Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Lonely Streets of Paradise

The Lonely Streets of Paradise

In the haggling with the jeep driver at the lake, my being dropped off at Karimabad had been dropped, and now I found myself on the KKH in Aliabad, an ugly scraggle of dusty decrepitude that totally drowned out the rural beauty and quiet that I had just been going through. I slowly made my way through the chaos, asking 'Karimiabad?' of people and usually getting little response, except 'Suzuki' and a vague motion thataway.

After a few hundred meters there was a spot where a little Suzuki pickup waited, with two narrow wooden seats in back and an awning on top. I and my bags somehow got in, along with nine other people, and off we went. Back the way I had just come. For it seemed like thirty minutes.

What was going on? I knew that Karimabad, the Hunza tourist town, was only a few km uphill from Aliabad. But it turned out that we had to go all the way back to Ganish on the KKH before we backtracked up. I think the direct route would have been too steep for a tiny pickup with a heavy load.

It was hard to see outside. A kid next to me asked which hotel I was going to, and I said 'Hilltop'.. When he tapped me and I got out, I expected to be in the middle of a fairly developed area, much like backpacker type towns in India such as Menali or Dharmsala. Instead I was on a little more than one lane little straggly road with no other traffic. To my right was a small line of shuttered stall/stores. To my left was a moderately modest hotel saying 'Hilltop'. The LP map said that I was now supposed to be smack dab in the center of the action.

The friendly young manager, named Sherzad, showed me to a room. Nice beds, clean and modern bathroom. Then he took me out to its small balcony. To my left was what I would later find out is Rakaposhi, as majestic a 25,500 foot peak as you could imagine. 180 degrees to my right was Ultar, only 24,500 feet high, but with its stark, icy summit less than five miles away. In between, both slightly above me and mostly below me, were the verdant sloping mini-orchards and fields of the Hunza vale. Hey, Alps! You really suck!

He wanted $10 a night for the room, but I got him down to $9.

Then he kind of sheepishly added, 'There's no electricity'. Not just in the hotel, but in this entire side of town. Seems like the turbine burned out after the floods and it had been down in Islamabad for the last few weeks getting repaired. Never mind, however, since they'd be running the generator between 7 and 10.

It was kind of obvious from the totally dead nature of the Hill Top's lobby that I was their only guest. When I went out to walk up the only real street in town it quickly became clear that I was about the only tourist in town. In a town that totally depended on tourism. Those shuttered stall/stores across the street were the norm. Further up the hill a few craft/gift stores were open, but I was pretending that I was invisible as I walked by, so that I would not be providing them with pitiful false hope.

The sky was still basically blue, the weather was t-shirt warm, but a few small clouds were beginning to gather around Rakaposhi and Ultar. But I hadn't taken any pictures yet, since my camera's battery was just about dead. And now it wasn't going to be recharged until the generator ran this evening. Hmmm.

Not much to do once I reached the top of the town except to turn around and go down less than a km back past the hotel to the bottom. No freestanding restaurants or tea houses or coffee houses open, but I roused the manager at the nicest hotel restaurant in town, and soon I was sitting there—the only customer—at a fine wooden table and classy tablecloth, with a gold tunic liveried waiter hovering nearby, slurping my soup.

Not much to do except go back to my room and wait for nightfall and the generator. Clouds starting to get a little fuller, but still such a lovely, peaceful view from my room.

By Thursday morning the clouds had gathered a little more, now mostly obscuring the higher peaks. I sat in the Hill Top's empty restaurant with my porridge, Hunza bread and jam, and 'milk tea'. Then it was up a steep cobblestone hill at the top of the town to Baltit Fort. Overlooking the whole vale, it is not really a fort at all but rather the old residence of the Mir of Hunza.

The oldest part goes back 700 years, but most of it is relatively modern. And all of it was only recently restored by the Aga Khan Foundation. Turns out that the Hunzas, like the Pamiris, are also mostly Ismaili. As the guide showed me the various rooms, I was taken aback at how simple, small and poor the Mir's life had been. Imagine the poverty of his followers.

The guide confirmed that before the KKH came through in the '70s life had been pretty tough. In general, the Hunzans really liked the benefits of progress. But this year had been the pits. Tourism had already been down because of 9/11. Then in the past few years terrorism and Taliban was all that Pakistan was known for. And now the floods of the past summer had deterred even fellow Pakistanis from visiting. As I left the Fort he sat there patiently waiting to see if anyone else might show up today at Karimabad's main attraction.

Back down on the main street to try to find an internet place that was supposed to be somewhere in the part of town that still had electricity. But when I found it the electricity was off for the day. Back to the room for a rest. Maybe the day would clear up.

But when I looked out at around one pm threatening grey clouds were filling the sky just a thousand or so feet above me. I quickly had to put on all my layers of clothing and cover myself with a blanket. No more activities for today. Not that it mattered, but Sherzad confirmed that this weather wasn't supposed to be here for another month.

The next couple of days would be schizophrenic. Friday dawned still cold and gloomy, but then the clouds started to break up a bit, and it started to get warm. Oh boy. But then the clouds returned. In the afternoon it was sunny enough for me to take a walk along the irrigation ditch that circled the vale. Peace and beauty galore, including a family knocking the walnuts off its tree and gathering them. But as the walk ended so did the warmth and sunshine.

One thing I had been looking forward to was the chance to go 1500 feet higher, where a fancy hotel called the Eagle's Nest had an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. But it only made sense to go there if it was going to be a perfectly clear day. Saturday started out with that possibility; just a few clouds hanging on to the peaks. One of the Hill Top's owners was going up there and asked if I wanted a lift. I almost said yes, but in the end decided to wait an hour or two to make sure that it would be clear. Two hours later the valley had filled with storm clouds again and I was glad that I was down at lower elevation and out of the major storm above me.

But in the afternoon it had cleared up again. So Sharzad, who was way more bored than I, given his utter lack of business, electricity, and therefore internet, was only too glad to come along for a walk along the upper irrigation canal. He had been filling me in on the (for Pakistan) liberal Hunza lifestyle. For instance, this was the only place in the country where (Chinese) beer was openly sold. The women wore scarves, but otherwise were just as integrated into normal life as the Ismaili women in the Pamir. Except that they didn't want their pictures taken. Seems like repressed boys from other areas of Pakistan had come and delighted in taking pictures of them, so that now they were so creeped out that Westerners weren't allowed to photograph, either.

The sky was gradually clearing, and as the sun went down it was finally back to the bright, limitless blue it had been right when I had arrived. Rakaposhi and Ultar and the others all stood there in their splendor. Soon a just past full moon would be shining down upon them.

Sunday dawned just as bright and clear, and I sat there on the roof of the hotel taking in the greenery beneath and around me, the rugged, brown mountains rising behind that, and the snowcapped giant peaks behind them. The Eagle's Nest was still a possibility, but at around 8 am a few wispy clouds started appearing in the corner of the sky that was supposed to announce impending weather. I decided to blow it off. Anyway, Hunza time was over now..

...'Cause I feel like I gotta travel on.

On To Hunza

On To Hunza

Monday morning I woke up really refreshed. In fact, I was feeling fewer aches and pains than before I had started on this exhausting journey. Maybe travel really was rejuvenating. Not only that, but so far I hadn't even gotten sick. Although I didn't want to get too jubilant, since I knew that I could always get laid to waste at any time.

But I was glad to have my energy today, because this morning I'd be heading down south on the Karakoram Highway. Finished in 1974, it goes over the top of the Himalaya/Karakoram mangle of mountains, and connects Kashgar with Islamabad in Pakistan. That's right, Pakistan. As in, Are you nuts? Don't you know that you're going to get blown up? Or worse?

But I had done my research, and I knew that the inhabitants of the mountains of northern Pakistan weren't Pashtuns. They weren't even Punjabis. In fact, they were some of the most hospitable people in the world. And the mountains themselves were supposed to be beyond superlatives. So I was really looking forward to tackling the KKH.

The weather was finally starting to co-operate, with the cloud cover beginning to break apart. (Ironic that according to the LP, Kashgar gets 1 inch of rain a year. And September is the driest month.) I closed up my bags, settled up with reception, went outside, hailed a cab, and said 'Tashkurgan beeket'. Like all Chinese cabs it was painted green and white, and like all Chinese cabbies the guy was honest and used his meter.

When he pulled up to the entrance of the bus station there was a driver with an almost full Pajero who was charging just a little more than the bus fare. I hopped in and off we went towards Tashkurgan, the only town between here and the border, and the location of the Chinese immigration post.

Kashgar was in a flat area at about 4000 feet, and for the first 50 km or so we drove along on an American quality paved road past prosperous looking agricultural land. Within a few minutes the other passengers were all asleep, as they invariably are everywhere you go in the world. It's one thing to see it in Japan or Korea, where everyone is working 16 hour days. But in the third world? My theory is that the one thing that scares all humanity the most is to be alone with one's own thoughts. And even with pop music blaring to make that almost impossible, everyone still needs to conk out.

I was wide awake though, enjoying the view. By now the skies had completely cleared to a wonderful shade of blue, and up ahead of me stretched the first actual range of mountains that I had so far seen. Kind of like the Front Range in Colorado. Only bigger. As we neared them, a particular 23,500 foot peak presented itself.

Then a police check, and then we started going up, up, up a red sandstone canyon. I couldn't put my finger on it, but somehow these mountains were a lot more exciting than the ones in Central Asia had been. A decent road, the great weather, and my rested condition all factored into it, I'm sure. But there was still something else. These mountains had zazz.

And switchbacks. So it felt like you were actually going up something difficult. Finally we got to the top of the pass, at around 14,000 feet. Wild and rugged. Then down a bit and past a large mudflat area that could have been a turquoise gem lake if it had had water. The driver stopped for something and I got out to take pictures. Now here was a view that was truly Spectacular. Snow capped mountains all around a dead empty plain and an achingly blue sky.

Some really poor Tajik girls came over to try to sell me stone eggs. They were great stone eggs, but that's something that I already have plenty of. Then they pulled out the most stunning oval matte jade that I could ever imagine seeing. For $5. The rest of the necklace was pretty hokey, so I was hesitant, but then I thought: You idiot! That's an amazing piece of jade for $5! I started to open the door again but the driver was taking off. So I sat there realizing that now I would hate myself forever.

Twenty minutes later we came upon China's Karakul Lake. Now here on this sunny day was an incredible turquoise gem, with an arc of magnificent snowcapped peaks, anchored by two 24,000 foot giants. One of the most astounding sights I have ever seen. Too bad the driver didn't stop.

All too soon we arrived at Tashkurgan, a town of basically two and a half cross streets. Next to the small bus depot was the Traffic Hotel, where I secured an okay basic room. It was still not much past 1 pm, so I took it upon myself to walk around the town. Not much to see.

In the town, that is. The stark beauty around the town was something else. Nothing specifically mindblowing, except for the 24,500 foot Murtagh Aga peak that we had passed at Karakul Lake and that still was quite visible the southern skyline. I was back at 10,400 feet, but it wasn't too cold; much like an October afternoon. All in all, this was an end of the world that was bleak yet strangely energetic.

I walked all the way down to the end of a tree lined road to where there were some 700 year old ruins of massive stone walls. But by now I had seen some much, much better ones. On the way back I stopped at what I took to be a school to take a picture of the Chinese flag flapping against a background of Murtagh Aga. A minute later three Chinese soldiers came running after me and demanded that I delete the photos. The place was actually a barracks. They were very polite about it, though.

Not so polite were all of the other Han Chinese around. Although much of the population was still Central Asian, the Han dominated. Most of the talking that I heard was singsong Mandarin. And I was once again being reminded just how absurdly rude and unfriendly the Chinese were.

I had first run into this on my first major trip to China in 1986. The people were so inhospitable that it ended up being almost funny. And I had assumed that their attitude must have been a function of ancient Chinese culture. But then I went over to Taiwan and these were literally some of the nicest people on Earth. So then I decided that it was one of Communism's dreary effects. And a few years ago when I went to Shanghai and Beijing I was pleasantly surprised at how pleasant the people there were now becoming.

But not here. Once again you had to stop yourself from laughing at how you'd walk into a shop and ask something, and the person there would spit out some monosyllabic unpleasantry without even looking up. In a singsong fashion.

So I was thinking these thoughts when I walked back into the Traffic Hotel, and a nice Chinese lady sitting there immediately invited me over for a slice of melon. Just goes to show how wrong you can be. Well, not really. The nice lady was actually from Korea.

As the afternoon was fading I decided to continue an earlier attempt to find the one internet place in town. The nice Korean lady got the Chinese hoteliers to make a series of gestures to show where it was. I had already walked along there and hadn't seen anything, but I thought I would try again.

Nope, just a row of clothing stalls. Wait, internet places are often on unused second floors. After much searching I found a staircase leading upstairs. And there it was. Over 20 kids playing video games. The young Chinese guy managing it just looked up and rudely shouted, 'Passport copy!' So back to the hotel I had to trudge.

My piddly communication needs taken care of, I now tried in vain to find something edible. Back to the Traffic Hotel for my Chinese snackables. But I was already getting sick of them. Ah well, there's always glorious sleep to look forward to...

Early next morning I was bright eyed and bushy tailed under a perfectly blue sky walking the mile or so down the road to the Chinese border post. Hoping to see at least a fresh naan bakery, but coming up empty. Still, just strolling along, expecting to come upon the unmistakable barriers across the road that announce a border. Just as in every other border post I've ever crossed.

But all I could see in front of me was an unfettered KKH all the way to the horizon. What gave? As I got near to where the LP map showed the post to be, off to the side was large building after large building. But all the signs were in Chinese, which didn't make sense for an international border. When I got to the last large building there were some cars stopped in the middle of the road. I went up to the soldier who had stopped them and said, 'Passport???' He had no idea what I was saying. But finally one of the people stopped and used his six word English vocabulary to figure out the situation. In the end a very nice soldier led me back four large buildings to where, again, there was absolutely no indication in anything other than Chinese ideograms that this was the border post.

But there were a few other foreigners waiting around for the bus ticket booth to open. I talked for a few minutes to a personable enough Dutch fellow who lived in Bangkok. He said that he was still looking for a place in the world for him and his boyfriend to settle down in. Then the booth opened and we all bought tickets and changed our yuan into rupees.

Being processed out of China was just as professional and courteous as being processed in. Then we waited while the Pakistani bus was brought around. There were six of us traveling: Me, the Dutch guy, a French cycling couple, a Japanese solo tourist, and a Pakistani returning home. You would have thought that we'd have a big bus all to ourselves. But you'd be wrong.

First of all, the bus was only half size. Second, although it had about 20 seats, they were only supposed to be big enough for Pakistanis. And most of them, along with the roof, were already stuffed with all sorts of sacks and boxes heading south. So there was just barely enough extra room for us.

We were supposed to leave at around 10 am real time. But it was 10:40 before we got final clearance. Then 20 km further along there was a checkpoint where a Chinese soldier got on and, like at least five other Chinese officials before him, obsessively counted and recounted the six of us to make sure that we lined up with the manifest. He would accompany us the rest of the way until we got to the real border.

I tried to look through the dirty windows, but the outside didn't appear nearly as interesting as the scenery yesterday. We were traversing a wide flat, mostly stony plain, with occasional cows browsing. Where the hell were the yaks? But I'd already discovered from other travels that all the neat, exotic domesticated animals are being pushed aside by totally uninteresting cattle. I guess that they're just too damn cost effective.

The mountain ridges way off to the side weren't that exciting, either. I shifted my attention to the two people sitting in front of me, and idly thought, So I guess this is what the world has come down to: Chinese soldiers and gay Dutch guys. And I had absolutely no idea as to which side would win out.

When we stopped for a stretch break I saw that, once I was outside of dirty windows, the scenery and atmosphere were actually pretty intense. Or maybe it was because the plain was narrowing and the ridges were getting higher. Whatever, soon we were at the head of the valley and starting up switchbacks. The bus slowed down as the grade got steeper, and now I could open my window and gaze out.

Whoa. This stuff was of the jaw dropping caliber. Pale blue endless sky, giant snowcapped rugged peaks, and a sweeping gap that we were climbing to the top of. Hey, Alps! You suck! Astonishing, really. Just then the Chinese soldier opened his window and tossed a large plastic bottle out into the pristine wilderness.

As we neared the summit we reached the Chinese border station and the soldier got off. A Pakistani soldier, all cool looking in his shades, khaki pants, black sweater and beret, and silver belt, got on. A km later, right at the tippy top, was a stone pagoda arch, and then we were in Pakistan. The road immediately changed from high quality blacktop to low quality gravel.

A couple of hundred meters further and we were at the Pakistani border station. The vibe was instantly way more relaxed. We all got out and walked around for ten minutes, taking pictures and enjoying where we were. This was Khunjerab Pass, at 15,700 feet the highest automotive pass in the world. Beautiful empty thwumps and clumps of mountain and snow and ice everywhere. And not too chilly, either.

It was all downhill from here. Which is what I had been looking forward to. Because I had this conviction that this time something was finally going to live up its hype. Nor was I disappointed. First there were the peaks and canyons of shiny black karakoram rock. Then peaks and canyons of brown and of red. All the while with a perfectly blue sky and a happily gurgling river. You just couldn't ask more of Nature. To top it off, the Pakistani road crews we passed all happily waved. The air was a lot warmer this side of the pass. And the signs were all in English.

I liked this place.

Even before this summer's floods, the KKH had been all torn up by the Chinese trying to upgrade it for their Pakistani friends. Of course, it was also in their self interest to get a good road connecting them to the Arabian Sea. So they had already been here with their equipment when the floods came, which meant that they had already capably repaired the washed out bridges, etc.. And the road, while slow, wasn't that terrible or rough.

Around 5 we arrived at the Pakistani border post at Sost. Once again, strangely, no barrier on the road. We stopped beside a modest building and went in. Generally speaking, Pakistani visas are a pain in the ass to obtain. Plus they're super expensive, Plus now, since they're scared of a possible tourist beheading, the authorities are actively discouraging tourism and you need a letter of support and who knows what else. BUT if you show up at the KKH post at Sost you can still get a visa on arrival. Just like that And once I had found that out, it had sealed the deal. I had to come.

It was still expensive for Americans, $150. But it was so pleasant to be treated with a dignified civilized courtesy reminiscent of the British Raj They would have bought out a cup of tea if I had requested it. Then, after the visa was hand pasted into my passport, the government officials were all eager to offer their individual money changing services.

I got some rupees and walked out to the street. Not much to the village of Sost, but due south along the KKH was the 23,000 foot massif of Qarun Koh. The China giants I had seen had been more like massive lumps. This here was large and dramatic and craggy. Plus I was now lower down in altitude so that the differential was greater. Pretty darn neat.

The better hotels (still not saying much) were all filled with Chinese engineers. I went into the best cheapie and the guy said that he didn't have a single; I would have to pay for all three beds. That set me back $7.50. Then some dahl and chapatti, which sounded pretty good about now. Then the electricity went off and I had to find my way back to my room.

I was up and ready to go at 5:30 the next morning; the LP said that the first transport left at 6. But when I hit the street at 5:50 I was the only person there. Twenty meters ahead, though, a couple of guys in a side alley were putting sacks on the roof of a minibus. Ah! Being the first customer of the day, I snagged the front seat.

More and more people appeared, and by 6:30 it was determined that we were fully loaded. So off we went, that giant massif getting hit by the first rays of sunlight. As the driver kept stopping and jamming ever more humans into the back I was glad in my only slightly crowded front that I had risen early. I also had the best views.

The sky was once again perfectly clear, and we passed through canyons and occasional open areas which contained little stone houses and little orchards and fields. After an hour and a half we reached the Passu district, which was a relatively wide plain. On its northeast side was another gargantuan craggy massif. At its south end we went over a hill and came down to the northernmost reach of the landslide lake.

It was only on January 8 of this year that a massive landslide had occurred some 30 km south of here. Apparently the Chinese had offered to use their equipment to bore a hole through it so that water wouldn't accumulate. But the Pakistanis had said, Never mind, we can handle this. So the result was that this giant 500 foot deep lake now lapped at my feet.

Earlier in the spring, when it was uncertain whether the landslide dam would collapse, the Pakistani army had been helicoptering people over it. But the helicopters had been needed for the horrible floods this summer, and it became obvious that the rocks weren't going anywhere, so now there was a thriving traffic of little boats ferrying people and goods up and down the lake. (It would be interesting to know where the boats had come from, since they certainly didn't have new paint jobs.)

It was a little confusing as to which boats were cargo and which were passenger, but a guy from the government came by to get my passport number in case I drowned, and he pointed me to the right one. When I slid down the dirt hill with my gear they were just in the process of getting a jeep to drive up a couple of narrow planks and balance astride the 8 foot wide boat, with only rocks under the tires holding it in place.

That kind of obstructed the view a bit, but only a bit. Other than that it was one of the mellowest lake rides of my life. Warm air, incredibly blue sky, crystalline clear water. Giant massif in the background. Mostly traveling through steep brown rock canyon, although I also knew that beneath us were the ruins of many orchards and little stone houses.

When we got to where the landslide was I could see that almost 2000 vertical feet of the mountainside had slid down. The little boat reached the little boat area, and I and my bags had to balance onto another rickety boat and then onto the shore. Which was a steep side of crumbly dirt. A porter put my pack on his back and carried it straight up about a quarter of the way up the giant landslide hill, to where a jeep was stationed alongside the jeep track that had been created. Some of the other boat's passengers were already dickering with the driver. He asked an absurdly large amount from me; I got him down to half that. I was still paying the lion's share, but in exchange I did get the front seat.

The others sat on wood benches in the back as he churned through the thick dust up towards the top of the hill. It was a mighty impressive pile of rock that had fallen down, and short of a medium sized thermonuclear device that landslide and lake are here to stay. As he maneuvered down the other side to the previous road level I was glad that I hadn't had to walk it. Especially with my pack.

Then it was about a half an hour through an increasingly verdant and wider canyon, and then before us stretched a (for here) large tableland of green terraced fields and orchards sitting a couple hundred feet above the river, at least five miles long and two miles wide, until bumping up against the surrounding mountains.

We had arrived at Hunza.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Quest for Civilization

The Quest For Civilization

Now I'm a man of generally simple tastes. Motel 6 is usually just fine by me. I don't need no extravagant restaurants or fancy cars. Bread and peanut butter in my '92 Aerostar will do the trick.

But I'm getting too old to squat. On the nice porcelain ones I can just barely balance. But I can no longer position myself on wooden slats while my feet are trying to dodge the excrement. So it becomes a cycle of immodium before the long journey followed by dulcolax afterwards.

But that was just the first of my many complaints. It was getting colder than I had planned/hoped for. It would be nice to have some heat not generated by my body. It would be nice to have some electricity. Come to think of it, it would be nice to have running water. In fact, it would be nice to be somewhere where everything at least attempted to work.

For after a month in Central Asia, it was no longer cute (if it ever was) that you couldn't ever assume that something was going to be available. Or work properly if it was. Even in Almaty the decay was at best papered over. And most other places they didn't even make that attempt.

So it was time to try and find some sort of civilization.

I knew going into this journey that Murgab to Sary Tash would be the most expensive part of the journey. Vans and SUVs went between Khorog and Murgab, but there was no commerce or traffic between Murgab and Sary Tash, especially inasmuch as Sary Tash was in Kyrgyzstan. And the small amount of European summer adventurers had thinned out by now, so there was little likelihood of me finding people to share expenses with.

This meant that I had to pop for $1 a kilometer for the 235 km trip, since the driver Turok had no chance of getting a return fare. Ouch. Well, at least I would have the rattling old Land Rover to myself.

Except this tall, skinny Ukrainian hitchhiker had shown up the night before. And he had $30 to his name. And around here you were supposed to help people out. Then the driver met a friend who needed to get to the Tajik border. So now there were four of us. Well, at least I still got to call the shots.

Which meant that for the first time on my journey there would be no Russian or Tajik or Uzbek or Turkmen pop music being played. Now I know that you're probably thinking that it would be exotic and interesting to hear the sounds of foreign countries. It definitely is not. I can think of only two times in my life (in Burma and Lesotho) when I ever heard anything that was different and beautiful. The rest of it is ALWAYS idiotic endlessly repeated five note melodies backed by a horrible canned beat. You should thank God that you live in a land where they play Elton John and Air Supply.

Anyway, we started out around 10 for the seven hour journey. The landscape continued to look Western/Mohave/Nevada/high altitude (only, uh, bigger), with some interesting large slabs of rock. For a while we were only a few yards away from the barbed wire of the Chinese border, which made sense considering that the Russians built the Pamir Highway so as to patrol their side.

We climbed higher and higher, once again never needing switchbacks or the like. Near the summit we came upon a French bicycling couple that I had met in Murgab on Tuesday night and who had started from there yesterday. They were pushing their bikes, not just because of uphill slope but also because at 15,000 feet it was kind of hard to breathe. On Tuesday they had said that their goal was to bicycle across India, as suicidal an idea as I have ever heard. Now they reported that I had convinced them not to try it, so I was glad that I had saved another couple of French lives.

The summit was 15,500 feet, definitely a personal best. And I can report to Eric that there wasn't an obvious extra 1000 feet that he could have easily climbed. Even without altitude sickness. But off to the side, mostly covered in clouds, was 23,000 foot high Lenin Peak. And I can attest that, my world weary blasé notwithstanding, it was all pretty neat.

After a couple of semi-warm minutes the wind started to pick up, so back we went into the Land Rover. And down the slope we went. Almost my entire trip except for Bishkek had been bright and sunny, but now as we neared Kyrgyzstan the sky once again became overcast and threatening. The mountains were pretty much the same as before, but without the sheen of sunshine. The next great sight was supposed to be Lake Karakul, a turquoise gem set in an otherworldly setting.

Well, maybe on a sunny day. On a cloudy one it was just a medium sized mountain lake. Turok wanted to stop for lunch, but I had my own bread and cheese, so I had him drop me and Alexei the Ukrainian off at the lakeside while he went to a tiny settlement a half mile away for Tajiki fare. I told him to come back in 15 minutes.

Not smart on my part. For now there was a constant, bitterly cold 30-40 mile an hour wind whipping in from the lake. I hurriedly ate my cheese while being buffeted by the tempest, then I balanced over rocks to the water. Little oil slicks were everywhere. So much for turquoise gems.

By now it had been 15 minutes and even Alexei was a little freaked about the cold, and he was from the Ukraine. I decided to head on over to the settlement. It took about 20 minutes of seemingly wilderness trekking to make it. When we found Turok he was just getting it together to come out for us.

The Tajik border was the next fun part. I've seen a lot of strange borders in my time, but this one just about tops it. Tajikistan, being next to Afghanistan, has one of the worst drug smuggling problems in the world, but the Customs narco control post was just a shack. A guy came out and had Alexei take most of the stuff out of his pack. Then he got cold and tired of it and gave me a free pass.

But the Immigration post was the best. It was literally an old cylindrical tank like an oil truck might carry, with a door cut out of one end and a small window cut into the side. Turok was nice enough to stand there in the wind with our passports waiting for the Immigration guy to take forever just to put the stupid exit stamp in.

Then it was about 30 km of no man's land, still jouncing downwards. And I mean jouncing, being no man's land...neither country upkept it. For almost the first time on my trip some short naturally growing grass now greened the previously empty rock, and that certainly perked things up. All in all one of the prettiest parts of the Pamir Highway.

The Kyrghyz border post was housed in an actual building. A heated building. Again, no problems. Their narco customs squad couldn't have cared less about checking us. Then it was 23 km into Sary Tash, a town of about 100 houses scattered about.

Turok dropped us off at the Aida 'cafe and hotel',actually just another house with a room for backpackers. When Alexei found that it would be $8 for a room, dinner, and breakfast, he decided that he would try to continue on to Osh. Even though it was freezing, night was fast descending, and there was absolutely no traffic. Nor did he ever thank me for his free ride.

Aida turned out to be run by two really friendly Kyrghyz sisters. When they led me around the back to the room I opened the door and... An electric space heater! Glowing merrily away. Also already sitting there, kind of looking like he was in shock, was an Austrian cyclist named Harry. The sister took my order for potatoes and left, and I stood warming myself by the 'fire' and chatting with Harry.

After the requisite small talk, Harry hesitantly let on that today had been the weirdest day of his whole life. Here was his story:

He had camped last night in the cold in no man's land, then had cycled up to the Kyrgyz border post. After being entered, the guy asked him if he'd like a shot of vodka. Harry usually didn't drink on the road, but the guy was persuasive. By the time it was over Harry had ended up sharing lunch and downing a whole bottle of vodka with the immigration guy.

By now totally drunk, he was wobbling on the road into Sary Tash when he was stopped by a guy with a horse and cart. The guy unshackled the saddled horse and begged Harry to get on said horse so that the guy could take a souvenir picture of him. Harry, who had never ridden a horse, obliged, at which point the horse started galloping headlong out of control down the road. With Harry, stone drunk, literally hanging on for dear life. About 4 km along the horse finally slowed, Harry got off, and walked it back to the guy.

Who was still standing there with Harry's bike and all of Harry's money and possessions. Harry later found that the guy had tried to ride the bicycle and had indeed stolen the first thing he found, which was a (useless to him) water filtration bottle. So the question now arose, was the guy a really incompetent thief or just a total nut job? Whatever the case, Harry was pretty lucky to still have his possessions and his body this evening. My moral of the story was, Don't get drunk in strange countries. Harry's was that he had gotten overly naïve having just spent a month in friendly, innocent Tajikistan.

I could sympathize. Maybe it was their lousy weather, maybe it was because they had just killed 1000 Uzbeks for no good reason, but I just didn't trust the Kyrghyz. Or maybe it was because, far more than any other of the Central Asians, they looked so much like the Mongolians. And although most of the Mongolians are really nice, some of them would knife you and leave you to die without even thinking twice.

Once again, not much to do after the food was eaten, so I went to sleep. I was awake at 5:30 the next morning, listening in the dark as a couple of trucks rumbled by. I was eager to get going, but I didn't want to disturb anyone. Anyway, the sisters had said that 7:30 was a great time to start hitching a ride with one of the Chinese trucks going over the Irkeshtam Pass into China. They said that there would be 'no problem'. 'Lots and lots of trucks'.

So when I walked up the 100 m to the little gas station at the Y I wasn't too concerned that the weather had now turned really, really bad. With the basic houses scattered about and the short grass and the wind and the cold grey it reminded me a bit of Labrador. Unlike Labrador, though, none of the few people walking to and fro said 'hi'.

In my mind I had been prepared for the dry, cloudless cold of Murgab. But they only get a few inches of precipitation a year in almost all of Central Asia, and this was still only September, so it had never occurred to me that I might get stuck in something like this. Namely, a constant wet wind, the sky getting more threatening all the time, and a few spare snowflakes drifting down. While I was wearing my thin thermal, a long sleeve tee, a light 'explorer' shirt, and a spring windbreaker.

Oh, and no trucks. None. No traffic whatsoever. Except maybe every ten minutes a local jeep would wander by. After a half hour or so I motioned to the guy at the gas station whether I could wait with him inside. He said no. I stood there in the wind trying to compare this with my other freezing hitchhiking moments. But I was twenty back then and I didn't have to worry about possibly dying from my misadventures. And back then I at least had gloves.

By 8:30 I was pretty damn frigid, and I was weighing my options. Maybe I could go back to the sisters and arrange to hire a jeep. Other than that I was stuck in Sary Tash for the weekend, given that this was Friday and the border was closed on Saturday and Sunday. I gave myself until 9 to stand there before I gave up.

I probably couldn't have made it. Because when the first Chinese truck came by and stopped at 8:35 and I went to get in, I noticed that my toes were completely froze. The driver was a friendly Uigher (pronounced 'weeger'), the Central Asian people who occupy western China, and he immediately refused payment, had his son scurry to the little bed behind the seats, and got me comfortably inside.
Off we went.

The LP had said that the road to the border was in terrible condition. But the Chinese had been here since, and most of it was in mint paved condition. When we got to where the Chinese road crew were efficiently constructing away, it was the first time that I had seen anything that was even remotely together since that Turkish shopping center in Ashgabat.

Then a stretch of rough road where they were starting the construction, then back to pavement. Once again, this wasn't a real 'pass'. The road went up and up in a straight line on a stony plain with mediocre mountains on either side. Then about 20 km before the border it started to go down, now starting to look like we were going through southern Utah. When the truck got to the Kyrgyz border post the driver pulled into a lot filled with other trucks, and I figured out why traffic had been so sparse today. There was no way he was going to be processed before Monday.

I, however, should have an easier time of it. I made my way to Customs and Immigration, where they courteously stamped me out. Then they put me on the next truck through for the 6 km ride to the Chinese side.

Except that after my truck had gone about 2 km he was stopped behind a line of other trucks at a gate. So I got out and lugged my stuff to the head of the line, where I was put on the next truck through. Except that he was stopped a little further by a longer line of trucks waiting to go through the actual border. So I got out and walked up hill to the front of that line.

Through the Chinese gate and a quick look at my documentation. Then they put me on another truck going to their official border post. Which ended up at the end of another long line. I walked past 31 trucks and entered the building.

Everyone was super polite. All in all I was pretty lucky, because they should have been closed for lunch. But they were just finishing up a Spanish tour group, so I was an add on At 11:45 I was officially into China.

Ah, Civilization. Now there would be warm weather and people eagerly swarming around me, offering to change money, take me to Kashgar on a smooth paved road, you name it. After all, the LP had said so. But as I stepped outside all I was met by was a cold, cold drizzle. I walked over to the Spanish tour bus to see if they had a spare seat I could buy. Nope.

What was going on? Or rather, not going on? Even the border people were gone now, finally off to lunch. And the weather was just getting worse. I walked around, trying to find anyone doing anything. A pickup went by. I said 'Kashgar?' to the girls inside, but they drove off. Then they stopped and pointed back to a car parked over there. It was a taxi. I went up and asked.

The regular fare is 60 yuan. The guy wanted 100. But I would be his last passenger, and I just wanted to get out of there, so I agreed. Then one of the other passengers pointed down a row of shuttered shops to one that was open and said, 'money change'. I went over to got some yuan for my dollars.

When I got back to the taxi five minutes later the driver had sold my seat to somebody else. And by now the drizzle was changing to a hard, cold rain. So I stood there for a couple of minutes, knowing that the driver would be conflicted because he'd be making more money from me. Sure, someone else would then have to be standing outside in the rain. But, hey, I was here first.

Just then someone called from another vehicle, asking if I wanted to go to Kashgar. This driver wanted 150, but I bluffed him down to 120, and soon I was squeezed into the back seat of a Grand Tiger pickup, next to a woman and baby and various other packages.

Down the road we went. Yes, it was paved, but it was in pretty bad condition. The area continued to look vaguely southern Utah, though not that I could see anything with the constantly fogged windows. We kept on dropping lower, but the cold rain kept on coming. After about an hour and a half we stopped at a poor roadside Uigher village where the rest of them had noodles and meat. The temperature was starting to rise and the rain was ceasing to fall.

Another half hour or so and we were out of the mountains and in an agricultural area. For the first time on my trip there were clumps of naturally growing trees. Chinese trees, to be sure, which look different from European and North American trees. But trees nonetheless.

The driver had to get off the road to transact a little business in the county seat. As we drove down the fully functioning wide main boulevard, with fully functioning new buildings lining the way, I was almost astonished. Virtually anyone living in Central Asia would do anything to live in a place like this. Socialist town planning like the Soviets could only dream of. What couldn't these Chinese do?

When we were back on the main road, it was clear that they hadn't yet gotten around to fixing up the rest of the county. The Uigher towns were basic, funky and poor. But I did get an ethnic treat, in that the driver needed to drop some things off at his home village, which was almost as quaint as the Pamiri one in the Wakhan. The Uigher house, also, was similar in structure to a Pamiri one. I sat and dipped bread in tea for around 15 minutes and noted the various differences.

About 30 km short of Kashgar the driver 'sold' me to a cab driver, who took me the rest of the way. The last 15 km were on a new limited access freeway, and the markers showed that we were about 1400 km from Urumqi, which is generally regarded as China's far, far west.

I was dropped off at the Chini Bagh hotel complex, long the traveler's favorite. But its cheapest rooms, at 180 yuan ($30), were depressing. And what's worse they had those awful thin mattresses. So I walked over to a nice new looking hotel next door, the Eden, just to see what I could get there. A really friendly Uigher English speaking manager showed me a snazzy room with a giant bed and a fully functioning bathroom for 188 yuan. Plus they would put some more comforters on the mattress to make it more comfortable.

Civilization, I have found you!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The High Pamir

The High Pamir

Tuesday morning was back to sunny with clouds, and once again felt rather Alaska-y (Alasky?). Friends and family gathered to see off Zarina and Eric. I felt privileged to have had happenstance allow me to have taken part in the festivities. But now it was time to leave this sweet world behind.

The new driver was a little bit of a jerk, but Eric and I got him down to 60 cents a kilometer. Gilu had missed the morning weekly bus to Khorog, so Eric was bringing him along to Murgab, and then taking him back with him from Murgab to Khorog. Then the driver had a couple of friends get in the back. For free. That's how they did it around here.

We continued up the Wakhan Corridor. Same flat bottomed valley with steep Afghan mountains on the other side. At one point we saw a gleaming new white building over there. American base. While the Afghans are even poorer than the Tajiks over on this side. At Langar we were at the head of the valley.

Well, not really. What happened was that the border turned left. The Wakhan kept going up into the misty distance, only now completely in Afghanistan. We would now begin our ascent to the high Pamir.

There weren't any switchbacks or death defying cliffs. The gravel road just kept going up and up through a dusty, rocky landscape. Kind of like in a Western movie, only of course bigger. We stopped for a little lunch at a little stream and Eric ran around, trying to get his red blood count higher. When we reached the summit, at around 14,400, it topped by a little my previous best, which was the Mt Evans road in Colorado. But there really wasn't a summit. It was more like the road stopped going up and started going down. Eric was talking to someone and never even noticed.

Not too much time later we reached the main Pamir Highway that went directly from Khorog to Murgab. It was paved. Sort of. A Chinese semi whizzed by. Then it was quiet. And empty. Too empty.

The LP had said that the mountains up here were rounded, so I was expecting humps and lumps. But they were more like the reddish mountains in southern Arizona. Or the blackish mountains in the Mohave. Big enough but, like all the other mountains so far, not majestic or awesome like the Alps or the Canadian Rockies.

It also felt like northern Alaska or northern Yukon. Real top of the world and end of the world stuff. But much, much drier. In fact, everywhere I had been so far had been pretty much bone dry. The ski resort at Chimbulak had been the only place with naturally occurring trees. Here at around 13,000 feet it was bone, bone dry. And no highway in America had ever been this lonely.

But maybe I've been to too many ends of the world by now. Because so far I wasn't as blown away as I thought I would be. On the other hand, I figured that with this kind of sky the pictures I was taking would blow me away when I saw them. (They did.)

We made pretty good time on the ribbon of (barely) asphalt, and as the sun was sinking in the west the white buildings of Murgab came into view. Our first police check of the day and then we were in the town.

What town? Take the driest, emptiest part of central Nevada and then make it drier and emptier. Take the poorest Mexican town at the end of the poorest Mexican road and then make it poorer. That would approximate Murgab. Not having made reservations, we were expecting to see 'guesthouse' or 'homestay' signs, like in every poor village in the Wakhan. Nada.

We were directed to one place. Awful filth and the lady wanted $20 a person. Absurd. Then the driver had a friend who had equally squalid conditions. Then we stopped at the Murgab Hotel. The price was right, at $2 per, but the facilities consisted of solid wood mattresses surrounded by dirt.

We finally got it in the driver's head to ask for Ibrahim's Guest House (as recommended by the LP), and right down the hill from the Murgab there it was. It did have a foot powered shower and an actual toilet seat perched over the pit, but the 'nice location' was a greasy courtyard where Ibrahim was taking apart engines.

Since there seemed to be no electricity in town, the advertised generator would have come in handy, but right now Ibrahim also had that apart and was working on it. Still, this was by far the best place in town, at $15 a night including meals, so we took it.

By now it was cold. Damn cold. I went to my new room and quickly put on my thermal underwear, a long sleeve t-shirt, a regular one, a long sleeved shirt, and my light windbreaker jacket. On my feet went cotton socks covered by my one pair of woolen socks. That was my entire arsenal. No more had been allotted. As it was, I could hardly close my pack.

I was still freezing. So I huddled under their thick blankets until the dinner of my potatoes and their spaghetti was ready. Then, without much to do with no electricity, we all went to sleep.

I was awakened about an hour later. First, the electricity had somehow gone on, my light bulb was lit, and no mattered how hard I looked there seemed to be no switch. Finally I had the bright idea of unscrewing the barely functioning and thus barely warm bulb.

But the larger problem was the Gilu was yakking away through the paper thin walls in the next room. Why didn't Eric shut him up? Did he have some kind of sleep disorder? Was this sort of behavior acceptable in Pamiri culture? I put my ear plugs in and kind of drifted off.

Forty minutes later I was re-awoken. Gilu was still talking loudly. I got up, opened the door, and said, 'Could you please stop that?' Acutely embarrassed, he immediately did. It turned out that he had been talking on his cell phone to his girlfriend and Eric had been too exhausted to say anything.

The next morning the sky was achingly clear blue and I had bread and jam and chai for breakfast. Eric hadn't just been physically exhausted; he had been having trouble breathing. Personally, one of my biggest fears for this trip had been the possibility of altitude sickness. In my younger years I had gotten it pretty bad both in Bolivia and Tibet, and if it weren't for an oxygen tube I might have died in Lhasa. But I live now at 7700 feet, and I had been taking Diamox as a precaution. Here at 11,700 it was so far, so good, although little twinges in my neck had me reaching for the Diamox.

Eric was into the outdoors. And he had been acclimatizing in Khorog. But altitude sickness can strike anyone, anytime, no matter their level of fitness. When he let me call Maureen on the iPhone I joked to her in his presence that I was fine but that he might die.

Eric had talked to his parents in Montreal, and they finally had the not married form. Now he thought that if he could have it emailed here and printed out he could somehow get his marriage registered today. So while he hassled with that I went off on a walk around town.

There wasn't much. The place did indeed have atmosphere, as in hardly any air and therefore crazy sharp light. And a few 'blocks' away was about the most bizarre bazaar I have ever seen. Facing each other down an impromptu 'avenue' were old truck shipping containers of various sizes. And at each a little door and window had been cut out, and in each was a tiny little store selling tiny little amounts of things. This was downtown Murgab.

I ducked into a bunch of the places, got to the end of the row, and turned back toward Ibrahim's. When I got there I was surprisingly totally exhausted, and I had to take an hour long nap. When I awoke I wondered where everyone else was. I went outside and sat on a rock for a while. Then I went back to my room and got out my notebook to finally try to write something important in it.

At that moment Gilu burst in and said, 'Quick. You must come to the hospital. Eric might die.'

I rushed around trying to find any conceivable item that might be of help. Then we had to wait for the jerk driver to show up. It seems that Eric had been walking with Zarina and Gilu when all of a sudden he blacked out and collapsed. They had gotten him to the hospital, where the doctor, an uncle of Gilu's, had given him a couple of injections. He was there now, lying wasted in a bed.

When I got there I at least gave him the emotional support of a fellow Westerner who could yell and scream if he wasn't being taken care of properly. But the people there had it under control. And it had already arranged for the driver to take him post haste back to the lower elevation of Khorog. As I cheerily told him as he lay there in desperation, 'When I was planning this trip, I realized that it usually takes at least 12 hours to die of altitude sickness. But it's only 8 hours back to Khorog.'

Somewhat relieved, he still wanted to get that Quebec form printed out. So he sent me off with the driver to try and find some internet. But the Yak House had closed down, and that had been the only internet in town. Nor did they ever have a printer. I went back and pointed out to Eric that tomorrow morning he could do all that in Khorog, then in the afternoon go down to Ishkashim and register there if need be. Resigned to that fate, he was now ready to go.

He could barely stand, and had to be helped down the stairs to the mini SUV. We went back to Ibrahim's, where Zarina and Gilu got all the gear together and he used his Russian to help me finalize my deal for getting driven to Sary Tash tomorrow. Then they were gone. Out of town, down the road, and hopefully soon down to where Eric could successfully breathe.

Eric's Wedding

Eric's Wedding

I woke up around 9:30, my spirits refreshed and my body only partially so. I stumbled over to the barely functioning communal bathroom. Then I returned to my room, collected my gear, paid the lady her $10, and was ready to face the day.

It had been quite the accomplishment. Wednesday morning in Khiva, Friday night here. Well over 1200 miles. And them weren't no Interstates. I looked around me at what there was of Khorog. About 6900 feet in altitude, a town of less than 30,000straggling along the sides of a cheerily bubbling mountain river. The mountains hemming us in were reddish and pert, but nothing spectacular.

The LP had recommended the Pamir Lodge, which was supposed to be nothing more than a glorified homestay. (A homestay is where they stack one or two small Pamiri mattresses on the floor, they serve you meals, and you get to use the squat outhouse.) But a homestay had to be better than this, so I went looking for it. I hopped onto the only marshrutka route in town, the #3, and I got off a couple of kms later where I guessed the Lodge to be. It was the right spot, but people motioned that it was up and around a hill. I started lugging luggage upwards.

About halfway to the top I put the pack to the side of the road and continued on alone. Who knew if it were up here anyhow? When I got to a school grounds (an LP landmark) I saw a sign saying 'Homestay'. I went up to see if it were the Pamir Lodge.

It wasn't. But the guy at the door was a Canadian from Montreal named Eric. 'I'm leaving here in a couple of hours to the Wakhan Corridor to get married. Do you want to come along?'

It turned out that Eric wasn't exactly a Quebecois. His parents were East Indians who had been born in Madagascar. He himself had been born in France and had lived there off and on growing up. He was 36, had studied IT at Harvard, and had just gotten an MBA from Cornell. But off and on in between he had been living in Bishkek and Dushanbe teaching French.

It also turned out that Eric was a member of the Ismaili sect of Shiites, a group dating back to the 12th Century that is kind of like a Muslin version of Quakers. They don't believe in mosques or mullahs, and the women don't even cover their heads. They are best known for their leader, the Aga Khan, and for the huge charity that he operates around the world. Needless to say, they are not too popular with fundamentalist regimes, such as those in Iran or Saudi.

But the Pamiris are all Ismailis. And Eric had just met this innocent Pamiri 22 year old college student a month ago. And last week he had impulsively decided to marry her before his Tajik visa expired on the 22nd. Problem was, he didn't want his mother, a retired judge and headstrong feminist, to show up at a small Pamiri village and freak everyone out. So his mother in retaliation made sure that no one else from his family would come. Which left me as a last minute replacement for the representation of Western Civilization.

To top off the offer, Eric said that he would be continuing on to Murgab, the next major stop on the Pamir Highway. So, hmm. Take part in a genuine ethnic wedding, see the famed remote Wakhan Corridor, then have the continuation to Murgab taken care of... I went and retrieved my pack, which was still patiently sitting there.

I had hastily packed in ABQ, and when I got to KZ I noted that I had brought along a pair of pants which were way too nice for where I was going. Why in the world would I have done that? Now I knew why. With my loose, flowing cotton shirt from Indonesia I actually looked quarter decent.

At 1 the Land Cruiser that Eric had contracted for arrived, along with several other guests, and we packed it and took off, heading down a narrow canyon south from Khorog. The mountains were reddish brown and dead dry, but along the riverbank on each side were green trees and occasional small fields. The sun shining on them and on the gurgling river was quite something.

Even more special was the fact that the land on the other side, which only had a donkey track to parallel our gravel road, was Afghanistan. That's right, Afghanistan. The most remote northeast corner of. Even more amazing to think about was that twenty short years ago this was about the most heavily guarded border of the Soviet Union. Definite shoot to kill territory. And now here I was bouncing along to a wedding.

We stopped for lunch and around 5 made it to Ishkashim, the site of the only bridge over to AFG. A small, poor town hardly worthy of its location Then we turned left and were in the Wakhan Corridor. Arguably the most end of the world location there is. For those of you who follow trends in over the top cool destinations to get to, you'll already know that all those Discovery Channel adventure hosts would pee their pants for the chance to get here. But here little old me was.

The valley had broadened out quite a bit, flat and maybe 5 miles wide. Huge slabs of mountain rose on each side, and I would get tiny glimpses of the snow capped 22,000 and higher Hindu Kush peaks behind them. There were many breaks between the slabs where giant deltas of rockfall spread towards the river. When we got out to stretch, especially with the nip in the air, it reminded me strongly of Alaska in September. Except much bigger. And Alaska is pretty big to begin with.

We arrived at the village of a couple hundred souls just as it was getting dark. Eric and I were immediately taken to his fiancee Zarina's family's main room, where there was already a party going on. Like at a high school dance, the women were all on one side, the men on another. The men were wearing shabby western clothes, the women their best Pamiri gown/dresses and scarves. Two or three men and/or women would get up at a time and sort of move their arms and sway to the music. The music was atonal caterwauling from centuries ago, except that the guys doing it were wearing t-shirts and baseball caps and were holding the microphones like hip hop artists.

The Pamiri room, like all Pamiri rooms, was a giant squarish rectangle held up by many wooden upright beams. There was a small square area in the center which was at ground level, then on each side a raised platform about two feet higher. People sat cross-legged on those sides. The walls were made of stuccoed earth, and I would become flummoxed as to how a room could get so warm with just my body heat. Especially since each room has a poorly constructed skylight, which any Bob Villa fan can tell you is horrible for conserving warmth.

Eric, as a good Ismaili, had been afraid that there would be a lot of drinking going on. But from what I could see it was all pretty tame; indeed, this was one habit that most Central Asians hadn't picked up from their Russian brothers. At around 10 I took off for the little homestay that had been arranged for me. Eric the bridegroom had to hang out until 11.

Sunday morning I awoke early and picked my way along the rocky scree about a third of a mile down to the river. Whoa. Afghanistan everywhere I looked. The river itself had been pretty narrow at Ishkashim, but somehow had broadened out greatly upstream. In the morning light the Alaska analogy held. Except that instead of herds of caribou there were goats and cows and fields and villagers. And by now I was about 8800 feet up.

I worked my way back up to the village, being stopped by everyone for a courteous 'salaam al alekaam'. 20 year old girls in their go to wedding clothes would shyly try out their English on me. With the little lanes fronted by stone/plaster buildings, it looked and felt like a fairy tale world. When I got back to the main house they told me that breakfast was waiting, and I was ushered in to where Eric and Zarina were enjoying chai and farina. I joined in.

The driver and the friends from Khorog were taking the Land Cruiser up to some scenic hot springs and were waiting for me. But when I got back from re-dressing for the occasion, they had given up and taken off. Just as well, since a few minutes later a procession of ladies in their finest were escorting Zarina down the road a bit to where they gathered at another house's main room. Some other men were there, so no one minded that I was a witness to the ceremonial washing of the hair. (At the same time Eric was enduring the ceremonial shaving of the face.)

Then there was some more music (canned this time) and swaying/dancing. Then a hubbub as Eric was brought in. Crap! The ceremony was about to start and I was still in my going to the hot springs clothes. I rushed back to the homestay to change.

They were just starting when I returned, and I snuck around to the side. Zarina was demure and fetching all dolled up in her Pamiri wedding ensemble of makeup and jewelry and wedding tunic/pants and more jewelry. Eric was wearing a $40 Tajik suit that he had just bought. Lucky for him that he was a pretty small guy, so that they had a size to fit. Zarina was even smaller. As were the other villagers. I felt like Hulk Hogan at Brigadoon..

One of the reasons Eric had wanted me to come along was to take pictures for him. No need to worry on that score. Someone had been taking video of every minute transpired so far. Cameras were clicking constantly. The ceremony and the peoples' lives might have been from hundreds of years ago. They might not have running water or indoor plumbing. But everyone knew how to download onto flash drives and zip locks and thirdrunks. And of course everyone had cell phones. In fact, Eric had earlier let me call Maureen on his iPhone. We live 12 miles east of ABQ and we don't have cell phone reception. They have it here.

But back to the ceremony. It was beautiful but brief. Towards the end a confused villager gave me Eric's camera, since he couldn't get the video to work. I managed to get the last part of them leaving the room.

Now everyone headed back up to Zarina's family's place, where the wedding meal would take place. Here's how meals in Central Asia seem to work: First there is a spread of candies, raisins, etc., that nobody ever seems to eat. Sometimes salad and fresh fruit. Then after a while soup is brought around. Then a while after that the main dish, usually pilau with meat attached, gets served. As a vegetarian, I usually get potatoes and bread, although sometimes they can get creative.

In between all this there was more music and dancing. At some point there was a small ceremony where a local official civilly wed them and they signed the proper documents. Then a few statements. When the microphone was handed to me I offered up a verse of 'I Give To You And You Give To Me (True Love)'. After that people started to drift away.

Except for Zarina. By local tradition she had to sit there in the room until nighttime. I think Eric was supposed to, too, but they gave him a pass. At least Zarina's mother and a couple of other ladies waited it out with her.

But Eric was free. And he and I and his former student Gilu, who was Zarina's next door neighbor and who had introduced the couple, decided to climb the hill behind us for a wedding afternoon stroll. It was pretty steep, and out of consideration for me they stopped about 600 feet above the village. A fine panorama, but not the full Hindu Kush treatment. On the other hand, it looked like clouds might be obscuring them anyway.

The next morning I awoke at the crack of dawn and went outside. What? There was a strange dust in the air and the sky was overcast and drizzling. This wasn't supposed to happen. Paradise was always supposed to be bright and sunny. Ah well. Up to breakfast with Zarina/farina.

Afterward Eric and I got to talking about what to do next. I had already decided that, more than a Canadian, more than an East Indian, more than an Ismaili, Eric was first and foremost a crazy Frenchman. And he had this fixation that he needed to get to Murgab and then get to the pass that was 4600 meters high, then climb up to 5000 meters (16,500 feet) and take a picture.

Which was all the more surprising given the bureaucratic hassles he was now facing. His Tajik visa expired next Wednesday, which meant that he had to get out of the country then. Unless he got a husband visa. But that meant getting paperwork approved. And even if it was, he would probably have to leave and re-enter.

Then there was the paperwork involved in getting Zarina a Canadian and/or French visa. But before that could be done the wedding had to be officially registered with the government. And to do that he had to have a form from Canada saying that he wasn't already married. His parents were working on that, but perhaps the only government in the world more incompetent than Tajikistan's was Quebec's.

Okay. He already had a ticket to Paris. Why not go there, wait a few weeks until the bureaucratic dust settled, then come back and get her? Well, then I would have to stay with my aunt, and she is such a blab that everyone in the family would know that I was married. So what's wrong with that? Well, then my girlfriend living in my apartment back in Montreal would find out. And she would kill me.

What??? It seems that Eric already had a Filipino girlfriend, a Christian, but that her family had told her that there was no way that she could marry a Muslim. Besides which, she always argued with him. But Eric was convinced that if he found a sweet, young innocent thing like Zarina then she would always be loving and adorable and never argumentative.

Talk about crazy Frenchmen!

Anyway, Eric said that he would deal with the crazy Filipina when he got to Montreal. In the meantime, the afghani—the dusty cloud that had settled on the area—would ground the flights to Dushanbe for a few days. And his parents still hadn't gotten that form. And he really wanted to go to Murgab...

So Murgab it would be. And he made the proper arrangements with the locals to procure an overpriced 4 wheel drive for the adventure. Good. I did have to get out of here. The overcast weather was actually getting annoyingly cold.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

National Tajikistan Day

National Tajikistan Day

After Uzbek Customs I was afraid that the Tajikistan side would be a hassle, considering that TJ is considered the most corrupt of the Stans. But it was another breeze. For the first time on my trip the soldier at the last gate didn't even ask to see my passport for that final redundant check. I walked through and was officially in Tajikistan. Which meant that I now had been to all fifteen former Soviet Republics. Including Transdniester.

Not that I'm bragging or anything.

Things were slow here in Tajikistan at around 4:30 in the afternoon. After all, it was National Tajikistan Day, and everything was shut down. I had been aware of that when I had started out today, and had even been unsure whether the border would be open. Now that it was and I was through it, it was clear that I had been about their only customer. Which meant that there was no one else around to share a share taxi with.

There were a few drivers. But if they didn't get a fare they would just sleep in their cars tonight. So I had to pay a young guy $20 to go into Dushanbe. At least I got a 65 km drive out of it. And he dropped me off at the door of the Dushanbe Hotel.

Ex-Soviet hotels are renowned for their shabby exteriors, even shabbier interiors, surly clerks, long, long hallways, and large rooms with awfully painted walls, uncomfortable beds, and nothing that works. The surly desk clerk lady sent me upstairs to the much surlier floor lady who took me down a long, long corridor and showed me the room. The good news was that it was only $25. The bad news was that I would have to share it with whoever else showed up that night.

I went back downstairs. The desk clerk proved to be kind of friendly, actually, and I got the feeling that she would try to steer the other customers away. I paid her the money. Which I got from the first actual working ATM machine (owned by 'Responsible Bank') since the Bishkek airport. I went up to my room.

But I couldn't relax. Because I hadn't eaten all day, it was 6:30, and I had the feeling that Dushanbe was going to prove an even bigger dump than Bishkek. I went back downstairs, crossed the street, and found a cab to take me up to the Delhi Durbar, written up in the LP as having really good Indian food.

Usually in these fourth world capitals, the few 'exotic' restaurants that exist cater to the few people who can afford them, and they endeavor to have at least a touch of class. Not here. This would have been a crappy restaurant even in a small Indian city, and you can imagine how low their standards are. I ordered a bunch of standard Indian items and waited, watching the incessant Indian music videos and TV ads from the satellite TV .

The food was overpriced and barely edible. When I finished the last greasy bite it was now around 8. I looked at my map. It was only a couple of miles back to the hotel along the main drag. Maybe I could walk off a little of this grease.

The street was barely lit. All the stores were shut tight. Should I have my guard up? The Tajiks seemed to be notably small people. But there might be a lot of them. Desperately poor Tajiks with knives. There seemed to be a large police presence. But they might look the other way... I continued walking.

While driving up I was confused as to why the taxi guy would be taking all kinds of back alleys instead of the main drag. After a mile of walking I found out why. Blocking the road was a barricade of giant old buses, with heavily armed police every five feet. Pedestrians were being shunted off to the side. What was going on here? I got shunted off with the rest.

Down a dark little back alley and then a return to the now traffic-less wide, main street. Many more heavily armed police. Great. I was finally in a real police state! I walked along with the others through the gauntlet of cops.

In the distance I heard loud noise. As I got closer there was a final line of police. They patted me down. Then I was past them and at the edge of a medium sized crowd of people. Up in the front there was a stage. Behind the stage was a huge Orwellian kitsch statue. And behind that was an even more Orwellian kitsch arch. It was as if the crowd was taking part in some strange totalitarian science fiction ritual.

But it wasn't really. What it really was was a popular Tajik musical act performing at the National Tajikistan Day festival. Oh. And up there on the fuzzy jumbotron it wasn't a thundering speech by some Big Brother but a group of Tajik dancers on stage. Oh again. As I relaxed a bit I realized that these were just a bunch of Tajiks out for some fun on their national holiday. And I recalled being in Indianapolis on the 4th of July a few years ago, and how much far scarier the police presence had been then.

So I hung out for a while and grooved on the music. Persian music. And I remembered from the last time I was in Iran, in 1970, how much better Persian pop music is than Arabic pop music or Indian pop music. Still quite discordant to our ears. But much more complex.

After about a half hour I realized I had to get back to the hotel. The next stage of my journey, getting from Dushanbe to Khorog some 550 km away, had been hanging on me ever since I started planning the trip. The choice was between going to the airport and trying to get on a flight that usually didn't leave, or taking a seat on an overstuffed vehicle for a 20 hour journey on a terrible road. This afternoon as I was nearing Dushanbe I had pretty much decided to just go for it the next day and get it over with. Now that I had seen the best that Dushanbe had to offer, my resolve strengthened.

But I still had the problem of getting some food for the road. Namely little processed cheese triangles. Like I had lived off of in West Africa. Which, once again in retrospect, seemed more together than here. So far I hadn't even seen an open market.

But a half block from the hotel one magically appeared. I stocked up on the triangles and some fruit juice and some sugar coated peanuts. Yum.

By now it was ten and I was so exhausted that I didn't know how I would get up in the morning. Just dead dog tired. But I awoke kind of refreshed before five, then lay there until six, then got up and did my stretching and slowly put all my stuff together. At seven thirty I was out of the hotel and headed up the road.

But uncertain. Both the airport and the share taxi lot were in the same direction, but I still hadn't decided which to try.. I finally walked up to a cab and told him to take me to the airport.

Dushanbe airport has to be the world's dinkiest international airport. I knew that people would be milling around waiting to see if the flight was going today, but I had expected that to be inside the terminal. But it didn't look like more than 25 could fit inside the terminal. Instead there were at least 100 milling around outside. For a plane that carries 17.

A nice Tajik girl told me that I could try and get a ticket at the ticket office, which was about a half a mile away. A taxi took me there, but the office wasn't open. Okay. I had the taxi take me to the share taxi lot. He dropped me off outside it.

I walked in. I had expected to see people milling around haggling about Khorog prices, but instead there was a big empty asphalt area fronted by little storage/warehouse rooms. What?? A single man finally materialized and pointed towards the back. When I got there it opened up on the right and there indeed were a few people milling around. And a lot of empty vehicles in various states of being. A driver immediately tried to talk me into being one of his last passengers in a beat up old van. I don't think so.

Then another guy approached. He had a Mitsubishi Pajero, a smaller, cheaper version of a Land Cruiser. And he was offering me the front seat. At a discounted price. Sold.

By now it was 8:15 and he still had a couple of places to fill. By 9:15 he had done it and we were on the road heading out of Dushanbe. Until the first police check. And the second police check. And the third police check. Usually in these situations all the police care about are the locals and I get a free pass. Here all they cared about was me and my passport. Further on they would have to enter all my details in a ledger. In all there would be 19 stops.

For now, though, we were out of the city and into the mountains. Except that we first had to stop to fill up. Which meant somebody dipping a bucket into a barrel of gasoline and then funneling into the fuel tank. Again and again.

Yesterday the flat irrigated area around Bukhara had changed back to flat desert. Then it had changed to light brown, rounded, dead hills. Then the hills had gotten higher. Then for a brief period it had started to get wild and woolly. Then it had changed to flat, lush agricultural land surrounding Denau. And it had basically stayed that way to Dushanbe. Now finally, and for the first time, we were headed up into real mountains. Dry light brown mountains. Usually with a frothily flowing river beside us.

Since today just happened to be Eid, the end of Ramadan, everything was going to be closed down until Monday, making it National Tajikistan Weekend. But this being the former Soviet Union, the only real manifestation of Eid would be a few small groups of country females wearing their nicest dresses going to or from the mosque.

As the day progressed we kept going up and around and up some more, the mountains getting more rugged as we rose. The road was mostly paved, sometimes gravel, but always at least as good as a half decent forestry road. Albeit a 550 km long forestry road. But having snagged shotgun, it wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as I had feared.

We stopped for lunch, where I had bread and little processed cheese triangles. Then up and up some more for about 200 km. Kind of like a dry Colorado, only bigger. We finally reached the summit near sunset, got out for the police check, and admired the wide, wide view. On the horizon were snow capped summits, which means that they were at least 16,500. Then it was steeply downhill on one of those roads where most people would get really nervous looking over the side. As the light was fading.

We stopped at 7 for dinner. Ten hours so far, and if the journey had ended then it would have been no big deal. And the road never got worse. It's just that it started to get cramped and tiring as each hour went past. I had kind of computed from when we passed all the vehicles that had started out from Khorog that morning that it would be about 15 hours total. It clocked in at just under 15 and a half.

Now it was 1 am and we were being disgorged by the tiny empty bus lot in Khorog. Where to stay??? The driver pointed out a hotel next to us, but it looked pretty funky. Fortunately an English speaking Khorog resident just happened to be standing around. He went with me up to the place, and we determined that a room without bath was $10. Problem was that it was one of those super thin mattresses, which would have destroyed my back far more than today's drive. What to do?

Fortunately the mattress was really wide, so that I could fold it in half. Then fold the super thick blanket on top of that. Then close the window to make sure the room stayed warm. Then put in my earplugs, put on my eyeshades, and hope I can sleep through the dawning.

Khiva & Out

Khiva & Out

Small border. Easy out, easy in. Except that the Uzbek Customs guy wanted to spend ten minutes playing with my netbook. In perfect passive aggressive form, Mark and David had snuck off without saying goodbye, presumably thinking that I'd be stuck in the middle of nowhere with nobody to translate Russian. But it was a quick taxi to the nearest town, a share taxi to the city of Nukus. another share taxi to the city of Urgench, then a final share taxi to the north gate of Khva. No more than a three minute wait at each stop, and I was probably there before they got to Nukus.

Khiva is the third jewel on the UZ tourist circuit. If Samarkand is Large and Bukhara is Medium, then Khiva is Small, a restored adobe sort of walled town from a couple of hundred years ago measuring only about 300 yards by 900 yards. The LP acted like the Soviets had restored it to a squeaky clean Disney version of itself, but hardly. The northern and southern sections were primitve, lived in, barely electrified, with cobblestone alleys. Most of the tourist sites were on the east/west axis, and consisted of some pretty basic adobe 'palaces' and medressas and minarets. The minarets looked somewhat like lighthouses, although lighthouses with intricate bands of blue/green and white tiles, were the main draw. That and the jumbled, closed in nature of the various light brown mud buildings and alleys, all penned in by the light brown mud city walls.

The Khivans, like the rest of the Uzbekis were pretty darn nice, and looked really guilty even in their mild attempts to overcharge the tourists. Strangely, what they mostly had to sell were cheap little manufactured trinkets and lady care items like bobby pins and lipstick. And lots and lots of nearly identical woolen socks and mittens which the women must knit all year. Unfortunately for them it was presently 92 degrees.

Unfortunately for me, there were lots and lots of busloads of retiree European tourists out too. Even more so than in Bukhara, probably because Khiva was so much smaller. Also, September is probably the big tourist month, because July & August are even hotter.

I had the opportunity to climb Uzbekistan's tallest minaret, but the prospect of 102 steps for 165 feet of height was way too much for my poor knees to contemplate. Ah, the diminishing horizons of age. Instead I went into the adjoining medressa, which was now a small museum. Really old looking wooden doors, etc., were labeled 'XX Century'. It was really something to realize that less than 100 years ago the Emir of Khiva was still carrying on in his craven barbaric ways. Then there were the 70 years of the Soviet Union. Now there was literally a busload of Belgian tourists parked outside.

Back out on the streets I was a little startled to hear somebody talking in an American accent to their guide. This was the first actual other individual American tourist that I had seen, so I stopped to say hello. He wasn't all that friendly. Somehow I always naively think that when you meet another traveler at the end of the world they will be overjoyed in having found someone else who shares their end of the world passion. But I have noted that a fair number seem to possess a sense of self importance and superiority from having gotten there, and that therefore they act annoyed and offended when they are reminded that they aren't all that unique.

Either that or they're just jerks. Who knows. Who cares.

And speaking of jerks, there I was in the hot afternoon strolling along the main dusty cobblestones downing a bottle of chai when who should I see but Mark and David. I mean, if you're going to be cowardly rude, you should at least be smart enough not to do it to somebody who you know that you'll have a fair chance of seeing the next day. I glared at them and they probably went back to their hotel room and hid for the next 24 hours.

Khiva was indeed really cute. But you can only walk back and forth on that east/west axis so many times, stopping so many times to admire all the rustic and exotic angles. So when the next morning at breakfast at my simple but adequate hotel a couple at the next table asked me if I wanted to share the cost of a car to Bukhara today, I said, how much? When I found out that my share would only be $5 more than the price of taking share taxis, but without any of the hassle, I said, what time?

By ten I had taken one last stroll around Khiva and my bag was packed and ready to go. The taxi pulled up to the hotel door and I and my two new friends climbed in.

John was Belgian and his girlfriend Judit was Hungarian. And they soon restored my faith in fellow travelers. The LP said that it was four and a half hours to Bukhara, but even with our own car it took seven, mostly through more light brown sandy flat monotonous desert with temperatures reaching 100. But we all had a great time trading travel stories and observations. Judit had even been to both Madagascar and Ethiopia, two of the last great unchecked off destinations on my list.

The driver took us right to the door of the hotel in Bukhara which I had stayed in a week before. Kamil was there to greet me, and offered me the same great rate, this time with free wifi. The others went off to a slightly cheaper place, but we met up again at 6:30, and I took them to La Bella Italia, where I had perhaps my last good meal until at least China.

The next morning Kamil had arranged for the same driver who had taken me to the TM border last week to show up at 8, and take me this time to the share taxi lot for points southeast. My goal for today was to make it to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. But it was unclear how, or whether or not, I would make it. The LP said that share taxis went directly to Denau, the UZ town near the border. David at Stantours had declared that I would first have to go all the way down to the creepy city of Termez, on the Afghan border, and then work my way back. I had decided to first try to get to Qarshi, about two hours away, and see what developed from that particular node on the map.

So when the share taxi driver at the Bukhara lot said that he could take me directly to Denau I was so delighted that I agreed to his price. It was only when I was in his car and on the way that I realized that I was paying him too much, and that he would just 'sell' me to another driver when we got to Qarshi. Which is what happened. Still, I was so glad not to have to be going to Termez that it was worth it.

We got to Denau around 2 and it was chaotic and hot. Needless to say, no one spoke English. And all the drivers acted like the border was still way far away. I could see that no other passengers were going there. So I finally agreed to $15. It turned out to be only about ten minutes away.

It was pretty dead at the border. No lines. But the UZ Customs guy decided that he wanted to look through every conceivable nook and cranny of my pack. Even though I was leaving the country. So I stood and waited while he probed, unzipped, felt up every piece of clothing, looked through every bottle of medicine, etc., etc. I don't think he was crooked and/or trying to entrap me; he was careful not to handle my money. And in the end of it all he had found my prescription bottle of Zolpiden, which was on his list of banned substances. But I was patient and told him repeatedly that the little brown bottle with the nice Walgreen's label meant that I was all legal, and finally he gave up and let me keep them.

Note to Self: When packing in future, put the friggin' Ambien in a bottle labeled Tylenol.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Turkmenistan a Bust

It was a 17 minute walk in the 98 degree sun at 9 in the morning from the Uzbekistan side to the Turkmen. A minute later the Brits came walking up. A minute later the minivan that no one had told us about followed. The Turkmen guards told us to wait for the minivan from their side. We did.

Our tour guide was waiting for us across an invisible line. When they let us cross it she helped with the rest of the entry process. And then we were on the road.

Today was the first day of school in Uzbekistan, and all the little girls were wearing identical blue and white dresses. It was also the first day of school in Turkmenistan, and all the little girls here were wearing identical green and white dresses. Otherwise it looked pretty much the same, pretty flat, the irrigated areas supporting crops and the rest of it sandy brown desert dirt with various weeds a'growin'.

After forty km or so we arrived at Turkmenabat, a city of around 150,000. More so than anywhere else so far this looked like a town straight out of the last years of the Soviet Union, except 20 more years of decrepitude. A strange mixture of nameless, faceless four story cement apartment blocks, occasional rundown grassy areas, and spread throughout it all railroad tracks, small cement plants and the like, and dormant or belching smokestacks. Since the Soviets idolized heavy industry as much as we idolize consumerism, it all makes a loopy kind of sense.

We slowly made our way through it and emerged on the other side. A few km more and Angela, our Armenian (who ended up stuck in TM after the breakup) guide directed the driver to pull over at a small restaurant. I had potatoes for lunch, along with old style Russian soda.

Then it was across much the same landscape for around 240 km. Joseph Stalin had had a vision of an irrigation ditch connecting the Oxus River with the Caspian Sea, and the 850 mile long Kara Kum canal was completed in the 50s. Now thanks to far sighted Joe most of what we were going through was cotton fields and the like. The dry area had now turned into flat, light brown sandy desert. Kind of like on the Arabian peninsula. Hardly inspiring.

After a few hours we pulled off the road to the site of the ancient city of Merv, in the Middle Ages one of the great cities of the world. But Jenghiz Khan leveled it to the ground around 1330, so now all it was was a site. With only a couple of foundations of buildings left. In 108 degree heat. Hardly inspiring. Angela said that last week it was really hot in Ashgabat. 135 degrees. 140 in the desert.

We got to the city of Mary, a virtual carbon copy of Turkmenabat, around 6. Our hotel was actually kind of a shabby motel next to a truck stop on the edge of town. Remember, I paid top dollar for this tour. At least the a/c worked when you got up on top of the tv stand to adjust it.

The restaurant downstairs was actually a very dark bar with very loud music and a few sundry prostitutes waiting for Iranian truckdrivers to show up. Angela took us across the street to a little place where the nice Turkmen lady made up plates and plates of vegetables for almost nothing.

The next morning we were over there again for breakfast. Then we started out on the 360 km drive to Ashgabat.

The road was technically paved, but it was so buckled by the heat and those Iranian trucks that we jounced uncomfortably the whole way. Around 3:30 we stopped at another totally forgettable ruin, and a few minutes later we turned the corner and beheld the capital city.

Even miles away the eyes were dazzled by all the sparkling white buildings being erected. The level of building was reminiscent of Dubai, although here the recession certainly hadn't been felt. TM sits on a huge supply of gas and oil, and it doesn't have many people to spend it on. We worked our way around to the south end of town.

A little background: Up until four years ago TM was ruled by a former Soviet bureaucrat who renamed himself Turkmenbashi the Great and set about trying to build a personality cult around himself. He renamed the months of the year after himself. He built a collossal 'Arch of Neutrality' with a 120 foot high golden statue of himself which rotated to always face the sun. He built this mile long strip of empty white marble hotels south of town called Berzengi. Any of the rest of the world which paid attention justifiably mocked it all.

Then he died. A successor with a name about 27 letters long took over. Turkmenbashi was no longer so great. In fact, we had just found out that last week they had taken down the golden statue, which is of course one of the main reasons you would want to come to TM.

But the building continued. In overdrive. Now Berzengi was dwarfed by giant marble buildings on the other side of the road. And giant marble government buildings and apartment buildings were finishing construction all the several miles back into town.

Our hotel was already tiny and faded. The room was okay, but hardly grand. My first order of business after settling in was to go out to the Turkmenbashi Tramway a few km away that went up the side of the brown dead mountains a few km away. Sorry, it was closed.

Okay, how about rustling up some food? The staff explained in pidgin English that there was a Turkish superarket that any cab could take me to. As in KZ or UZ you just stand out in the street and every third or fourth private car going by is cruising for fares.

When I entered the Yimpash Center it seemed like I was in the midst of a wondrous futuristic hypermarket. After a few minutes I realized that it wasn't that big or overly modern, it was that the commerce I had been in since Almaty had been so small and poor.

On the third floor was a large Turkish restaurant. After chancing upon a fluent English speaking Turkmen we concluded that the one thing I could eat was... pizza. Pretty damn good pizza, though.

The next morning was Saturday, so of course I wanted to head out bright and early to the giant Tulgushka Market, five miles north of town, and according to the LP one of the most amazing sights I would ever see. Unfortunately, whatever camel trading or old Turkmen jewelry trading that had ever gone on had been closed down by the authorities, and now all that was left was a gargantuan dusty lot of temporary flea market stalls selling toothbrushes and ladies' underwear. Still, it was interesting to look at all the shoppers, mostly women. In town about half were wearing Turkmen garb; here they almost all were. It consists of a long, floor length shift/dress made of cotton bedspread material, often complemented by a matching turban. Though not amazingly exotic, the look was still quite pleasant.

Then back to the Yimpash Center for lunch and internet. And then for a walk 'downtown' in the afternoon sun. It was only in the 90s, which was a hell of a lot more comfortable than the 100s. Oh yeah, and my allergies were horrible.

There was plenty of traffic zipping around, but I was about the only pedestrian, which made the following experience all the more surreal. Because all around me were what could only be described as giant marble government palaces, often domed in gold. It was kind of hard to know what to make of it.

TM has been described as 'Las Vegas meets North Korea', but that is unfair, since Las Vegas is far, far tackier. And the North Korea comparison is way off the mark. After all, the Soviets had a very good educational system that actually created sharp minds. Just about every apartment in the country gets satellite tv. The Turkmen cab drivers are blasting Eminem on their stereos. It's unlikely that a single Turkment bought the Turkmenbashi the Great bit for one minute. Every one I talked to thought the man to be totally insane.

It would be far more accurate to say that TM is 'former Soviet Republic meets Gulf Oil state'. Which is what it is. And in that context Ashgabat is far less jagged and chaotic than Dubai; it is far more pleasant than Kuwait. But as a Soviet Republic it was naturally attracted to broad meaningless roads and gigantic megalomaniac buildings. And of course there is virtually no commerce going on; outside of Yimpash it was hard to even find a Coke for sale.

Construction fences blocked most of the sidewalks, so I ducked inside one and walked along for about a quarter of a mile, nobody stopping me. Why is it, I wondered, that we always presume that dictators have atrocious taste? If you ever check out Hitler's water colors, you'll find that he was a half decent artist. If someone built one of Stalin's neo-Gothic skyscrapers today, they'd be hailed as a post-post-modernist genius.

So it was hard for me to judge the Presidential Palace, People's Hall, etc.,etc., that I was slowly strolling past. A little too much marble and gold for my taste perhaps, but you had to admit that there definitely was a unity of design here. If these buildings were being put up in Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi--and very similar ones are--nobody would be describing them as the result of a power mad fool.

When I got to the Ministry of Defense building a soldier made sure that I didn't take pictures. But they do that in just about every Third World country. Across the street was the Orwellian named Ministry of Fairness, but the statue in front was the same as in front of any Ministry of Justice anywhere.

Which made me start thinking, 'Who's being Orwellian here?' Any other country, the Western press would have translated it into "ministry of Justice', but somehow the story line has stuck that this is a horrilbe police state.

But nobody had looked over their shoulder when talking to me. Nobody had looked or acted any different than people anywhere else. Nobody had stopped me from clicking away at all the other sights. They had asked for a passport or identity card when I had used the internet at Yimposh, but for all I knew that was so that people didn't go away without paying.

It's true that they don't allow political parties. But what good are political parties doing for us in the US these days? Anyway, I judge a police state by how scared people are that the police will catch them without their seat belts on. And in that regard TM beats US hands down. Not to mention that the US has by far the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. Or try to write 'Osama bin Laden' 100 times in an email and see what happens.

Anyway, I was walking for block after long block past one monumental building after another, and I was getting tired of it. I went past the naked Arch of Neutrality, now covered in scaffolding as they were dismantling it. At its base was a free museum about the 1948 earthquake which killed 200,000 people here. But it was closed and empty. I walked a couple of more blocks to where the Museum of Turkmen Weaving held the world's largest handwoven carpet. But it was closed and empty. I gave up and headed back to the hotel. .Turkmenistan a Bust

On Sunday we were supposed to leave at around 1, so that left only the morning. I would have liked to go to the 18 km long set of steps that Turkmnbashi had carved into the side of the mountain, but the LP never said what it was called or where it was. So instead I opted for a trip to the national museum.

It was only less than a mile away, here in Beshengi, amongst the line of buildings on the other side of the ultra wide highway that bisected the district. At first I walked into the wrong monumental building, which turned out to be the national theater/opera house. A guy took it upon himself to show me the stage, dressing rooms, etc..

The national museum next door was humungously humungous, with the plaza in front of it at least an eighth of a mile wide. I went to the ticket window. It was $30 to see the museum, a third of which was devoted to gifts given to Turkmenbashi. Plus $20 if I wanted to take pictures. I passed.

I went back out to the base of the flagpole which held the world's largest flag flapping above me and looked at the colossal museum, which was probably bigger than the National Museum of Greece and the Cairo Museum combined. And the Turkmen had been a nomadic people with no real history!

It dawned on me that this was no Police State. This was an Idiot State. Why lavish all this expense to show yourself off and then price it so that nobody would ever want to see it??? And all the buildings around me: Dubai had been founded on the premise of 'Build it and they will come'. But Turkmenistan doesn't want anyone to come. And there's absolutely no way they will be able to use all these hundreds of marble monstrosities. I walked back to the hotel.

Where I was informed that Ilyas, our new guide, wouldn't be coming until 3. The sand would be too hot until then. But wouldn't the sand be too hot every day? What's the use. Even though I wasn't all that hungry, I went back to the Turkish supermarket complex to have a last meal.

At 3 we started out. Same boring desert, only now with even fewer weeds. If only there were someone interesting to talk to. For Mark and David, my traveling companions, had shown themselves to be quintessential passive aggressive British twits. Unfailingly polite but never friendly. David in particular was constantly annoying. All of 25, and with a newly minted Master's degree in Economics, he would sit there and didactically pontificate, coming up with such gems as, 'Only rich people benefit from National Health', and 'The poor invest just as much money as the rich'.

So we're going along and Ilyas, a former English and History teacher, had asked me a question, which I was endeavoring to answer. In the middle of my reply David interrupted to announce that I was totally wrong. Up to now I had been doing my best to be unfailingly polite, but I finally snapped. 'Have you ever had a single experience in actually buying or selling any kind of anything in any actual real marketplace!?' Silence.

It was kind of depressing to realize that we in the West had done far better than the Soviets in coming up with a generation of brainwashed atheists. Plus it had never even occurred to the Bolsheviks to include total self absorption.

Some actual sand dunes briefly appeared. Then a woebegone settlement of former nomads where we stopped for three minutes to take pictures. A bunch of camels and motorbikes up against rundown yurts and wooden shacks.

Then the Darvasa gas crater. It was only 7 km off the road, on a dirt track that a passenger car probably could make. All the breathless reports that I had read made it seem that an enormous flame would be shooting 200 feet into the air. Uh uh. There was only a tiny faint glow below the surface of the crater as we reached it in twilight.

Mark and David acted helpful and unoffended as we were setting up camp. Looking around me I realized that this was one of the most unexciting deserts that I had seen. Dull grey brown. Almost flat surface. As the sky darkened the glow from the crater got a little brighter.

When we had eaten and it was fully dark I walked down to the crater. Here's what it was: About 100 yards across, it had straight walls that went down about twenty feet, then a talus of rocks which made an inverted cone which came to an almost point about 200 feet down Amongst all the rocks were hundreds of places where natural gas was seeping out. On fire. Most of the flames were about 10 feet high. A few were 20 or 30 feet high. Sort of impressive if you weren't expecting something impressive.

I went to the edge to look down into it. Then I circled the pit in the silent darkness. Kind of neat. When I got to my tent I realized that I hadn't slept on the ground for many, many years. And once I tried it my bones were, uh, not happy campers. But I hit upon the idea of taking twice as many sleeping pills as usual, and soon I was dead to the world.

In the morning it was back to the road and north across the stinking desert. To the city of Konye-Urgench. Or rather the faint traces of remains of ruins on the outskirts of said city. It seems that in the Middle Ages Konye-Urgench had been right up there with Merv. And that Jenghiz Khan totally flattened it just like Merv. So that now there were a few mauseleums and the remains of the world's tallest minaret scattered across the wasteland.

Sad to say, but Medieval mausaleums and minarets were all starting to look the same.

There were two possible exit points from Turkmenistan, Dashogus and Konye-Urgench. Dashogus would have been a lot more convenient for Khiva, but Mark and David decided that they preferred the one here. So my time in TM was at an end.

Like the Galapagos, Turkmenistan had turned out to be somewhat interesting, but hardly worth the money. What's more, most of the fun/bizarre sights for which I had come had been closed down. And even most of the police state controls had been dismantled. All that was left was the building spree at Ashgabat and the miles and miles of empty light brown dirt and weed desert.

Like I said, kind of a disappointment. But now that I've done it, at least you don't have to.