Kuqe: a tragicomedy in three acts

Kuqe peaked during the Tang dynasty with that unbeatable combination of Buddhist scholarship and perfumed ladies, so not surprisingly yet another must-see for Silk Road caravans headed away from civilization to who knows where. Well that was then; as for now, we’re in the middle of a sandstorm when the K9720 overnight from Kashgar pulls in, and it’s going rapidly downhill from there.

No less than three different SWAT teams have excavated ‘What is your itinerary?’ from the depths of their Chinese GT and one has even insisted I perch inside their fetid bunkhouse while they commune with higher powers as to my fate, which finally involves an armed escort to the Kuche Grand Hotel in the police van and intense scrutiny as I check in.

The considerable disagreement on the Internet as to whether the Kuche Hotel is legitimately ‘Grand’ is easily resolved on inspection. The building presenting itself to the road is indeed a bona-fide 5 star, but the ramshackle assortment round the back (where the Internet usually ends up) are barely holding onto 2 and certainly the freezing and filthy room 316 deserves none, especially since the plumber who just came to reinstate the sink has left his debris all over the floor.

The view from vile room 316 in the sandstorm, enough said.

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This in fact says it all

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To be fair the 5 star (where we eat) has a killer breakfast replete with unusual quantities of recognizable, if not identifiable, vegetables, for a change

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I’m just completing my catalog of complaints when yet another SWAT team shows up this time featuring the Kuqe Director of Immigration. The good news, that he at least can converse in English, is somewhat obscured by whatever he has spent the early morning drinking. I’ve had enough ‘It’s OK!’ I tell him cheerily ‘I’m not immigrating, I’m on vacation!!’ and close the door firmly.

 Kuqe: A tragicomedy in three acts

Recall that all conversation is through GT

Prologue: I have just returned from the 5-star tourist office, where Dragon-lady has offered me a driver who demands twice the going rate for half the usual number of sites, to confer with the NYL at the desk who so obligingly moved me into desirable Building 9 where the rooms are undergoing haphazard renovation and mine has been more or less completed.

Me: That was a very expensive price can you help?

We both become aware of a spectral presence in our peripheral vision.

SP: I can do it for 350Y

Methinks: Fantastic! (350 Y is my aspirational price) but why is he is proposing it as a first offer?  Dragon Lady must have been worse than I thought.

Me (aside to NYL): Is this a good man?

NYL in highly ostentatious spoken GT: ‘You can rest assured of that!!!’

Me: So, I want to go to the Subashi village and the Kizil caves tomorrow, is that OK?

SP: Yes that is OK

Me: What time and what is your name?

SP: I will meet you here at 10am. My name is Akbar. (charming self-deprecating smile) I used to study English in university, but I’ve forgotten so much!

Me: Well we’ll practice tomorrow Akbar! See you then!

Act 1: My surprisingly assiduous guide.

About 30 minutes later I emerge from Building 9. But here is Akbar, and he has brought a friend.

A: Where are you going?

Me: I’m going to the Uighur quarter, it’s to the left isn’t it?

A: Yes. I can take you.

Me: That’s OK, I want to walk.

A: You want to walk alone?

Me: Yes. See you tomorrow!

LP tells me the walk will take 40 min. It is along an extensive and incredibly ugly wall  framed in razor wire and plastered with ghoulish inspirational posters. Every 100 meters the police checkpoints generate an ‘Oi!’ followed by a frenzy of passport checking and photographs. Eventually one fixates on my Cambodian visa and hauls me off up the food chain. A beat-up grey car appears in my peripheral vision, waves him off and somehow I am free to go, but I am dispirited. Maybe a cab there? I move over to the curb. The car glides in.

A: Would you like a ride?

Methinks: What just happened? But why not, save the cab fair?

Me: OK Akbar thanks! Akbar are you keeping an eye on me?

A: No (but he blushes up to his ears).

Methinks: Nice young man

The Uighur quarter mosque was rebuilt after earthquake damage, but may not survive this round of official neglect

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A: Want to have lunch?

Methinks: How sweet and why not, they’ll take me to a better place than I could find myself.

Delicious $1 kebabs (I pay)

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A: Now we’ll go to the palace

I really don’t want to go to the palace, an ugly Chinese reconstruction but somehow I find myself persuaded.

A nice example of the quality of the palace artifacts

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Inside there is only one other visitor – a random milenial who looks just like the pseudo-tourists in Kashgar –  precisely the last person who would voluntarily pay $8 to admire ersatz history, in fact he’s paying more attention to me. I fake him out handily and disappear into the bazaar. Unfortunately in the middle of the afternoon it is deserted and provides little cover.

Scenes from village life, when its mostly absent

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But round the corner here comes Akbar, looking somewhat flustered.

A: We will go back to the hotel now. You are not allowed to go out at night.

Methinks: Wait, what?

Fortunately I am so full from lunch I can’t face dinner, and I have plenty of time to try and figure out what’s going on. Its about 8 o’clock when it finally dawns on me.

Act 2: A nice day out

As anticipated, any pretense of a client relationship has evaporated come the morning and Akbar seems to have reverted to his normal personality, which is rather morose. We bump into each other at least an hour before the agreed-on time.

A: Let’s go.

Me: OK (I turn to Akbar’s friend) What’s your name? (He thinks for a minute)

AF: Eshe

E: Can I smoke?

Me: pointing to the no-smoking sign in Chinese on the dashboard:  maybe your boss won’t like it.

Any lingering doubts I have are quashed when ‘Eshe’ spends the ride smoking and yelling into the walkie-talkie I now notice also on the dashboard, and we are waved through all the checkpoints (the hapless rookie tries to pull us over gets his head handed to him on a plate). At the final checkpoint we pick up an extra, even more surly, Chinese passenger.

Me: Who is this man?

A: He is a friend. We will take him where he can catch a bus.

The Kizil Thousand Buddha caves are worth the drive. Constructed between the 3rd and 8th century they are the earliest Buddhist caves in China, their style derived from the elusive Gandhar kingdom thought to have been located in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area. They underline the importance of the Silk Road as a conduit for religion and culture as well as commodities. They have been desecrated both by Muslim incursions (the faces are disfigured and the eyes are gouged out) and the reviled German archeologist Le Coq  who carted huge chunks of the best stuff to the Berlin museum.

The presence of lapis lazuli in the paintings indicates their Persian influence. The pronounced musculature is in the Ghandaran style – attempting a 3D representation

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The white dots ‘strings of pearls’ are also Persian. The long earlobes are Indian. In fact these caves have no Chinese influence at all. The one guy is black because he was done in lead and it has oxidized.

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The weather is lovely, the setting is gorgeous and I am the only visitor. I set off for a long walk determined that Akbar, ‘Eshe’ and ‘friend’ stew in their fuggy car for as long as possible.

A beautiful day at the caves

+kVx+kXXTs+Xd6%2sEgPzg_thumb_584aAbout an hour into it a golf cart hies into my peripheral vision. Scooting off onto an inaccessible walking trail buys me about 5 minutes.

Policeman in golf cart: Oi!

Me: Yes can I help you?

PIG: What you doing?

Me: Walking

PIG: Can’t walk here

Me: But I am walking here, I’m walking on this walking trail

PIG: Come with me

Me: No its OK, I’ll see you over there (pointing into the distance).

He shadows me slowly all the way back.

Me: OK I’m done Akbar, what happened, your friend missed his bus?

The ‘friend’ who is still with us looks confused.

At the hotel I hand over 350Y. Now its Akbar’s turn to look confused. He picks it up between finger and thumb and drops it on the dashboard. He does not, however, return it.

Me: Thanks Akbar, that was a nice day out. I’ll see you tomorrow!

They blanch, and I realize with some satisfaction that ‘the day after tomorrow’ has been lost in drunken translation.

In the morning ‘Eshe’ is skulking behind the palm plants when I go to eat breakfast, when I come back from a short foray into the town center and when I sit in the lobby for a couple of hours before leaving to catch the train. I make sure to catch his eye and wave as I leave.

Act 3: In which all is explained

My SWAT team friends at the station are delighted to see me again and to have a chance to retake my photo. But wait! A new pair of glasses plus cell phone appears over the counter.

Me: (somewhat rashly out loud) And why not? Everyone else in Kuqe has my picture on their cell phones.

And then with a smile and in impeccable English

POG: And if you’ll come this way, I’ll explain why.

Let’s call him Timmy is a milenial American literature graduate from the University of Shanghai whose mother has forced him to join the Railway Police because of the steady salary and good benefits. But he has been seconded to that first circle of hell, Kuqe. He has also been seconded to baby sit me until such time that the train comes and I get on it.

Timmy is a great conversationalist and it seems rather indiscreet. Evidently legitimate terror that I may be a journalist in (poor) disguise – the first time my demographic has worked against me and BTW thanks a bunch New York Times – has persuaded Kuqe security services to monitor my every move in 5 minute increments, less if you consider Akbar’s assiduousness. How can handle they that much data I wonder. ‘ You’d be surprised’ Timmy says laconically.

Timmy’s office has comfortable chairs and unlimited phone charging opportunities. We spend an agreeable couple of hours polishing the translation of what seems to be a high level policy document for his upcoming exam and then he pops off on his motorbike to fetch me yogurt, bread and water for the trip. ‘I always feel very vulnerable in that Uighur shop’ he says sadly.

Eventually his boss shows up for some final evaluation. Bye-bye we say to each other with varying degrees of regret (we only have a couple of pages to go in the translation) and the Director of the Station is delegated to usher me aboard. I beg him to ask them to keep the Western toilet open (they like to lock it up and the squats are an awful effort albeit usually surprisingly clean). He obliges and I scarf down the delicious Uighur yogurt, have a nice relaxed pee and sleep like a log.

Akbar communing with the mother ship. ‘Eshe’ puts his hands over his face when I try to take his photo

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No picture of Timmy with his full body armor and helmet, Steinbeck in his pocket.

Kashgar’s wild (and woolly)

Why reinvent the wheel? Let’s hear first from Colin, who’s so much more eloquent than me:

‘For three hundred miles the road bends north west to Kashgar. The sands lap against it, but gently now, and the oases multiply and start to merge. You go through towns of venerable decay, past the sleepy Islam of 19th century travelers, of cemeteries disintegrating in solitude for a Sunday sketchbook. To the west the horizon glitters into life as the Pamir foothills trace wavering lines of forest and the peaks beyond them fracture the sky with an unearthly brilliance. Here the desert at last ends and China is petering out. For a long time, as the road veers harder north, the mountains float above Central Asia in a stupendous punctuation mark.’

Over the Tian Shens west to Kashgar, I was exactly on the other side in Kyrgyzstan last year. The train journey from Ururmqi takes 22 hours, it didn’t seem necessary to do it in both directions.

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Yet another $25 score at another Uighur extravaganza, the newly renovated Nurlan Hotel, previously known to everyone (but now only to the taxi drivers) as the Sultan.

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At the confluence of three important Silk Road routes – through the Pamirs to Afghanistan, down to the Indian subcontinent and off over the Tien Shan towards Uzbekistan, Kashgar was always the place to kick back and relax before confronting yet more extortionist nomads. It is a shadow of its former self.

Unstoppable force meets immovable object in uneasy coexistence. The mosque is the largest in China.

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Delighted though that its camel has the necessary ladder

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I am the only Westerner in town. I know this because many friendly people have sought me out to tell me; in fact in most cases they first had to seek someone else out to tell me in their stead. While this has had some advantages (the price of my evening ice-cream steadily declines to zero) it has not alleviated any of the problems with being here, but planning to go elsewhere.

Under the correct lighting my phlegmatic ice-cream man has a twinkle in his eye

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Tashkurgan, 7 hours up the Karakoram Highway, is the putative site of the Stone Tower, where caravans from east and west would exchange merchandise; no one caravan traveling the whole route. It has been on the bucket list for years But no! just last week the rules changed. Now I am only allowed to leave town accompanied by a tour operator (town is defined rather loosely but seems not to include any significant sights). I am not allowed to join an (inexpensive) Chinese tour (if they even exist, there don’t seem to be any Chinese tourists either). I can go with a licensed Uighur tour operator provided we have both a guide and a driver (this seems overkill for what is essentially a trip straight up a 4 lane highway, but what do I know). I reluctantly justify the considerable expense ($250) to myself but alas my putative tour operator should have submitted the permit paperwork a week in advance (it seems churlish to point out the rules were different then). The only option seems to be ignore them and go by myself.

To the hopeful rescue comes (let’s call him Otis Redding since he is paranoid and this will be posted). Like Urmat last year, O’s satisfied clientele pass his name through the bowels of the internet like a talisman.

O is not his actual nom de guerre (his actual one is even more ridiculous) but it seems wise to be a little circumspect. When I ask ‘Why Otis?’ he reminds me of the lauded ‘John’s Cafe’ (now defunct). Tourists flocked there not expecting ‘John’ to be Chinese. Our guy thought he could go one better until someone pointed out that even though Jesus is indeed more famous than John, using that name would be unlikely to attract the type of clientele he had in mind. So it was onto plan B or rather, plan O.

O’s photo will be posted once I am out of the VPN zone

Against his better instincts (I will come to realize O is a fretter) we will confront the dragon in his lair, namely the permit office itself. The mild-mannered permit officer exudes sympathy but cannot be convinced. I am not allowed to simply take the public bus to Tashkurgan, stay the night and return the next day (it is 7 hours away). For one thing the hotel can’t take foreigners (despite having given me a reservation). For another the checkpoint at Karakul lake (4 hours away) will want to see my permit, and in its absence I will be returned post haste. The permit officer would like O to recall that no public transport stops at Karakul lake on its way back to Kashgar, and also that I am not allowed to hitch hike. It all seems a bit much and O feels my pain (he’s not allowed to travel to Tashkurgan, which is a Tajik town, either). Not to worry though, he will dedicate himself to showing me the sights, significant or not.

First we must establish our rules of engagement. Initially O. simply deflects my indiscreet political questions with a slight shudder and a bright ‘Let’s not go there’ but eventually he just positions himself out of camera range to answer (a not insignificant task). By dinner on the second day he’s dishing the dirt on everything.

The buildings in the bazaar area have been torn down and replaced with (excellent) facsimiles. There is indoor plumbing and no outdoor smell. The previous homeowners were given either a renovated house or money.  Many of the new inhabitants work for the ‘Government’. O raises his eyebrows slightly “like your East Germans” – recalling our previous conversation on neighborly surveillance.

All the festering old parts are being renovated for better or worse.

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Next year, coming to a slum near you.

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Scenes from village life.

Checking out the merchandise on the main street

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‘Hundred Year old coffee house’. Only tourists drink coffee so they serve only tea.

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An alfresco breakfast, always appreciated

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An alfresco kindergarten (formidable granny not included)

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Check out his coloring

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And these

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Not in the running for China’s largest mosque

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Besides its notable photogenicity there is even more to the bazaar than the omnipresent cameras and neighborhood snitches. Pairs of pseudo-tourists with sunglasses and day-packs are settled here and there (since there are no actual tourists they stick out like a sore thumb; it is not clear what they are supposed to be doing). Nonetheless O forbids a snap and we give them a wide berth. Being able to identify them will come in handy later.

O considers himself a foodie and in the absence of anything much to see he dedicates himself to showing me the local cuisine (for less than a dollar a dish). It isn’t, as I first imagined, simply noodles, its just that O eats the very same things every day: noodle soup with apricots for breakfast (I manage to avoid this meal) noodle soup and stewed baby pigeon for lunch (delicious actually) and more noodles for dinner; I once insist on a salad and the whole kitchen comes out to object. Dessert, once I send O packing, is ice-cream at the night market.

Noodles galore, unfortunately this is the extent of the vegetable options.

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Madame of the pigeons, and her pigeons, each restaurant prepares only one dish. No utensils.

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It turns out there are two legitimate Lonely Planet-endorsed sites in Kashgar after all –  the Sunday animal market is considered ‘in town’ despite being 40 km away and is therefore accessible to me as well as the many Chinese tourists who finally materialize on Saturday night.

Appraisal

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The deal is done

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And off we go

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Lunch at the market – at least the meat is guaranteed fresh

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The likely lassies dress up for the Chinese tourists. O wheedles me a snap for free

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The second site is the grave of the prominent Uighur poet and scholar Yusuf Has Hajib. O is outraged that the taxi driver claims never to have heard of it, but when we find it shuttered and ringed with razor wire and anti-terrorist barricades, he blanches and we make a hasty retreat (definitely no photos).

Sheep’s feet – the final frontier, like chicken feet but better

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Our quest for sheep’s feet as a last dinner celebration has been accomplished handily and I am headed for a cab, when we are accosted noisily from behind by a couple of teenage boys for a selfie. I am a bit startled (on-the-street demeanor is normally hyper-decorous) but O is distraught. He is convinced this means surveillance (he doesn’t even own his own computer he is so paranoid). To make matters worse he claims to spot the same two at the animal market next day (really unlikely since those ones seemed about 14, and these ones are adults milking goats, but again what do I know). O won’t be shaken and fret descends into gloom.

O.’s explanation of this building in the bazaar is that the fencing is to stop the troublemakers getting out.

This photo will be posted once I’m out of the VPN zone.

Later, at the station, as my entire luggage is deconstructed, they would like me to justify not one but 4 Uighur cookbooks. (O. has instructed me to take two of them to the new Uighur restaurant in Cambridge so I can worm my way into their good graces and hopefully be fed for free). As usual GT fails miserably at this task and my passport is photographed yet again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ah yes, Urumqi.

It is 2:15am and I am definitely feeling the anti-Urumqi vibe from the internet. The capital of the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang elicits predictable hysteria: ‘depressing!’, ‘creepy!’, ‘give it a miss!’. And it had all started so well, not only did trusty Air Astana get us in a whole hour early (see below) but the notorious Chinese immigration barely bothered with fingerprinting and retina scanning, let alone my choice of reading material. Then (shades of Iran) the taxi driver’s whole extended family was on speaker to make sure he got me to the depths of the Uighur quarter post haste, plus the hotel had all its lights on and a full, mostly awake, night-time staff.

But that was an hour ago and here we still are with the C-team milenials-at-the-desk who not only are appalled to see me (despite my reservation being clearly evident on the computer along with my frantic [and unanswered] queries for them to confirm they can legally host foreigners, a hazard in this region at least), but they have coerced me into paying my bill up front and have now started on what seems like a satisfaction survey (they’re currently scoring 0). Our problems are compounded by the fact that not only do we not share a language with each other, none of us share a language with Google Translate: to wit neither the millennials nor I speak Chinese and GT doesn’t do Uighur. Enough is enough. ‘I have to tell you’ I enunciate icily ‘At this point I’m starting to get really annoyed’. The universal body language of the irritated mom does its trick and within 20 seconds I am in the elevator and within a minute in the (fabulous) bed. But I must admit my first thought when it becomes clear that the 10 or so men in the room next door are either having a college reunion or plotting a major insurgency is ‘I can’t do this’. Fortunately my second occurs 8 hours later, and when I finally locate the sumptuous breakfast I am fully restored.

The breakfast room at the Aksaray Hotel. Can this be the market for all that subway art in Moscow?

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First on the docket, and the whole reason to be in Urumqi – the museum, one of the best in China. And it doesn’t disappoint. On first floor, and uncannily like Almaty but much better done, charming dioramas of all the (same) ethnic groups that from time immemorial have also called Xinjiang home. On the second, incredible archeological artifacts and the world-class collection of 3000-4000 BC mummies preserved stunningly by the intense dryness of the desert climate. Finally, the over-the-top fancy exhibit, a joint Chinese/Japanese effort to excavate Han and Xing dynasty sites (many unusually fervid hands-across-the-water ecomiums). The message is, well we might not have been here first (the fossil record clearly belies this) but we definitely did the leg work of civilization. (Actually the Uighurs did come much later, from Lake Baikal of all places. They must have asked themselves was it all worth it). In any case it is maybe somewhat beside the point in 21st century Xinjiang where ongoing ‘civilization’ evidently equates to faceless apartment blocks and escalating pollution, not to mention cultural realignment.

A whole slew of amazing museum pictures.

First up, the jolly ethnic dioramas seem to belie the reality on the ground.

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Some gorgeous Uighur clothing from the 19th century

 

Can’t forget the hats

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Onto 2000-3000 BC artifacts. The one on the right was labeled a eunuch, begging the obvious question.

 

Where did that coral come from? Lake Baikal? And the agate?

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Sophisticated 3000 BC gold 

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The intricacy of this weaving is remarkable

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The inevitable stone tools. But these are from 30,000 BC. They are actually about the size of a brick.

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And finally, the piece de resistance. A whole passel of mummies.

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She had her own room, but sadly no English translation

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Look at the bridge of the nose, definitely not Asian

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The dry climate meant their clothes were amazingly preserved

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Including the facial decoration

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So what about Urumqi? The internet hysteria is focused on overbearing police harassment around the bazaar area, where I’m located. Lonely Planet is dripping with affronted back-packers who have had to present their passports, sometimes more than once. The much-reviled police checkpoints every 100 meters are still there (and built of brick so clearly intended to have some permanence) but are shuttered up and gathering dust, so whatever prompted their construction is clearly not an issue right now. All ongoing efforts are directed at the single entrance to the bazaar which is replete with pat downs, scanners etc. (I note we are already at the stage of waving our special friends through unchecked [and a higher proportion of young Uighur men to Uighur grannies which, not to stereotype, seems like defeating the purpose]). Superficially it’s no worse than the shopping mall in Shymkent Kazakhstan or the Tashkent subway. Once inside the police presence is minimal and not particularly focused,  certainly not on me, even though I seem to be the only Westerner here. Maybe on account of the surreptitious snacking.

The entrance to the market, it would not have been wise to photograph the police checkpoint (out of sight below).

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The market is treated with disdain on the internet, it wasn’t at all bad, less Chinese knockoffs than in Istanbul and Uzbekistan.

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What looked like a spontaneous afternoon hoe down.

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On the other hand the scanners at the entrance to the park next to my hotel, the single evidence of green in the whole benighted neighborhood, are also shuttered and the deserted park is soundly padlocked. As I watch the Uighurs struggling to avoid tripping over the hordes of kids playing on the grimy pavement outside, I must admit I feel a bit like spitting too.

Not a good picture of the aggravating padlock on the park (scanner in background). Uighurs watch me take it with sardonic smiles.

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My new friend the English-speaking Assistant manager (who works days and has scored a definite 5 on the survey) tells me to check the time of my flight – all China runs on Beijing time, but Xinjiang exerts autonomy by moving the clock two hours forward (so it matches Almaty, see Air Astana above).  We compare our watches, which are set at different times. In that understated way the gentle Uighurs have, she winks.

Almaty gets its party on!

Those of you kind enough to follow along last year might recall I characterized Almaty as the Bruges of Central Asia, and with those precise expectations I fly in on my new favorite airline, Air Astana (a new plane, adorably upbeat staff, endless goody bag, that chicken curry they all serve but with a real knife and fork, all the wine or beer they think I want, and a seatmate who turns out to be an actual Kazakh film star [despite being way back in row 43] all for $100). But no! It is not to be. Almaty has got its party on!

My genuine Kazakh film-star seatmate Serik Sharip (220,000 followers on Instagram) back from Moscow promoting his most recent film (if you like me find it hard to see the resemblance, rest assured I got independent verification from the doting flight attendants).

Negligently I have failed to take into account that Kazakhstan is one of that random grab-bag of countries (Afghanistan, Albania, Azebaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Kosovo) celebrating Nowruz. The upshot is that everyone is here – in from the steppes and down from the hills. The nomads have brought their yurts and  swords, rural crones are hawking fermented bulgur from grimy plastic buckets and everyone is out for a decorously great time. Every five yards a surround-sound stage is over-amplifying patriotic songs with the biggest not two blocks from my apartment. Not to worry though, this is still Almaty, so the festivities will be over by 10; a good night’s sleep is still on the cards.

As usual the stylin’ Tajiks win

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But the nomads come a close second. Normal size folk for scale

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This Kyrgiz (you can tell from the hat) has brought his hand made saddle for sale . He’s asking 1 million Tenge ($2000). No takers he tells me sadly (the average Kyrgi monthly salary is $1000).

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City slickers eternally grateful they don’t still have to live in a yurt

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I get shanghai’d into the frame

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Surround sound Almaty style. Despite their natty green suits, the band (in miniature on the left) is singing patriotic songs.

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But Nowruz this year is making a political statement. As one of his last acts, the former president (he just resigned on Thursday after 30 years) has changed the alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. The problem being that while Russian sounds like cats sliding around under furniture, Kazakh sounds more like a hamster and a gerbil having it out on a training wheel. All that excess energy requires a whole extra 16 letters neither the Cyrillic nor the Latin alphabet can envision (42 in total). Diacritical marks are all very well, but some words will demand more than 10, making it all very taxing.

No-one is feeling Happy Nowruz in the Latin alphabet, and that’s only one diacritical.

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 Kazakh written in Cyrillic has extra letters (like the weird F). But  transliteration of the four letters (bl is one letter) from Kazakh to Latin requires two diacriticals.  GT tells me it will look something like Sigw with a cedilla on the S and a circumflex on the g.

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These delightful young linguistics students collared me for an interview on English accents, then I grilled them on Kazakhstan politics. They allowed that ‘Its time’ for Nazerbaev to step down (Ms. on the left) but as to his daughter taking over Ms. in the white shirt was firm :

‘We’re a democracy but we can’t talk about everything’.

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Actually Kazakhstan is in an increasingly tough situation. To his credit, Nazarbaev built a successful independent and regionally influential economy while by and large avoiding the ridiculous vanity projects and crushing oppression that characterizes some of the neighbors (Turkmenistan we’re looking at you). His successor will need a strong left arm (to keep Russia away from the mineral deposits) and a strong right arm (to keep China at bay). Note that the back is quite firmly to the US and Europe; most young people believe that Russia is a good role model, they don’t like the Chinese*. Kazakhstan has styled itself as the buckle in the Belt and Road initiative but is facing increasing internal pressure to go to bat for the ethnic Kazakhs who are being harassed together with the Uighurs, and the new leader will have to manage these expectations. More about that, probably, next week.

The father of the nation, subway style. It doesn’t look much like him either.

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On a dank and drippy Sunday I take myself to the museum to find out what stories Kazakhstan tells about itself. Excitingly, I find a drone picture of the ruined city in the middle of the Steppes I visited last year.

From this angle the huge pile of archeological debris that is Sauran is tantalizingly evident (the road we broke down on is in the distance).

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These XII century pottery fragments look just like those I scooped from the surface.

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If Moscow smells evocatively of coal, this old Russian area still smells disconcertingly of gas. Remarkably, in the interim, Marina, the usually taciturn ‘concierge’ for my old soviet apartment seems to have acquired near perfect English. ‘Third time!’ she trills, thrilled to see me. I settle into the planned activities of laundry, salads and yes, the banya.

Ah the banya! The Russian baths in Almaty are renowned throughout Central Asia and I’ve been dreaming of them since last year. After an inadvertent 9 mile walk back from the botanical gardens, it’s time.

I should have checked with Google maps before committing to walk back down from the base of the mountains.

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The Russian baths are famous throughout Central Asia.

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At least on a revisit I’ll be able to cope with the order of operations with my glasses off, always a challenge. I collect the necessary bundle of birch branches, sheet (peshtemaI), and towel.

All kinds of branches for beating on sale. That’s my bunch, right there.

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No rookie mistakes! this time the towel stays with the clothes in the locker while the peshtemal, along for the ride, becomes uselessly sodden. First off an ostentatious scrub in the communal shower. Soap must be lathered thickly and how very clean one has become independently verified via the side eye. Skipping this step elicits the cold shoulder, but this year I pass muster. The initial visit to the first circle of hell (AKA the  steam room) will only last about 5 seconds, but acclimatization will eventually occur, whereupon the jedi (who strangely is fully clothed and in a balaclava) will appear to thwack handily with the birch branches, front to back, top to toe. The branches have become pliant and aromatic from soaking, but in combination with the intense heat it is rather traumatic, all the more because the jedi terminates the experience unexpectedly with a swift couple of basins of cold water. A nap must then be taken to hasten recovery, followed by a revitalizing swim in the cold, dim hamam pool, lit only through a single hole in the roof. The steam room/nap/pool combo can be repeated as infinitum, but the Finnish sauna is for wimps and must be shunned. The whole three hour experience including the jedi, an equally fierce massage plus a nice cold beer with the very clean ladies costs $12 (absolutely no photos please).

Nowruz has also thwarted my travel plans somewhat. Those ethnic Kazakhs returning to China have bought up all the train tickets, and since the train only leaves once a week, I need a plan B. Fortunately Air Astana once more comes through in the clutch, and I am off tonight to Urumqi. Hopefully my VPN will allow me to circumvent pesky internet blocking, but that’s as yet untested, so sayonara! Hope to reconnect soon!

* Nazarbayev Generation. Kazakhstan’s Youth, National Identity Transformations and their Political Consequences.  voicesoncentralasia.org

Five things I forgot about Moscow

I’ve finally become adept at the strategies necessary to fully milk British Airways of their frequent flyer miles – it’ll be from London into China via Almaty by way of Moscow ($127) and out of China to London via Hong Kong by way of Helsinki ($100). And so to Moscow, where the smell of coal in the evening air elicits a Proustian punch in the gut. Sadly though, Proust then leaves me in the lurch, to re-learn the hard way.

  1. That the male Muscovites who feel compelled to seize one’s luggage and run it up the nearest flight of stairs are not generally concerned about one’s own intentions re: those stairs.
  2. That the babushkas milling at the Metro exits are not there to provide directions and so, when asked, will recoil in horror and let loose the evil eye.
  3. It is possible to reach anywhere by Metro within 15 minutes but only if (a) on the correct train and (b) it is going in the right direction.
  4. That the trams are pristine and look very appealing but at the first intersection they will abruptly veer to the left and proceed express to a hospital in the suburbs.
  5. Google Translate cannot charm art museums into discretionary senior discounts.

Which takes care of the first morning.

Who knows where I ended up, but here is ‘Pub Boston’. I didn’t go in.

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Still the ‘light jazz’ at the Metro, when I finally found it, was very cheery. His mom was working the crowd, collecting donations.

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The bowels of Moscow

The first sight of our guide-to-be, Maxim, casts immediate doubt on the notion that ‘Bunker 42’ will be a nice Stalin-era re-enactment equivalent to our local ‘Plimoth Plantation’ as I have so eagerly anticipated. With a haircut and voice to match the head-to-toe military ensemble it is hard to imagine him changing into jeans and going home to eat chips in front of the TV, like the performers at PP presumably do.

Maxim totally looks (and acts) the part. But how much of an act is it?

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Originally the actual Soviet nuclear command center, Bunker 42 – 18 long flights of decaying concrete steps beneath street level – is the single decommissioned example from a warren of bunkers in the bowels of Moscow still in use by the current iteration of the KGB – which Maxim tries to reassure us is merely a bureaucratic arm of government (on reflection, this is probably true).

Eight more floors to go

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Bunker 42. Presumably 1-41 (at least) are lurking somewhere else.

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Apparently the poor sods who actually built it were told they were expanding the Metro system.

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Luckily for him Stalin died before it was finished and Kruschev sensibly declined KGB invitations to visit. Btw, would he really have had a picture of Lenin on the wall?

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Its pièce de resistance is the command console replete with evidently fully functional Cold-War era computers, flashing lights and all. Maxim even invites a couple of volunteers to participate in a ‘nuclear launch’ and we are treated to a full-on surround-sound simulation of the whole shebang with visuals courtesy of a histrionic Soviet propaganda film (absolutely no photos please). It would all be agreeably hokey except here we are in the bowels of the earth next to an actual nuclear bomb (presumably also decommissioned, but who knows with these guys) and a table full of ICBM models, with Maxim fondling the most current version. It is all rather unnerving.

Apparently they were all sitting here during the Cuban missile crisis just waiting for the codes. The red button on the right hand side does the job.

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And here is an actual atomic bomb, hopefully disarmed, but looking suspiciously intact.

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Even the East German (who’s presumably heard it all before) is totally creeped out, let alone the phalanx of Netherlanders who make a pell-mell dash up the stairs at the earliest opportunity. In honor of my advanced years Maxim invites me to ride up with him in the elevator. Since it was last serviced pre-Perestroika we have plenty time for a chat (if I imagined he’d break open the metaphorical bag of chips I’m wrong)

M: Where you from?

Me: Well I live in the US.

M: I was in US, for a few years, New York.

Me: Studying?

M: No.

M: So what about Russia?

Me: Well I’ve been reading a book* that says Russia is a Mafia State (the thesis of the book is that the current Russian state cannot be considered classically totalitarian since it exists primarily to facilitate kleptocracy).

M: Yes, like US. And so what about Kennedy?  He killed because he too good relations with Russians (I make careful note of the phrasing and try to parse out what he really meant later).

M: And what about Crimea?

Me: Well if you’re so worried about border security I think you’d better get out of Crimea.

M: But Crimea is so small. Never mind, is Russian joke.

Me: Oh.

M: We love our Tsar and we are not a democracy. I hope we will never become one.

Me: Oh. And where are you from Maxim?

M: Ukraine. When it was part of the motherland.

The doors open.

*‘The future is history; how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia’ by Masha Gessen. Readable, but using activists as the hook turns it into too much insider baseball, 3 stars.

Even more social realism

Off to the New Tretyakov Gallery, which Google maps failed at so miserably at last year. While my 3 day unlimited Metro pass ($5) will handily underwrite all transport errors, I manage to cruise in in under 15 minutes, a whole 30 minutes early. But not alone. The plaza in front is an ocean of pensioners stamping their snow boots grumpily where they expected the snow to be (it isn’t and won’t be despite the forecast). But they are on to something – it takes the Tretyakov folk a full 45 minutes to decide whether to use entrance 1 or 3 for tickets, necessitating much shuffling back and forth and even more convivial complaining that this is presumably a decision they have not been suddenly faced with today.

The snowy side of the new Tretyakov, the pensioners are grumpily milling at the front.

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Inside, the definitive collection of Soviet era art, including a fair selection that had to be dug out of attics once Stalin was no longer around to offer critiques via a bullet in the head.  Totally absorbing how Russian art so rigorously reflects the trajectory of society in a way that European and American art, with their emphasis on genre rather than context, does not. Not surprising then that we pensioners are outnumbered by swathes of elementary school kids crouched in rapt attention in front of notable works. (Less obvious is why one of the most popular is a drab rendition of still life with cabbage. Another Russian joke or impenetrable metaphor? or maybe the ability to recognize cabbage is a critical social skill. In any case I couldn’t even get near it for a snap.

Some random favorites from the collection

Gotta have a genuine social realism number

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The gulag room

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Shortly after this portrait was finished, the subject (another artist), got a bullet in the head critique from Stalin.

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Another apprehensive artist looking understandably reluctant to pose.

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The 90s were a whole other thing. They seem to be over. This time I didn’t see a single person drinking, in the streets or otherwise.

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Funny, never saw any Putin satire

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In the walkway to the Metro, the wannabes. Technically superb but sales might be better if they copied something interesting.

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In the evening another Proustian moment at the opera: Nabucco was the first I ever saw performed when I was 16, in Llandudno of all places, by the Welsh National when they used to do their summer rounds. Even through a Proustian filter it is  handily eclipsed by this Novaya theatre version – an electric even transcendant performance despite the manager having to appear on stage beforehand and apologize profusely for a Latvian coup d’etat in the cast (I think).

I don’t know whether the sold-out crowd was as surprised as me that they staged it as a fascist-led deportation of Jews set in the 1930s (the 80s was probably a bridge too far). Still the audience stays in its seats and at the end applauds the chorus as enthusiastically as the principals.

Somehow that seems immensely important. At this time. In this place.

A $12 seat at the Novaya opera.

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O Lisboa!

First a quick detour to Lisbon for a solid week’s bon voyage R & R with Jim. My third visit in 5 years and once again Susana has obligingly moved out so we can move in. A lot has changed. This time instead of opening the French windows onto a construction site, we see a charming waterfront esplanade that can deliver us everywhere within 10 minutes and without having to tackle the interminable hills.

The hills of Lisbon look better from the top.

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The clouds have been abolished and the temperature holds at a delicious 70° (the guys selling ‘pitcher cocktails’ on the plaza have already made their fortunes). But we don’t love Portugal because of its firm commitment to being a functional first world country in which both the public transport and bathrooms are abundant and sparkling, we love it because the cheerful Portuguese are able (and more to the point constantly willing) to converse with us in impeccable English (only the table of construction workers sitting next to us at Friday lunch were willing but unable, but they were well into their second bottle of wine by then).

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Winners in the conviviality stakes get a plaque outside their doors

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What a shock then (and how ironic after years of traveling in some of the more sketchy corners of the world) that here on the steps of Sao Catherine church I distinctly feel someone surreptitiously ferreting around in my purse. Fortunately I manage to intercept her before the deed is done, but a couple of days later here she is again, like a bad penny, at the Belem tram stop at the other end of town (she is cunningly disguised as a tourist, and I recognize the hat). Most satisfyingly I keep my wits about me and whip out my iPhone for a snap, thereby enabling a positive ID as ‘Rumanian’ (Lisboa tourism’s euphemism for gypsy) and so the irreproachable Portuguese reputation remains intact.

Nothing doing for my personal pickpocket at this bus stop except the 1000 yard stare (her partner is standing behind me, looking a bit agitated).

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The gardens of Sintra are redolent with the end of the mimosa and the beginning of the wisteria, girding themselves for another year of competition mano a mano . At the top of the Hill we have the Palacio de Monserrate (thanks to one William Thomas Beckford, who despite being the the ‘richest Englishman without a title’ had to leave home in a hurry due to certain indiscretions). A t the bottom we have the Quinta de Regaleira (thanks to King Pedro ‘the artist’). One can only imagine the sniping, back in the day.

Montserrate is fully articulated gothic drama.

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Quinta de Regaleira has slightly more of an arriviste vibe

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At Cascais an unusual exhibit from Paula Rego. No pressure at all to have your own museum while you’re still working artist.

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Our most ‘authentic’ meal –  the pile of vertebra is boiled and served with cabbage (also boiled). We substituted french fries for boiled potatoes. It is a classic meal from Coimbra, up in the northern hills.

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Coimbra is the home of yet another oldest university in the world this one from the 1200s. In one dank room we stumble on this poor soul who seems to have been defending his thesis since 1400.

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2019: Turn east toward X’ian

March 18th 2019

This year I’m not traveling alone, exactly. I’m bringing along Colin Thubron (The Shadow of the Silk Road; The Lost Heart of Asia; Behind the Wall) as a talisman against all those complaints I got about last year’s writing, which I have internalized as ‘lose the hapless whimsy and let’s have more Insight’. Fortunately for me, Colin is only here in virtual format – I have a suspicion that as an actual companion he might be rather trying. Still, insight being his specialty, it seems right to let him have the first word:

‘A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.

            Yet to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind it the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.’*

So with Colin’s permission this year’s web of choices will start, not where I left off deep in the south of Iran, but close to where I began, in Kazakhstan. But this time instead of turning right at Almaty, we’ll go east toward X’ian.

*‘The Shadow of the Silk Road’ My Kindle tells me 43 people have highlighted this quote (44 now presumably) and I have the feeling that at least 10 of them may have resulted in Joanna Lumley using the second part in her BBC series. If it’s good enough for the BBC, it’s certainly good enough for me.

On the road again

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The boulevard of broken dreams

The dusty road through the dusty heartland around Yazd is not untrodden by tourists, but without the lure of significant sights they are disinclined to linger. No more so than today when an actual sandstorm is blowing out of lowering black clouds, obscuring otherwise photogenic mountains and thwarting a thousand potential photos. But this unprepossessing landscape has not thwarted the dreams of a surprising number of budding entrepenurs. Just look at our lunch stop, a huge caravanserai enthusiastically renovated only recently despite its location beside a 3000 year old village abandoned some 50 years ago when its water dried up. Could it be not ‘despite’ but ‘because of’?  Yet if this is the case their business model is even more opaque – Yomadic, with its off-the-beaten track ethos is the only tour in Iran likely to find the set-up at all compelling, and even we have turned down the opportunity to spend the night, a decision instantly validated by a quick trip to any of the bathrooms. The sole other visitors – a car load of more than usually haughty French and their guide have even brought a picnic to eat outside and only reluctantly buy tea to wash down the dust.

Caravanserai number 1: Even the chairs are not quite ready for prime time

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One look at the tea arrangements and the French dissolve in panic.

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But the 3000 year-old abandoned village is suitably photogenic

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I make my way down to an aqueduct that looks suspiciously Roman (the Persians had other ways of moving water) but no-one knows anything about it.

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On the other side of Yazd yet another caravanserai enterprise is in the process of failing even more precipitously. In preparation for our planned overnight Nate and Vahid have been calling ahead regularly to remind management of our needs for a towel each as well as clean bathrooms; maybe too assiduously for they have stopped returning our calls. All is explained when we arrive at the ancient ruined fort they are also promoting, for in addition to being padlocked the fort’s doors are sealed up with tape informing anyone interested that the electricity bill is well and truly in arrears (presumably the phone is also cut off). Only a sad and underfed donkey marks the ambitious ‘zoological park’ advertised to circumscribe the moat. Fortunately long experience with rural entrepeneurs has ensured the existence of plans B and C. Plan B suffices and we spend a cozy night at the only renovated caravanserai in Iran with a feasible business plan: reasonably comfortable beds and pillows, crisp, clean sheets and cozy blankets, heaters, a towel each and excellent food. Only the fact that the (impeccable) toilets and showers are at the opposite end of the building is somewhat of an inconvenience when it becomes my turn to get the 24 hour stomach bug that has been passing around the minibus.

The fort looks fascinating.

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Pity about the utility bills.

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Only the donkey remains from the wildlife park

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Our plan B caravanserai, at 4am during one of my trips to the other side of the building. Note the dinky sleeping cabins.

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Not surprisingly, absence of opportunities in the environs has led what tourists there are to descend on Yazd, which is coping only fitfully with this somewhat ill-deserved popularity. Yazdis are described as ‘shy’ which translates to gloomy, and they are less inclined to effusive friendliness on the street. Still Yazd is ripe for other night-time adventures  – Nate leads those inclined off to sneak into and up a poorly secured minaret for a bird’s eye view over the town, narrowly escaping detection by the security guards. A good time is had by all, especially those of us who turned down this very potentially once in a life-time opportunity.

Another once in a lifetime experience in Yazd. Synchronized calisthenics. Vahid represents us splendidly.

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They start off with literally 100 pushups.

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Vahid poses happily for pictures once the ordeal is over.

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But is less excited when Sam (our Australian marathoner) outdoes him even in a headscarf

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Yazd is rather more famous for its Zoroastrian Towers of Silence where corpses were left for vultures to pick off the meat.

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The practice ended about 50 years ago when the city started encroaching on the smell. There are still bones (hopefully not human) inside, but the vultures have left.

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Persepolis! Words can’t begin to describe. We are told bitterly that most of the good bits are in the British Museum.

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The tombs of the kings, note scale

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Springtime in Shiraz

 The stereotypes are right! Shiraz really does have it all. While its architecture is not as absolutely gorgeous as Isfahan and it is not as full of significant sights, we are by now totally mosqued out so it really doesn’t matter. While its artisans are not as ostentatiously skilled, the bazaar at half the size is so much more approachable and if possible even cheaper. While its streets are not as wide they are as clean and well-cared for plus they are replete with cozy hipster cafes serving hipster food, which we devour as ravenously as though we haven’t eaten anything for 10 days rather than vast traditional Persian meals twice a day. Best of all its gardens are a marvel and its citizens, knowing they have a reputation to uphold, treat us with such solemn and benign kindness, sprinkled so liberally with many sincere invitations (even our taxi driver to the train station wants to take us home for dinner and insists on giving us his business card so we can avail ourselves next time) that if we accepted them all they would be cooking for a week.

One last mosque. We get here at 7:30am to witness the sun rising through the stained glass windows and strong arm the self-absorbed selfies out of the way to get the full effect.

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The last inevitable school trip is taking it far too seriously to crack a smile for us.

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Shiraz is all about the elegance of flowers.

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Hipster culture means we are spared another Persian meal.

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Of course no wrap-up would be complete without a mail experience, and here Shiraz too, outdoes itself. Somewhat optimistically I suspect, I am hoping to divest myself of some of the weight associated with the remainder of my warm clothes (I can only imagine US customs interest in a package from Iran mail). Unfortunately Vahid’s confidence in where the post office is located, is not shared by a number of the people bustling around the area he has vaguely indicated, none of whom (unusually) speak English. Trying to interpret fish-like movements of the hands and equally vague ‘about 2 or 3km’ pronouncements gets me nowhere and in desperation I bring out my long-neglected GT in order to accost the little man on the corner innocently reading the newspaper.

Success! After a quick cell phone consultation he leads me purposefully to his car. This after all is Shiraz so I hop in thanking him profusely, and imagining another of the ‘and guess what it was just around the corner’ stories I have been hearing sporadically all week. But no! it is not around the corner, nor is it anywhere near Vahid’s vague gesticulations. Neither is it on this side of the bridge, nor in the upscale suburbs on the other side. A little later along the highway signs for the airport appear. ‘Not airport?’ I inquire a little anxiously fearing a misunderstanding; ‘Post, Post’ he assures me with the satisfaction of having acquired his first English word. Sure enough after about 30 minutes he deposits me with a flourish at the front door of the massive regional post office just before it closes for the weekend, firmly brushes off my attempts to pay him a legitimate taxi fare and tootles off, presumably back to the center of town to finish off his newspaper. I complete my transaction and hop on the sparkling new subway for the return journey.

My own expert parcel packer tells me I can track its progress on their website, but has no suggestions about what to do if it doesn’t arrive.

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It is our last evening and we are ending our tour at the garden tomb of Shiraz’s most famous son, the Sufi poet Hafez. Tout Shiraz is here to commune with the poet, smell the roses, eat ice-cream and meet their friends. Vahid tells us Hafez’s story and quotes some of his most famous verses. Even without translation there isn’t a dry eye in the house. ‘if you want to help us’ he says at the end. ‘Tell your friends that we are not terrorists and that Iran is a safe country, ask them to please come to visit’.

Hafez’s tomb. I am just trying to remember the last time I was in a community that had gathered together spontaneously because of poetry.

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Dave and I squeeze in one last overnight train trip back to Tehran. They conveniently overlook that it is illegal for us to travel unescorted.

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I am so, so sad to leave Iran. They are not terrorists, they are the kindest and most friendly people I have met in this whole trip and it is such a safe country I don’t think twice about leaving my purse on a seat while I go to the bathroom or hopping into a car with a stranger. I can’t wait to come back again. I am sure by then they will have discovered sushi.

Au revoir Tehran

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And onward through the heartland

There is probably more than one road from the sleepy market (or more appropriately bazaar) town of Khasan to Isfahan; the one we have chosen, a two lane highway which will allow us to visit the even more sleepy village of Abyaneh, goes directly past the infamous nuclear enrichment facility conveniently located a mere 4-hour straight shot from Tehran. Given the escalating rhetoric it is comforting how little seems to be happening on the other side of the six-ish foot walls. Presumably it is all underground and presumably also the distant row of mountains marching down the opposite side of the road are conveniently disguising a phalanx of missile batteries since the single policeman outside what must be the main gates is lounging with his feet up rather than standing armed against potential infiltration. Even so when Nate pops up to tell us quite firmly to put away cameras and cell phones until the second left turn –  taking ‘Sorry no photos’ to a whole new level, and his single directive of the whole trip – we all snap to it a bit nervously. Clearly there is more to Sgt. Sudoku than meets the eye since it is unlikely that the sheep, the only other sign of life, are providing the high level security vigilance necessary to detect a clandestine photo from inside the minibus.

Scenes from village life. All Iranians love Khasan even if they’ve never been there. It occupies that place in their hearts where delightfully sleepy little towns hang out.

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We surreptitiously climb up onto the roof of the bazaar to catch the sun going down.

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The bazaar is pretty sleepy too.

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Should you ever need it, don’t worry, he has it.

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Or he does

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A pot for every chicken

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Still waiting for customers

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Our sleepy hotel is pleasant too.

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Hipster coffee culture hits Khasan.

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On our way out of town, a perfectly lovely merchant’s house from the 17th century

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Notwithstanding its proximity to what could easily be the next ground zero, Abyaneh is undergoing a second home renaissance for congestion-weary Tehranis. But the orchard blossom is finished and apart from hopeful renovations there are no major sights to see so our main goal besides lunch (we are coming to the sad realization that in Iran tourists eat the same thing every day, and so our anticipation is rather less eager than it was yesterday) is to stretch our legs for a while in the photogenic hills, and have a wander round the charming streets where the old ladies drape themselves decoratively in the sunlight but then ruthlessly demand we buy their tasteless dried apples in return for a photograph. We find it all very pleasant.

Abyaneh, too close to ground zero for comfort.

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How the old ladies could look if they weren’t so belligerent.

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Sadly they are. Note, this is after she called me over and asked me to take a picture of her.

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Only the donkey is up for a photo op

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Not so the ebullient gang of teenage girls on a school outing to the underwhelming mosque, who have no interest in dried fruits and who, as a consequence are experiencing both extreme disappointment and acute boredom (as they tell us in impeccable idiomatic English, they are from a gifted school). To compensate and notwithstanding their demure uniform hijabs (their ring leader sports a gangsta baseball hat labeled ‘Baby’ in serious bling on top of hers which seems more like it) they pursue us raucously, jostling for photos until their furious principal descends in a chadored-whirl like an exhausted avenging angel, gives us the side-eye and packs them off back to the bus. ‘So, whatever’ says Baby as she flounces off in well-choreographed disgust.

Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths when they first arrived. Even their dragon lady principal on the right is looking forward to a nice day out.

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It doesn’t take long for it to all fall apart. Baby puts her hat on and all bets are off. Nate and Deborah can never pass up an opportunity to wind things up.

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Sometime in the last couple of thousand years every town in Iran has acquired a specific stereotype that everyone now perpetrates. So Tabriz is universally patronized for its slightly simple citizenry while Khasen is universally loved, even by people who have never been there. Likewise everyone disapproves of Isfahan, where we are headed next. Sure its architecture is absolutely gorgeous and it is full of significant sights, sure its streets are wide clean and well cared for, its food is good and its artisans are the most skilled in the whole of Iran but ‘I have never, ever met a nice person from Isfahan’ Vahid tells us solemnly. ‘Once I thought I might have, since the guy at the coffee shop is OK, but it turns out he’s from Shiraz’. Every single Iranian we ask tells a similar story. Sadly, Isfahan seems to be the Wall Street of Iran.

This is rather unfortunate since we are all desperate to exchange money. Ordinarily we would have three options: a bank (legal); an exchange office (also legal and preferred since it inexplicably offers a higher rate than the bank) and the black market (illegal). However the day before yesterday the government intervened to prevent collapse of the rial and halted all legal rial/dollar exchanges, catching us all on the hop. So first order of business is to find the black market in Isfahan. Luckily, just as we are admiring the glorious sunset over the Shah’s mosque in the main square, the black market comes loping out of the shadows and finds me. In the way of black markets everywhere he has a huge wad of cash in his left sock, but rather than dragging me down a dark alley (the usual M.O.) he cheerfully fishes it out in full sight of the several hundreds of his townsfolk picnicking in the garden, and gives me 20% over the official bank rate, definitely raising questions as to his Isfahan origins. Even the policeman idly watching us out of the corner of his eye leaves us to it, suggesting he too is probably not from around here.

The fabulous main square in Isfahan. The black market goes into hiding during the day,

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The Shah’s mosque. The cupola is carefully designed so the light falls onto the ceiling in the shape of a peacock.

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Just in case you missed it

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A subtle symbol of power for the Shah to contemplate as he prays: The tree of life arising from Noah’s Ark.

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An acoustically sophisticated ceiling in the Shah’s palace

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Exquisite artisanal objets in the bazaar

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Not all Isfahan folks are Gordon Geckos. This mister heard Jill and I speaking English and promptly closed up his shop so he could squire us around. He was crushed when we pleaded a previous engagement.

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Iran!

I am now so inured to taxi drivers the fact that this one (the only one on this trip who has not at least tried to rip me off) needs to check in with every member of his extended family in order to verify the route from the airport comes as no surprise. And when it also becomes clear he has taken three passes round Tehran to find the hotel it seems not only reasonable but also actually a relief (the third time round had made Tehran seem impossibly huge). Impossibly huge it may not be but it is impossibly chaotic and congested and thanks to the Farsi script almost completely incomprehensible. It is lucky then that 99% of the population have committed themselves to ensuring we feel welcome and supported. In fact we have to develop defensive avoidance strategies, so difficult is it to set foot outside the hotel without being invited to coffee, lunch or even just a protracted chat.

Feeding cats in Tehran. This particular Harvard grad (’68) wanted to take me to lunch just because I asked him whether I could take his picture.

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Tehran

‘Yomadic’ promises us an off-the-beaten-track tour of Iran (one of their other enduringly popular alternative destinations is Chernobyl) and starts it off with a bang at the nest of spies AKA the former American Embassy now repurposed as a museum by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in their latest iteration as hipsters. We make our way gingerly down an allée of this year’s winners of the ‘Anti-American poster of the year’ competition (for budding high school artists only) and into the embassy itself so our creepily chipper IRG guide can gleefully point out the sights – the Faraday cage to isolate encrypted signals the US helicoptered in when everyone was out of Tehran for the New Year holiday; the dreadful mustard shag pile carpet squares in the Enigma room; the fading photographs of hostages miserably pretending to enjoy Christmas dinner). Sadly he is conveniently is called away before we can muster any probing questions leaving us with our reflections. The two bona-fide Americans in our group of 10 remark cattily that unless the Russians are derelict in their espionage duty their embassy must surely look the same, while the Australian majority look a bit smug that their government has managed to keep its nose relatively clean at least in this respect. The lone English representative looks thankful that UK imperialism has been upstaged on this one occasion, while the outliers (one Irish milenial who is a real sport to come on vacation with essentially her parental demographic, and the as yet inscrutable Icelander, try to look sympathetic). To cheer us up Vahid (our own trusty guide) shows us that the ‘Death to Americans’ wall of shame down the road has been re-translated to suit our PC era.  Thankfully, if somewhat surprisingly, the Tehranis loitering outside the museum and in front of the wall continue to profess undying admiration of Americans as well as unlimited invitations to coffee.

And this year’s winners are:

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The nest of spies, always better with a diorama

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Death to America now made PC. Actual American looking a bit anxious. Thanks to Dave for those pictures, I am too traumatized to take any.

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The Goleestan Palace: Just another day on the Peacock Throne. Shah at this stage optional

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Just another day in one of the many anterooms, no longer occupied.

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Determined to upstage the plaster Shah

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In fact why use one decorative theme when six do just as well?

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The smallest teashop in the world, Tehran bazaar version: location, location, location.

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Another take on take out at the famous Moslem Restaurant. Orders are passed down through the ceiling.

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And now for something completely different: Fabulous modernist architecture at the Asari tower.

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Impossible to take a bad photo

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We visit a shrine for practice. Spot the tourists. Clue – the curtain fabric chador.

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Then a quick hop up into the mountains out of the congestion for tea. Where it is snowing.

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Qom

 Not surprisingly Qom, where the revolution was conceived, is one of the most religious cities in Iran. No surprise also that despite us ladies assuming full slipcover chador, and notwithstanding the rumored fatwa to the contrary (apparently fatwa merely means decree, just like jihad merely means community endeavor) none of us is allowed to actually set foot in the revered shrine. Instead we are assigned our own mullah to show us round and answer the most probing of questions, a commendable goal seriously stymied by his meager English vocabulary. Not that there is a lack of mullahs. There they go, strutting to and fro, sporting that 1000 yard stare perfected by irrelevant bureaucrats everywhere. And the faithful from everywhere are certainly here, perkily advertising their origins with headscarves and flags – Indonesians, Lebanese, Azerbaijanis (not taking it too seriously) even a few bona fide Sunni Arabs trying rather unsuccessfully to blend in since they seem to be remarkably tall. Qom has invested a lot into getting the faithful here efficiently: from the 22nd century elevated monorail from who knows where right to the doorstep, to the piles of 21st century aircon tourist buses, this is serious religion taken seriously. We wander around taking it in and no-one pays any attention at all unless we catch their eye at which they offer words of welcome and demand a photo (except for the mullahs who appear not to be selfie addicts).

Just another day out at the shrine. Chador not optional

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Only our millenial Deborah can rock the curtain chador successfully.

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Hard to quiz the mullah when you’re dressed like a slipcovered sofa.

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Mullahs galore

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The faithful contributed 22kg of gold to make this possible.

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We aren’t allowed in the good bits. This isn’t even the anteroom

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The way in is unfortunately obscured by the ‘Happy Birthday Ayatollah sign’.

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Trying unsuccesfully to blend in

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And now for something completely different – just down the road.

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