the merry cemetery

Four km from Ukraine, the Merry Cemetery in Sapanza, Romania is made of carved wooden crosses, painted and inscribed with a first person witty account of the life of the deceased. Whether they were a milkmaid, a truck driver, an alcoholic or a whore it’s all there; as are graves of too many poor kids killed in car accidents.

The EU has a way to go to bring the surrounding Maramures region in line with the remainder of the union. Hay and horses abound, as does a huge wooden monastery in the trees:

Sapanza

yak-yakkaty-yak

The Eastern Pamir is the size of Holland and home to 16,000 people; even that is unsustainable. Murgab, the only town of note, has a market based in aircraft and shipping containers, and a constant pong of burning tesgerine; uber-unpleasant.

We travelled up from the Afghan border, through Bulunkul, Murgab and up to Jailang – don’t look for it on your maps, Jailang is a settlement of three yurtes and two whitewashed buildings at 4100m that are home to an extended family of yak herders.

High-altitude adventure at it’s best:

The High Pamir

flirting with afghanistan

Wakhan adventures took us along the Panj river, the Tajik border with Afghanistan, for a number of days in September. Forts and potatoes aplenty, but a crossing was ruled out by our guide. “Just a little wade?”, we asked. “They are watching” we were told.

No wading for us then, but an Afghan camel in the final picture seemed to have no problems crossing the border, just as the tonnes and tonnes of class A drugs on their way to Europe don’t every year.

We were waved at by afghans, we saw them cutting hay, even having dinner – but that first question will have to wait, for the time being.

Flirting with Afghanistan

cappadocia down a cobbled lane

Had you been hiding up a cobbled country lane, 10km south of Mustaphapasha in the gathering gloom one warm summer’s evening in late July, you’d have spotted two British lads. As they forced their rented Hyundai into a muddy parking spot opposite a very small sign attached to an apricot tree that read ‘Keshlik Monastery’, you may have caught them discussing where they planned to stay that night.

They had no great expectations of their visit to the monastery. They had had an incredible day, first crawling around underground Christian cities of the 6th and 7th centuries. Later, meeting Yuvus, who’d shown them carved frescoed churches from a similar period on the inside of rock cones in Soganlu, before inviting them to share a stiff Turkish coffee in his first floor flat. Unknowingly, they had also gained a knife, from two hitchhiking climbing brothers to whom they had offered a lift late in the day.

They had stopped only because there was still light, and their ‘off-the-tourist-trail’ day had been so great, that they felt dropping in to another spot mentioned only in one line in passing in the Lonely Planet seemed like a good way to pass the time before dinner.

They were to be pretty darn impressed by the time they got back in the Hyundai.

Having met a sensible looking guy at the entrance and negotiated a fee for a tour, they headed straight for a great hall carved from the rock face at least fifteen metres long, ten metres wide and six or seven metres high. Its vaulted ceiling was immediately apparent among the almost pitch black cavern. As was the soot that covered the entire place, due to many a shepherd who had kept warm here in years past. But what was to become visible once Mohammed, their guide, flicked his torch switch was quite remarkable.

Every wall, ceiling and pillar of the exquisitely excavated interior of the 9th century St Stephanos church was covered with frescoes, and graffiti in a plethora of languages. Scenes from the Last Supper, images of Mary, Jesus and Roman Soldiers jumped out in vivid colours. All had been severely vandalized by Russian, Greek, French and Turkish speakers over the past few hundred years. However this simply added to the intrigue and amazement the boys felt at that moment.

Once awed, they headed back into what seemed like bright sunlight, but was in fact the early twilight. Their eyes adjusted, they headed around a total of sixteen Monks’ houses and a dining room, complete with badly worn carved tables and benches sunk into the ground of the hall – another huge cavern. A kitchen, with bread ovens and a carved preparation table was attached, as well as an office.

Mohammed continued the tour, when he didn’t know the correct word in English, he resorted to French, German, Spanish or Italian. His vernacular covered all these and some more surprising languages including Afrikaans.

The delight was ongoing for the Brits.

They wandered amongst Mustapha’s wheat and onions, marrows and courgettes, speckled about the ruins of houses and chapels almost a thousand years old. “My grandfather lived here, and my father, and now I, with my wife” said Mustapha, offering them an apricot. They spotted watermelons and apples too, the food seemed endless and varied, and Mohammed seemed both genuinely interested in the historic aspect of his plot of land, as well as the produce he grew there. He’d cleared out two outbuildings in the past year, revealing far less eroded features of walls and cobbled floors.

The final halt on the tour was a gigantic baptism pool, aside a room of dark columned graves. As if to corroborate the mystery, a Jewish tree of life had been carved into the wall above the baptism pool. It almost became more magical to stop asking questions and just accept the place.

As they left, Mustapha insisted on handing them the name of his Friend’s hotel in Mustaphapasha. The boys had no intention of staying there, but took the opportunity to be once more flummoxed by the filing cabinet alongside his table in the open air under another apricot tree. His surly wife kept quiet and did nothing.

Keshlik rounded off an eye-opening day almost devoid of tourists by Turkish standards, the best the boys had in Turkey. They climbed back into their Hyundai and headed into an evening that was to incorporate chamber music and a twelve-course tasting menu.

What a combo.

I have made up the name Mohammed, as I can’t remember the guide’s name – an detail unfortunately lacking from those few minutes that will last forever in my travelling memory.

khivan bugs

The feeling of a fly taking a leisurely meander across my cheek is one of the most infuriating I know. These ones are the non-biting type that like shit and hence I blame for my middle section feeling like one large cork that is being extracted in fifteen directions simultaneously from the bottle of Chateau Magrit that is my torso. Stimulating, yet totally devoid of pleasure.

They’re quick too, so there’s never the short-lived pleasure that is achieved with the successful swatting of the mosquito that’s diligently filling up with your haemoglobin. At least you win the skirmish with mosquitoes, flies win the war without getting even a knick.

If I wasn’t going on about flies, I’d be going on about hornets. The world’s largest hornets infest the restaurant across the square, mottled in the evening sun. I’d be there if one of Khiva’s endless torrent of summer weddings hadn’t taken over the place for the evening. Bride and groom looking dour and drawn after a day’s walking around the picture-perfect city under the 40+ degree sun. Still being teenagers, they have the stamina to last.

As it is, I’m sat under the essential shade of a birch tree. Uzbek pop music to accompany the wedding is pumping away at a volume that is disagreeably loud at 200 metres. There is a passing whiff of chicken shit and children have gathered around the spectacle of a man typing away on his laptop and words appearing on the screen. Never before have I seen word processing as a spectator sport.

I don’t necessarily object to chicken shit; it reminds me of holiday’s on my grandparent’s Newfoundland farm as a child. I’m the only person I know who feels this way, but on occasions like this – it is extremely useful.

When travelling, the difference is often the mundane, not the well known.

the eastern bastion of consumerism

Azerbaijan is split.

Stroll down the Caspian waterfront in Baku, shop in Calvin Klein and dine in lavish surrounds. Stop by for a game of nard and slip a little something to the police when you skip the lights. Take a $15 taxi ride in the oil boom capital.

Step away to the mountains where scudding clouds, natural gas vents, shit as fuel and washed away roads are more the spirit, visible when you’re not playing nard and funding the police checkpoints – or shelling out for a duvet for the night

Split, yet united by ripping off the foreigner, nard and bribes; that’s how I see Azerbaijan.

the eastern bastion of consumerism from Tim Way on Vimeo.

plane weird

Turkemnistan is a flat desert with some of the world’s largest gas reserves underneath.

Above ground, a real mix of religions combine to provide a country which is almost more weird where Turkenbashi hasn’t put his print, though Ashgabat’s hardly your standard capital.

For commentary on the photos and comments, head here.

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bridge over the oxus at urgench

Sat on Itamar’s pack, wedged between James’s unwashed thighs and Ramil’s never washed T-shirt and holding up my own seventy litre rucksack to promote the circulation of available air, I cross the Amu Darya at Urgench. We’re on our way to Khiva, where 150 years ago judgement, as an approximation for justice, was passed and the punishment involved pushing the condemned from the top of minarets on market day to a painful splatty death below. I’m ecstatic.

Our Daewoo Damas follows an even smaller Daewoo Tico, tea-cosy would have been more a more appropriate name, nipping left then right in an attempt to pass the dawdling piece of powered kitchen quilting. The driver uses the horn more as a keyboard when passing pedestrians, playing out a one-tone melody to ensure they don’t intersect his erratic path. One group of ladies is narrowly avoided as they struggle across the uneven surface in heels to join a dusty bride and groom having wedding photos taken a few metres on. Under her, now slightly off-white but dazzling pleated and frilled outfit, she’s wearing flip-flops.

The bridge is in fact a series of adjoined rusty floating hunks of iron, variously actual boats, square box sections of plate and actual sections of pontoon, held together with sturdy chains and the grace of God. Where the boats aren’t squared off at the bow and stern, the road zig-zags onto them from the side, before heading off to another section of the pontoon crossing. The whole set-up is reminiscent of a kilometre long game of Blockbusters, with rusty brown winning over muddy brown, just.

We pass the Tico, and cross a six-inch gap in the bridge with the murky silty river flowing some five or so metres below. Our next target is a Volga, best described as a Soviet Cadillac – complete with the sweeping bodywork curves, but eschewing the capitalist tail fins. It’s orange and carrying a precious cargo of £30 worth of watermelons, about two hundred of the large green fruit. Miraculously, none of them fall out as we jerk from pontoon to pontoon. Our driver takes his eye off the prize when avoiding an exceptionally large dent, and a Daewoo Matiz hustles by.

Two centuries ago, the Great Game between Britain and Russia was just kicking off as Muraviev and Moorcroft battled to reach the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva first. Then, the goal was as much to saturate the unpenetrated central Asian markets with each empire’s products as it was to retain or acquire control of India.

Now, the Asians are most definitely winning the new great game. Our taxi driver points to the crazy Matiz and communicates with us in Pigeon Russian. “Very good, Korea-Uzbekistan”. He points at a Lada passing in the opposite direction: “Russian – no good”, and asks me whether Ford is an American or British brand; we’ve only seen one on the whole journey. It’s a story mirrored in Turkmenistan, from where we crossed into Uzbekistan, except there (whilst talking to an LG employee) it was: “Hyundai, this is my favourite Korean company, Samsung is my second favourite, LG is third”. Joint venture foreign policy is the twenty first century annexation.

We reach the last link of iron and summit a 10 ft muddy mound, following a bus that, thanks to a clever and practised diagonal driving technique avoids grounding in almost cartoon style. Reaching the far bank, clothes and bodies are being washed in the still blisteringly hot late afternoon sun. Our driver hands over the official bridge toll of 500 som, about 15p. The new bridge is clearly being built, but whether the rusting pontoons sink before it’s finished is a matter of local debate. This is not the largest fee we are to face on the 40km dusty dual carriageway from the Amu Darya to Khiva. That tax goes to the smartly dressed policeman, in pressed green trousers and a square hat, who whistles and waves at us with a luminous orange stick further on. He takes the largest purple Uzbek note of 1000 som.

We stop for a few minutes just outside town to untangle bodies and bags with the intention of offloading some of them. Many other minibuses are doing the same, but the stallholders of the nearby water and snack mountains stand idly by. There’s no rush to sell the bag-blocked and bus-confined tourists a slightly overpriced but much appreciated bottle of tepid water. Sitting in silence, serving no-one and waiting seems to be of greater importance

It’s hot – between forty and fifty degrees outside; it has been every day since we left Europe’s last outpost of Dolce and Gabbana and wifi’d Baku two weeks or so ago. So much so that I now see having achieved any form of hydration at 7 p.m. as evidence a productive day. And I’ve got the enviable afflictions of mosquito bites in triple figures and bowels as loose as the Honduran constitution.

Pains aside, people here look far more Mongolian than Persian or Russian, and although we are a long way from the entrepreneurial streets of Bangkok, we’ve crossed the historic Oxus. Mighty and for centuries landscape defining, it has me excitedly following in the footsteps of many Great Gamers, and not that many others from lands afar.

I’m ecstatic, for we really are in central Asia now.

travels of a tway