Category Archives: From Beijing to Istanbul

The Silk Road

I have now arrived in Istanbul after a journey of 45 days from Beijing. It seemed quite daunting at the beginning but went very smoothly and was so well organised that we just followed along.

Blue Mosque Istanbul

Blue Mosque Istanbul

What are the common threads I wonder.

The first which came to mind are mulberry trees, there are mulberry trees all the way, we have eaten white mulberries from Beijing to Istanbul.

Sitting beneath the shade of a mulberry tree in Bukhara.

Sitting beneath the shade of a mulberry tree in Bukhara.

Markets/bazaars. Bazaars seem to be a thriving centre in each of the cities, selling fresh and dried food, spices, and goods of all descriptions. The word ‘traders’ is used which seem to suggest so much more than ‘shopkeeper’. Many of the foodstuffs sold in these bazaars are the same as has always been sold however much of the other items may now very well, I was going to say, made else where ie watches, mobile phones, clothes etc. but I guess bazaars have always sold goods from elsewhere.

They have all been very crowded and busy. We went to the Muslim night market in Xian, mostly a food market which has been ‘tidied up’ in recent years. Then markets all the way to the miles of bazaar in Isfaban and then the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul now a mecca for tourists but with some traders who have been there for generations.

Islam is practiced from Xian to Istanbul. We visited the mosque in Xian and then mosques all the way to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Some of the countries are secular states which forbid the Call for Prayer such as Uzbekistan.

Marble mosque in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Marble mosque in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan


Food Kebabs first appeared to us as street food in Xian China and were very common food through to Istanbul.

Kebab

Kebab

Bread was an essential part of every meal from Turpan. The shape of the bread varied from place to place but large loaves or baskets of bread were provided as soon as we sat down. For us use to a small dinner roll it was much too much bread.

Bread in the market at Osh

Bread in the market at Osh


Cheese appeared on the breakfast table from Turpan to Istanbul. It is soft fresh sheep’s cheese as these people were nomads.
Sheep cheese wrapped in goat skin in the Spice Market Istanbul

Sheep cheese wrapped in goat skin in the Spice Market Istanbul


Tea was the main drink along the entire journey.
Tea House in Beijing

Tea House in Beijing

Life was difficult for coffee drinkers until we got to Bukhara where the number of tourists meant cafes sold lattes.
Tea growing near Rize Turkey on slopes near the Black Sea

Tea growing near Rize Turkey on slopes near the Black Sea

The Road
We travelled by train and mini van. In China the stations were full of men who seemed to be travelling to work in distant locations.
The roads were all sealed, except for the 200km to the border between China and Krygizstan which is under construction and the Military Road from Tbilisi to the Russian border which was a detour for us to see the monastery. Some roads needed much work such as between Samarkand and Bukhara. The road from the Turkish border to Istanbul was a divided 4 lane highway.
We saw long lines of trucks waiting to cross some borders, especially entering and leaving China.

However we also shared the road with donkey carts, cows grazing, sheep and cattle being driven, and small tractors pulling carts carrying the whole family or goods.

Sheep being driven along a main highway in Uzbekistan

Sheep being driven along a main highway in Uzbekistan

Other sights in the towns were different for us.

So all in all an extraordinary journey and much easier than most imagine.

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Georgia

Churches
The Orthodox Church seems very important in Georgia. Whereas in Armenia we looked at the architecture of churches in Georgia it was the frescos and murals. In many churches the frescos were whited out by the Soviets but some have been restored and the churches have many icons. St Nina took Christianity to Georgia in 5th century from Turkey. Her icon is in many Churches.

St Siddonia is buried in a Cathedral outside Tbilisi. We were told that the garment worn by Christ before the Crucifixion, which the soldiers cast lots for was taken to Georgia and a young woman touched it and was immediately taken up to heaven. This is St Siddonia who is buried clutching this garment.

Our guide had great reverence for St Siddonia.

Gelati Monastery

Gelati Monastery

Cave city of Vardzia
The cave city of Vardzia is a cultural symbol with a special place in the hearts of Georgians. In the 12th century Giorgi III built a fortification at the site. His daughter, Queen Tamar, established a monastery here, which grew into a virtual holy city housing perhaps 2000 monks, renowned as a spiritual bastion of Georgia and of Christendom’s eastern frontier.
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Cave city of Vardzia

Cave city of Vardzia

Stalin Museum
One of the most interesting museums I have ever seen is the Stalin Museum in the city of Gori. Stalin was born in Gori which now has the only statue of Stalin left. The museum was established before his death so it shows his life and “accomplishments”. It is like a museum of a museum because it has not been added to since 1957.
Apparently there are discussions of extra rooms telling of the other side of Stalin, of the millions sent to the gulags etc etc.
Our guide whose grandparents were sent to Krygzistan as part of the gulag reacted quite differently to me.

Inside  Stalin's train that he used to attend the conference at Yalta in 1945.

Inside Stalin’s train that he used to attend the conference at Yalta in 1945.

We spent out last night in Georgia in the Black Sea city of Batumi. The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece is said to have taken place in Batumi.

Statue of Jason and the Golden Fleece

Statue of Jason and the Golden Fleece

Black Sea at Batumi

Black Sea at Batumi

Traders on the Silk Road often started or ended their journey here and travelled further by sea.

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Georgia

Not on your mind but the country the size of Denmark, with a population of 5 million, and said to have been the originator of wine in 6000 BC. A tradition they still seem to be keeping.

The first thing one notices when entering Georgia is that the road is full of boy racers who take little notice of speed limit signs, pass on blind corners and totally ignore pedestrian crossings of which there are many. This is very different from Armenia.

The capital, Tbilisi has a population of 1.5 million. The old town is being revived with cafes in the narrow streets blocked off to traffic, the old timber houses are protected and new buildings designed by international architects are being added to the bank of the river.

Pedestrian bridge and new theatre  as part of a river bank redevelopment

Pedestrian bridge and new theatre as part of a river bank redevelopment

Neighbours

Georgia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. It has borders with Armenia, Turkey, the Black Sea, Russia and Azerbaijan. In 2008 there was a war with South Ossetia which seems to be a rectangle shaped region with 3 sides bordering Georgia and one side as a border with Russia. South Ossetia wanted independence, supported by Russia. This is still unresolved. Georgia has close ties with the United States, the border with Russia is closed for Georgians but trucks from Armenia go to Russia via Georgia.

Georgia has lots of churches and mountains. We stayed in a ski village Gudaei about 1 hour 30 minutes from the capital with our driver.
We went along a terrifying unsealed road which was being repaired and had drops at the side for ever. This road was also used by trucks from Armenia to Russia.
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We went to the village of Gergeti which is 25 km from the Russian border to see the Gergeti Trinity Church, one of the most important Churches/monasteries in Georgia.

Village of Gergeti

Village of Gergeti

Snow must cut off the village in the winter. It is 87 Km to the capital of North Ossetia in Russia and 187 km to Tbilisi however since the border with Russia has been closed they are unable to access their houses, and supplies from Russia.

View from Gergeti

View from Gergeti

This road trip was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Our intrepid guide turned pale when our van had to pass a bus.

There is still a monument from the past to recall the relationship with Russia.

Monument  on the relationship between Georgia and Russia - from a previous time.

Monument on the relationship between Georgia and Russia – from a previous time.

The mural shows Russia as the fond mother with Georgia in her arms as a small child.

There was an elderly woman selling the usual handscrafts and dried fruit sweets here packing up while a young man in a late model BMW waited for her.

A couple of enduring memories of Georgia was the number of elderly, mostly women begging and the number of elderly people, again mostly women bent double. The guide said there was a very high unemployment rate and men were seeking work in Greece and Italy. We saw lots of men waiting by the side of the road waiting for day hire.

Cows on the road

Cows on the road

Another common sight was cows on the road, often being driven and mostly just grazing even on the side of major highways.

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Yerevan Armenia

Yerevan is the capital of Armenia with a population of 1.2 million. We stayed in a soviet era hotel, somewhat down at heel, about 20 minutes from the centre of the city. It had a view of the Presidential Palace from some windows. These windows had signs stating ‘No Photographs’. Our window had a view of Mount Ararat, a symbol of Armenian nationalism that just happens to be in Turkey.

We mostly visited historic sites outside the city but we did have a great guided tour of the History Museum and a much too long tour of the Museum of Ancient Manuscripts.

Malkhas Jazz Club

Malkhas Jazz Club

I went to the Malkhas Jazz Club and heard the terrific Levon Malkhasyan play.

We also attended the Opera and saw a performance of the Armenian opera Anush.

Altar built near the Yerevan Cathedral for the Mass said by the Armenian Patriarch and Pope John Paul II

Altar built near the Yerevan Cathedral for the Mass said by the Armenian Patriarch and Pope John Paul II

We visited the Roman ruins which date back to the 3rd century AD.

Roman temple

Roman temple

After the Roman temple a demonstration of traditional bread making.

Then lunch in the garden.

Lunch in a garden

Lunch in a garden

A visit to a ruin of 7th century church with Mount Ararat in the background.

Zvartnots 7th century church with Mount Ararat

Zvartnots 7th century church with Mount Ararat

One of the less pleasant sites of Yerevan, and other cities of Armenia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan are the large number of Soviet blocks of flats.

Soviet built flats in Yerevan

Soviet built flats in Yerevan

These were built in Khrushchev time as a temporary measure to cope with a housing shortage. They are still very much a part of many cities, many are very run down and some look very unsafe.

I really liked being in Armenia perhaps because it was more familiar to me than the other countries we had visited. I could cope with the traffic which seemed to travel at reasonable speed and generally obey the road rules, there were no police checks, there was open access to the internet and I knew a little of its history.

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Armenia

We walked across the bridge between Iran and Armenia pulling our suitcases and removing our headscarves. There was a duty free shop full of alcohol and a young women who worked there in a very short dress.

The Armenian guide immediately made a joke about having barbecue pork for lunch which we did with Armenian beer.

The narrow steep valley was the same
But in Armenia there were cows instead of sheep as in Iran.

Meghri Pass 2450 m above sea level.

Meghri Pass 2450 m above sea level.

Facts and Figures

Armenia is now 75% mountains. The population of Armenia is 3 million with a diaspora of 12 million. You are quickly told that it was the first country to adopt Christianity in the 3rd century, that the design for the churches of Europe originated in Armenia and that much of Armenia’s land is now controlled by other countries especially Turkey.

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Churches and monasteries on hilltops and rocky outcrops are very much part of the landscape and history.

Church
Sisian Plateau has possibly the oldest settled area at 4000 BC.

Carahunge Armenia's Stonehenge

Carahunge Armenia’s Stonehenge

About 200km from Yerevan, near the Sisian River, stands Carahunge – a seven-hectare astronomical observatory complex consisting of 204 stones, ‘sitting on the hill like soldiers, huddled in formation’. Referred to as ‘Armenia’s Stonehenge’,

For more information download… Carahunge

Armenian Cross

Armenian Cross

Neighbours
Armenia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. It has since had a war with Azerbaijan over disputed territory, there is now a cease fire. Armenians require visas to enter this territory. The border with Turkey is closed because Turkey refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide in 1915-17.
Armenia has close ties with Russia. Russia helps manage the border with Iran, has a nuclear power plant in Armenia which is staffed by Armenians and supplies natural gas to Armenia. The guide used the word Armenian “independence” in inverted commas.

There are many deserted Soviet factories in Armenia which ceased to operate when the Soviets withdrew which was also the time of the war.

Monument to the 1.5 million Armenians killed in the genocide by Turkey.

Monument to the 1.5 million Armenians killed in the genocide by Turkey.

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Iran – Tehran and Tabriz

We travelled to Tehran by train. The compartments were 6 berth but fortunately we were only 4 to a compartment.  I found myself on the bottom bunk in the belief that I am too infirmed to get on and off the top bunk. I felt like a herring in a tin and bumped my head on the bunk above.   This was the worse carriage of the whole trip.

We spent a day in Tehran where we visited the Museum of Iran.  The guide said that after 1850 Persia had made agreements with France and Britain that ancient artifacts  were to be left in Persia.

Museum of Iran

Museum of Iran

We also visited the palace of the Shah. It had large grounds, but the rooms were generally not as ornate as I had expected, except for the mirror room.

I went for a walk to a cake shop where a young student asked if he could help me, and explained to the assistant that 1 finger meant one piece of baklava not one kilo. He then introduced me to his mother. Again so friendly.

Then I bought figs and the assistant gave me a sample of nuts and other figs as well as my 100gm purchase. Again it was just a friendly gesture.

Then a much better train to Tabriz near the border with Armenia.

Kandovan
Here we visited Kandovan, a village built into the rocks about 50km outside Tabriz. People still live in this village but many of the buildings are now souvenir shops. I have very mixed feelings about visiting such villages as they are interesting but I also feel that we are looking at people as if they are in the zoo.

Houses at Kandovan

Houses at Kandovan

Kandovan

Kandovan

Washing  hanging on a precarious balcony.

Washing hanging on a precarious balcony.

Woman sorting wool on the roof of a house.

Woman sorting wool on the roof of a house.

Herbs were also spread to dry on the roof and children played on narrow rocky steps and the roof of the house.

We left Iran the next day after an unpleasant experience with a local guide who tried to foister 2 other people in to our van for the 4 hour trip to the border. He spent much time being ‘charming’ to our very wise guide in the words of Henry Higgins “oozing charm from every pore”.
It did not work I might say.

Road to the border with Armenia

Road to the border with Armenia

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Impressions of Iran – Isfahan

We crossed into Iran from Turkmenistan wearing long dresses and head scarves and went to Mashad and visited the Holy Shine the most sacred shrine in Iran. It was crowded. We then caught the train for an overnight trip to Isfahan.

Our group is 6 women and one man plus a young female guide. Some of the group were very resentful at having to wear head scarf and long clothes. We soon worked out that we could get away with scarves, long pants and longish tops.

Our tour group

Our tour group

Most Iranian women wore the chador over long pants and the weather was 30 degrees plus.

People in Iran were extremely friendly and we were constantly stopped and spoken to. Iran has had very few tourists in the last few years and I think we were especially welcome. The first afternoon I walked with 3 others along the river bank and across the famous stone bridges.

Isfahan bridge

Isfahan bridge

There was water in the river which our guide later told us was not always the case but the water had been turned on as the election was due. He said Iranians really loved being near the water.

Paddling across the weir in Isfahan

Paddling across the weir in Isfahan

Many people were picnicking and they had carpet picnic rugs. We will need to lift our game.
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We were constantly asked where we were from, how we liked Iran, if they could help us. One woman asked if we were required to wear headscarves in Australia and what we thought of Israel. We learnt that the TV series All Saints had been shown on Iranian TV.

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We visited many wonderful examples of Islamic Architecture.

We visited the bazaar and a tea house which we would never have found without the guide leading us through a labyrinth filled with old wares.

Alley leading to tea house in the bazaar

Alley leading to tea house in the bazaar

Garden of a hotel  where we wished we had stayed

Garden of a hotel where we wished we had stayed

Iranians seem to be really into modern technology, mobile phones everywhere and constantly being used, Apple are doing very well and I had no trouble replacing my Panasonic camera battery much cheaper than in Australia. So I am not sure how the sanctions work.

Bank of chargers in the park beside the river.

Bank of chargers in the park beside the river.

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Turkmenistan

Before this trip I had not heard of Turkmenistan now I  wonder if I dreamed it except when I meet other travellers who say “Have you been to Turkmenistan? It is like somewhere on the moon.”

The notes on the tour told us not to discuss politics in Turkmenistan and that our movements were likely to be monitored.

We crossed the border from Uzbekistan, there were more than 40 trucks waiting to cross.  The distance between the 2 border posts is 2 km and we fortunately got a lift. It took us an hour to get a visa which cost $70. Total time to cross from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan 3 hours.

Turkmenistan is about the size of Spain with a population of 5 million, 80% of the land is the Karakorum Desert.

Karakorum Desert

Karakorum Desert

 

Camels

Camels

It’s exports are 40% natural gas, 25% petroleum and oil and 10% cotton.   Turkmenistan has oil and gas agreements with Russia, China and Iran.

It is the ninth largest cotton producer in the world, the water is provided by the Karakorum Canal.

Turkmenistan had not been a country prior to the end of the Soviet era. It had been part of the Otterman Empire. They were nomadic tribes who were feared and involved in the slave trade. It became independant in 1991 ruled by a former Communist official President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov who is called “turkmenbasy” Leader of the Turkmen until his death in 2006.

Education, health and fire services were cut to increase spending on the police and the army. (A bit of a worry when staying on the 7th floor of a hotel)

The first President wrote his own book which all citizens were required to buy, it was compulsory study in school and used for university entrance where again it was one of the 4 subjects of study.

The people do not pay for water or electricity and get 120l of petrol a month. Females students all wear green dresses to school and red dresses to university, male students wear black pants and white shirts with ties.

Ashgabad the capital has very many gold statues of the first president and white marble buildings.

Statue of the first President

Statue of the first President

Largest indoor ferris wheel in the world

Largest indoor ferris wheel in the world

These white buildings all seem deserted except for people polishing marble. There is a mosque dedicated to the first president with his name above that of Allah and quotes from his book around the walls.

The 2017 Asian Games are to be held in Ashgabad the capital and many marble stadiums are nearing completion.

Turkmenistan has some appalling roads and the worst toilet we encountered in our entire trip.

My camera and phone were examined on leaving the country and the guard went through all my photos, stopping for quite a while on one which May have been of Archie and Harry feeding kangaroos.

Women at Merv

Women at Merv

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Bukhara

We travelled to Bukhara over a slow very bumpy road through 6 road checks. The journey took about 5 hours though the desert.

Uzbekistan, is one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world.

For decades, the government of Uzbekistan, under President Islam Karimov, has forced adults and children as young as 10 to pick cotton under appalling conditions each harvest season. Provincial government offices order schoolteachers to close schools and enforce quotas in the cotton fields. The local authorities send government and private business employees to pick cotton, in order to meet cotton production quotas. The Uzbek government combines these orders with threats, detains and tortures Uzbek activists seeking to monitor the situation, and refuses to allow international monitors into the country.

www.cottoncampaign.org.

We passed crops but we did not see cotton being grown. We were told that a tourist bus had stopped and passengers had spoken to the workers picking cotton. This had been reported to the government and the cotton was now being grown some distance from the road.

Bukhara
The city is 2500 years old. It is located in the middle of the steppes and the desert with temperatures up to 45C in summer but it got up to 55C last summer. Bukhara has been part of the Silk Road since the 7th century with the largest caravan having 3000 camels and the smallest with 500 camels. (According to our local guide)

It has the look and feel of an oasis.

Cafe under mulberry trees

Cafe under mulberry trees

We stayed in a hotel which had been the house of a Jewish merchant and had a courtyard covered with vines.

Hotel had been a house owned by a Jewish merchant.

Hotel had been a house owned by a Jewish merchant.

We visited the Emir’s palace where in June 1842 two British officers,Colonel Charles Stoddard and Captain Arthur Conolly were put to death. They were paying the price of being part of “The Great Game”. In fact it was Conolly who first coined this term.

One of the highlights of my visit to Bukhara was a homam, a turkish bath in a 16 century bathhouse. A great experience.

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Samarkand

Mausoleum

Mausoleum

THE PILGRIMS :
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

“The Golden Journey to Samarkand” by James Elroy Flecker

Samarkand is a Persian name meaning sweet land. The city is 2750 years old. The architecture is mostly persian style but old buildings are being removed because of road widening. Yet the city has some wonderful buildings and statues.

Mirzo Ulugbek

Mirzo Ulugbek

Astronomical measurements

Astronomical measurements

There are statues of its most famous ruler Amir Temur 1336-1405, otherwise known as Tamerlane, a vicious conquerer. Though this is a bit fanciful as he is portrayed wearing a crown.

One of the most famous sons of Samarkand is Amir Temur’s grandson the mathematician and astronomer Miro Ulugbek 1394-1449. There are statues and paintings of Miro with Copernicus and Kepler.

Samarkand has a large Armenian community relocated by Stalin.

The people were incredibly friendly and we were often stopped and asked where we were from. We were generally asked the following questions;
What is your name?
How old are you?
Do you like Samarkand/Tashkent/Uzbekistan?
Where is your husband?
Do you have children?

I was also asked how much I earnt and if I had a picture of my house. I realise that I should have come with a picture of my house. I have had my picture taken with lots of people in Uzbekistan.

Carpet making

Carpet making

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