes that I’ve had the following haiku tattooed onto me:

“You only live twice,

When you are born, and when you

Look Death in the face”

And with what I’ve been privileged enough to see and experience I end this trip safe in the knowledge that it will take the hooded one a moment longer to stare me down.

For the final time,

From Istanbul,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 15:09 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

The Caucuses

For the penultimate time on this trip: hello from abroad. Sorry if this one’s too long- this past month or so I’ve been crisscrossing the Caucuses (at 1 stage I held 6 currencies) including visits to a couple of countries that ‘aren’t’, and even a story where I pissed on a dog. So there’s a fair bit to pack in.

Azerbaijan was my final ‘tricky visa’ to get and I was pretty surprised to see they designated 2011 as a ‘Visit Azerbaijan’ year as they’ve made getting a visa near impossible. But after getting rejected a couple of times elsewhere, for some reason the consulate in the random city of Batumi in Georgia said yes so I was able to (almost) complete my goal of going to every non Arabic country in Asia. The last 1/3 of the trip especially has been a logistical battle traveling though the part of the world with the hardest (and most expensive) visas to get so I’m delighted I’ve come out OK as numerous times I seem to have been in pretty dodgy situations. Getting to Georgia was great as it was the first country I’ve visited since Japan to just stamp you in no questions asked and seeing as Azerbaijan/Armenia have most of their borders closed it came in real handy to be able to use it as a base for the region. I do feel so, so lucky to have been to as many places as I have- I think in the next few weeks it will start to sink in. The one country I didn’t visit was North Korea which, like my failure to buy a Filipino bride earlier in the trip was ultimately just too expensive and not easy to get a visa for, I guess I’ll have to save up once I get home.

In the Caucuses I spent the most time in Georgia and I can’t praise it enough; for lesser known countries I’ve been to on this trip I’d add it to the likes of Myanmar and Bhutan as my top recommendations for holidays. I had heard that despite its small size Georgia would rank as one of the most beautiful countries in the world and I was not disappointed. Aside from the cracking capital Tbilisi (it did feel great being back in a European city) the variety of landscapes is superb, from the Adjaran coast to wine regions and the awesome mountains you’re always surrounded by great scenery.

Several of the popular hikes in Georgia are mini-pilgrimage routes as, like Armenians Georgians have a wonderful knack of building churches/monasteries in prominent and impressive locations on the top of mountains or perched on cliffs above the mountain villages below. Unsurprisingly for a country named after its patron saint and with a flag 5 times more holy than Englands the church is very important in Georgia and you can see how the people suffered in atheist Soviet times where they were often destroyed and mass attendees sometimes interrogated by the KGB. As in places like Poland religious freedom was an important part of the independence movement and in the same way that a reassertion of Islam has been a way for Central Asian countries to form their own identities, in Georgia re-embracing Christianity seems to be an important part of the new country’s psyche.

On one of said hikes up to a glorious monastery I got joined in the snow by a stray dog who I called Georgina (original eh?); she walked all the 2hr way up with me but as we were coming down we ran into a scary problem. The shepherds dogs in the Caucuses would have to rank only behind Tibetan dogs as the scariest I’ve seen; they tend to be formed by the terrible combination of being massive, extremely territorial and very fierce. Many times I’d be walking along when dogs would come at me and I’d yelp back in fright only to be saved by the dogs chain catching and keeping them away. But this time a dog came out from behind a bush and towards me with sufficient ferocity that I fell backwards, and realized it wasn’t on a chain. The dog weighed about 50-60kg and at this point I was pretty petrified it would try to maul me or something but instead it went for the tiny (maybe 4 or 5kg) Georgina- a Georgian guy later told me they’ll always attack dogs rather than humans. It didn’t really go for her but still managed to bite the poor girl and rip open a wound in her back. I got in the middle of them and managed to push the big dog away but Georgina was clearly in pain. So I carried her away from the big dog and used the only antiseptic I had to hand (so to speak) on her wound. I then carried her down the mountain and after I’d bought meat for the 1st time in my life for her (it’s expensive isn’t it?!!) she seemed OK. Not for the first time it was quite hard saying goodbye to an animal I’ve become attached to whilst traveling and seeing my dog again at home is definitely one of the things I’m most looking forward to returning for, in fact I may cry when I see him.

Aside from the cracking scenery and interesting sights one of the most enjoyable aspects of the country are meeting the Georgians themselves. They’re a very outgoing people, always keen to chat and offer their hospitality, traveling in less visited areas in the last 3 or 4 months the way people treat you has been a world away from the ‘foreigners= walking ATM’ (everyone wants a withdrawal..) attitude in places like Vietnam earlier in the trip. Whilst the Bible clearly states that Noah invented wine the Georgians are under the impression they did and it forms an agreeably important part of socializing here regardless of the hour- several times I found myself really quite drunk in the middle of the day as people would ply me with booze on buses or just in their houses. I could never quite work out how (or sometimes ‘if’) restaurants and even hotels seemed to charge for it as they would just bring endless terracotta flagons of it and it never seemed to cost very much. The drinking process was quite ritualized and almost felt like being back in Japan spending half the time standing up as you go through a ceremony of umpteen toasts to Georgia, God, Carl Griffiths etc. which don’t ever seem to stop and get ever more tenuous and baffling as the party gets drunker.

Aside from the vino Georgian meals can be truly epic, particularly in the mountains it’s common to stay in homestays with local families and my waistline visibly expanded as they’d serve up to 9 courses in a sitting over 2hours. My favourite other Georgian contribution to world cuisine were the sublime Katchaburis, again not a dish to eat if you’re watching the calories they’re something like a pie filled with cheese and each region has its own variation on the theme. Perhaps the most memorable of these were the ones from the Adjaran coast which were made up of: a boat shaped bread with melted cheese inside and on top, more melted cheese, a few knobs of butter and a raw egg- absolutely delicious for the first few mouthfuls. Then you have to stop or you throw up.

In recent years Georgia has become a real success story; just 8 years ago the country was unstable, economically stagnant and with big corruption and crime problems. However, in 2003 the famous Rose revolution took place where Mikheil Saakashvili was swept to power and since then Georgia has been booming. Thanks to free market policies the economy has been getting 8% growth, corruption has been almost entirely stamped out and in many ways the country looked to be on a very successful future course.

But whilst Georgia is doing pretty well generally, it has since independence had a couple of major thorns in its side in the shape of the 2 breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The country has fought 2 wars over them versus a combination of local separatist forces and Russian ‘peacekeepers’, during the independence process in 1992-93 and more recently in 2008. The Ossetians/Abkhazis speak different languages and have always seen themselves as separate peoples but after they and Georgia were annexed by the USSR Stalin decided to put them into the Georgian SSR (if that’s the right abbreviation). But in the run-up to independence in the late 1980s they started making noises about becoming their own countries again and started fighting with the Georgian army. After a while Russian peacekeepers intervened decisively in favour of the Abkhazians/South Ossetians and so between 1993-2008 they basically became de facto independent countries, i.e. with their own flags and governments etc. but recognized by no-one.

Unfortunately the conflict became a part of the broader geopolitical game between the West and Russia; to hasten the demise of the USSR the West recognized an independent Georgia, and crucially its external boundaries far too quickly i.e. when they were still fighting in Abkhazia/South Ossetia. Georgia quickly became a strong ally on ‘Russia’s doorstep’ and as the West rather foolishly backed the Georgian position on Abkhazia/South Ossetia Russia retaliated by offering support to the breakaway territories. This situation continued up until 2008 when the increasingly bellicose statements of Georgian leaders ended in what’s probably the worst military decision in living memory: ‘let’s reclaim the territories by attacking Russia’ (or at least its peacekeeping force). Unsurprisingly they got utterly routed within 3 days.

South Ossetia is tiny, virtually lawless and almost totally reliant on Russian support, it’s only possible to visit from Russia too so I didn’t, but you can go to Abkhazia surprisingly easily. I had to apply for an entry letter online in advance but I was really worried the Georgian army at the last checkpost would simply not let me ‘out of Georgia’ or ‘back in’ once I tried to return, at least not without interviewing me suspiciously. But I’m delighted I did it as they let me go virtually no questions asked and let me back in fine too as I guess by their logic I hadn’t ‘left Georgia’, although apparently if you go Russia-Abkhazia-Georgia then you can get into serious trouble for entering ‘Georgia’ illegally. When I got to the capital Sukhumi as some countries employ (e.g. Israel) they didn’t actually stamp my passport, just gave me a very pretty visa on a separate sheet of paper that I could do what I liked with. Nice.

And as with Georgia it’s not unattractive; the entire country slopes East to West with ever visible snow capped Caucasian peaks becoming covered in very dense pine forests right down to the Black Sea coast. It’s blessed with a lovely sub-tropical climate- locals say they don’t really have a Winter and I managed to go sunbathing a couple of days which at the end of October was a bit of a surprise. All this means it came to be called ‘The Jewel of the Russian Riviera’ during Soviet times where protected by his 300man bodyguard Stalin famously had his holiday home , interestingly all the furniture including the snooker table had to be lowered/made smaller cos he was just 1.56m! I’d picked up just about enough Russian in Central Asia to get by and whilst there’s not masses to do the scenery is great and there’s effectively only one main road so getting around was a doddle.

Most of the fighting took place in the ‘border regions’ and after crossing the creepy bridge that marks the border the first 30km were like something out of a horror film, specifically The Hills Have Eyes. The road becomes full of gigantic potholes and all around you are deserted buildings with bits missing from them. It improves as you go North but even in central Sukhumi large numbers of nasty Soviet era towerblocks are derelict and appear to have been that way for some time. Whilst part of that is down to them becoming unsafe from the fighting it’s mainly due to the massive depopulation that has taken place in Abkhazia; under Georgias most famous son Stalin the Soviets implemented a policy of ‘Georgification’ of Abkhazia so that by the late 1980s the half million population was split nearly evenly between Georgians and Abkhazis. But during the ‘92-93 war pretty much all the Georgians returned to Georgia to escape the fighting and the 250k or so internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) has become one of the most controversial issues of Abkhazias status.

Even now some of them are still living in temporary shelters in Georgia and whilst they’re (briefly) allowed to check on properties they may own in the border region, Abkhazia says there’s no way they can move back permanently until Georgia relinquishes its claim on the area, which doesn’t look likely to happen.

I think the Georgians were in the wrong in the conflict as you eventually had the ironic position where the West was trying to uphold a Soviet Stalinist policy and Russia was actually trying to protect minority groups. In the aftermath of the war Medvedev made his famous speech about it marking the end of the previous 20years ‘unipolar world’ but the aftermath of the conflict says a lot about the differences in the financial support and propaganda machines operated by the West and Russia. Abkhazia and especially Russia were made out to be the bad guys in the Western media and the country is now recognized by only 6 states (inc. Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) whereas in very similar (possibly less justified) circumstances the Western backed (and technically illegal) independence of Kosovo from Serbia is widely touted as a triumph of justice or similar and is now recognized by 85 states.

Unable to trade with other countries, Russian tourism is one of the few ways the country can actually make money so there’s plenty of them around, and using the Rouble and Russian alphabet the country does in many ways feel like a warmer Southern satellite of the Great Bear. However, the few Abkhazis I spoke to were adamant they weren’t ‘Russian puppets’ to annoy the West with, which the Georgian media is convinced they are. Given the Wests unstinting support of Georgia and Georgia repeatedly threatening their very existence I don’t think they really have any option at all but to look to Russia for support. Whilst Abkhazis acknowledge they couldn’t survive without Russian financial and military support as the ubiquitous national flag shows they’re very proud of their independence and so for example in the recent presidential election the Russian backed candidate soundly lost.

The 2008 conflict has also done huge damage to Georgia’s future aspirations as a country; as they didn’t even consult their Western allies before attacking, (and understandably not fancying getting dragged into a war with Russia in the future) NATO cancelled membership negotiations indefinitely and the Georgian dream of joining the EU can now be put in the ‘unlikely’ category, which is exactly what Russia wanted. Georgia probably should just accept that Abkhazis don’t want to be a part of Georgia and just let the issue go, they could then restart trade and diplomatic ties with Russia and maybe their hopes of NATO/EU membership could be a reality once again.

Then it was onto my Aunt’s favorite country of Azerbaijan, the land of the two black golds (caviar and oil) and where the national stadium is famously named after a Russian linesman. My view of it unfortunately isn’t massively positive, if Georgia would be one of my top holiday recommendations of this trip then Azerbaijan would join the likes of Bangladesh and Kazakhstan in the ‘you can skip ‘em’ category. Since the 3 Caucasian countries went independent their continental location has been somewhat debatable; geographically they’re in Asia but they’ve talked themselves into competing in Eurovision and UEFA (so has Kazakhstan somehow) as culturally they’ve more in common with Europe than Asia. However whilst white, Christian Georgia and Armenia face towards Europe Azerbaijan feels much more like Central Asia with its weak Islam, rampant corruption and massive personality cults. They see themselves as Europeans (though I couldn’t work out why) and whilst I think it’s feasible the Georgian/Armenian dream of joining the EU can happen in the medium term future, Azerbaijan is much further off as in many ways it’s still pretty backward- if I said Kazakhstan wasn’t really a fitting location for Borat Azerbaijan definitely is.

That said, in the countryside the people were very kind again and whilst not quite Georgia the scenery is still impressive though annoyingly at this time of year thanks to a combo of the snow and the army much of it was off-limits. There’s also not too much in the way of ‘human sights’ so I think I’ll most remember the country for how divided it is between the rich and poor.

There’s a spot just outside Baku called the James Bond oilfield cos it’s featured in The World Is Not Enough, the plot of the film is (partly) about the building of the $4bn pipeline from the Caspian to Turkey (and on into Europe) which went online a few years ago and since it misses both Russia and Iran would rank as one of the biggest overseas policy successes of the Clinton administration. Whilst the nearly 200yr old Caspian oil industry is the world’s oldest, production shrunk dramatically during Soviet times but the new pipeline has transformed the industry and indeed the country as a whole. Whilst Baku is situated on a pretty natural bay, the nodding donkeys (oil derricks) both onshore and off are visible absolutely everywhere ruining the views and there’s even an 'oil platform city’ housing over 2000 workers 45km into the Caspian. But whilst it’s not pretty to look at, with oil prices being consistently high Azerbaijan has become filthy rich and indeed has one of the fastest growing economies in the world (posting 30%+ annual growth rates) almost entirely on the back of the pipeline. But unfortunately the wealth hasn’t been spread remotely evenly.

When you cross the border into Azerbaijan it’s immediately obvious that 80%+ of the cars are either Ladas or Mercedes with hardly anything in the middle. Whilst most capital cities are culturally/economically different to the countryside, Baku would have to be one of the most extreme examples I’ve seen. In the countryside off the coast it’s very easy to find villages without electricity or even running water and as you can see in their clothes and food people clearly don’t have a great deal of money to spend and the conservative slightly backward atmosphere feels like you’ve gone back in time 50 years. Yet when you go to the boomtown capital Baku it’s a different world with designer clothes boutiques aplenty and silly vanity projects like building the worlds biggest flagpole (though I think they were building a bigger one in Dushanbe when I was there) and laughably trying to stage the Olympics (they lost to London). Worse than that though are the doughy European oil execs and suited mafia types very visibly throwing cash around on champagne and Russian hookers to give the city a seedy and quite tasteless atmosphere. Instead of actually trying to improve the country’s Soviet era infrastructure, poor human development indicators or even trying to cut the rampant corruption the president Ilham Aliyev seems far happier spending the cash on building endless roadside memorials and a park, a museum and a main square statue in every town dedicated to the former president. Who coincidentally was his Dad.

The Baku metro for example has apparently been earmarked for expansion/improvement for over 10 years but for some reason this hasn’t happened and remains the front runner in ‘the hardest to use metro in the world’ competition. I never saw a map within a station or even on a train and the staff don’t have any. Even more ridiculously there are no signs in platforms (and sometimes not even on station entrances) so apart from the announcements in Azeri (at least in Tbilisi they’re in English) when you arrive you literally can’t know where you are. To make things even worse most of the stations have meaningless names e.g. Y1, M2 etc. so the only way I found I could use it was just to tell fellow passengers which part of the city I wanted to go to and they’d let me know which stop to get off. After a spell in the Far East using some of the best metros in the world it’s a slight relief to know there are some places worse than London I guess.

After Azerbaijan it was onto pretty Armenia, one of the oldest ‘peoples’ in the world Armenians life in the 21th century is slowly improving but as centuries go they had a bit of a nightmare 20th and the legacy of history feels very strong all over the country.

Unfortunately one of those legacies is Soviet architecture; covered in forested mountains it’s not an unattractive place but Armenia represents perhaps the nadir of Communist indifference to nature that I’ve seen in the USSR. All over the country areas of stunning natural beauty have just been ruined by quarries or chemical factories being built in the most illogical places such as the stunning Debed Canyon in the North. In the mountains rather than traditional cottage style rural dwellings you’d expect the Soviets just put up huge, ugly towerblocks everywhere which aside from ruining the landscape creates a feeling of quite intense poverty, which isn’t necessarily accurate but makes you feel quite uncomfortable around. Indeed having managed to negotiate good relations with Russia, Iran and the US the country has been doing fairly well economically in recent years, as in Georgia it did feel like being back in Europe and I did appreciate being able to drink and go to clubs etc. in a much more liberal atmosphere than in the likes of Iran.

One of Armenia’s claims to fame is the title of the first country to adopt Christianity- as early as 300AD. As in Ethiopia/Egypt/Syria the belief system developed separately from Europe (apparently they differ on ‘the nature of Christ’) so the church is something like the 3rd branch of Christianity (along with the Catholic and Orthodox versions) and Echmiadzin near the capital Yerevan became the equivalent of Rome or Constantinople as the headquarters of the Church. The country is littered with 1000yr+ old churches and monasteries in spectacular locations and in amazingly good condition; they have a slightly different atmosphere as they’re much darker and they're less decorous than most churches. I really enjoyed spending time around them though as Armenia would probably compete with the likes of The Philippines or Poland for the country with the strongest Christian faith so it’s very interesting seeing the populations devotion in action. Whenever you pass a church on a bus all the passengers make the sign of the cross and it’s quite funny watching the end of mass as they’re not allowed to turn their backs on the cross so everyone has to back out the door very slowly.

As in Georgia the church was a constant in the assertion of the national identity in Soviet times but perhaps even more so in the aftermath of the genocide they suffered in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire. I was disappointed in my Mum when she emailed to say she didn’t know anything about Armenia, but then again as the sublime The Onion once put it:

Armenia: proof positive that the near eradication of an entire people can be almost completely forgotten by the rest of the world when the victims neither own the media nor have the means to buy the political agenda for the next 50 years.

In the attractive capital Yerevan there’s a very good museum about it and lays out the tragic story of how in the first World War Lenin did a deal (foreshadowing Hitler and Stalin 20years later in Eastern Europe) with Turkish leaders to effectively carve Armenia in 2 to be shared out between them. Whilst the Russians then created the Armenian SSR Turkey decided to ethnically and religiously cleanse the Armenians and repopulate their areas with Muslim Turks. The Turks were much less systematic in keeping records than the Nazis with Jews later on but the commonly agreed figure is that 1.5m were killed and it’s often described as the first organized Holocaust of the 20th Century. The main tactic used was to kill most men on the spot then send women and children out on death marches to the Mesopotamian deserts in Southern Turkey where they’d starve or be beaten to death. The Turks deliberately released psychopaths from prison to speed up the killing (it only took the Summer of 1915) and with the usual rape and torture tactics it’s quite unpleasant to read about the barbarity involved. As one Armenian guy put it: “We don’t call them Turks, the word we use for them translates as something like ‘they who must not be named’- it’s like Harry Potter!”

From an earlier time and in a more isolated part of the world there’s nothing like the paper records of the Nazi Holocaust but there’s still an abundance of evidence of all kinds- photos, eyewitness statements etc. so the vast majority of the world (including the Muslim world) have at some point offered sympathy to Armenians. But this makes the Turks very angry as in what’s become the strangest aspect of the tragedy- they simply refuse to accept it ever happened.

Whether it be politicians, the media or (as I saw in what’s now NE Turkey) the general population they use a variety of qualifying statements- ‘not that many died’, ‘they weren’t killed they starved because of food shortages caused by the war, ‘the evidence of it has all been faked’ etc. but it basically adds up to a denial that it ever happened. As I saw in the Kurdish areas there is something really quite unpleasant about Turks, a sort of racial superiority complex over their neighbours which obviously goes a long way back into history. But whilst most countries accept they’ve made errors in the past and apologise for it (to an embarrassingly frequent degree if you’re Angela Merkel) Turks seem to think they can behave like they did 3 centuries ago and just don’t seem to accept any responsibility for their actions.

This denial of history has had odd effects in Turkey, it’s a crime for a Turk to say it happened (as Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk found out in 2005) the only memorials you’ll find to the period are ones commemorating dubious claims of reprisal attacks by Armenians on Turks and whenever another country makes acknowledgement of the genocide such as the US congress in 2007 Turkey gets absolutely livid, threatening to expel ambassadors and the like. As with the Kurdish issue (and similar to Serbias refusal to accept their own more recent massacres against Bosnians) I think it’s inconceivable Turkey can join the EU whilst they’re clearly denying this type of historical fact.

Aside from the human cost in lives, Armenia suffered something of a cultural genocide; they were kicked out of half their country (which they’ve never got back) and lost areas of cultural importance in the process. In the legend of their origin Armenians are descended from one of Noahs great grandsons Hayk and Mt Ararat (where the Arc ended up) is incredibly symbolic to them- it looms beautifully over the capital Yerevan, pictures of it appear in seemingly every Armenian front room, and everything from beer to sons are named after it, it even appears on the national seal so losing it to Turkey in such a fashion obviously hurts. Furthermore the breakup of their country meant that millions of Armenians fled the area so whilst that’s the rest of the world’s and particularly California’s gain in some cases (Cher, Gary Kasparov, Andre Agassi… Kim Kardashian) they’ve become a very divided people with twice as many Armenians abroad than in what’s left of their country so their identity has become necessarily pretty fragmented.

The ongoing controversy over the genocide means their Turkish border is still closed but so is the Azeri border to the East over the Nagorno Karabakh issue which was my next memorable stop.

Whilst hitchhiking in Azerbaijan I got picked up by a few guys who were delighted to see a foreigner, they quickly took me to a bar and as we were playing pool one of them started telling me what music he liked. He came up with Sinatra (ok), Presley (ok), Paul Anka (eh?) but then shocked me by saying Charles Aznavour. I couldn’t help but blurt out “But he’s Armenian”!! to which he responded “Is he?” and spent the next few minutes looking a bit sullen about it…

Somewhat similar to Abkhazia, Nagorno Karbakh is a disputed territory which is a de jure part of Azerbaijan but sort of operates as an independent country. However, ethnically, culturally and linguistically the people are Armenian and as they didn’t even check my passport at any stage so it felt just like another province of Armenia. Despite the population being Armenian Lenin gave Nagorno Karabakh to the Azeri SSR but in the runup to independence the locals made it clear they didn’t want to be part of a new Azerbaijan. After the Azeris massacred an Armenian village, fighting broke out between the two countries in the early ‘90s and after 30,000 deaths in a brutal conflict Azerbaijan eventually suffered a humiliating defeat to a country less than half its size. There are no Azeris living there but they still want it back and for reasons I simply couldn’t understand the Azeris just will not give up on the issue. It was reminiscent of The Falkland Islands in Argentina or Kashmir in Pakistan where every day the television and newspapers are filled with anti-Armenian propaganda to the extent that anyone who votes for Armenia in the Eurovision song contest is arrested and interrogated over it. The other thing Azerbaijan spends its money on is its military and as recently as 2009 the Azeri president threatened to attack if Armenia doesn’t hand NK back. It’s quite sad to think decisions taken probably fairly flippantly almost 100yrs ago by Stalin are still causing so many problems in this part of the world.

I think part of the reasons for the tensions in the Caucuses are because all 3 countries used to be much bigger and more powerful at certain points in the past and define themselves by their history. However they’ve been gradually outmuscled by much bigger Iran, Russia and Turkey and lost territory and power so subsequently give off the impression of being frustrated by their inadequate current sizes. Also, as with the European empires in other parts of Asia when the Soviet Union broke up trying to base the new countries on the old flawed administrative boundaries just hasn’t worked. Whilst they’ve managed to avoid war in Central Asia they’ve had plenty of rioting but the mountainous Caucuses are a much more complicated region composed of lots of languages and ethnicities and trying to group them as just 4 countries(+Russia) isn’t enough as the ongoing problems in Chechnya, Ingushetia etc. show.

I did have a great time in Nagorno Karabakh though as desperately needing a physical challenge before I came home I spent a week walking the 200km long Janiper trail. Nagorno means mountainous so it was hard but utterly beautiful. My biggest fear was the snow and predictably Mr. Murphy turned up and it started snowing within half an hour of me starting to walk. I therefore had to do the entire trail in ankle deep snow which meant an extra challenge but also added a wintry beauty to the whole landscape. The thing I liked least was having to cross the streams, the water could go up to thigh height so I’d have to take off my trousers and cross them- at this time of year the cold almost brought me to tears and as they were frozen over I’d have to kick through the ice which just left my legs bleeding painfully. The trail was so poorly signed I ended up getting lost loads of times and found myself taking risks my Mum definitely wouldn’t approve of. Several times I found myself in fairly tight spots totally lost in the wooded mountains in the mid afternoon knowing I simply had to find a village in the next couple of hours or I would freeze to death in the night. This normally meant I just followed streams or an old logging track on one occasion and I was always a very happy boy when I found a village. Despite often being very, very poor the people were monumentally hospitable, I would just knock on a door and ask if I could sleep there and virtually every time they’d say yes immediately and subsequently throw food and drink at me. I’d normally go through a bottle of the potent oghee (60-70% fruit vodka) with the man of the house and every night was memorable. Perhaps the strangest was when I arrived at the edge of a village at dusk and the only house with a light I could see had a sign up saying Danger! Mines: Keep Out. But the light was on so I thought it was worth risking a limb and after I knocked on the door it turned out to be a base for a demining crew from the Halo Trust. They seemed to invite half the village in and just plied me with booze. Fantastic.

I did quite a bit of that last night here in Tbilisi as it’s been a hedonistic end to my time in the wonderful Caucuses. I really have enjoyed it here but I base time round the sporting calendar and since Spain have just won the Davis Cup there’s really not much left for this year. Tomorrow I’ll get the long bus to Ankara then Cappadocia and Istanbul for a final couple of weeks in Turkey where the final email will definitely be shorter.

Til then, from Tbilisi,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 15:06 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

Kurdistan

…After crossing the Georgian border from Turkey thanks to some errant hitchhiking I got spectacularly lost and ended up walking up a mountain pass for 3hrs in the snow before I got saved by the unlikely figure of an English 50yr old who looked like my Dad on holiday in a rental car. He then drove me through the snow to safety in the form of the lovely Black Sea city of Batumi in Georgia, where back in a Christian country we proceeded to get very drunk.

Although this email is actually about Kurdistan, where I wish they didn’t serve the tea in glasses- the normal serving is about 1-1.5 inches of sugar, I haven’t yet been able to stop myself from doing a double take and a frown as I begin to stir. And you have to drink quite a lot of tea here; if there’s one adjective I’d use to describe Kurds it’s ‘hospitable’- you can barely go past a tea shop without an offer of a glass and a cigarette. As with most Muslim countries it’s very much a man’s world so as you don’t see women in virtually any public spaces (restaurants, tea shops etc.) I can’t imagine how it would be like traveling as a girl in this part of the world. Aside from how much they like their sugar another very noticeable thing about Kurdish men is how they dress; in most parts of the world women tend to dress more colorfully/interestingly but not here. The standard Kurdish male outfit is composed of a very baggy boiler suit type of thing topped off by headscarves which can vary from Yasser Arafat style black and white ones to gorgeous lilac ones with gold tassels. It’s definitely a look which recommends oneself to grow a paunch and topped off with a thick moustache I’ve unwittingly found myself deeply admiring the fashion scene here.

Although the same can’t quite be said for the food; since leaving China food generally has been a big problem, partly in the unhealthy, often abysmal quality of it but mainly in just the sheer lack of variety on offer. Whilst in countries like India or China you basically don’t find anything but Indian/Chinese food, within those cuisines there’s a huge variety of dishes available so you never get bored. But Central Asia onwards you’ll be lucky to find a restaurant with more than a few things on a menu and bizarrely considering how rich it is Iraqi Kurdistan was maybe the low point. As far as I could tell there seemed to be only 2 food types in Kurdish cuisine: 1) sweets- in the form of literally hundreds and hundreds of sweet and pastry shops and 2) kebabs.

In a week there I never saw a restaurant/cafe which served anything but kebabs, literally nothing but kebabs, sliced onions and bread, some maybe offered a saucer of salad to go with it. Even in the centre of the capital Arbil, a city of 1 million people: nothing but kebabs. I’ve never seen a more limited diet, so after eating nothing but crisps and pomegranates for a while it was great crossing into Turkey and eating kahvalti, borek, and pide amongst others. Whilst my Mum will shortly be in tears at the prospect of my impact on the Xmas food bill, going home and being able to eat different (healthy) types of food is definitely something I’m looking forward to. But I’ve still got a bit more exploring to do first…

Before coming to Turkey I had another jaunt off the beaten track in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq; whilst the Sunni or Shiite Arabs continue their fratricide in the South, Kurdistan is a haven of calm in the region- it’s not just for the mountainous scenery that it’s known as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’ and apparently US/UK forces used to go there for holidays during the 2nd Iraq war!

Unfortunately it wasn’t cheap to travel in and the polychromatic mountains aside there wasn’t too much in the way of sights but it’s sometimes nice to go somewhere a bit unknown and have no other foreigners around you. The people were really friendly too and maybe even outdid Persians in their hospitality. This is one part of the Muslim world where if you say you’re American or British, rather than a look of scorn and mutterings of ‘infidel’ you’ll get a handshake and almost guaranteed offer of chai as they see NATO as liberators.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s they tried repeatedly to gain independence unsuccessfully then really struggled under Saddam. During the mid ‘80s he conducted a genocidal policy killing some 200,000 Kurds and famously showed his sadistic streak in the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988. Therefore he was hated by Kurds even more than other Iraqis and when NATO won the first Gulf war their situation improved considerably.

As one of the conditions of the ceasefire at the end of the war, the UN established self-autonomy (own flag, parliament, leader, security force etc.) for the area and now it has seemingly next to nothing in common with the rest of the country, indeed I’m not sure I can really claim to have been to Iraq. Security is high but it was almost totally spared the 2nd war and never felt remotely unsafe; and whilst the Arabs fight over control of the post Saddam country, somewhat off the radar Kurdistan has been doing very well for itself.

As the frequent sightings of oil derricks and refineries in the desert testify it’s home to the worlds’ 6th largest oil reserves and the money that started to flow in from European/US investment is definitely visible in the Western standards of roads and other infrastructure that are being built everywhere, the future does look very positive. That said when the road gets close to the mixed (Arab/Kurd) cities of Kirkuk and Mosul you suddenly see heavily manned army bases as control of these cities are still being fought over so remain some of the most dangerous cities on earth. Both sides claim the cities belong to them and due to the oil deposits nearby it’s the main bone of contention between the 2 sides, their unresolved status is probably the only thing stopping Kurdistan from going fully independent.

As and when they do decide to form their own state it would be great because once you cross the border into Turkey things become very different as the status of the Kurds there remains arguably the most controversial issue in modern Turkey. As I was crossing into Turkey I told the immigration officer I’d come from Kurdistan and he immediately aggressively (gratuitous glare and pointed finger) corrected me that “It’s not ‘Kurdistan’, it’s ‘Iraq’” and that was a bit of a taster for this very ethnically divided country. Up until just a few years SE Turkey was firmly closed to Turks as well as foreigners, as depending on your terrorist vs. freedom fighter preference the area was terrorized by the PKK (armed Kurdish independence movement) or the Kurdish people rose up against the tyranny of Turkish rule to result in a 2 decade long civil war.

The Kurds number some 30 million, so split across 4 countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) they form one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own state. Whilst in Iraq things are now very good for them in the other countries their status is highly controversial to put it mildly; on my last night in Iran I literally didn’t have enough money to stay in the only hotel in the border town but after explaining the situation to a local guy, with customary Kurdish hospitality he invited me to stay at his house. As he plied me with booze he told me the fairly chilling story of how his Father had been imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed by the regime for the crime of being a member of an organization seeking greater autonomy for Kurds in Iran. Neither Iran nor Syria is prepared to listen to the idea of losing chunks of their territory to a new Kurdish state and will violently stop any moves towards it, but it’s in Turkey (where they’re most numerous) that the issue has gained most prominence.

The roots of the problem date back to the creation of the new Turkish Republic following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the 1st World War. With the aim of creating national unity, the Father of modern Turkey Kamal Ataturk refused to acknowledge Kurds as a separate people (which persists to this day) and amongst other things banned their language, national dress and even Kurdish names.

After 50years of repression the Kurds got a bit better organized and developed a ‘gun and ballot box’ strategy to try and get more rights. So from the mid ‘80s the army imposed martial law in fighting the PKK as SE Turkey became a virtual war zone, 30,000 people were killed and the area suffered massive depopulation as people left en masse to escape the violence.

The war ended in 1999 when the PKKs leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured by Mossad (this is when Israel and Turkey were friends) in Kenya and he’s now under a Spandau prison style regime with over a thousand guards to himself.

Since then things have got much better in the area, the security situation has been brought under control and much of the Turkish army has moved out though there’s still plenty of bases around. Furthermore in light of Turkeys long running membership bid the EU has put strong pressure on them to grant the Kurds more rights, so they cancelled Ocalans death sentence, to some extent can now speak and write their own language in schools and newspapers and they’ve even allowed Kurdish television channels. They also eventually released a group of Kurdish MPs who controversially spent 10years in jail for declaring allegiance to the ‘Turkish and Kurdish peoples’ in parliament. This violated Turkeys unusual law of ‘insulting Turkishness’ being a criminal offence and again the EU said either you release them or we stop negotiations. As a result the Kurds are very positive about the EU and whilst it would come 2nd to full independence a Turkey within the EU, and the extra protection it grants is seen as a more realistic goal. Whilst the government may now pay lip service to the Kurds position having officially improved, discrimination still definitely takes place on a ‘secondary level’ i.e. huge areas of employment are nearly off limits to Kurds (including teaching in most of the country) as Kurds have a significantly lower standard of living than Turks and a glance at Turkish television or the tabloids reveal that all the celebrities literally look more like me than the darker, Persian looking Kurds.

I only spoke to a couple of Turks about the issue and thanks to decades of negative propaganda about Kurds from the government and press they quickly launched into outright racist rants (most ironically by a taxi driver who’d just been deported from Germany) against Kurds and it’s quite obvious they see them as second class humans and won’t ever consider them as ‘Turkish’.

As you may have read in the last few days there’s been a massive outbreak of hostilities as a PKK attack killed 26 soldiers only for the Turkish army to respond with a huge 10,000 man deployment chasing the PKK into Turkish Kurdistan and even into Iraq. On a personal level I was delighted to miss the action by just a few days but it’s yet more evidence that despite the situation improving the conflict still seems set to run. Whilst in recent years the Turkish government has reluctantly made some small measures to increase Kurdish freedoms, until at the very least they give them autonomy, for me it’s inconceivable that Turkey could be allowed to join the EU whilst operating quasi fascist policies against its own citizens.

As with the Iranian and Syrian governments, the Turks have seen the success of Iraqi Kurdistan and are worried about the independence movement starting up again, flying the Kurdish flag and publicly stating that Kurdistan should be a separate country is still very illegal -a newspaper editor recently got 166 years in jail for that ‘crime’. Regardless of what state you’re in any Kurd will tell you that a unified Kurdistan is the dream they’re striving for and I found them such likable people I sincerely hope they make it. Whilst I wrote about it before in China(and several other countries), if there’s one issue that’s been a constant through my trip in Asia is that there simply isn’t ‘enough’ countries in Asia, too many people don’t have freedom and I stridently hope that the map becomes much more complicated in the years ahead.

Whilst the political situation is worse on the Turkish side the sights are much better, aside from some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world there are some beautiful mountain ranges with the huge Lake Van being something of a centerpiece for the region. It was warm enough that I could wear shorts for a bit longer than I expected and amidst spectacularly friendly people I can’t help feeling how much more enjoyable the traveling has been since leaving Central Asia.

I managed to climb 2 mountains called Nemrut Dagi, one a massive volcano with a huge crater lake and the other more famous one with giant moai like head statues at the summit and hatching to visit the remote ancient capital of Ani near the Armenian border was a fantastic experience. I also spent a few days at the base of mighty Mt Ararat, whilst it’s too expensive to climb, the 5137m high Fuji like peak is fairly beautiful and I felt spiritually richer to visit somewhere so important in the history of man. When the great flood took place in 2349BC Noahs Ark came to rest on the top of Mount Ararat whilst every other living thing on earth drowned (at this time no people or animals living in the Himalayas or Andes could go uphill). Then the waters receded, Noah lived to 950, invented wine and his family repopulated the entire earth as everyone else had died. You learn a lot from the Bible.

From Batumi,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 15:04 Archived in Iraq Comments (0)

Iran

Hello from beautiful Kurdistan in Northern Iraq (don’t worry Mum that’s the safe part), when I’d just said goodbye to my French/Japanese companions and crossed the spectacular border with Iran I had a satisfying look round at the snow-capped peaks, whilst I know my time away is running out I also know going home is going to be very difficult…. and having visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq in the last few months I’m now undoubtedly on some sort of surveillance list held by Mossad.

I didn’t actually intend to be here yet but for no apparent reason Iran refused to extend my visa so I had to make a dash to the border and after the hassles I had getting in in the first place it was a deeply frustrating way to leave the country as it’s such an enjoyable place to travel in, one month there simply wasn’t enough.

Of countries I’ve been to I think Iran vies with Colombia of having the least deserved ‘bad reputation’; one thing that’s frustrated me in recent years regarding Iran is that unless you read The Economist or similar the Western media only tends to report the country in sensationalist headlines about their nuclear program or covering the largely irrelevant rhetoric about Israel or the US spouted by Ahmadinejad without actually describing their culture or how life is for ordinary people. As a result a lot of Westerners think Iranians are religious nutcases who hate everyone and are crudely lumped together with ‘Arabs’ further West, but in reality the truth is very different. For lots of reasons (ethnically, religiously, linguistically etc.) the country is something of an outlier and can’t be put in the same bracket as its neighbours and the people are some of the warmest you could meet with a handshake and an offer of chai never far away. Beyond that though I came to view Iranians as amongst the most interesting people to converse with from anywhere I’ve travelled; English is widely spoken and they like a good natter so from football to geopolitics nearly everyone you speak to has well-crafted opinions on seemingly most things. The landscape is largely desert and the sights were good rather than great, so I think almost all my most positive memories of Iran will revolve around simply talking to people about their fascinating country and its rich history over a shisha, or perhaps something less legal.

Unfortunately one of the first things people tended to say was how much they hated the government and as a visitor you do get the impression that there can’t be many places with a bigger gap between the government and the populace; however you also realize that the country’s actually very divided at the moment between the very conservative, religious and normally rural part of the population and the better educated, more liberal urbanites (who you’ll have 90% of your contact with). A lot of Iranians are very religious (watch the looks of incomprehension when you say you don’t have a religion) but also vast numbers simply aren’t. Whilst they have to register themselves as Muslims and shockingly it’s the death sentence if they change from Islam, the population is much less interested in religion than the government seems to want. When the deeply unpopular Shah was kicked out in the popular revolution in 1979 it was achieved by a coalition of different groups with different goals; in the immediate aftermath though the countrys top cleric Ayatollah Khomeini showed an impressively Machiavellian streak in managing to execute or imprison any rivals for the new leadership of the country and so it officially became an ‘Islamic Revolution’ rather than a Communist or merely democratic one. Unlike Sunnis, Shiites believe that the Quran and ultimately Islam should be interpreted through a ‘divinely appointed’ leading Imam (a bit like the Pope in the Catholic Church) and Iran’s political system post-revolution reflects that whereby whilst the population can democratically elect a president (currently Ahmadinejad) above him is the supreme leader (top cleric, currently Ayatollah Khamenei) who has the final say on everything.

And unfortunately at the moment both men are not good leaders; whilst Ahmadinejad vies with Berlusconi for the world’s most entertaining leader award and is always highly quotable on international issues, he’s a poor administrator in Iran itself. He got to power largely on the back of simplistic populist rhetoric but once in power the population realized he simply isn’t that bright and openly admits he doesn’t know how to run the economy (“I pray to God I never understand economics”).As a result the economy is structurally in a terrible state with unemployment at around 20% and inflation at around 15%; whilst that might point to an imminent revolution like in the ‘Arab Spring’ this year, like Venezuela and various Arab states to some extent they can get away with not sorting out the economy because the country earns so much from oil.

One of the most memorable things about Iranians is quite how ‘relaxed’ they are about ‘work’ and earning money generally. If you enter a shop you learn to wait several minutes before they bother to serve you and thanks in part to a 3hr siesta the average working week is only 25hrs. And on top of that they get no less than 40 public holidays each year! It’s a far cry from China or Vietnam. Whilst it’s not quite the decadence of Qatar or the UAE the money they receive from oil allows them to heavily subsidize fuel and various welfare programs but means they haven’t tried to diversify the economy enough and create stable jobs in other fields like manufacturing, a situation made far worse by the financial sanctions placed on them by the international community. The quality of life is actually pretty good and the relaxed demeanor of the population can fool you into thinking everyone’s happy but the cost of living is also very high and with the oil meant to run out in 30-40yrs, as several Iranians told me they think the country will have to wake up from its fairly slothful state soon.

Iran really needs a radical modernizer but when one gets elected by the people (such as president Khatami 10yrs ago) the Ayatollahs cronies in a Guardian Council can and do reject policies they don’t like and even decide who can and can’t stand for MP (they have to pass a morality test). Whilst having a government run by a monarch won’t necessarily work, neither will the replacement one run by untrained religious leaders and the two tier system frequently doesn’t work. Under Khatami only 35% of policies were approved by the council and earlier this year Ahmadinejad simply didn’t turn up to work for 2 weeks in protest at not getting his way enough.

Predictably the Ayatollah is ultra conservative and has set the system up to ensure religious control at all levels of Iranian life. All branches of the civil service down to police stations and universities have a shady religious overseer onsite who reports directly to the Supreme Leader and can basically veto any decision the police chief or chancellor could make if they feel it interferes with ‘correct’ religious thinking. As with other Muslim countries Iran has developed a laughable legal system based largely round a book that’s nearly 1500yrs old; a particularly good law an Iranian guy told me about is how if you drive 30km you can eat during the day during Ramadan, as converted from the old rule about travelling 30km on a camel! So of course there’s a couple of spots outside Tehran people simply drive to so they can go and eat during the day. Aside from the predictable alcohol ban (though it’s easy to get smuggled stuff), and corporal punishment for things like stealing, Sharia law seems largely obsessed with sex. They still stone adulterers to death there, men and women are segregated in most public spaces (classrooms, buses etc.) and indeed women aren’t even allowed to sing but most famously they have to wear the hijab (hair covering veil) by law. It’s utterly detested by 80% of women and as soon as you’re in a remotely private space they all rip them off; at which point all the men in the room fall into wild, uncontrollable lust. However, one consequence of gender segregation at university has meant that many more girls now go as their religious families are happier to send them so amidst a plummeting birth rate no less than 65% of university places are now taken by women - but then only 20% find jobs afterwards as the religious establishment expects them to become wives and Mothers, which doesn’t tend to go down too well when you’ve had a university education. There’s even ‘morality police’ wandering round telling girls off over their appearance but they rebelliously just slap on make-up and Iran has a thriving cosmetic surgery industry so unlike in Pakistan or Afghanistan strict religious laws all feel like a bit of a waste of time.

I think sharia law rigidly sticking to the Quran can work in countries where the majority of the people live simply in the countryside and are often ignorant of life beyond their circumstances but in a country like Iran it’s a total farce. Unlike in many Muslim countries education is fiercely important in Persian culture so it has one of the highest rates of higher education in the developing world and for example in the UK Iranians are the best qualified of any immigrant community. The country has a long history of interacting with other countries and as there’s also a large diaspora across the globe the people are well aware of what goes on in other countries, despite the worlds strictest internet censor and blackouts on much of the media. With their personal freedoms so heavily curtailed and job prospects so poor it’s sad but understandable that Iran has probably the world’s worst ‘brain drain’ problem, some 4m (almost all university educated) Iranians have already moved abroad and speaking to young people they virtually all had an ‘exit plan’ to get to Canada or Australia etc.

I found Iranian television actually offered quite a decent insight into the country; it’s illegal but virtually everybody has a satellite dish and watches TV from abroad whilst the state run channels offer up morality plays and a Big Brother style show of Hosseins shrine in Karbala. So you can watch a few camera on one shrine, 24hrs a day, 365 days a year. Even Big Brother 4 was more entertaining. What’s also noticeable is how much coverage the 1980-88 Iraq war gets despite the fact it ended 23 years ago, everyday there are reenactments of battles, interviews with veterans and a never-ending series of montages featuring images from the war. For Shiites’, due to the murder of a couple of their first Imams the concept of martyrdom is deeply important to them so across Iran there are posters and billboards of dead soldiers to be celebrated in a religious cause. This is because Saddam Hussein was Sunni and after he attacked in the aftermath of the revolution it enabled the regime to claim the issue as an attack on their religion, which was a sure way of uniting the people. By bringing everyone together in a national, religious cause it allowed the regime to cement their hold on power and it’s probably fair to say that if it didn’t happen there’s no way the theocracy could have survived in it’s present form for so long.

Whilst Fox News and Republican senators may try and claim otherwise, the country which has most to fear from Al Qaeda or the Taliban is not the US or Israel but Iran. The Sunni Al Qaeda type terrorists want Taliban style governments to form in Pakistan and in the Arabian Gulf and sweep through Iran converting the population from the Shiite heresy en route.

The history of Shiitism is one of discrimination in the Muslim world and fighting to hold onto what they believe in, there are only a few majority Shiite countries in the world and Iran is by far the biggest so the country and other Shiites see themselves as very much a protector of the religion worldwide. Surrounded by Afghanistan, Pakistan and probably their biggest enemy Saudi Arabia Iran is something of a caged animal constantly feeling they’re about to be attacked by their Sunni neighbors or the Israel/US. They’re permanently on edge and just think the world’s out to get them so have formed an ultra paranoid/defensive complex with a powerful secret service and a half million strong army bolstered by the hated 2yr national service.

Despite hearing plenty of stories of foreigners being arrested and detained for several days on suspicion of spying we didn’t have any problems from the police until our last stop in Tabriz at the end. We’d met a former professional footballer and after we’d played 5 a side (very badly) with him and had an Iranian night out (ie dinner and shisha) he took us to the big game on Friday. We were celebrities going to the stadium as everyone wanted their photo taken with us and I even got interviewed on the radio. Iranian football has the reputation for being one of the most passionate in the world and the atmosphere was magnificent in a cracking game (4 goals, 2 pens and a sending off) but unfortunately we missed half of it. As we were entering the stadium the cops saw us and took us to a cell; they then brought a couple of secret service agents in from town who spent an hour questioning us and going through our cameras etc. about what we were doing in Iran. Whilst they eventually let us in to the stadium to watch the 2nd half our Iranian friend had to go and be interviewed again the next day and he was really scared. He said not to make any contact with him as he’d have to give up his phone and all email accounts and essentially I think they wanted to know why he was with foreigners. The fact they’d arrest him at a football match of all things underlines just how paranoid the government is and we were left wondering why they even bother to grant tourist visas if they’re that worried about foreigners mixing with the population.

This attitude of ‘the world is against us’ means the government doesn’t really care what the rest of the world thinks and is much of the reason why it’s come to be known as ‘the pariah state’.

On the Israel issue I think most Muslims around the world applaud the Iranian stance and their refusal to shut up and let the Palestinian cause go whilst they take American oil money, like most of the states in the Arabian Gulf have done. But I think Western attitudes to Iran are deeply hypocritical; whilst the American government has been bitterly moaning about (probably state backed) cyber attacks from China (and indeed recently congress declared them acts of war) at the same time they and Israel launched the Stuxnet worm which is probably the biggest and most successful cyber attack in history. It basically sent many of the rods which Iran was testing into a frenzy causing them to collapse and setting back the Iranian nuclear program back as much as 5years. Iranians are quite defensive about getting nuclear power, not many ordinary Iranians want the bomb but they do want nuclear power, unfortunately the technology needed to generate nuclear power can be easily modified to further enrich uranium to use in nuclear bombs. Despite having the oil, Iran’s refineries are hopelessly out of date so they often have to export oil to other countries only to have to reimport it in refined form afterwards costing them far too much, so they feel they need nuclear power as an alternative source of energy. The West doesn’t accept this as an excuse so even with heavy financial sanctions and Hilary Clinton threatening to obliterate them Ahmadinejad seems determined to get it so the issue seems likely to run. Most Iranians also feel that America simply doesn’t have the right to say who can and can’t have the bomb, as Ahmadinejad once said to an American reporter: “If it’s a good thing why can’t I have it and if it’s a bad thing why do you have it?” Also in recent years several times the likes of Turkey and Egypt have made the eminently sensible proposal of creating a nuclear free Middle East so Iran would have to abandon it’s nuclear programme and in return Israel would have to destroy the 80 or so nukes it’s believed to hold. The US consistently shot it down straight away under Bush and whilst the Obama administration has finally made tenuous beginnings to even discuss the proposal it’s unlikely they’ll issue Israel with any sort of ultimatum. I think it’s this perceived double standards which makes progress for Americas reputation in this part of the world so difficult

Tony Blair also recently gave a fairly bizarre interview blaming Iran as the major sponsor of terror attacks worldwide (not Iraq then?) and demanding regime change. But a quick look at the nationalities of attackers in 9/11 and 7/7 for example reveal a grand total of 0 Iranians involved whilst the Western allies of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt contributed all but one of the attackers. Buoyed by Ahmadinejad’s iconoclastic statements on the international stage Iran makes a good bogeyman to aim at but Islamic terrorism is clearly more complicated and if Western countries really want to stop attacks then they need to focus more on the influence of the radical Mullahs in Egypt and the state backed Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia than anything in Iran.

But the ‘no one likes us but we don’t care’ attitude taken by its leaders is not shared by Iranian people at all, I actually found them very insecure about their place in the world. Another of the opening questions you’re sure to be asked by the people is “Iran is good?” or “Iranian people are good? When you answer positively you can see the relief in their faces and they follow it up by asking several questions about Iran’s reputation globally. The culture of hospitality is vitally important and whilst on a couple of holidays we were bombarded with cakes and sweets from strangers it’s the everyday hospitality and generosity of the people which make it such a rewarding place to visit. I didn’t see anywhere near enough of the country and it’s somewhere I definitely want to return to in the future, though under the current political system that may be difficult. The Iranians I spoke to all gave the same view that a revolution will take place in 2-5yrs, the Ayatollah is 72 yrs old and believed to have prostate cancer. The common wisdom is that there’s no way the population will accept another supreme leader after he dies and as the international financial sanctions increasingly hit it’s hard to see how the current system can survive. And if the revolution does happen Iran really could be one of the most likable countries in the world to visit. I hope so.

From Shaqlawa,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 15:02 Archived in Iran Comments (0)

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

Hello, I write this from Iran and it feels absolutely fantastic to be here after a Hyde and Jekyll last few weeks. When traveling in Central Asia visas become the absolute bane of your life, swapping stories about them is the standard conversation starter amongst fellow travelers and aside from the cost and effort involved roughly half my time in Central Asia has been consumed by days mucking about at embassies or waiting around for things to happen in the comfortable but fairly boring capital cities of the region. The Iranian visa was probably the hardest I’ll ever apply for; it took 7 weeks, cost $210 and I could easily write 3000 words (don’t worry I won’t) on the process which involved giving up on going before an unexpected confirmation by email then bribing my way onto a train to a semi ruined embassy with skeletons literally in the closet and a broken Telex machine. Ultimately though the consulate in Tashkent’s inexplicable refusal to make one phone call for 3 days meant it came so late that my traveling plans were all but ruined. After initially refusing me after a few minutes of begging the Turkmen embassy they agreed to let me apply for a transit visa, the guy there said it probably wouldn’t arrive (before my Uzbek visa expired) but to check last Monday and “Inshallah it will arrive”. And I’m now thinking I might have to start believing in God as both literally and metaphorically my number came up.

Beforehand I was absolutely bricking it as not only would it mean no Turkmenistan but I was looking at a minimum of $420 to sort the situation out (visa extension/flight to Iran) so it would have to rank as one of the best moments of the entire trip. Culturally the Stans are not the most diverse part of the world and I realize I distinguish the countries in terms of the landscapes and therefore the type of agriculture they do rather than any cultural differences between them. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it but after quite a lot of stress from various things (as I’ll write about later) it felt fantastic to end Central Asia with some final beers in the bonkers land of the Turkmen, on an admin level at least it’s one of the most difficult parts of the world to get around so now I’ve ‘seen it’ I can’t see myself returning too quickly.

There’s a memorable line towards the end of the fantastic German film The Lives of Others when the Berlin Wall has come down and one of the characters contemptuously mouths to the corrupt and all round loathsome ex-Communist boss: “And just to think people like you used to run the country”. Well in Central Asian ‘they’ still do run things. The region is home to some of the worst functioning ‘democracies’ in the world as the70 something year old Communist bosses from the ‘80s fix elections and generally terrorize people to make sure they’re repeatedly returned with 90%+ of the vote. On the back of the country’s resource wealth the Kazakh President Nazarbayev has allegedly become one of the richest men in the world but as ordinary peoples lives have also improved (and they supply a lot of oil) he’s largely escaped international criticism. More interesting are Presidents Karimov and (the now unfortunately dead) Niyazov who ruled over the two more memorable Central Asian ‘Stans’ of Uzbek and Turkmen.

Uzbekistan represents one of the worst examples of Western foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In the same way that the British and American leaders hypocritically congratulated the Tunisian/Egyptian (and to a lesser extent Libyan) peoples recently after overthrowing oppressive leaders the West supported, their policies in Uzbekistan have been similarly ethically bankrupt. The Uzbek leader Islam Karimov really is a nasty piece of work, aside from banning all independent media (no BBC. Reuters, AP etc.) and even foreign NGOs who report on what he’s doing he’s brutally cracked down on any opposition to his rule; allowing no other political parties, regularly using torture on opponents and famously boiling people alive. His partner in crime is his oldest daughter who goes by the stage name Googoosha and is probably going to be his successor. Aside from being a pop star, in very shady circumstances (through probable mafia and definite official help) she’s gained control of vast areas of the country’s economy, running near monopolies in healthcare, telecoms, entertainment etc. She’s become one of the richest women in Switzerland (where thanks to her ‘diplomatic status’ she’s based of course) but has got there entirely thanks to her Father’s position so is absolutely detested in Uzbekistan.

But unforgivably the West has largely let all this go; about 10 years ago Uzbekistan had a brief flare up of Islamic extremism that was quickly crushed by Karimovs troops but his support for the ‘War on Terror’ and allowing NATO to use air bases for raids in Afghanistan meant he was effectively given ‘a pass’ (and $500m in aid) by the West. You may remember the case of the British Ambassador Craig Murray who admirably spoke out about the human rights abuses going on and encouraged Western governments to take action... so in a moment that had the grass roots of the Labour Party up in arms he was promptly sacked and his reputation publicly slandered by the Blair government. Eventually even Bush gave up on Karimov after the infamous Andijon massacre where he ordered the army to kill 1000 people protesting against his rule but by sanctioning him in the first place the West can’t really criticize the likes of China over their foreign policy and begs the question of what exactly are we fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly seeing smiling photos of Karimov with some of the worst politicians America has offered up (Rumsfeld, Kissinger etc.) in recent years is a pretty galling sight and once again traveling in this region has underlined quite how much the ‘War on Terror’ has cost in so many ways for such limited results.

One of the things most people find enjoyable about traveling is seeing how different societies work , sometimes you see things which you think are ‘better’ or more likable than what you grow up with but other times you see things and just feel very lucky to be from a country like England. And in Central Asia one of those things are the police. Along with the visa situation I’d highlight them as the main reason not to visit the region. In some countries e.g. Bolivia or China the cops are under strict instructions not to interact with foreigners under virtually any circumstance; in other countries like India cops will often stop you but it never feels unsafe and is mainly to satisfy the unattractive degree of curiosity that Indians seem to possess. But in Central Asia the police are the most dangerous people to be around, over the last 2months at a guess I’ve been stopped once a day on average and as their main motivation is to try and get money out of you I very quickly learned to turn around and walk away if I saw one. Being confronted by aggressive cops is a pretty hard situation to deal with, they’re the law and you’re not meant to mess with the law but at times it’s been damn scary and I’ll leave Central Asia very, very pleased I haven’t got into serious trouble as I’ve come pretty close a couple of times.

In Tajik/Kyrgyz/Kazakh ‘stan their usual tactic is to fabricate a reason to stop you e.g. ‘we’re searching for drugs’, then you get into an argument over the same two things. The security advice for the region is a) DO NOT let them search your bags (they’ll often plant drugs) and b) if you can possibly avoid it DO NOT give them your passport because (as several travellers have confirmed to me) they’ll just say “Right, unless you give me some money you’re not seeing that again”. So roughly once a day I’ve had to deal with them saying ‘Gimme your Passport/let me check you bags’ and me trying to say ‘No I don’t think so’.

In many ways Central Asia is run under an unpleasant system of might is right and if you’re richer/bigger/stronger you’ll always get your way. And that’s how it’s been in dealing with the police, if it’s just one cop or they’re younger/smaller than me I would just say no or act a bit bolshie and they’ve tended to back off and let me go. But generally the police recruitment posters go something like: “Are you 3”/30lbs bigger than the average bloke and have an IQ below 80? If so, then congratulations- you’ve passed the police entry requirement!” So they’ll try to intimidate you which when there’s several of them is not nice. The single scariest incident was in Bishkek when I got stopped by 6 cops on a quiet road as it was getting dark. After several minutes of them getting increasingly aggressive as I refused to hand over my bags but had my passport wrenched off me I was starting to get really worried. They then brought up a commander who gave me an icy glare and jabbered something nasty sounding in Russian but involved the word ‘money’ when amazingly and out of nowhere one of the other ones said something pertaining to “Oh let’s just let him go’ and unexpectedly gave me back my passport.

Obviously a very lucky escape, a virtually identical thing happened to the French guy I’m now traveling with and they simply stole $300 off him.

But then came Uzbekistan; I’ve been to a few places but I’ve never been anywhere that comes anywhere close to the police presence of Uzbek cities. If in London you’re never more than 10m away from a rat then in Tashkent you’re never more than 50m away from a pig. In order to maintain his iron grip on power Karimov has created one of the worst ‘police states’ in the world; one tour guide told me he opens his tours with the line: “Welcome to Uzbekistan, where you take the time machine back to the Brezhnev era”.

It’s difficult to convey in words just how thick the ‘green (not blue here) line’ is but there are cops literally everywhere standing around looking very bored, which along with the low wage is much of the reason why they hassle people so much. Their presence peaks in the gorgeous Tashkent Metro (modeled on the Moscow Metro so lots of marble, chandeliers and mosaics in the stations), at each entrance, set of ticket gates, escalator or platform there’s at least one copper hanging around and they all want to check your stuff. On top of being hassled on the streets I basically couldn’t deal with this every day and one time I absolutely lost it with one on a platform when after a particularly bad morning at the Iranian embassy (so my mood was a darker shade of black), I’d already been checked 3 times in the station when another copper demanded my passport… at which point at virtually the top of my voice I just started screaming and screaming at him. He was absolutely shell shocked as I guess he’s used to people obeying him and it must have been a fairly unforgettable sight for the 2 or 300 other passengers on the platform. After a while another cop came over and sheepishly apologized to me but then some sort of commander arrived and in surprisingly good English said “Don’t ever speak to a policeman like that again in Uzbekistan”. Good advice but I don’t think I’d pass off as a terrorist or even something like a mugger so why the hell was I being checked for the 4th time in 5 minutes? I’d advise anyone who wants compulsory ID cards and increased stop and search powers for the police in England to spend a couple of weeks in Uzbekistan and then see how they feel about that. That said, by all accounts corruption and general harassment have improved immeasurably since the ‘90s and as one Kazakh guy said “We’re a young country, maybe in 20 years this kind of thing will have stopped”. I think he was probably right but to sum the whole situation up, as I was waiting for my final Uzbek train, in 20 minutes I saw the same cop get into 2 fist fights with Uzbek blokes. Both times the guys didn’t have tickets so were either trying to carry a 2yr old daughter (his wife was disabled) or the bags of his 70yr old Mother onto the platform. As the baton waving cop gave a lovely display of ‘respect my authority’ contempt with violent consequences I just thought what a horrible, horrible group of people run things and whilst I found 3wks near intolerable I left the country feeling real pity for ordinary people having to live every day under such a repressive system.

Whilst I personally can’t ever imagine wanting to travel on an organized tour, as the legions of French and Italian buses there show the amount of hassle they save in Uzbekistan means it’s probably one of the best places in the world to visit non-independently. Aside from not getting hassle from the police, if you’re traveling independently you need to register your presence every night (i.e. show proof of where you’re staying or you can get fined when you leave the country)and have to repeatedly run the gauntlet of changing money up on the black market (the official exchange rate is 33% lower which is particularly ridiculous as in Uzbekistan the highest value note is worth just $0.40 so $100 = 250 notes. Bus conductors or traders carrying around duffel bags full of money is not an uncommon sight but I guess they’ll get no bank jobs!

Another benefit of going on a tour is getting access to better food; aside from using porcelain toilets again (as opposed to holes in the ground) I’ve also had to relearn how to use cutlery (rather than chopsticks or my right hand for the last 2 years) in Central Asia, although with very limited enjoyment. Central Asia is often considered to have the worst cuisine in the world and whilst I think Mongolia would be my pick I can remember few periods of my life where I’ve taken less interest in food than the last couple of months. Since leaving China I’ve not had a good meal and have essentially got into a routine of eating breakfast then just snacking on fruit for the rest of the day and rarely going to restaurants. I’ve found this incredibly frustrating as whilst in places like Tibet or Mongolia nothing grows so it’s easy to see why the food’s limited to meat and dairy products but here it’s largely the same food yet they have a Mediterranean climate so a quick walk round any bazaar will show a wonderful selection of fruit (especially the melons and figs) and vegetables… but they just don’t do anything with them. Restaurants will often serve nothing but shashlyk (kebabs) and bread or if you’re lucky the onomatopoeic regional ‘delicacy’ plov (fried rice with bits of mutton fat) and the nearest you’ll get to a healthy dish is a ‘tourist salat’ (slices of cucumber and tomato) so I’m leaving the region feeling in terrible condition and desperate for some decent food.

Despite the definite downsides there is a bit to do in Uzbekistan, it’s home to the 3 biggest tourist attractions in the region: the ancient Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkhand. They’re steeped in history and thanks to the fluted turquoise domes and mosaic tiling on the giant mosques and madrassas they’re marvelously photogenic. However, like most visitors I was somewhat disappointed when I saw just how overzealous they’ve been in the restoration/reconstruction efforts they’ve made. They’re meant to be living cities but they’ve demolished the old towns and kicked all the residents out to leave the strange impression of a giant museum modeled with souvenir stall lined streets straight out of Disneyworld or MGM Studios. Nonetheless, the region offers very little in terms of man-made attractions so it was quite nice being fairly touristy again.

The other place I visited in Uzbekistan was Moynaq, also a man-made ‘sight’ but of a very different kind; the USSRs rap sheet for environmental damage in Central Asia is both long and damning. During the arms race with the US they used the big remote, empty spaces of Kazakhstan as a nuclear and chemical weapons testing ground and whilst the human cost has been nothing like Chernobyl even now large areas are littered with gigantic radioactive craters and are completely off limits to the public. Even worse though has been their harebrained attempts to reform the agricultural practices of the formerly nomadic peoples of the region. Stalin launched a disastrous campaign to create giant wheat farms on the unused steppe by forcibly resettling the animal herding populations onto collectivised farms. But thanks to the harsh winters and strong winds destroying the fragile soils (and the fact the Russians had already slaughtered most of their animals) the area was left with no food and around 2million starved to death.

In Turkmenistan we had an incredible night camping out by the truly bizarre gas crater of Darvaza; walking for 1.5hrs in the dark in the desert would normally be a very stupid/dangerous thing to do but thankfully we had a giant orange reference point… cos the crater is on fire. And has been for no less than 40years! During the 1970’s a Soviet gas exploration experiment went a bit wrong, and a gas filled cavern caught fire and just doesn’t stop burning so looks like the Gates of Hell.

It’s got a radius of some 70m and is fairly hot but not so gassy that you can’t get pretty close to it so we just spent an hour watching the mesmeric flames. Under a perfect starry sky it was a truly wonderful experience, camping by a burning gas crater in the middle of the Turkmen desert- quite literally what you go travlling for.

Much more famously though is the plight of the Aral Sea which is generally regarded as the biggest man made environmental disaster in history. Once the 4th largest lake in the world, in the 1960’s the Russians came up with the incredible idea of turning the Turkmen and Uzbek ‘Stans economies into ones dominated by cotton production. I’m not gonna pretend to know much about cotton but I know that it needs lots of water, hence why it grows so well in the Mississippi and Nile deltas. The thing was that those two countries are largely composed of desert and water is at a premium so the Russian plan was to divert virtually all the regions rivers into irrigation canals to feed the cotton fields. Seeing as these rivers were the source of the Aral Sea, unsurprisingly over the next 40years the body of water shrank at a dramatic rate decimating the ecosystem and the livelihoods of the Karakal people who lived by it. Moynaq was formerly the 2nd biggest port on the Sea but now stand no less than 180km from the current shoreline. It has an almost apocalyptic feel to it and was just a very sad place to be as the population has near entirely moved out (I couldn’t even find anywhere to eat) and it’s home to the famous ship graveyard in front of an endless desert vista that you’ve probably seen photos of. A while ago the sea split into Northern and Southern parts and thanks to huge investment rechanneling water supplies the Northern sea in Kazakhstan is making a recovery and getting bigger again but the Southern part has been abandoned with nothing living there as it’s now almost as salty as the Dead Sea. A pretty sad spot all in but it’s a testament to just how bad/nasty a leader Karimov is that not only are farmers still forced to grow cotton in a destructive monoculture but during harvest time in Autumn large numbers of the Uzbek people (including children) are forcibly moved out to the fields to go and collect the crop. It’s not quite the Gulag but it’s remarkable that slavery is effectively still practiced in the 21st century.

After making a just in time dash across Uzbekistan I escaped into Turkmenistan, one of the world’s least known countries. Aside from granting no electoral or press freedoms Turkmen politicians don’t tend to be very open in explaining their policies so the rest of the world very little is known about Turkmenistan, it probably ranks 2nd only behind North Korea as the most secretive country in the world. In part due to xenophobia but mainly to stop locals from meeting foreigners and learning about the outside world if you want to visit as a tourist you have to pay $200 a day with guides who are (allegedly) members of the intelligence service as your hotel room is bugged and you’re generally kept a very close eye on. However, for reasons I couldn’t understand they grant a 5 day transit visa where you have total freedom and, provided you’re prepared to use your time fully, effectively acts as a 3 day tourist visa. Despite being so cut off from the rest of the world (e.g. the media doesn’t present any international news) the people were surprisingly indifferent to us wandering around. Apparently they’re taught in school not to speak to foreigners (if they can ever see any) but I was pretty shocked at how incurious they were to foreigners wearing strange clothes (the national dress is a virtual uniform) and wandering round markets and the like- they just didn’t seem interested. It was like being in Japan again. Here too the security presence is pretty strong but the people are comfortably off as housing is heavily subsidized and gas is totally free (so people don’t ever bother turning it off in their homes), even petrol is just $0.20 per litre (cheapest in the world?) so only 1-2 generations removed from nomadic herdsmen they seem reasonably content (but no-one really knows) in their Turkmen bubble.

The country’s main claim to fame since independence was the leadership of President Niyazov or as he insisted everyone call him, Turkmenbashy (Leader of the Turkmen). Before he kicked the bucket in 2006 he cultivated probably the strongest personality cult the world has seen in recent years, beyond the likes of Stalin, either Kim or even Tony Blair. He had portraits and golden statues of him put up everywhere including a giant 12m one on top of a massive obelisk which rotated so that he’d always face the sun and renamed days of the week and months of the year after his family. He wrote a (truly hilarious) book called the Ruhnama (basically 800pages about how great he is) which all schoolchildren had to learn and he even built the largest mosque in the region which never gets any worshippers (we went on Eid and it was totally empty!) because he blasphemously inscribed the entrance gate with the phrase “The Quran is Allahs’ book but the Ruhnama is a holy book”.

His successor is so much of a doppelganger with Niyazov it’s widely believed he’s his illegitimate son but he’s unfortunately removed the rotating statue and the more extreme policies e.g. the days of the week have been changed back. However, he’s learned from the best so he’s followed Turkmenbashys lead by altruistically covering the country in his portraits and they’re cleverly themed so in front of hospitals it’s him smilingly performing an operation or him flying a plane in front of the airport or commanding troops in a Generals uniform in front of army bases. Absolutely magic.

Turkmenbashy also embarked on an incredible project of rebuilding the capital Ashgabat; thanks to a desert landscape chock full of natural gas and a couple of pipelines to Russia/China the country is absolutely swimming in money. But rather than investing in education and healthcare blah blah blah Turkmenbashy made the pleasingly bold decision to knock down most of the capital and rebuild it in white marble with hundreds of fountains to set off the look. It’s a quite incredible place to wander round, something like Las Vegas but lacking the irony as aside from the giant monuments to Turkmenbashy, flashy ministries and empty hotels and shopping centres even apartment blocks have been rebuilt as giant condominiums stretching for several KMs into the desert… all in the same white marble style. After a while you actually become a bit desensitized to it all as in the centre of town there’s no life around. During the day you’ll barely see anyone but gardeners, street sweepers and the odd policeman looking after the palaces but for a couple of days it’s an incredible place to visit and at night when they’re all lit up it makes for a cracking skyline. It’s a strange place but as I so frequently do when traveling I just left feeling very, very lucky to have had the chance to visit.

From Mashhad,

Barney

Posted by carlswall 14:49 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (0)

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