The Archipelago. Then home.

I returned to Stockholm on the ferry that evening and, after 10 months on the road, met my family at the train station. They had just flown in from the UK and we spent the following week sailing the Stockholm archipalago.

The archipalago is an amazing colleciton of tens of thousands of islands, within easy reach of the city. For this section of the journey I was happy to take a back seat just enjoying the food, scenery and company. It’s very relaxing to let someone else make the arrangements.

Back to the UK

Finally it was time to return home. I was travelling by train from Stockholm in the true spirit of overland travel (ok – so I did take a few flights during my trip).

First I took a daytime train to Copenhagen where I had a couple of hours for some tickbox sightseeing. Then on to a night train to Cologne. I arrived in Cologne in the early hours with just enough time to grab a look at the impressive cathedral (fortunately very close to the train station) before boarding a high-speed train to Belgium. I had breakfast in Belgium (most people seemed to have started on the beer).

There was one final incident as I boarded the Eurostar to London. I had bought a knife in Kashgar, months earlier, which was in my luggage. Predictably it set off the security scanner.

I was reluctant to lose it. The humourless Belgian guard was quite incident he would confiscate it. We had a a stand-off which led to him calling the police and threatening to have me arrested.

Then, as the police were apparently on their way, a driver showed up at security. He asked what time I was leaving and it turned out he would be driving my train.

“No problem” he said, “I’ll take the knife with me in the cab and give it to you in London”.

And that was it. That final act of kindness ended a trip where I had been on the receiving end of hundreds of tiny acts of kindness.

Homes shared, seats sacrificed, translations made, advice offered, routes recommended, rations divided. There is nothing like travelling to remind you of the fundamental decency common to virtually every person, in every country in the world.

Taking a Cruise

Having arrived from Riga in the morning, I only had a few hours to see Stockholm before setting off again. It turned out that it was Sweden’s National Day that day which meant the city had turned a little dysfunctional. Cancelled buses, clogged streets and lots of flag-waving – not what you expect from the efficient Swedes. Still the atmosphere was good.

In the afternoon I, slightly embarrassingly, boarded a “cruise” to Helsinki. I’m not generally the cruise sort, and it hardly seems the backpacking spirit, but I had a good excuse. Scandinavia is absurdly expensive – £6 for a sandwich is common and hostels start at £20/night – but for some reason a two-night cruise to Helsinki costs just £40 (actually £40 gets you a cabin for up to four people). Suddenly I don’t look like such a hypocrite.

Helsinki

The cruise left me in Helsinki for just over seven hours, enough time to have a look around and get a decent impression. The place surprised me. I had anticipated ultra-modern steel, glass, and wood buildings, efficient public transport and cafés full of latte-sipping architects. Instead my first impression was of a slightly Russified city. Bland streets, antiquated trams and dour residents.

I’m not the first person to notice the Finn’s are a little gloomy and who can blame them, given the long, dark winters. I got my haircut there by an Albanian woman who enjoyed having someone she could moan about the place to. “No one talks here. Maybe at the weekend, when they drink too much, they shout, but other days they are silent.” In Riga I had met a British PhD student studying in Helsinki and he told a story to illustrate the national psyche:

A tourist is invited by a Finnish man to come and drink vodka with him. The tourist accepts, not wanting to miss out on a cultural experience, and as they raise their glasses he proposes a toast. “To Finland” he says politely. The Finnish man turns and looks at him disdainfully. “Are we talking or are we drinking?”

If this all sounds a bit depressing then I’ve got good news. Things took a turn for the better. I found some spectacular architecture, worthy of Helsinki’s claim to be a design capital, and most importantly the sun came out and with it so did the smiles. The Finn’s really know how to embrace good weather. Soon heavy metal was blaring out from some distant venue, a folk concert kicked off in the market square and the cafés became heaving with coffee and vodka drinkers. You’ve never seen so many sunbathers in fourteen degree temperatures! There was also some fantastic street food on offer in the harbour – mostly too expensive to buy but I sampled everything from Lapland salmon to Russian venison.

Finland is not somewhere I would like to live. The long, dark winters just sound too depressing. However I hadn’t appreciated what an interesting place it makes to visit. The culture is some sort of intersection of Russia and European with that unique Nordic twist. It’s definitely very different to Norway or Sweden. And when the sun’s out Helsinki is just plain nice. I think it’s a place that’s worth going back to.

A Baltic Loop

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks in Latvia and Lithuania, just soaking up the culture and enjoying the good life. There’s no point me talking too much about them because what I find endlessly suprising is just how European they are. Only traces of the Soviet days remains and in outlook they are a million miles from those days. In fact now there seems to be a real drive to associate themselves with Scandinavia, no doubt hoping that the arc of prosperity will spread to cover the entirety of Northern Europe.

I flew into Riga and spent a few days there before heading to the nearby beach at Jurmala. Unfortunately the weather turned just after I arrived and I had to give up on the idea of lazy days on the sand.

Instead I carried on down to Vilnius, the only Baltic capital I had yet to see. Vilnius is pretty nice with a large old town and lots of nice cafés and restaurants. It’s also amazingly green, something you only really notice if you look from above. I watched Eurovision in Vilnius with a couple of Lithuanians which was fun but slightly embarrassing. I had a choice between claiming to be Irish and being associated with Jedward or claiming to be British and coming next to last.

Having only really visited the Baltic capitals, which are hard to pull yourself away from because they are so nice, I thought it was time to take in a different city. I took a bus west to Klaipeda on the coast. It’s a pleasant enough city but a bit less done-up and slightly lacking in life after 10 p.m. on a weekday.

Finally a bus took me back to Riga, completing my loop. A few more days in Riga and then on to a ferry bound for Stockholm (which is where I am currently writing this). Remarkably it’s just past midnight, I’m sitting out on deck and I can still see remnants of the sunset. The advantages of the north.

The State of Asia

Today I’m going to deviate from my typical post and instead take a look at the state of Asia. It’s a broad topic but having just spent 262 days there, now seems like a good time to do it. Just don’t expect anything too profound.

To start here’s a graph. “A graph? On a travel blog?” I hear you say, but bear with me. It’s a good graph.

Logarithmic GDPs

It’s a log plot of GDP against time for some of the key countries I have visited, along with figures for the US, South Korea and Brazil for comparison. Specifically it plots inflation-adjusted, PPP (purchasing power parity) GDP per capita which means comparisons are meaningful. Far too often these sorts of graphs use dodgy statistics invalidating any conclusions drawn.

So what does it show us and how can I relate it to my experiences? Well starting from the top you see the “decline” of the US – or more correctly the rise of the rest. Note I’m using the US to represent much of the developed world. Then you see how impressively South Korea has done over the past half-century. It’s a real success story.

Moving further down you also find success in some former Communist states; Poland, Russia and Kazakhstan. The energy I felt in these places seems to back up the graph. It’s not unadulterated success (Russia’s a bit up and down) but they’re not doing half-bad. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia follow a similar trend to Poland.

I included Brazil as one of the BRIC countries and it’s interesting to note how stagnant things have been since 1980. The economy has grown but inflation has kept pace. This means that it’s global economic power has risen but the average Brazilian hasn’t seen much increase in wealth at home. Talking of BRIC countries it’s funny to note just how differently all their economies have behaved. Perhaps a warning to avoid lumping them together too much.

At the bottom of the graph you have a slightly sad group. Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and to a lesser extent India. They’re growing but slowly and from a very low base. Pakistan is not a surprise given the instability (but note how recently it was ahead of India), the same for Kyrgyzstan and any trip to India shows some dynamism but a lot of poverty.

However I was surprised to see Uzbekistan down with Kyrgyzstan. My experience crossing the border was a palpable increase in prosperity – construction work, new businesses and better infrastructure – so I’m not quite sure what is going on. It could be a problem with the statistics but I reckon it’s more likely that the Uzbek glitz hides deeper problems. The authoritarian government has clearly ploughed money into vanity projects (and some worthwhile infrastructure) which probably distorts a tourist’s impression.

An example. Just before I arrived a new Spanish-built high-speed train had started running the Tashkent to Samarkand route. I saw it sitting in a station and it certainly looked very modern. Tourist’s will love it but any comparison to China’s high-speed network is false. It’s a single train and was fairly empty. Less a sign of a dynamic economy than of a government trying to grab positive headlines. In comparison China has built a vast new network and, despite criticism of high-fares, it is consistently bustling. That network is clearly trying to keep up with a country on the move.

Which conveniently brings me to China’s line, which also is on the move. Upwards and fast. Perhaps only a little faster than South Korea but what is extraordinary is that this is a country of nearly 1.5 billion people. China’s rise really is astounding.

Of course there’s more to life than GDP. It tends to follow progress in healthcare and life expectancy fairly well but there’s little correlation with protection of human rights, media diversity or political freedom. There’s a lot to be concerned about in China.

And people around the world are concerned. China is huge, increasingly rich, a massively important trading partner for the West and it owns huge amounts of foreign debt and assets. I met a Londoner in Laos who had just read the story about China buying a stake in Thames water and there was genuine worry in his voice as he talked about it. “They’re buying our utilities, they’re buying our property, they make our products and they’re twenty times our size. They own us. How long before they’re imposing their politics on us, rather than us imposing democracy on others?”

An extreme view but probably not too far from typical. Who hasn’t felt the slightest hesitation hearing the latest growth figure from China. It’s great for poor people to be lifted out of poverty but don’t we want a superpower who shares our values?

Ideally but we shouldn’t worry so much. The fear comes from two factors. First the Chinese government is pretty unpleasant and second it’s a huge, and hence powerful, country. To the first point I would say it’s not great but there are plenty of worse governments out there. It’s not democratic and there’s little political freedom but at least there is freedom of thought and in the World Democracy Audit it is ranked number 56 for corruption, ahead of Greece and the vast majority of the developing world. It also doesn’t have a lunatic leading it, living standards are going up rapidly and it is generally pretty passive in foreign policy.

Uzbekistan, on the other hand, seems to have a much worse government. According to the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, President Karimov was boiling opposition figures alive in 2002. But we don’t worry so much about Uzbekistan because it’s relatively small. We could sanction or even bomb it with very little impact to our own comfortable lives. China’s size scares us.

Take a look at this next graph. The previous graph was a log plot of GDPs whereas this one is linear. That means it takes up an unreasonable amount of space, making it a rare sight, but I think it helps to clear up some confusion about quite how close China is to eclipsing Western economic might.

Linear GDPs

China looks a long way behind now doesn’t it? Even looking at total GDP (to some extent a better measure of global economic power) shows it with an economy around a third the size of the US’s and less than a third the size of the EU’s. Looking at other statistics makes the difference even clearer. The West owns far more of China’s assets than China owns of ours. China’s manufacturing industry is far more reliant on us than we are on China’s manufacturing. And China barely registers when you compare military power.

So let’s relax for a second. There’s a lot that could improve with the Chinese government but compared to many other countries it’s not that bad. And it’s very big but not about to eclipse Western power. Most importantly though from 1981 to 2004 around 500 million Chinese were lifted out of poverty. Once in a while can’t we just be thankful for that?

From Asia to Europe

I took a wonderfully old-fashioned 18-hour train back from Khiva (or rather nearby Urgench) to Tashkent. Just after setting off I noticed our carriage attendant smashing a piece of wood at the end of the train with a huge wrench. I wondered if he might have gone a bit haywire and stayed well away but a few minutes later the explanation presented itself. He had been breaking it into kindling to feed into the carriage boiler. Very retro.

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The rear of the train coming round a bend.

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Our very wooden carriage.

The train drew into Tashkent the next morning and I checked into the Gulnara guesthouse. I had stayed the night here when passing through Tashkent before and it was a lovely place with rooms set around a sunny courtyard. Tashkent was noticeably colder – barely 30°C – which made sitting outside quite pleasant.

Tashkent is one of those transit cities that everyone ends up in but you’re not supposed to like. However I found it to be quite nice. It may lack in wondrous sights compared to Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand but it’s much more lively. If I was choosing an Uzbek city to live in I would go for Tashkent.

My one bugbear was the traffic. It’s not particularly heavy but seems even more pedestrian-hostile than the normally pedestrian-hostile Central Asian traffic. A green man means nothing when crossing the road but worse is the fact that if there is a car in sight as you cross they will do their best to mow you down. This may mean accelerating and swerving onto the wrong side of the road, horn blaring. I really don’t understand it and it makes walking quite unpleasant.

However long walks aren’t usually necessary because the metro, the only one in Central Asia until Almaty’s opened last December, is convenient and also interesting. Planning for it begun following an earthquake which destroyed most of Tashkent in the sixties and each of the ornate station follows a different theme. Unfortunately it is classified as a military installation (stations double up as nuclear shelters) so taking photos is strictly prohibited.

Kosmonavtlar Metro Station

Forbidden photo of Kosmonavtlar Metro Station. Every station has a different design, ranging from grand to futuristic.

After a couple of days in Tashkent it was time to take a flight to Latvia. My original plan had been to overland it back to Europe but I had problems getting an Iranian visa. The flight was cheap but the timing was about as bad as it gets. We left Tashkent at 02:50 and landed in Riga at 06:10 local time. I tried to catch some sleep on board but the seat was absurdly cramped and the turbulence near continuous. Still it wasn’t so bad and I checked straight into a nice hostel on arrival.

It’s going to take some getting used to being back in Europe. Everything’s very different. Transport runs to a schedule, there’s no black-market currency exchange, police tend to be honest, shops are well-stocked, the internet works and cars don’t swerve to hit pedestrians.

Very odd.

The Silk Road Cities

Honestly, I was disappointed by Uzbekistan’s historic silk-road cities, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Visiting them was kind of like watching the film after reading the book.

For me the book had mostly been The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. This beautifully described the cities with their barbaric leaders, teeming streets and fabulous Islamic buildings. Places where British agents had been executed and Russian invaders had been turned back. Untamed cities that formed the core of the silk road. No wonder I was keen to visit.

Of course I knew things would be very different now – after all the Russians had finally taken control – but recent photos of dazzling blue domes and stories of extensive restoration had me hoping that there was plenty intact. Lonely Planet warned that Khiva had been so done-up that it could feel like a city-museum but naively I read that as a sign that it was all there, preserved.

In a sense it is, but a city is more than its buildings. Restoration and “beautification” efforts have wrenched the souls from Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara. Don’t expect horse-carts to be thundering down the streets but also don’t expect lively tourist restaurants or cheesy street performers. Often, particularly in the evenings, the streets just feel dead. Barren.

President Karimov doesn’t like chaos and I think he must see street-life as chaotic. There’s a pedestrianised area in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, known as Broadway. Some years ago it used to be a lively spot with restaurants and bars spilling onto a street filled with souvenir-stalls and musicians. Then in September 2006 Karimov visited. Two days later police came in, evicted all the vendors and cleared the area. Lonely Planet now describes it as the “world’s most boring pedestrian avenue.”

Travel to Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara is dominated by (mostly French) tour-groups. As they shuttle between their hotels and overpriced restaurants they add little to the atmosphere. Worse, because things are so focussed around them, it can be difficult to find anywhere to eat except the tour-group restaurants. Woe betide you arrive after their official dinner time; your chances of being served the mediocre food drop considerably.

Right, moaning over. Karimov may have provided a textbook example of how not to preserve ancient cities but they are still ancient cities and interesting or atmospheric remnants remain. Also some of the overly restored Islamic architecture may look like it was built yesterday but a Medressa can be elegant or impressive no matter how old. So here are the good bits, city by city.

Samarkand

From Fergana I went up to Tashkent, stayed a night there and then took the very comfortable morning train to Samarkand where I checked in to the fantatic Bahodir B&B. Just $7 (£4.43) for a dorm room with breakfast in an atmospheric old home a couple hundred metres from the historic centre. The shared bathroom was a highlight. Descending a few steps into a cave-like room, a blast of heat hit you. Flickering flames from the gas boiler were amplified a hundred times as they shone off the damp stone walls. There would be a scuttling sound as cockroaches scurried away from the few rays of sunlight you had allowed to enter their den. It felt like walking through the gates of hell.

The sights in Samarkand are very distinct; little islands of history poking into the smart Russified city. Most impressive is the Registan, medieval Samarkand’s historic centre. Around a large plaza are three vast medressas, apparently some of world’s oldest. They have been extensively restored but no matter because the architecture is impressive, not just the history. If they were built in London today they would still draw a crowd.

The Registan with Ulugbek Medressa (Left) and Tilla-Kari Medressa (Right)

The Registan with Ulugbek Medressa (left) and Tilla-Kari Medressa (right).

Blue Dome at Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa

Tilla-Kari Medressa’s blue-tiled dome. The Soviets controversially added it during the “restoration” process but I think it looks quite good.

Inside Tilla-Kari's very golden mosque.

Inside Tilla-Kari’s very golden mosque.

Tilla-Kari Medressa.

Tilla-Kari Medressa.

Sher Dor Medressa.

Sher Dor Medressa.

Restoration work underway at Sher Dor Medressa.

Restoration work underway at Sher Dor Medressa.

Flouting Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of live animals, the entrance to Sher Dor Medressa is decorated with what are supposed to be lions (despite looking like tigers).

Flouting Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of live animals, the entrance to Sher Dor Medressa is decorated with what are supposed to be lions (despite looking like tigers).

Inside Sher Dor Medressa.

Inside Sher Dor Medressa.

Other notable sights include the huge, but mostly earthquake destroyed, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and the Shah-I-Zinda, an avenue of mausoleums. This contains the grave of a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed and some fantastic remnants of unrestored interior tilework.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, viewed from the outside.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, viewed from the outside.

Inside the earthquake damaged Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Inside the earthquake damaged Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque against an increasingly dark sky. A thunderstorm started a few minutes later.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque against an increasingly dark sky. A thunderstorm started a few minutes later.

Inside the Shah-I-Zinda's most impressive sight - Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum with its unrestored tile work.

Inside the Shah-I-Zinda’s most impressive sight – Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum with its unrestored tile work.

It's not all mosques, mausoleums and medrassas. Here a woman sells cattle hooves at the market.

It’s not all mosques, mausoleums and medrassas. Here a woman sells cattle hooves at the market.

To the Afghan Border

To break up my tour of the old cities I headed south from Samarkand to Termez, on the Afghan border. On the way I stopped for a night in Shakhrisabz.

Finding a hotel in Shakhrisabz was a nightmare. There were two reasonable options recommended in Lonely Planet but one was clsoed and the other didn’t seem to exist. If I asked anyone for help they would put me in a marshrutka to a $45/night option despite me insisting I was looking for somewhere cheap. One marshrutka driver finally understood what I was after but, despite driving round town for an hour, he couldn’t find any affordable option. I thanked him for trying and made to get out but he wasn’t having any of it.

“We are friends” he said. “I help you.”

Fine by me but there really didn’t seem to be any cheap hotels so he decided to invite me to stay in his home. We dropped my bags with his bemused mother and carried on marshrutka driving for an hour or so, I think less to make money and more so he could show off his new friend. Then a chicken dinner in a roadside restaurant followed by a race around town in his van. “Michael Schumacher!” he kept shouting as we careered round blind corners and dodged potholes in what was now thundering rain. Thankfully we survived and the next bit of high-speed driving was decidedly safer; we met some of his friends at a gaming stall where I handily won an Xbox race around the streets of San Francisco. They were all so wowed by my lucky success that we had to celebrate with some beers in a local shop. Finally at around midnight we returned to his house and bemused mother and hit the hay. An odd night.

In the morning I saw a couple of Shakhrisabz’s sights. Shakhrisabz was actually Timur’s hometown so as well as a monument to him there were some impressive ruins. Most notable the crumbling remains of his summer palace.

Timur's statue looks over town.

Timur’s statue looks over town.

The remains of Timur's summer palace.

The remains of Timur’s summer palace.

Later that day I carried on down to Termez. It was a long and bumpy, although often scenic, drive. Interestingly most of the trucks down here were run by Willi Betz – a German company with a NATO contract to supply soldiers in Afghanistan. This actually links nicely to current news. As we all know the NATO attack on Pakistani forces late last year prompted Pakistan to close America’s Afghan supply lines running via Karachi. For some time the US had been trying to reduce dependance on Pakistan by developing the more complicated Northern Distribution Network (see The Northern Distribution Network and the Modern Silk Road (PDF) for an interesting discussion of this) – routes run into Central Asia either from the Riga (Latvia) or Poti (Georgia) and Termez is the main crossing point into Afghanistan. With the Pakistani closure the switch to these routes became more urgent and Termez has taken on huge strategic importance, a throwback to the eighties when the Soviet’s used it as the major base for their Afghan war. Funnily enough the Northern Distribution Network uses the railways built to supply that war.

In Termez I hit very lucky with my hotel, getting a large air-conditioned room with private bathroom for 8000 UZS (£1.75) per night. The air-conditioning was much appreciated given Termez is the hottest point in a generally warm Uzbekistan – temperatures were consistently in the high thirties.

Lonely Planet had described Termez as a bit of a wild-west town with its paranoid police and Luftwaffe base. In fact it was quite a pleasant place although everyone did assume I was German. Unfortunately I was there on a Sunday so the apparently fantastic archeology museum was closed. Instead I took a stroll to the Afghan border, managing to catch a faint glimpse of the other side under the watchful eye of some soldiers. As I had dinner outside in the evening I could hear various rumbles and bangs in the distance. Hopefully this was a mixture of thunder and fireworks rather than something more lethal.

Through the central gate and over the river is a barely visible Afghanistan. I was able to get a little closer in person but the soldiers weren't keen on me taking photos.

Through the central gate and over the river is a barely visible Afghanistan. I was able to get a little closer in person but the soldiers weren’t keen on me taking photos.

"McDonalds" in Termiz (perhaps to make the NATO soldiers feel at home).

“McDonalds” in Termiz (perhaps to make the NATO soldiers feel at home).

Long queues at the CNG station. My shared taxi north from Termiz had to wait an hour to refuel. I'm guessing that CNG is very cheap because huge numbers of cars have converted to it, often in a dangerously shoddy way. The refuelling station seemed so concerned about safety that passengers had to leave cars and stand some distance away whilst they were topped up.

Long queues at the CNG station. My shared taxi north from Termiz had to wait an hour to refuel. I’m guessing that CNG is very cheap because huge numbers of cars have converted to it, often in a dangerously shoddy way. The refuelling station seemed so concerned about safety that passengers had to leave cars and stand some distance away whilst they were topped up.

You may wonder what a train is doing on a hilltop north of Termez. So did I. Fortunately I managed to find the answer - apparently it marks the highest point on Uzbekistan's railway network.

You may wonder what a train is doing on a hilltop north of Termez. So did I. Fortunately I managed to find the answer – apparently it marks the highest point on Uzbekistan’s railway network.

The road north from Termiz with a fuel tanker, probably headed for Afghanistan, coming the other way.

The road north from Termiz with a fuel tanker, probably headed for Afghanistan, coming the other way.

Bukhara

Having had my fun it was time to continue to Bukhara. First over the mountains to Karshi. We were delayed at a road block by policeman who insisted there was a problem with our driver’s papers so by the time we arrived in Karshi it was getting dark and I was doubtful of my chances of reaching Bukhara that day. However I think my driver must have phoned ahead because we were met by a car heading that way. The two hours to Bukhara were spectacular. The desert sunset was broken up only by the sight of the odd roaming camel or the glow from a flaming gas tower.

Bukhara is full of the same sort of sights as Samarkand, but it feels a little more like a continuous old town. There’s a nice ancient pool in the centre with music and fountains although the mediocre restaurant here seemed to be the only eating option. One rarity is that there is still a working medressa. You can’t go in but there’s a metal grating where you can join crowds of tourists peering through at the students going about their lives. It makes a change from seeing student cells filled with souvenir stalls.

Maghoki-Attar, Central Asia's oldest mosque. There's a mixture of 9th century facade and 16th century reconstruction. Apparently it's built on top of even older Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples and was once used by Jews in the evenings.

Maghoki-Attar, Central Asia’s oldest mosque. There’s a mixture of 9th century facade and 16th century reconstruction. Apparently it’s built on top of even older Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples and was once used by Jews in the evenings.

The unrestored tilework of the Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa.

The unrestored tilework of the Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa.

The Kalon Minaret - apparently so tall that a mystified Genghis Khan ordered it to be spared. It was probably once Central Asia's tallest building.

The Kalon Minaret – apparently so tall that a mystified Genghis Khan ordered it to be spared. It was probably once Central Asia’s tallest building.

The Kalon Mosque, big enough for 10,000 people.

The Kalon Mosque, large enough for 10,000 people.

Students in the working Mir-i-Arab Medressa.

Students in the working Mir-i-Arab Medressa.

Entrance to the Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar at night.

Entrance to the Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar at night.

Mir-i-Arab Medressa.

Mir-i-Arab Medressa.

Looking out from Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar.

Looking out from Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar.

Khiva

My final historic city was Khiva, a very comfortable night train ride from Bukhara. Khiva probably has the least wow factor but the most atmosphere. The medressas are a bit less massive and the minarets aren’t so tall but almost the whole of the old walled inner-city – including the mud walls – is intact. Not only that but if you walk to the north side you can actually find real local residents living in old, slightly collapsing houses. Of course most of the rest of the town is occupied by souvenir stalls but at night everything gets packed away and the place takes on an eery starlit feel. It feels a bit like walking around a deserted museum but that’s not such a bad thing.

Kids play football in front of the Ark. Local life is far more visible in the historic parts of Khiva than in Samarkand or Bukhara.

Kids play football in front of the Ark. Local life is far more visible in the historic parts of Khiva than in Samarkand or Bukhara.

A residential street in the north of the old city.

A residential street in the north of the old city.

Women collect mulberries. They kindly gave me a few.

Women collect mulberries. They kindly gave me a few.

The problem with building in mud.

The problem with building in mud.

Silhouetted city walls at dusk.

Silhouetted city walls at dusk.

The open-air summer mosque in Kuhna Ark.

The open-air summer mosque in Kuhna Ark.

Stairs to Oq Shihbobo Bastion for views over the city.

Stairs to Oq Shihbobo Bastion for views over the city.

Panoramic view of Khiva from Oq Shihbobo Bastion.

Panoramic view of Khiva from Oq Shihbobo Bastion.

The main architectural sights from up high.

The main architectural sights from up high.

The music "museum". Most of the museum's were laughably bad, mainly consisting of unlabelled models or photos.

The music “museum”. Most of the museum’s were laughably bad, mainly consisting of unlabelled models or photos.

The Juma Mosque supported by 218 wooden columns, a few of which are 10th century originals.

The Juma Mosque supported by 218 wooden columns, a few of which are 10th century originals.

A street between medressas in the inner-walled city.

A street between medressas in the inner-walled city.

Alloquli Khan Medressa.

Alloquli Khan Medressa.

Kalta Minor Minaret. This unfinished minaret was begun in 1851 by Mohammed Amin Khan, who according to legend wanted to build a minaret so tall it could be seen from Bukhara (about 400 kilometres away). He dropped dead before engineering got in the way of his vision and it was left unfinished and rather squat.

Kalta Minor Minaret. This unfinished minaret was begun in 1851 by Mohammed Amin Khan, who according to legend wanted to build a minaret so tall it could be seen from Bukhara (about 400 kilometres away). He dropped dead before engineering got in the way of his vision and it was left unfinished and rather squat.

A tower in the south-west of the city on a starry night.

A tower in the south-west of the city on a starry night.

So to summarise Samarkand has the most impressive sights but is fundamentally a typical Russian city, Khiva has the most atmosphere but fewer spectacular buildings and Bukhara is a bit of a jack of all trades. My favourite was Khiva.

Margilon: Making Silk for the Silk Road

A ridiculously cheap (2000 UZS; £0.44) 2-hour bus took me from Andijon to the liberal city of Fergana. I spent three nights at a friendly homestay there, but was mostly using the city as a base from which to commute to nearby Margilon. Fergana is relaxing and a good place to eat but lacks in sights whereas Margilon has a couple of must-sees.

An Uzbek policeman stands guard at Fergana bus station. The police have such a reputation for corruption that it pays to stay well clear of them. Alternatively I found that if you want them to stay clear of you, you just need to point a camera in their direction.

An Uzbek policeman stands guard at Fergana bus station. The police have such a reputation for corruption that it pays to stay well clear of them. Alternatively I found that if you want them to stay clear of you, you just need to point a camera in their direction.

£0.70's worth of shashlik and beer. It may look nice but you get pretty sick of the same meat and bread diet after a few weeks here.

£0.70’s worth of shashlik and beer. It may look nice but you get pretty sick of the same meat and bread diet after a few weeks here.

I almost missed my first Margilon sight, the huge Sunday bazaar. I had been having too relaxed a morning and by the time I had taken a slow bus then a marshrutka to the market it was nearly 15:00 and a lot was being packed away, the traders heading home in their overloaded Ladas. Fortunately the market really is huge and across the road was another section, mostly selling food but pretty interesting. Also strawberries were absurdly cheap which is always a good thing; I binged on a lunch of strawberries and naan.

Traders at the Margilon Sunday market.

Traders at the Margilon Sunday market.

A Sunday market drink stall.

A Sunday market drink stall.

Seeds for sale.

Seeds for sale.

Butcher's stall.

Butcher’s stall.

Vegetables for sale.

Vegetables for sale.

A heavily laden car heads home.

A heavily laden car heads home.

The next day I almost missed my second Margilon sight and the real must-see; the Yodgorlik Silk Factory. Lonely Planet had gushing praise for the unique and free tour around this traditional silk factory but forgot to explain where it was. I assumed this meant the location would be obvious but after looking around the centre for a while I was no closer to finding it. I asked a local teenager.

“Ah. Yodgorlik. Yes, yes.” He gestured for me to follow him to the other side of the road where we flagged down a marshrutka.

“Yodgorlik” he told the driver and bundled me in. We drove south five kilometres and the driver, refusing to take any money, told me to get out and head across the small park. “Yodgorlik” he reassured me.

I looked around for a while but the closest I could find to a silk factory was a run-down coca-cola bottling plant and they didn’t seem to be offering tours. I asked another man for directions. After he had sought a number of second opinions he returned and pointed me into a marshrutka. “Yodgorlik” he told the driver and we sped back to the centre. Thankfully this driver did actually know what he was doing and took me a couple hundred yards west of the central crossroads (where I had first asked for directions) and down a small, unmarked lane to the factory.

I was introduced to the director and we spent an hour outside talking about life. Given it was a free tour I didn’t feel I could rush things and he was actually quite interesting. He had spent a few years working in London and talked about how life in the UK had compared to his expectations.

He had enjoyed himself but there was the also disappointment that so many migrants feel. He came expecting perfection. A place where everyone was rich, free, honest and fair. Of course reality didn’t quite meet those expectations, in part probably because he was a foreign worker. He had been working at one of the big bakery companies for a while and experienced endless unpaid overtime, dangerous conditions and lax quality control. He and his colleagues (all Asian) never dared complain though for fear that they might be sacked and their working visas revoked. So many immigrants from developing countries lack knowledge of or trust in the law and certain employers no doubt take advantage of this.

Anyway after an hour or so a French tour group came in for a prearranged tour and the director, assuming all Europeans were fluent in all European languages, told me to tag along with them. My silk factory French was a little rusty but it turned out that enough of the words were similar enough to English for me to get the gist. We started with the steaming of the cocoons and the drawing of the silk out of them onto a wheel. Various spinning then took place before the silk was transferred to a different building to be boiled, soaked and so on. Next it was dyed and then finally women would weave the thread into silk sheets, ready to be made into scarves, clothes and whatever took their fancy.

Drawing the silk from the cocoons.

Drawing the silk from the cocoons.

Spinning the silk.

Spinning the silk.

Boiling the silk.

Boiling the silk.

Soaking the silk.

Soaking the silk.

The weaving room. It's all done by hand here.

The weaving room. It’s all done by hand here.

A woman weaving.

A woman weaving.

Disused old Soviet machinery.

Disused old Soviet machinery.

It was very interesting but in some ways the factory made me feel slightly uncomfortable. It was set up to be a socially responsible enterprise using traditional, non-mechanised techniques which all sounds very nice but parts were more reminiscent of a 19th century workhouse. Doing everything by hand may score tourist points but also requires employing dozens of low-paid workers for long, monotonous shifts. One woman was coughing away from the smoke produced by a coal boiler as she rinsed the silk. These are the sort of jobs that we have decided to do away with in the west, yet, for tradition’s sake, it pleases us to keep them alive in other countries. I’m all for “artisan” skills but there’s a fine line between artisan hand-made and sweatshop hand-made. This factory probably fell on the artisan side of the line but I’m sure plenty of “hand-made” souvenirs come from less responsible factories. Ones which fall on the wrong side of the line. Let’s not get so enamoured by tradition that we turn our backs or progress, or worse welcome the progress for ourselves but encourage poorer countries to ignore it.

Into Uzbekistan

From Arslanbob I went to nearby Jalal-Abad and spent a night at a homestay there. It was more expensive and not quite as nice as my Arslanbob one but it did the job.

Jalal-Abad bazaar.

Jalal-Abad bazaar.

A man in a traditional hat.

A man in a traditional hat.

A workman climbs into a train in Jalal-Abad. The railway is currently closed (I believe since the 2010 Osh riots) but they seemed to be doing a fair bit of work on the engines so perhaps there are plans to reopen it.

A workman climbs into a train in Jalal-Abad. The railway is currently closed (I believe since the 2010 Osh riots) but they seemed to be doing a fair bit of work on the engines so perhaps there are plans to reopen it.

Next to Uzbekistan. Unfortunately the border near Jalal-Abad was closed so I had to go back via Osh. The border here turned out to be quite entertaining.

I decided to change my remaining Kyrgyz som into Uzbek som before crossing over. I handed over the equivalent of around £7 and waited. And waited. The man behind the counter was counting huge wads of cash and I assumed he was dealing with someone else until he picked up the wads and handed them to me. “Welcome to Uzbekistan” he laughed, and pointed me towards the border.

The Uzbek currency really is ridiculous. The largest denomination note (1000 UZS) is worth around £0.20 on the black market. This man had used a couple of hundred of his 200 UZS (£0.04) notes on me which I stowed away in my rucksack. I would have to learn to count money bank-teller style!

This is £40 in the highest denomination Uzbek som notes. What a ridiculous currency...

This is £40 in the highest denomination Uzbek som notes. What a ridiculous currency…

Getting stamped out of Kyrgyzstan was painless although the immigration guy couldn’t understand why I couldn’t speak Russian. Communication wasn’t a problem – he spoke English – but he was bewildered that someone could get by in the world without knowledge of the great language. He asked how I read books.

Entering Uzbekistan looked set to be a more painful process though. There was a large, stationary queue. Fortunately, although slightly embarrassingly, a businessman spotted that I was a tourist and shouted this out to the crowd, who promptly parted to let me through. I tried to insist on waiting my turn but by this time a soldier was waving his rifle at me to beckon me forward and I thought it best not to argue. I went through, confused the passport controller with my nationality and hopefully filled in the Russian-language customs form correctly. I guess I’ll find out for sure when I leave the country.

From the border an hour in a shared taxi took me to Andijan. Andijan has historically been best-known as the birthplace of Babur (of Mughal Empire and cruise missile fame) but nowadays it’s probably more famous for the 2005 Andijan Massacre in which the government shot dead at least several hundred protesters. Given the only maps of the city I could find were from news reports on the massacre, every time I looked for directions I was reminded that I was now inside a police state led by a fairly evil dictator. The bazaar was apparently just past where armoured personnel carriers had been stationed.

Otherwise Andijan was pleasant although I only had a night there and there weren’t many sights as such. One thing that struck me was how prosperous Uzbekistan felt compared to Kyrgyzstan. Mind you, that’s not saying much. Here are a few photos:

Man repairing shoes.

Man repairing shoes.

The concentrates for fizzy drinks look more like burettes of chemicals.

The concentrates for fizzy drinks look more like burettes of chemicals.

An arched bazaar building.

An arched bazaar building.

A butcher laughs having tried to convince me to buy some entrails.

A butcher laughs having tried to convince me to buy some entrails.

Arslanbob: A Traditional Kyrgyz Village

From Osh I made my way to Arslanbob, a peaceful village a couple of hours to the north-west. I had actually planned to go to Arslanbob last time I was in Kyrgyzstan (my failed trek would have ended there). It’s just the ideal place to relax, with its beautiful setting in the world’s largest walnut grove.

An organisation called Community Based Tourism organises homestays for tourists which are fantastic. I was staying with the former village mayor, now turned English teacher. While his wife and children provided endless delicious food he would keep me entertained with talk of Kyrgyzstan and the wider world. At one point he had me show him some photos from travelling and it was interesting watching him react to a few.

First was a photo of a valley in Pakistan. To me it looked unremarkable but as soon as he saw it he called his wife over. “Look, look!” he said excitedly. “The whole valley is covered in the plants you use to make your jam. We must go there.” Perhaps this was just a passing comment but I think there something from nomadic tradition, still alive and well in Kyrgyzstan, coming through. Move to where things are growing rather than growing things where you are.

Next he noticed a photo of an improvised hydroelectric dam in Burma and was very impressed. The prospect of constructing the same thing in the small river at the end of his garden excited him and soon I was trying to answer endless technical questions and having to explain that I had only seen the thing from a distance. I wasn’t sure exactly how many kilowatts of power it produced. In the end his son copied the photo over to his phone and promised to study it.

Then a photo from Singapore. “Ah – I think this is the most beautiful place I have seen” he gasped. “It is so clean.” Given Singapore was one of my least favourite places this reaction was somewhat disappointing but to someone who has rarely escaped village life it must look spectacular. He couldn’t understand why I bothered with mountains when I could visit cities like this.

We moved onto some photos of Scotland and our farm. “Look at the cows! They are so big.” He called his family around to see. As a picture of a sheep popped up they all laughed. “The sheep is the size of our cows” his son joked. He couldn’t believe that farms would regularly have hundreds of them. His family were the proud owners of three cows, seven sheep and twelve chickens.

Then the finale. I showed them a video I had made a while ago of a cow’s caesarian and this elicited astonishment. They had never seen or heard of anything like it. The next day he took me to his school. After giving a slide show to a classroom of kids, they were sent out and all fifteen of the school’s teachers gathered round. “Watch carefully” my host told them. “I think we should learn from this.” I spent the next half-hour working my way through the caesarian video trying to answer questions about every step of the process.

And that was time up for Arslanbob. It really was a fantastic place to stay and it only cost around £6.00 per day for delicious food and a comfortable bed. The key thing is that even if I had more money to spend I would have wanted to stay in the same place with the same people. My budget wasn’t constraining my trip and that, surely, should be the essence of low-cost travel.

My homestay and its garden.

My homestay and its garden.

A pancake breakfast. I was well fed!

A pancake breakfast. I was well fed!

Men at the village teahouse. The traditional tall hats are amazing, most of all because they actually wear them on a day-to-day basis. They're not just a tourist souvenir.

Men at the village teahouse. The traditional tall hats are amazing, most of all because they actually wear them on a day-to-day basis. They’re not just a tourist souvenir.

Arslanbob's waterfall.

Arslanbob’s waterfall.

The view over Arslanbob and the walnut grove.

The view over Arslanbob and the walnut grove.

A father and son fixing the road in a digger. My host was telling me how much of the work in the village gets done. Each hundred households or so elects a leader. When there is work to be done this leader will put out a call and every household, if they are able, must contribute one person for a day's labour. A bridge had been swept away in recent flooding so the day I left the call went out that they were rebuilding it.

A father and son fixing the road in a digger. My host was telling me how much of the work in the village gets done. Each hundred households or so elects a leader. When there is work to be done this leader will put out a call and every household, if they are able, must contribute one person for a day’s labour. A bridge had been swept away in recent flooding so the day I left the call went out that they were rebuilding it.

A boy with a cardboard box.

A boy with a cardboard box.

A petrol station but with donkeys rather than cars.

A petrol station but with donkeys rather than cars.

Local kids on their way to school.

Local kids on their way to school.

Osh vs. Kashgar

Kashgar has manhole covers, effective street lighting, a railway service, uninterrupted electricity, reliable running water, big businesses, endless construction and occasionally bubbling-over ethnic tension. Over the mountains Osh only has the ethnic tension. The lack of running water (ironically due to excessive rain) was a particular downer given I had arrived from a dusty two-day journey and desperately wanted a shower.

It’s pretty sad how underdeveloped Kyrgyzstan is because it always seems like such a nice country. It’s just never found its feet. Everywhere you look things seem to be stagnating. However, since my last time there, the country has undergone its first peaceful transfer of power so perhaps the new government will be able to start sorting things out.

I had a few chilled days in Osh, enjoying teahouse shashlik and German-style beer gardens. It was weird actually. When I first came to Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan I felt this was where I truly escaped Europe. Now, back from months in the Far East, the contrary was true. Everything seemed full of European influence. Little touches, such as ovens in kitchens and cheap chocolate in the shops, jarred with what I had come to expect.

Here are some photos.

Solomon's Throne, a huge rock overlooking Osh. It's a Muslim pilgrimage spot because legend says that the Prophet Mohammed once prayed here. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Solomon’s Throne, a huge rock overlooking Osh. It’s a Muslim pilgrimage spot because legend says that the Prophet Mohammed once prayed here. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The view over Osh from Solomon's Throne. Notice how green the city is.

The view over Osh from Solomon’s Throne. Notice how green the city is.

A mosque, with a Muslim graveyard in the foreground.

A mosque, with a Muslim graveyard in the foreground.

The fact that Lonely Planet describes this as a 'futuristic dome' says something about quite how underdeveloped much of Osh is. The rusting structure does stand out as a beacon of modernity.

The fact that Lonely Planet describes this as a ‘futuristic dome’ says something about quite how underdeveloped much of Osh is. The rusting structure does stand out as a beacon of modernity.

Osh's ferris wheel and plane. Quite why they dumped a plane here I don't know, but it makes an interesting attraction. As I was looking around a guy came racing through in his car, swerved off the road and drove under the plane, just clearing it. He was showing off to his girlfriend in the passenger seat!

Osh’s ferris wheel and plane. Quite why they dumped a plane here I don’t know, but it makes an interesting attraction. As I was looking around a guy came racing through in his car, swerved off the road and drove under the plane, just clearing it. He was showing off to his girlfriend in the passenger seat!

Men playing chess.

Men playing chess.