After 6 weeks exploring ancient ruins, the Silk Road, civil wars and the economic consequences of the USSR’s collapse, I was in need of something a little lighter. A chance conversation with fellow tourists on my architectural walking tour of Beirut extolling the virtues of their home town, Liverpool, England, and its promise of a Magical Mystery Tour, a ferry crossing the Mersey and a museum devoted to British music convinced me it would be a perfect antidote to all the heavy history I had just encountered.
A quick 2 hour train ride from London deposited me at Liverpool’s Lime Station, beside the heart of downtown. My hotel was just a 5 minute walk away. Nearby were pubs galore, all filled with youngsters preparing for the Liverpool versus Manchester United football match, pedestrian walkways with restaurants from all nations, typical global stores and shopping malls, both indoor and out. Just 15 minutes away were the revitalized Albert Docks, famous for its maritime heritage. I’ll get back to that later, but this trip was about music and right outside the Mersey Ferry Building was not the expected statue of Gerry and the Pacemakers, but one of the Fab Four, aka The Beatles:
I signed up for one of a number of Magical Mystery Tours, on a bus painted like the album cover. Me and about 30 others climbed aboard. To the beat of Magical Mystery Tour, our guide gave a brief introduction to the city and The Beatles and off we drove, past the house where Ringo Starr was born, his elementary school and the pub his mother used to sing at, before stopping at Penny Lane:
With the music of Penny Lane playing over the speaker, our guide explained that the stores and people in the song were not really about Penny Lane (…Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs….) since it was mostly residential, but about its intersection with Smithdown Road, where the bus with the destination “Penny Lane” turned around and where John Lennon and RIngo Starr probably spent hours walking, just not together, as they didn’t meet until they were in their 20’s.
From there we drove past George Harrison’s birth house, a non-descript 2 bedroom, 4 room house with a toilet out back, to John Lennon’s childhood house at #12 Arnold Grove, before stopping at Strawberry Fields. It’s a green space currently used to provide training to disadvantaged youths, funded in part by John Lennon’s estate.
Paul McCartney’s childhood house has been taken over by the National Trust and tours are offered, as they are at John Lennon’s house. Both apparently are decorated like they would have been in the late 50’s, with the exception of a lot of The Beatle’s memorabilia. McCartney’s house especially is rich as Paul and John composed many of their future hits there. We drove past other buildings significant to The Beatles; the place where Lennon had gone to art school, the church where McCartney had been rejected in his attempt to be a choirboy, some girlfriends’ working places, manager Brian Epstein’s house, the street where John and his Quarryman band had played, all the while listening to The Beatles tunes and the guide filling us in on details of their lives.
We ended at The Cavern Club, on Matthew Street. The street is devoted to The Beatles and shops named Rubber Soul and Sargent Peppers line the alley. Strange statues of The Beatles appear along the way:
A statue of Eleanor Rigby is nearby. She was a scullery maid who died long before The Beatles were born, but her grave is close to where McCartney first met Lennon and her tombstone the inspiration for the song:
After The Beatles played in Hamburg, they returned to Liverpool and performed at the Cavern Club 292 times between 1961 and 1963. The original Cavern Club was demolished, but the current one is a reproduction using the original bricks and blueprints, located just a few hundred feet from where it once stood. Today, it has hourly acts paying homage not only to The Beatles, but other notable bands who played there including the Rolling Stones, The Who, Queen, Elton John and Eric Clapton. On the 2 occasions I visited, the audience was mostly baby boomers, humming along to golden oldies from their youth:
Although there are a few museums devoted to The Beatles, I decided to take a ferry, cross the Mersey River, in honour of the song popularized by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The ferry operates largely for the tourists , playing the song and with a commentator giving history of the area, the river and the ferry. Today, most people drive though the tunnels but the ferry offers a good view of Liverpool’s waterfront, including its most famous buildings known as the Three Graces:
The British Music Experience is a new museum, tracing British music from the mid-1950’s to the present. Every half hour, a hologram performs on the centre stage – this is Boy George from Culture Club singing Karma Chameleon:
I spent an enjoyable 2 hours walking though the exhibits and listening to the music, hearing everybody from Cliff Richard to The Sex Pistols to Amy Winehouse. The museum is interesting insofar as it tried to tie popular music culture to political and economic events – apparently Grunge rock was a reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s politics- which I didn’t always agree with, but I appreciated the attempt to integrate music into the wider environment.
Liverpool offers a lot more than just music. On a walking tour, the guide explained Liverpool got its city Charter originally from King John, of Magna Carta fame, who founded it as a port to launch attacks on Ireland. The newly constructed (2008) Liverpool Museum traces the history of the city, with an emphasis on life in the 1800’s in the tenements or courtyard houses. Nearby is the Maritime and Slavery Museum exhibiting Liverpool’s contribution to both. It was the main stop on the shipping triangle: loading cheap goods on ships to send to Africa, where the ships were loaded with slaves bound for the Americas before returning to Liverpool laden with sugar and cotton.
Liverpool was the first port to use a wet dock, making it one of the most important ports in Europe. In addition to earning huge amounts from slavery, it exported alcohol and passengers, and had a healthy ship construction industry. Container ships and airline freight popularized in the 1970’s sounded the death knell for the docks but ironically, its current rebirth is due to the sea; it has become a popular stop for cruise ships.
Architecturally, the city is used by the film industry as it can serve as anywhere: Moscow in The Hunt for Red October, Peaky Blinders, Captain America (New York) and Jack Ryan (New York) to name a few. There’s the standard British traditional and modern cathedrals, modern museums, and my favourites, fabulous ventilation shafts that resemble a miniature CN tower and the best in Art Deco:
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Liverpool. Much of it was spent humming favourite songs, reliving my teenage years when I had idolized Elton John and bragged about seeing Led Zeppelin, along with 500,000 others, at Knebworth field. I was pleasantly surprised how cheap it was, especially compared to London, the museums were good and the time I spent at the Cavern Club listening to music was a nice walk down memory lane.
Lebanon, for me, had always been forbidden fruit. Living in Israel in 1971-72, Lebanon had conjured up images of territories recently conquered, UN peacekeepers, no-man’s land and the PLO’s launchpad for terrorist attacks. A disastrous civil war between 1975 and 1991 decimated Lebanon’s economy, destroyed the last vestiges of its glory days and made it a definite no-go for tourists. But the war had been over for 28 years, I no longer possessed the verboten Israeli stamp in my passport, a friend who had just visited spoke highly of its hospitality, safety and historical sites and there had not been a terrorist attack for at least 3 years. I decided it was a good time to give it a try.
I flew into Beirut in October, 2019, 2 days after Turkey bombed Syria. Istanbul’s new airport was calm and quiet, but I was still a little unsettled. Fortunately no missiles or other projectiles hit my Turkish Airlines flight and we landed safely. Immigration was a breeze – the “visa on arrival” was nothing more than a stamp in my passport proferred by the immigration officer whose only question was “where are you staying?”
My taxi transfer gave me my first introduction to the city. The airport is about 15 kilometers to my hotel in the Verdun neighborhood, reached first by a freeway followed by wide city streets. Neither had lines demarcating lanes, but no matter. Even on those rare occasions where lanes were indicated, driving in lanes is not something any Lebanese driver does. My taxi driver, and all subsequent drivers, swerved in and out of traffic, honked at every opportunity, never signaled, routinely ran red lights and slammed on their brakes with amazing regularity, only to floor their accelerator as soon as possible. Seatbelts were never used, but cellphones always were. Driving in Beirut is not for the fainthearted, being a passenger even more nerve wracking. I learned quickly to close my eyes, put in my earphones and pray every time I got into a car.
Lebanon’s location at the crossroads of civilization means Lebanon has a long history, beginning with Neolithic peoples, followed by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantium, Arabs, Crusaders, Egyptian Mamlukes, the Ottoman Empire, a French protectorate before finally becoming independent in 1943. Each successive conqueror left their mark, architecturally, linguistically, ethnically and religiously.
The country is rich with archeological sites and I visited 2. Byblos, from the Greek for book, is one of 3 continuously inhabited cities in the world going back at least 6,000 year – the others are Damascus and Jericho – and its layers brilliantly excavated to expose a little from each civilization. Phoenician Temples are in the shadow of a Crusader Castle, a Roman road with columns scattered about leads to the entrance. a Roman Ampitheatre exists as does a Royal Necropolis.
Spectacular for different reasons is Baalbeck, where the remains of three Roman temples – one each dedicated to Jupiter, Athena and Bacchus – are the main attraction. Mostly only the foundations for the Jupiter and Venus temples are visible, but Bacchus’ temple is largely intact, save for the roof. Even though it was smaller than Jupiter’s temple it is larger than the Parthenon in Athens:
The Civil War:
During the French Protectorate and the 1950’s and 1960’s, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. The rich and glamorous flocked to its elegant high rises lining the Corniche, the coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. Two train lines operated, connecting it to Damascus and Tripoli/Istanbul. Laws were more liberal than in other Middle Eastern countries; wealthy Arabs came to gamble and drink alcohol. Movies were filmed; theatre performed and the myriad of religions: Muslims, Druze, Christians and Jews got together. It had become a haven for other displaced religions, welcoming large numbers of Armenians fleeing from Turkey in the 1920’s. Things were looking good.
Sadly, between 1975 and 1991, a brutal civil war devastated Lebanon, with an estimated 200,000 dead, an economy in shambles, religious divisions between the Christians, Muslims and a Muslim sect, the Druze and an entire generation raised in fear of bombs and sniper attacks.
Two guides from separate walking tours gave similar accounts of the reasons for the war. One must go back to 1967 and the war against Israel. Lebanon was convinced to join the Arab alliance, wholly expecting a quick and decisive victory after a surprise attack against Israel. But they were resoundly defeated and Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt all lost large tracts of land. Former residents, mostly Palestinians, fled to Lebanon and Jordan and terrorist organizations like the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged representing the displaced Palestinians.
The PLO’s solution to their landless status was to try and convince Jordan to give up half of its remaining land and carve out a separate Palestinian state. After protracted negotiations, the king of Jordan refused and kicked the PLO out of Jordan. They relocated to Lebanon, urging the Lebanese to support continued warfare against, and a further invasion of, Israel. This divided the country into two factions, the right wing content with the status quo provided by the robust economy versus the left wing who favoured supporting their Arab brothers by maintaining the battle against Israel.
The spark setting off the violence was the 1975 murder of Palestinian social workers riding on a bus by Christians, but, amazingly, the next day, the country was fully armed. While ostensibly the war was between Christians and Muslims, the reality was far more complicated. Warlords emerged, each seeking to increase and consolidate their own powers, engaging private militias to terrorize whoever stood in their way. At various times, Muslims fought Muslims and Christians fought Christians.
The one clear demarcation was Beirut’s Green Line, dividing Beirut into Muslim West and Christian East. The Green Line became a no-man’s zone which no one dared cross. The lack of human contact allowed nature to take back the concrete, creating a thin forest of trees, 24 kilometers long, through the center of the city. Today, it has reverted back to a cityscape – a bland area beside an overpass with sidewalks and streetlights on either side.
The downtown was battered on all sides. Strategically, the higher the building, the better to serve as both a watchtower and a perch for snipers, and there was no bigger prize than the Holiday Inn. Newly opened in 1974, the largest Holiday Inn in the world had a revolving restaurant on its roof and was opulence at its best. It operated for only a year, before being targeted in The Battle of the Hotels, in which it and the nearby Phoenician Hotel became battlegrounds. Thousands died and the hotels abandoned except by the militants. Whatever remained after the war were vandalized by scavengers.
Today, the blackened shell casts a long shadow over the city, both a momento to the war and a symbol of Lebanon’s inability to repair itself. Currently owned jointly by a Kuwaiti company who wants to demolish it and put up a new high rise and a Lebanese group who want to renovate it as a reminder of the war, the consequence is nothing gets done. The Lebanese Army now occupies it, citing its potentially strategic use in the case of another war with Israel, but do nothing with it other then prohibiting tourists from taking photos of it.
The aftermath of the war:
A ceasefire was signed in 1991, with terms guaranteed to lead to a chaotic future. All parties surrendered their weapons, which made sense, but the new government was split, with the Presidency reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker a Shi’ite Muslim. As one fellow tourist, an ex-pat Lebanese living in New York said, the system was inherently weak because no one faction could dominate and consensus was impossible. A further term of the ceasefire was no narratives could be spoken about the war unless everyone agreed. The result was a de facto pardon: no war crime trials, no apportionment of responsibility and no teaching about the war in schools.
Lebanon has not had an easy time since the war ended. It has been invaded by Israel twice, occupied by Syria for 15 years and has had to absorb an estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees, who are a huge burden on the health care and education system and are accused of taking jobs from Lebanese as they are perceived to be willing to work for less. During my bus tour to Baalbeck, we drove alongside Syrian refugee camps, their tent homes made of plastic sides with rubber tires on the roofs to keep them in place. Signs of permanency were obvious, satellite dishes, electric wires and water tanks. They could not go back: Syria’s President Assad declared every Syrian who fled to be a traitor who would be shot on sight if they tried to return. But as with everything in Lebanon, nothing is clear cut. A British fellow working with the UN told me the border with Syria had always been quite porous and up to 1 million Syrians regularly crossed, working in the fields of the Bekaa Valley and, unless one had been a Syrian draft dodger, Syria had no record of who had fled.
But the real problem, quoting from various guides and the Lebanese who I met a number of my tours, is simple. The government is as corrupt as can be, interested only in maintaining power and growing richer. Everyone has their hands out, the top 1% of the population holds 50% of the wealth and are doing their best to keep it that way.
The most glaring symbol of the corruption and bad governance is downtown Beirut. Completely destroyed in the civil war, the then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (assassinated in 2005), set up a privately owned, publicly listed company with government powers called Solidere, whose mandate was to redevelop downtown Beirut. Solidere acquired all of the downtown land, often at ridiculously low prices from unwilling former owners, and set about constructing modern high rises designed by world renowned architects, set along perfectly tiled, clean sidewalks with cooling fountains and street level storefronts. Journalists have described this downtown area as Disneyesque.
The problem is, it is empty. Estimates range between 50 and 70% of apartments are unsold and many more are vacant, owned by wealthy expats and Middle Eastern foreigners seeking to invest in Beirut and using real estate to launder money. Lebanese banks used to be notorious for their accommodation of illicitly gained funds, but crackdowns have moved the money from banks to buildings. When I asked how the moneys made their way to the real estate developers through the banks, the answer was that blind eyes were turned when dollars changed hands.
Equally dumbfounding are the prices for the apartments, beginning at about $1 million and going up to $10 million for a penthouse. Monthly rents in the storefronts are $5000 per square meter. The result is a ghost town, populated only by security guards and privately engaged street cleaners, with an occasional Mercedes Benz car speeding in or out of underground parking garages.
Another problem is the decaying buildings. Some of the gleaning new buildings are right beside decrepit, shot out buildings, still standing empty after nearly 25 years.
In the center of downtown, beside the 2008 built Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, stands what is colloquially called The Egg or the remains of an unfinished cinema house:
No census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932, but an estimated 1.5 million people live in Beirut or the many towns surrounding it. Most must endure long commutes because the price of housing in the downtown is far beyond most people’s reach and the owners would rather keep the rent/selling prices high and the properties vacant than pollute their areas with middle class people. Better to have an empty store than fill it with a coffee shop which might attract poor people. The few shops with tenants all sell high end, luxury goods.
Equally stupid is the lack of public transit. No public bus system runs in Beirut. The two train lines had both ceased service by 1974. Trams used to run through the downtown but their lines were destroyed in the war. After the war, the government decided to demolish the remaining few tracks, forcing the people to endure daily commutes from the suburbs. The reason? Apparently the government was close to the few families who owned all the gas stations. Without public transit, everyone would be forced to buy lots of gas at higher and higher prices. Needless to say, the roads into Beirut are ill-equipped to handle this traffic and hour long jams every morning and evening are the norm.
The National Museum is a wonderful exception to the government’s incompetence. Closed when the civil war began, many of its priceless treasures were stored in its basement or encased in concrete for protection from the artillery which heavily damaged the building. Restored and reopened in the 1990’s, the museum houses artifacts from Byblos, Baalbeck, Tyre and other sites, including excellent Roman mosaics and Phoenician sarcophagus. Its basement is most intriguing; it traces burial rites from the Neolithic period all the way to those of the Ottomans, with a place of honour bestowed upon the Phoenician sarcophagi:
The government has failed its citizens in other ways as well. Services most governments usually provide like electricity, water and garbage collection have to purchased privately. While ostensibly the streets of Beirut are cleaned twice daily, large piles of rotting garbage lined the highways and polluted the Corniche or coastline. Electrical lines bore signs of theft of electricity. The electricity in my Western style hotel (a Radisson Blu) cut off frequently during my stay, sometimes 5 or 6 times a day before the generator kicked in.
Education and healthcare are free, but only the poorest use it. Private education and healthcare flourishes. Education is very good, most Lebanese are fluent in Arabic, French and English, but few jobs exist. My tour guides were architects and archeologists; the unemployment rate is high and too many Lebanese are forced to go abroad to find jobs. Over 40 million Lebanese live in other countries, with the Ottoman Empire forcing many to leave for North and South America and the civil war encouraging many more to leave.
Everyone agreed and was anxious to tell me, life in Beirut was difficult for the middle class and the government was largely to blame.
Lebanon has a lot of great things going for it. The archeological sights are fantastic, there are lots of museums and galleries, food was delicious, the people warm, friendly and multilingual. I never felt concern for my safety, even grabbing non-Uber taxis or walking around by myself, with the exception of crossing the roads with their madcap drivers. The walking and bus tours I took were excellent, my hotel was up to Western standards and no one seemed to care what my religion was, despite my Jewish last name.
Yet I felt uncomfortable in Beirut. On a Sunday morning, I walked to the Corniche from my hotel, just 10 minutes away. Walking along the sidewalks was a dicey proposition. In addition to broken tiles and day old garbage hazards, I had to walk out onto the street to get around a makeshift guard booth. A few minutes away, 4 soldiers with ugly looking guns manned a barricade. I initially thought they were guarding a foreign embassy, but later learned that the barricades were a common occurrence; politicians and wealthy people demand high security. Further on, I passed yet another hollowed out hulk of a building, its concrete black with mold and pockmarked with bullet holes.
After reaching the Corniche, I looked forward to a peaceful walk along the shore. But it was not to be. Lebanon is not quiet and Beirut even less so. Cars without mufflers raced by, honking their horns at every opportunity, motorcycles loudly screeched, even the pedestrians were all shouting, never talking, into their cellphones. I retreated to the calm of my hotel room, something I did over and over in Beirut. I found the city to be beautiful and fascinating, but oddly unsettling, for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on and still can’t articulate.
I left by taxi for the airport on Thursday, October 17th, about 4PM. It was an uneventful ride and my 8:35 PM flight on Lebanon’s national carrier was routine. But the next day, I started getting emails: “are you safely out of Lebanon” and “were you caught up in the fires or protests?” I checked the news to learn beginning late Thursday, demonstrators had rallied against government corruption in the downtown and closed the road to the airport.
The spark was a proposed tax on WhatsApp phone calls, designed to dent the country’s huge deficit and one which would hit the middle class the hardest. The protesters, united despite religious differences, were tired of government austerity measures which impacted them but did little to tackle the underlying problems of government corruption and elitism. As I write this, 4 days later, the marches are getting bigger, the calls for significant reforms continue to grow louder and the government seems to offer band-aid solutions designed to appease the protests, not resolve the real issues.
I think I finally figured out why I felt so uneasy in Lebanon. Despite the ceasefire in 1991, at its heart, the country is still at war with itself. Maybe not this religion against that religion and not one with tanks rolling down the streets, but it’s the haves against the have-nots and a war nonetheless.
The first half of my 3 week Five Stans tour was dominated by the blue tiled splendor of the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan and the over-the-top marble edifices of Turkmenistan. In the latter half, visiting Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two new themes emerged: stunning mountain scenery and an odd reverence for all things Soviet that kept me humming Back in the USSR during my time spent there.
The region shares a common history. Settled thousands of years ago, such conquerors as Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Arabs and the Mongols all left their mark. Either in the 10th or 16th century, depending on who one asks, nomadic Turkic tribes from the Altai mountains invaded, mixed with the locals and, to varying degrees, either maintained their nomadic lifestyle or settled into farming. Khans or kings emerged, all Muslim, governing over their respective tribes.
Ironically, the US civil war is usually the impetus for sparking Russian interest in the area in the mid 1800’s. One consequence of the war was a global shortage of cotton. Russia, eager to fill the void, looked toward the cotton fields adjacent to the grand rivers, the Ural, the Amu Darya (the Oxus) and Syr Daryl and began conquering the region, eventually succeeding in 1895, when it created Russia Turkestan, roughly the area between Siberia and Afghanistan.
Nearly 100 years of Russian/Soviet rule followed. Monuments in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan and Almaty, Kazakhastan’s main city, pay tribute to the Bolshevik Revolution; others commemorate the contributions made by the Stans’ populace, where hundreds of thousands of young men were conscripted into the Soviet’s WW2 war effort.
Many Soviet policies had long lasting impact. Stalin, fearful of the potential danger of a large, unified Muslim republic within the USSR arbitrarily carved out 5 republics – the current Stans – and promoted nationalism in each; the ultimate divide and conquer strategy. He also moved a lot of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarus into Central Asia, many involuntarily. Quite a few gulags were situated in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, not always with negative results. A Kazakh national I sat next to on the plane decried the loss of these forced Russian emigres, saying they were some of the best doctors, engineers and scientists in the area. He claimed their deaths, mostly by natural causes, left a large hole in the region’s intelligensia.
Thanks also to the USS, the largest environmental disaster after Chernobyl is in Central Asia, the much diminished Aral Sea. Once the 4th largest sea in the world, aggressive Soviet irrigation of its feeder rivers towards the cotton fields has left the sea a shadow of its former self, with seaside ports now 20 kilometers from the water, hundreds of ships resting in sandy graveyards far from shore and a once thriving fishing industry gone. The sea keeps shrinking and no improvement in its outlook is in sight.
Not all of the USSR’s policies were negative. The Stans had been largely feudal before Russia; afterwards most of the population received free education, modern healthcare, jobs-for-life, pensions and the right to vote in largely meaningless elections. Although nomadic life ceased during the Soviet times, farms provided sufficient food and queuing for food or going hungry was not a problem. Infrastructure grew by leaps and bounds; railroads, highways and TV’s were introduced. In Tajikistan, the Soviets spent a lot on infrastructure because they never thought they’d leave. Soviet style apartments, government buildings and universities abound in its capital Dushanbe. Women are mostly equal, religions tolerated and there’s little apparent discrimination based on ethnicity.
Road to Independence:
Starting in 1989, former republics in the USSR began demanding independence, sometimes with deadly results such as in Lithuania and The Ukraine, where USSR troops were sent in to quell independence marchers, killing many protesters. Not so in the Stans, where no real move for independence had developed. To the contrary, in Kazakhstan, independence was “negotiated” between its future president and the USSR. In Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgzs were told, not asked, by the Russians they were leaving. Russia was finding it too expensive and difficult to keep the far-off Central Asia republics in their fold. Imagine Canada deciding it had had enough of Newfoundland and said it was divorcing it in 6 months. That’s what happened in 1991 to the Stans.
Thus, between August 31 and December 1, 1991, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan were cut loose from the imploding USSR and left to flounder on their own. While each took slightly different paths, their ensuing independence led to civil war (Kazakhstan), overthrows of corrupt government (Kyrgyzstan) and total economic chaos amid hyperinflation (everywhere). People, accustomed to being told what to do since birth, were suddenly required to think for themselves. Unemployment reared its ugly head. Suicide rates skyrocketed, as did alcoholism. It was a rough introduction to the new world and even today, there is a divide between the older generation harking a return to the communist days and the younger generation more comfortable with internet, English and capitalism.
Despite independence, each of the Stans has kept the former Soviet style of government with the head of state wielding dictatorial powers, widespread censorship and rampant corruption within the government.
Against this background, I visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
While possessing ancient and Silk Road ruins, Tajikistan’s biggest attractions are its mountains and lakes. A nature lover’s paradise, but for me, a reluctant hiker, the country’s vistas mostly offered good photo opportunities, such as the Pamir Mountains near Pendzhikent and at Khudzhand lake:
Its capital, Dushanbe, was unremarkable save for the over-the-top gaudiness of its newest tourist attraction, the Navruz Palace, built to showcase local craftsmanship in rooms reminiscent of tasteless Las Vegas interiors. A palace in name only, its stated purpose is to host conferences and weddings and show to gobsmacked visitors. Allegedly built by private funds, all mysteriously related to the current president, the enthusiastic guide indicated it awaits UNESCO heritage status. I suspect it will be a long time coming.
There were a few pretty parks, some newish buildings reminding me of white marble clad Ashgabat and the ubiquitous oversized portrait of the current president, watching over a children’s festival:
Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, is not the capital, but instead, the former Astana, recently renamed Nur-Sultan in honour of its long-time dictator/president Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev. In Almaty, the main tourist site was a quaint music museum with displays of local instruments and wooden goat shaped puppets that danced to the music.
Pretty yes, particularly exciting or illuminating, no.
In this majority Muslim city, the standout religious building is a Russian Orthodox Church:
There’s the obligatory soviet realism homage to the worker/cultures:
Of course, we visited another nearby beautiful lake, the Great Almaty Lake:
We attended the National Museum, where photos were only allowed in the lobby and the room devoted to Kazahkstan’s achievements, where President Nazarbayez is front and center. Thankfully, his sporting, artistic and driving exploits are not as prominently displayed as those of the Turkmenistan president in Mary.
Almaty did inherit Russia’s preference for ornate subways. We descended deep underground to a Silk Road themed station and rode the subway to the Bikaner station, named after the location where Soviet spaceships launch. Naturally, a film played in the subway station lauding the Soviet space program.
Of all the cities I visited in the Stans, Bishkek reminded me most of the USSR. Its main square, Alo-Too, formerly known as Lenin Square, is flanked on all sides by buildings bearing typical Soviet Realism, or as one writer terms it, brutalist, architecture with lots of square lines, monotonous, thick grey limestone bricks and little if any ornamentation. Around it rests an odd assortment of buildings: the National History Museum, the Ministry of Agriculture and 2 textile factories.
The Soviet love of massive statues celebrating communism is evident, as a walk around and near the square revealed numerous examples. The only nod to current conditions is the relegation of Lenin to behind the National Museum rather than the front:
Beside the square was a charming sculpture garden containing statues of famous Kyrgzs, none of whom I would have recognized even if I could read the Cyrillic alphabet. But it was nice to see depictions of people with Turkic and Mongol features, along with a few women.
A block away is the burned out remnant of the Prosecutor’s Building, destroyed in 2010 by rioters protesting against the corruption of the then president, who eventually fled the country and found refuge in Belarus.
Such occurrences are becoming commonplace; riots against a former president accused of corruption, abuse of office and enriching himself had taken place just a few weeks before, in August, 2019.Maybe the vestiges of the USSR are, at last, slowly disappearing.
Imagine one of the worst mass murderers in history, responsible for the slaughter of 17 million people, 5% of the world’s population, without gunpowder or nuclear weapons, many dying painful, grotesque deaths involving decapitation, being burned alive, having their insides brutally ripped out and prominently displayed giant mountains of victims’ skulls as a caution to others. Most nations would be ashamed of such a legacy, relegating such villains to a past best forgotten. Not so Uzbekistan, where its national hero is Timberlane, the prolific executioner whose exploits were exceeded only in the 20th century by the estimated 70 million who died during WW2.
Timerlane (also known or spelled Emir Timer, Timurlane or Timer-Lane) was not completely evil. He promoted Islam and was responsible for Islam’s resurgence in Central Asia in the 14th century, where he established many madrases – Islamic schools – and constructed fabulous mosques. His craftsmen created some of the most gorgeous buildings, many in Samarkand, which was referred to as the most beautiful city in the world in the 15th century. He fostered education, the sciences and astronomy. He captured large swaths of land in India, the Caucasus, Iran, Turkey and, in a strange twist, his defeat of the Ottoman Turks in 1402 at Ankara so weakened the Ottoman Empire that it failed in its later endeavors to capture Christian Europe.
Uzbekistan’s embrace of Timerlane is not completely unjust. He was partly Uzbek on his mother’s side, his father a Mongol descendant by marriage of Ghengis Khan. Timerlane was born in what is now Uzbekistan, came to power in Samarkand and made it his capital. Equally important, Uzbekistan needed a national hero when it became independent from Russia in 1991. Although the region enjoys a long history going back to Neolithic times, the Uzbeks were a fairly recent arrival, likely being one of many Turkic tribes who settled in the area in the 10th century, although others claim the Uzbeks did not arrive until the 16th century. During its time as a Soviet Republic, Stalin did his best to quash the Uzbek identity, scattering Uzbek people throughout the USSR, settling other ethnicities including many Russians in Uzbek-speaking territories, and making Russian the official language. It is not surprising that the newly formed independent country desired a hero that could unite a country, conveniently sidestepping his less positive sides.
I visited Uzbekistan in September, 2019 as part of a 5 country tour called “The Stans” organized by the Canadian company, Adventures Abroad. Advertised as for the over-55 crowd, at 59 I was by far the youngest of our 17 strong group. I think the oldest was 83. The relative older age range was reflective of most of the other tourists in the areas. Either because of restrictive visa requirements or the expense in flying here, backpackers were rarely seen and most visitors seemed to be seniors.
The major attraction for me of the Stans is its history as the Silk Road, the name given to a variety of overland trading routes linking the Far East to Europe, Turkey and India. Used since at least the time of Alexander the Great, camels starting in China traversed the deserts of Central Asia to Byzantium, laden with silk, spices and paper and returning with horses, wool and grapes. Along the roads, great cities with names like Samarkand and Merv gave refuge to weary travellers for centuries, provided a repository for ancient literature and scientific knowledge while Europe languished in the Middle Ages, and sparked a golden age of Arab art. More sinisterly, the Silk Road also transported the bubonic plague to Europe in the 6th century. In the 15th century, the Ottomans banned trade along the routes, a move that encouraged Portuguese navigators in the 16th century to discover faster sea routes and make the overland roads obsolete.
A Short History:
Tourists have been visiting since Marco Polo in the 14th century. I joined the new wave of tourists eager to sample The Five Stans: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgzstan. Each country shares something of a common history: early Neolithic settlements, Hellenized by Alexander the Great and his successors, the start of global trade and silk roads during the Roman times in 132 BC to satiate the Roman desire for silk and inhabited by Persian speaking Zoroastrians until the Arabs captured and converted most of the area in the 7th century. In the 13th century, Mongol tribes led by Ghenghis Khan and a century later, Timerlane, first destroyed the great trading cities, then rebuilt them. The 15th century saw the immigration and settlement of Turkic speaking tribes and a variety of Arab empires. Both Russia and Britain turned their ambitions to Central Asia in the 19th century as the Great Game played out with Russia eventually emerging victorious.
The region was artificially carved into the Five Stans by Stalin, worried that a single, Muslim republic might pose a danger to the USSR. The USSR forced its usual Sovietization on the area, nomads were required to move to collective farms, intensive cotton farming led to environmental catastrophe and ugly rectangular apartment buildings dominated newly appointed cities. It wasn’t all negative: compulsory education, modern, free healthcare, roads and telephones were introduced. Upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991, each of the Stans declared independence but their newfound rulers with parties called the People’s Democratic Party or the like were all authoritarian dictators in the Stalinist mold.
Today, Uzbekistan has mostly unshackled the chains of Soviet subjugation. Uzbek is the main language (Russian is secondary), the Cyrillic alphabet has been replaced with Latin, the currency is the Som, religion is allowed (the country is 90% Muslim) and the free market economy is thriving. One of our guides loved to tell jokes about the USSR, none of them flattering, but he had studied Russian in university and was fluent. Few in Uzbekistan want to return to the Soviet days.
In a move to make traveling easier, Uzbekistan recently removed visa requirements for 120 countries, so I breezed through formalities at the Tashkent airport in less than 10 minutes, being welcomed to the country without questions, but with a smile, by the immigration officer and waved around, not through, the luggage scanning machine. A late night ride followed first along a wide, paved highway, then a broad boulevard before stopping at a modern hotel.
While this city of 3 million has a long history, much of it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. The result is a small old city and loads of Russian era Soviet Realism office and apartment blocks which are slowly being replaced in the center by more interesting architecture.
In search of the real Timerlane, I walked to the Timur Museum, housed in a round white building, topped with a turquoise green dome, indicative of the new, Uzbekistan architecture. The museum was disappointing, lots of portraits of famous historical rulers, none of whom I’d heard of, a few traditional costumes, some ceramics, historical Korans and a map showing Timerlane’s conquest.
Far more interesting was the nearby statue of Timerlane, astride a horse. The facial depiction is considered accurate. In a strange convergence of history’s nastiest dictators, Stalin was fascinated by Timerlane and his legend. In 1941, he ordered his tomb opened to determine if the body truly belonged to Timerlane and to reconstruct Timerlane’s face using the skull. An inscription on the tomb translates to “Whoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader Møre Terrible Than I.” Two day after the tomb was opened, Hitler and the Nazis attacked the USSR.
Beyond the homage paid to Timerlane, not much in Tashkent interested me. A newish Mosque, a madras, a market selling fresh produce, dried fruit and meat, with carcasses of freshly slaughtered sheep hung from metal bars. In one corner, men baked bread in giant tandoori ovens, then the ladies sold them for pennies.
Nukus: The Savitsky Gallery
We flew over the Zkarakul desert to Nukus, the capital city in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, where the majority are ethnically and linguistically different from most Uzbeks, more Mongolian in features and background. I was expecting Silk Road cities and cavernasi and camels, so I was surprised where we stopped in front of a large, modern building, the Savitsky Gallery, aka The Uzbekistan Fine Arts School. It was the pet project of Igor Savitsky, an artist from the Ukraine who lived in Nukus between 1950 and 1984. He fell in love with the area and painted numerous landscapes, but also acquired, legally and not, works of Russian artists who had run afoul of official Russian guidelines for art. Thus, many of the paintings portray communism and the struggles of the workers in a less than flattering light. The Russians left Savitsky and his growing art collection alone – Nukus was too remote for them to know, or care, about some rogue artworks. The Nukus Museum now houses one of the world’s largest and finest collections of Russian avant-garde artistry.
Finally, we arrived at Khiva, an iconic Silk Road city of 90,000 people. We approached the ancient walls, then passed through one of 4 gates into the old city and were met with adobe houses, sandy streets and a dizzying array of decorated, dark blue tiles covering towers, domes, over doorways, everywhere we looked. Alas, there was little evidence of Timerlane’s handiwork. Although he had visited the city, he basically razed it every time he came.
The city has been largely reconstructed. Successive invaders, first Arabs, then Russian cannon bombardments in 1873, destroyed much of the city and whatever was left over, earthquakes and natural wind erosion finished off. Despite the constant renovations, walking through the city takes one back to its heyday as a major stop on the trade routes, selling goods and slaves in the bazaars,
It was also a religious center, first for the Khorezym Persians between 200 BC and 700 AD, when Zoroastrians dominated the city. The Palace of the Kings, fire temples, the 8 pointed star and lack of in-ground burial sites are all telltale signs of the religion that was banished when the Arabs invaded in the 8th century but symbols of Zoroastrian remain, mostly incorporated into Muslim buildings.
Khiva embraced Islam and soon boasted 64 Madras, or religious schools and 50 minarets. Today, no active madras remain and just 13 minarets, victims of the Soviet policy of atheism and modern day apathy toward religion. The majority of Uzbeks are Muslim, but it is a secular state with a very moderate form of Islam being practised by most. Liquor is available, beer is brewed locally, and the hijab, completely veiling a woman’s face, is banned.
The palaces, former madrases and mosques provide the best example of the fanciful tile work. Most of the outside tiles are limited to white, blue and green, a result of the dyes used to create the colours and the high heat needed to set them. Other colours- reds, yellows, golds – would simply burn and turn brown.
A free show is put on for the tourists at the King’s Palace every afternoon, featuring a band, dancing, singing and a re-enactment of the king welcoming envoys with visitors bowing officiously and showing proper decorum in royalty’s presence. Corny yes, but I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported back 500 years.
Bukhara is another ancient trading center on the Silk Road. Timerlane was too late to destroy it -that feat was accomplished in the 12th century by Ghengis Khan. The city didn’t recover until the 16th century when it was made the capital of the region.
There are no walls, but plenty of domes and 3 prominent trading bazaars – one for jewellers, one for caps and the third for money changers. The domes provided ventilation in the summer in the days before air conditioning where temperatures soar over 50 degrees. The bazaars, with their unadorned walls after the Russians carted off mosaics and murals to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the heavily decorated madrases have been turned into stores selling traditional crafts: carpets, embroidered cloth and clothes, tall fur hats and carved wood.
We arrived, at last, at Samarkand, Timerlane’s capital, where he lived and devoted his energies to rebuilding it after Ghengis Khan destroyed it and beautifying it into an Islamic paradise. Five separate sites, mostly reconstructed after earthquakes, try to duplicate its glory days in the 14th century. First is the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, with its soaring tower. Named after Timerlane’s favourite wife, she is also suspected of directing its construction, with Timerlane absent so often on his war campaigns.
Next is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis begun to house the remains of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Later, Timerlane built about 15 mausoleums for his favourite wives, family members and important officials, all covered with magnificent tile work.
The Ulugbek Observatory is the third must-see sight. Constructed atop a hill for Timerlane’s favourite astronomer/scientist, Ulugbek, nothing remains of the original observatory, but a quarter of the giant sextant was uncovered by the Soviets and can be viewed. A small museum devotes itself to Ulugbek’s many accomplishments, including calculating the calendar to within seconds of accuracy, no mean feat in the 15th century.
Timerlane and some of his family are entombed in the Gur Emir Mausoleum. Tiled with ceramics and gold leaf, it is a dazzling monument to Timerlane’s love of Islamic art. Timerlane’s simple black tomb is the one Stalin opened in 1941.
The crowning glory is Registan Square, where 3 giant madrases, each more magnificent than the next, circle the square. Despite being damaged many times by earthquakes and neglect, the basic structure of the madrases remains and each have been restored to their imagined former glory.
I couldn’t leave without one more glimpse of Timerlane, so I walked to his statue and had my photo taken there, the larger-than-life Timerlane overshadowing everything around him.
I came to Uzbekistan in search of the Silk Road and Timerlane and found both. Despite the cities and monuments being heavily restored, the reconstruction has been methodically completed in a manner that tries to remain true to the original. Not so Timerlane’s legacy, which has been whitewashed to such a degree as to make me wonder what else abut this country has been conveniently forgotten. I asked our university educated guide in Samarkand whether Timerlane’s massacring tendencies are taught to children in school. “No,” he replied, “but I was able to learn about him from other sources.”
I understand and appreciate the need for Uzbekistan to adopt a national hero, but to elevate a mass murderer to near sainthood without so much as a mention of his darker side is, to me, unfathomable and unfortunate.
Norway is considered the third most expensive country in the world, after Switzerland and Iceland. After spending 2 weeks here, I wholeheartedly agree. Fortunately, by the time I reached Oslo, following a few days in Bergen and and a week long Hurtigruten cruise, I had figured out some ways to make my time in Oslo financially bearable.
Walk rather than use transit:
Oslo, a city of 650,000, is great for walking. A few years ago, the city rid itself of all parking spots in the center and replaced them with bike lanes and pedestrian only streets, relegating most vehicles to the outskirts. Citizens and tourists alike embraced the car free, environmentally friendly, initiative and today, walking around Oslo is a pleasure. It is made even more so by plenty of zebra crossings, at least one at every intersection, and pedestrians always have priority, except for blue trams which get the right of way over everyone and everything. The Pedestrians First rule is strictly enforced with the result that vehicles always stop for walkers. It never failed to amaze me every time I stepped into the street, I was absolutely certain cars would stop. And they always did.
There are exceptions to the walk everywhere rule. The distance from the airport to the city centre is 45 kilometers, making walking impossible. The round trip train ticket cost 320 Norwegian Kroner’s (NOK) or about $50 Cdn.
I foolishly used a city bus to return to my hotel from the Viking Ship museum, at a cost 56 NOK or $8.00. It was an expensive bus ride, but an hour bike rental from the bike shares would have cost close to it at 49NOK and Oslo has a few too many steep hills for my liking to cycle. I am scared to think what a cab cost. After this experience, I walked everywhere, no matter the distance.
Every Norwegian hotel I stayed at had huge breakfast buffets with a large variety of eggs, cold cut meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and bread, so I loaded up at brunch. No one seemed bothered when I took an orange or a pear for later. All the hotel lobbies came equipped with free snacks – apples, cookies – and in Oslo, tasty liquorice candies in which I also indulged.
Dinner was a different, and expensive proposition. One evening, I walked to the highly touted Mathallen Food Hall, expecting a wide variety of Norwegian foods but inside, Asian and Spanish tapas stalls outnumbered local food offerings and, no surprise, most of the diners were Asian tourists. I ate BBQ chicken with a French potato salad for the relatively inexpensive price of 130 NOK or $25.00.
A cheaper option are the fast food restaurants. A basic Burger King burger went for 33 NOK, but I am not a fan of American fast food chains. Instead I ate a Norwegian staple, a hotdog, for only $8.00.
The unwritten minimum wage in Norway is the equivalent of 17 Euros, or $25.00 Cdn per hour. Waiters are paid well enough without tips and tipping is not expected, which doesn’t explain why every restaurant Point of Sale terminals in Norway have a tip option.
The state has a monopoly on liquor and its prices reflect this. Wine starts at 120 NOK a glass, beer 85 NOK and Prosecco 95 NOK. Paying $15 for a glass of alcohol was enough to induce me to limit my alcohol consumption. Besides, the water here is free, drinkable from the taps and public fountains and some of the best in the world. I survived on mostly water.
See free art: Frogner Park
Frogner Park contains one of the largest outdoor sculpture parks in the world, featuring 212 bronze and granite sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, every single one of them nude and mostly anatomically correct. Vigeland is a much loved Norwegian sculptor who also designed the Nobel Peace prize medal.
I began on the park’s bridge, lined on both sides by human sculptures – men, women, children, men with women, men with children, men with men, etc. before walking to the fountain, where more nude statues undertook different activities. Finally, the Monolith beckoned, with its intertwined – not a surprise- nude statues doing all sorts of things. It is all rather intriguing and gives new meaning to a romp in the park.
Try and see The Scream:
The Scream is Norwegian’s Edvard Munch’s masterpiece, an iconic expressionist painting said to symbolize the anxiety of man against nature. Less philosophically, its main figure is also considered to be the prototype for ET. The figure is on a bridge on a fjord overlooking Oslo, shrieking (the proper translation from German and Norwegian is shriek, not scream) at or in reaction to nature.
According to Wikipedia, there are 4 versions of the painting, 2 of which are in Oslo. I went to the first place, the National Gallery, only to learn that the museum was undergoing renovations and closed until 2020. Free yes, but objective unfulfilled, I walked to the second location – the Edvard Munch Museum – said to house 20,000 of his works, including the pastel version of The Scream.
I should have been suspicious when the lady in the ticket booth advised entrance was free. When I asked where I could see The Scream, I was told most of the museum was under renovation and The Scream was in storage for at least another week. Only a single room, containing a dozen paintings, was open and it was occupied by an Asian tourist group snapping selfies in front of the art. A plaque in the museum talking about the Scream indicated there were 8 versions of it, 4 more than attributed by Wikipedia, but no less illuminating as to their locations.
I had been to 2 art galleries, neither of which cost a dime, but both proved fruitless in my search of The Scream. I left feeling that, while Norway does a lot of things well (fjords, salmon, pedestrian priority), co-ordinating art gallery renovations is not one of them.
The Viking Ship Museum:
Situated in an area rich with museums (The Kon -Tiki and Holocaust museums were nearby), the Viking Ship Museum contains 3 Viking ships, the Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune built around the 9th and 10th centuries. Although each were constructed and used for sailing, they found a second life as burial graves, lying deep below mounds of dirt until 1903 when modern day archeologists dug up the ships, discovering intact ships, troves of treasures, skeletons and items buried with the deceased to accompany them on their journeys.
The Museum displays each of the ships and many of the treasures along with films about the Vikings and their exploits.
Although entry to the museum costs 100NOK, this also includes admission to The Historical Museum. I found this museum rather mundane, but it contains a single significant item: the only existing authentic Viking helmet. Notably, it contains no horns, which were a fanciful addition by the composer Wagner, whose costume designer added horns for his opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Take a Free Walking Tour:
Free Walking Tours Oslo offers daily tours in English and Spanish. The English tour I attended was led by Tamil, a Catalan (“not Spaniard”, he said) living in Oslo. We met at the tiger statue in front of the central train station and walked around. Tamil gave us a history of the city, talked about the architecture, the food scene, why prices were so high and took us to look at some of the city’s gems: the boxy, modern opera house on the water, the classical national theatre, the royal palace, 3 city halls, etc.
For the first time in Norway, I saw some beggars, but Tamil explained they were from Romania, coming up in May and leaving in late September. The tour was informative and a good introduction to the city. The tours are never free; you tip what you think it was worth. I gave 100 NOK, an amount that seemed in line with what others were donating.
Don’t use a laundromat:
I needed clean clothes, so stupidly took a load of washing to a nearby DIY laundromat. Buying the detergent was a not unreasonable 20 NOK, but the washing machine cost 85 NOK and the dryer a ridiculous 120 NOK. Over $30 for a load of wash and the machines were not great. Next time I’ll handwash in the hotel sink.
Oslo is a lovely city in a beautiful country. Once I found a few ways to lessen the pain caused by the ridiculous prices, I quite enjoyed it.
Türkmenistan is, in my opinion, one of the strangest countries I have ever visited and I have been to over 100, although not to North Korea to which it invites comparisons. For example, North Korea has an authoritarian regime led by Kim Jong-un while Turkmenistan has Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, a dictator “elected” in 2006 with 98% of the vote following the death of Turkmenistan’s first president for life, a former communist in the USSR who embraced a form of socialist/nationalism upon Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991. Both the North Korean and Turkmenistan dictators demand excessive personal portraits be displayed, embark on ostentatious building schemes and starve their populace. Another similarity: North Korea attracted 10,000 tourists in 2016, many from China while Turkmenistan had just 7,000, half Iranians.
Like North Korea, Turkmenistan is a secretive society where government misinformation is rife and criticism of the government or Mr. Berdimuhamedow is not tolerated. According to Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org/worldreport/2019/country-chapters/Turkmenistan), dissidents are quickly arrested, summarily imprisoned and disappear. Religious and sexual freedom are non-existent. Foreign media is denied access. Arbitrary laws, like no black cars, exist.
There are, however, differences. While North Korea marches forth on the path towards nuclear armament in its war with South Korea and the rest of the world, Turkmenistan has no such weapons (to my knowledge) or ambitions. It maintains a policy of strict neutrality, rejecting overtures by the US, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia (it is a Muslim country) for assistance, requests to use its lands or accepting foreign aid. It did, however, have a tense relationship with its neighbor Uzbekistan, stemming from a botched assassination attempt of the former Turkmenistan president in 2002 and disputes over border boundaries. A visit by Mr. Berdimuhamedow in 2017 to Uzbekistan seems to have improved relations, at least according to an Uzbek government release (http://uza.uz/en/politics/Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-a-new-stage-of-cooperation-24-04-2018).
Despite trying to tightly control information in and about the country and enforce draconian laws, there are plenty of holes and leakage. Google is acceptable while Facebook is blocked but everyone seems to know the workaround (use a VPN) and it is tolerated. Smoking and alcohol are officially illegal, yet the government sells cigarettes in state-run stores to anyone over 18. Wine from Italy, France and Georgia are for sale in the hotel bar, although at astronomical prices ($10 per glass) and a number of beer breweries are in the country. Attempts to limit foreign criticism about Mr. Berdimuhamedow have been largely unsuccessful; one of the most flagrant international diatribes against him is by John Oliver, the US late night comedian, whose scathing 22 minute monologue contains very unflattering footage of Mr. Berdimuhamedow (https://Youtu.be/-9QYu8LtH2E), highlighted by repeated showings of him falling off a horse.
I had to go. Thus, I made the trek in September, 2019, with the tour group Adventures Abroad, and emerged completely fascinated, but also saddened, by the country.
Part of the reason Turkmenistan has so few visitors is that getting into the country is no easy task. A tourist visa is needed for citizens of every country and to acquire one requires maneuvering though a bureaucratic nightmare ultimately involving getting a letter of invitation from the government, in our case obtained via the local travel agency. A transit visa is theoretically possible, but varies in length from 3-7 days depending on the vagaries of the government bureaucrat whose desk it lands upon. Visas are generally denied for certain holidays, specifically September 27, Independence Day, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, ours included September 27.
A travel agent is also needed as tourists cannot wander the country unattended, just like North Korea’s minders, but a tad more liberal. We could walk unchaperoned on the main city streets and into the malls, but with strict instructions as to photography prohibitions, no smoking in public as it is banned and not saying anything negative about Mr. Berdimuhamedow or his policies. Despite being in the country on Independence Day, we could not (and did not) watch the parades of soldiers, musical bands and dancing children as that can only be done by special invitation and from a designated viewing zone.
Our first glimpse of Türkmenistan was from the Uzbek border crossing near the Türkmenistan town of Daşoguz. After clearing the efficient Uzbek departure procedures, we were met at a 14 foot high fence. At the gate, a Turkmen guard checked our passports against a pre-approved list. Satisfied the 18 members of our group had the appropriate clearance, we were ushered to the side. A mile and a half of no man’s land awaited over which our luggage might be dragged (no porters exist), but today we were lucky. A decrepit white bus with torn upholstery and cracked windows covered in filthy clothes ferried us to the distant border building.
A guard clutching a thermometer greeted us, checking our temperature as we again showed our passports. A long table held custom forms only in Turkmen to be completed by everyone. Our Turkmen guide, Jabor, joined us at the table and following his instructions, we filled in our names, nationalities, dates of birth, hotel and checked “no” to a long list of untranslated and, therefore, incomprehensible, questions. Forms filled out, we went to another door where our passports were checked for the 3rd time. A 15 minute wait ensued, during which a large Korean tour group came into the small room and squished everyone against the door.
One by one, we were called to the single working immigration officer, sitting behind a wooden cage-like barred counter resembling a 1920’s bank. As my turn came, he asked for my passport and instructed me to press first my right thumb onto a fingerprint machine, then the left. Fingerprinting completed, he handed me back my passport, now sporting a bright green full page size visa and said “welcome to Türkmenistan.”
Scanning machines, one for people and another for luggage, were next. We were all directed to walk around the human scanning machine and our luggage went through unchallenged. A guard on the other side took the forms we had filled out. Unfortunately, one of our group had used an unacceptable green pen. He was sent to the side and made to do the form again, this time using a blue pen. Another was asked whether he had any medications. When he replied “yes”, the guard waived him on without further question or inspection. Before exiting the building, standing at the doors, another guard did the 5th passport check. Finally, a short walk to the exit gate, where we underwent the 6th and final passport check and we were officially and legally in Turkmenistan.
Our entry had taken only an hour and a half, the shortest time ever according to our Canadian guide, Chris.
Stupid Soviet Engineering Stories: The Darvaza Gas Crater/Gates to Hell
From Daşoguz, a convoy of Toyota 4 by 4’s drove us into the desert. Not your average Corollas, but $100,000 Land Cruiser Prado’s. The “highway” was asphalt but washboard bumpy most of the way. The 4 by 4’s weren’t really needed until 300 kilometers later, when we turned off the highway and onto a half gravel/half sand road for 10 minutes. Ahead, we could see the crater.
Supposedly in 1971 (the date is not certain due to Soviet and Turkmenistan secrecy – it may have happened 10 years before or 10 years after), the Soviets constructed an oil rig on top of a natural gas crater to determine the possible extent of oil and gas below the Karakum desert. The rig collapsed into the ground causing a giant sinkhole to open. Soviet scientists, concerned that the methane gas spewing into the air might be harmful to nearby villagers, deliberately set it afire, expecting it to burn out within weeks.
Forty-eight years later, the fire is still burning.The Soviets forgot to figure out how much methane existed or didn’t think that mattered when they set the crater ablaze. The crater’s current diameter measures about 70 meters or the size of a football field and no one knows if, or when, it will burn itself out.
We visited, first just before sunset, then after dark where the flames lit up the night sky. A fence stands around the crater, presumably to stop idiots like the one we saw from getting too close. As I approached, the heat from the flames below burned my eyes and the hot air distorted into visible waves of heat.
Aptly named The Gates to Hell, the fire mesmerized and unnerved me. Fascinating as the flames were to watch, I couldn’t help thinking I had joined the ranks of the dark tourist – macabre individuals who chase after disaster zones and human catastrophes in search of mankind’s worst moments. Beautiful, and certainly deserving of its nickname, I couldn’t think of any good reason why I was there.
Marbleouse Ashvegas Ashgabat:
Following a 4 hour drive in the dark, forbidding Karakum desert, our arrival at midnight into Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city reminded my of Dorthy leaving Kansas and entering Oz, except whiter. A few years ago, the original President decreed that all new government buildings would henceforth be constructed from white Carreras marble, both because the colour reflected and cooled the harsh summer sun (temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees Celcius) and because white is considered good luck. One doesn’t wish a Turkmen “a good holiday” but rather “a white holiday.”
In the new city center, the white buildings are blinding. Offices, high rise apartments, hotels, shopping malls, theatres, museums, water fountains, government buildings, etc. all display extensive white marble, lots of neon lights just slightly more subdued than Las Vegas and soaring white marble columns, many topped with domes in marble, glass and gold. In fact, gold seems to be the decorative colour of choice. Styles run the gamut – a library shaped like a book, Greek Pantheon lookalikes, imaginative spaceships, a mosque shaped like the Dome of the Rock and a stadium sporting the giant head of a horse, mimicking the country and president’s obsessions with the much beloved Ahal-Teke breed.
The pictures are far more descriptive than I can ever be:
The roads are broad, sparkling silver grey with boulevards sporting trees and well tended flowers, and wide sidewalks with nary a crack or tile out of place. Statues and structures serving no apparent purpose other than decoration abound. The streets are pristine, with garbage kept at bay by an army of street cleaners who diligently worked from before dawn to dusk.
Our hotel was The Ashgabat Sport Hotel, clad in Carreras marble, with a cavernous lobby replete with pillars wrapped in gold vines and a curving staircase. My room was luxurious, bordering on gaudy, foot-tall moldings, a wall lined with closets, heavy curtains, a chandelier, a chaise lounge and a bathroom with a bathtub and separate shower stall. Everything worked well, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was staying in a parody, someone’s idea of a bad joke of opulence.
All is not as perfect as initial impressions would leave one to believe. Many of the newly built marble office buildings and storefronts are empty. The impressive sports complex, built for the 2017 Asian Games, stands abandoned except for the stadium and the monorail has not been used for a few years. Outside of the center are occupied ugly Soviet style rectangular apartment buildings surrounded further out by one and two story brick houses where the roads show cracks and sidewalks do not exist. Rusty, banged up Ladas are more common than Toyotas. Our buses always raced past these areas, as though we weren’t supposed to see this side of Ashgabat.
Fifteen kilometers from Ashgabat are the ruins of Nisa, which translates to forgotten valley. Begun in the 3rd century BC by the Parthians, it enjoyed success as an early Silk Road city, where it taxed silk coming from China, earning the wrath of the Romans who tried to capture the city in 53 BC. Failing, they left it alone until the 3rd century AD when the Persians, all Zoroastrians, took the city, settled there, built a fire temple and used Roman prisoners of war to learn the art of building arches.
Back in Ashgabat, we witnessed yet another Mr. Berdimuhamedow obsession, Guinness Book of World Record accomplishments. Amongst them, the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel, the world’s largest indoor swimming pool and the world’s largest carpet, located in the Ashgabat Carpet Museum beside the omnipresent portrait of Mr. Berdimuhamedow:
Not surprisingly, Ashgabat also holds the record for most white marble buildings, 543 as of 2013.
Across the hotel was a giant shopping mall, where we were allowed to go. I braved crossing the street, where aggressive drivers, all men, totally ignored the zebra crossings in their haste to get somewhere a few seconds quicker and walked into a four story atrium in the mall’s centre. All around, stores offered women’s dresses, children’s toys and perfume for sale. No familiar name brands shouted out except a Nine West shoe store which was likely a knock-off.
I went up to the escalators to the food fair behind the children’s playground in search of a quick dinner. Six or 7 restaurants provided both sit-in and takeaway service, although fast food would be a misnomer. Lamb ribs would take 25 minutes and shish kebab 20 minutes, so I settled for a tasty 10 minute hamburger costing $5.00.
As a foreigner, I was lucky to be able to afford the non-subsidized prices. Many locals rely on heavily subsidized staples like flour, rice and milk. According to a recent report, queues for food are long and commonplace (https://www.refl.org/a/food-shortages-Ashgabat-Türkmenistan/30187280.html). Apparently the country underwent a severe economic crisis in 2018, resulting in the government embarking on its usual remedy – providing just enough of whatever triggered the dissatisfaction to quell discourse – but failing to make any real change.
All of the population are provided with free education and health care and heavily subsidized electricity, water, gas and food if they can find it. Seventy percent of the people work for the government and thus receive free housing which, after 10 years of employment, they own. Oddly, most of the Carreras marble high rise apartments we saw showed no signs of habitation. Jabor suggested they were not yet occupied as they had just been recently completed.
This is all paid for by gas – Turkmenistan has the 2nd largest natural gas field and reserves (behind Iran) and is, by most accounts, very wealthy. Sadly, much of the wealth goes toward grandiose building projects and buying Guinness World records.
A 40 minute flight from Ashgabat lies the modern town of Mary, situated close to the ancient site of Merv, the largest Silk Road city in the 11th and 12th centuries. Ruins of Merv 1 date from the 6th century BC. One of Alexander the Great’s generals founded Merv 2 nearby, desiring a fancier city and a Hellenistic city existed there until the Seljuks, a Muslim empire, appropriated the region and constructed Merv 3 in the 8th century. It was famous for its 12 libraries, all of which were destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Led by one of Ghengis Khan’s sons, the Mongols razed the city and massacred its 500,000 inhabitants. It never regained its former glory.
This much of Turkmenistan’s history is clear, but the origin of the Turkmen is murky. The government traces their beginnings to Turkic speaking Oghuz tribes from Mongolia in the 8th century AD, Jabor said they came from near the Attai mountains in Siberia in the 9th century and our more cynical guide in Uzbekistan attributed their arrival only in the 16th century, suggesting that the longer lineage is merely a ploy to establish a better claim to the lands.
What is certain is the Russians captured the area in 1881 and annexed it into the Russian Empire where it remained until 1991. Russia was attracted to the area for several reasons: cotton, competitiveness with Britain during the Great Game and potential access to India, a spiritual connection to the river Oxus, said to contain a God, revenge for the 1717 killing of 2000 Russian soldiers led by Prince Bekovitch who had tried to capture Khiva and stopping the abduction of Russians for sale as slaves by the Turkmen.
It is equally apparent Turkmenistan does not look back to its Soviet days fondly. Stalin, worried a large, coherent central Asian republic might be a challenging force to quash, employed a strategy of conquer and divide, setting up 5 central Asian republics and encouraging differences between each. Turkmen felt particularly hard done by- claiming excessive oppression by Stalin and the worst healthcare in the USSR. The near complete destruction of Ashgabat in 1948 by an earthquake with the death of over 100,000 inhabitants followed by slow reconstruction by the Soviets did little to endear the Russians to the Turkmens. Jabor had a bevy of anti-Brezhnev jokes with which he regaled us on the bus rides to the different sites. My favourite had an aide running up to Brezhnev:
“Very bad news,” he said, “the Americans have launched a rocket and put a man on the moon.”
“That is not good. Us Russians must do something better to prove our superiority,” replied Brezhnev.
“But what?” Asked the aid.
“I know, “ said Brezhnev, “we can put a man on the sun!”
“Problem,” retorted the aid, “but the sun is too hot.”
“No problem,” said Brezhnev, “he can land there at night.”
We toured the ancient ruins, then the 12th century mausoleum of Sultan Sandzhar or maybe that of a famous Sufi religious figure, Abu-Said Mitkhene – no one is quite sure who is buried beneath the tomb – but it is definitely a popular pilgrimage site. All visitors are invited to partake in a free meal (provided by the government), cooked in giant vats by women eager to share their food. We indulged in bowls of steaming hot rice pudding and freshly baked bread.
Our final stop in Mary was the Mary Museum. Although closed for Independence Day, we were allowed in but without the local museum guide. This was probably a godsend as most of the museum was filled with Turkmenistan crafts – carpets, dress, weapons – and we had already been subjected to a rather dry recitation on how carpets are made, their regional distinctions, their uses, etc. in Ashgabat.
What we missed, according to Chris who had previously attended, was the guide walking around the initial room, dedicated to Mr. Berdimuhamedow. Pictures of his sporting prowess prevailed – the exalted leader playing tennis, kicking a soccer ball, doing judo, riding a horse – thankfully all with his shirt on unlike Putin. Portraits indicate Mr. Berdimuhamedow also loves driving a SUV and standing in front of yachts, but it is not all fun and games. There is Mr. Berdimuhamedow beside a yurt, in a cotton field, in a textile factory, at a university, with children, lots of children. In every photo and portrait, his perfect white teeth sparkle; he was, after all a dentist by training although hints the pictures were photoshopped exist. Mr. Berdimuhamedow talents are not limited to being in a lot of photos. He also writes books on various subjects: horses and 2 on display about carpets and Turkmen food and hospitality. Obviously, a very talented individual whose picture rightly deserves to be everywhere – outside mosques, on the main train station, in restaurants and in the lobbies of museums:
My initial reaction to Turkmenistan was positive. I loved the quirkiness of the crater and the craziness of all the marble buildings in the cities. Despite their over-the-top decor, the hotels were the best I have stayed in to date during my travels on the Silk Road. The people, even the border guards, have been uniformly friendly, welcoming and eager participants in photo ops. Except for the madcap drivers, I felt completely safe.
But leaving the country to read on the internet about the oppression, the hunger and the human rights abuses dampens my enthusiasm. Signs all was not as rosy as the government would have us believe existed in the country, but the depth of the dichotomy between what we saw and were told and the reality is disturbing. I suspect North Korea would be about the same.
I have long expressed my disdain for cruises and cruise ships, monstrosities which dump thousands of photo seeking tourists in money hungry ports for a few hours, or usher them onto specially chartered buses to take them to swim with the dolphins or get their hair braided or race through the highlights of a city in only 3 hours, thus allowing the cruisers to claim they have had an authentic foreign experience.
My stance against cruises softened a bit during a week long stay in the Caribbean island of Curaco last year. After doing nothing but read, sunbathe and drink for a few days, I joined a Highlights of Curaco tour, where the guide tried her best to make Curaco interesting for 3 hours. This involved visiting a Curaco liqueur “factory” which was nothing more than a front for a store selling different types of Curaco, a drive to a viewpoint of a bay with turquoise blue waters and an extended stop at a beach requiring payment to use, except for the overpriced restaurants. At the end of the tour, I understood why people didn’t spend more than a few hours on Curaco. Unless you want to scuba dive or sunbathe or live there, the place is not worth more than a cruise ship stop.
Ditto for Dubrovnik, my latest love-to-hate destination and a star on the cruise ship circuit. After spending a night there, I was envious of those cruise ship passengers who could leave after a few hours, having seen the highlights and presumably not spent a minor fortune eating a crappy meal. A plate of fried octopus cost in excess of $30 and a mediocre pizza could not be found for under $20. Maybe those cruisers who went back to the ship for lunch and dinner had it right after all.
Thus, I found myself booking a 7 day, 6 night cruise on the Trollfjord, a ship in the Hurtigruten line that traverses the fjords of Norway. In defence of my hypocrisy, the Trollfjord is a working ferry, transporting cars, freight, the mail and about 300 passengers, both tourists and locals, along the Norwegian coast, a lifeline for the numerous towns and villages there. A different Hurtigruten ferry leaves Bergen every day for the north, ensuring transport for goods and people living in Norway’s north. It is also, without doubt, the only way to truly appreciate the beauty of the fjords.
As a working ferry, the Trollfjord doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a gigantic cruise ship – no swimming pool (there is a jacuzzi), no evening shows featuring Broadway caliber dancers or Cirque de Soleil acrobats but rather expedition leaders talking about the lifestyle of the Sami natives, a film about Russian trade with its northern neighbor and no late evening chocolate buffet – but the rooms are decent, there is a walking deck, a few bars where a glass of wine cost $20 and the food local, meaning lots of salmon, Arctic char and lingonberries.
We departed from Bergen in the evening, toasting (after paying another $20 for a glass of champagne) a good trip and marvelling at the lovely vista that is Bergen at night.
I looked around at the other passengers. A few people with babies, a pair of well behaved teenagers and lots of elderly people being pushed in wheelchairs. My guess is there were more wheelchairs than people under 30. The average age seemed to be over 75, lots of people used walkers or canes and I felt young. Numerous languages were spoken and all announcements were in English, Norwegian and German. I met one other couple from Canada, along with a few Norwegians and Swedes.
An expedition team was aboard, offering on-boat talks and off-boat excursions at many of the stops, sometimes with the tour bus catching up to the ship at the next stop. The excursions were expensive- $200 each for a group walking tour of a city and going much higher for the likes of Mountain Hike in the Hjorundfjord or Farm Visit in Lofoten or Meet the Vikings. Exploring the cities by myself was free so I passed on the excursions. Besides, in many ports, the tourist office was conveniently located at the dock.
Stops along the coast:
Each ferry schedule differs, depending on where people or freight needs to be dropped off/picked up and, of course, the weather. Our first stop was at a tiny hamlet called Floro where we tendered to the land and walked along the only road a few hundred metres to the single store in town. The selection wasn’t great but no one was here for the shopping. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of small communities line the coast, protected from the sea by the fjords and mountains, where fishermen have made a living since time immemorial.
Today, the region has diversified with oil services and tourism is big business. But Trondheim, a city of 190,000, and the 4th largest in Norway was an old city. The former capital under the Vikings, its Nidaros Cathedral dates from 1070 and is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Scandinavia.
Another stop, Alesund is known for its turrets. In 1904, its mostly wooden buildings were destroyed by fire. In order to rebuild, the city imported architects from Germany who favoured neoclassical styles heavy with turrets. Their preference is visible in the cityscape today, along with ornate decorations.
On our 3rd day, we passed the 66.33 degree parallel, the start of the Arctic Circle. A few hours later we stopped at our first Arctic town, Bodø. Years ago, when I first stepped onto the Antarctic peninsula, we were greeted by snow, penguins and seals, so I was expecting something similar – not the penguins – but maybe a reindeer or two and a glacier. No such luck. The Bodø pier looked like any working pier, with roads leading to it and warehouses all around. No animals or snow greeted us, just a harsh wind and a threatening grey sky.
The lousy weather followed us up the coast, into the Lofoten Islands famous for its codfish. Not even the dark clouds masked the beauty of the fjords, deep, blue water with mountains lush with trees and houses, in the ubiquitous barnyard red and golden yellows, sitting on yards of light green grass neatly mowed. A boat or two were always moored nearby.
Tromsø is the jumping off point for Arctic adventurers and thrill seekers, its main streets lined with stores selling outdoor apparel and tour companies offering adventure experiences. Our stop was 4 hours long here, so I walked over a concrete arch bridge to the Arctic Cathedral, took a few photos and walked back. I preferred the wooden Tromso Domkirke with its carefully tended surrounding garden, but other than the churches, the town was rather bland.
The ferry continued to sail to the Northern Cape, to Honningsvåg, at 71 degrees north and only 34 kilometers to the Russian border. Many of my fellow passengers took excursions to the Russian border, but as I had been to Russia previously, felt no desire to repeat. I could only speculate that any Russian town near the border might lack the reliable electricity, good wifi, free public toilets, paved roads and general prosperity that Honningsvåg displayed. Plus, it probably didn’t have trolls.
Interesting as the towns were, the star of the cruise was the scenery and it did not disappoint. Norway’s coast, as the crow flies, is 2,650 kilometers long, but add the fjords and the real coastline is closer to 100,000 kilometers. The fjords are beautiful – think deep blue waters, green mountains, pale blue skies (except for two rainy days) with little settlements providing bursts of red or yellow. It was mid-September, but the trees had already started to turn amber and yellow in places. Further north, trees were absent, replaced by lichen then barren browny grey mountain peaks. It was mostly too early for snow, but the temperature barely reached 0 after Tromsø.
On some cruises, depending on the time of year, whales are seen. September was not a good time for animal sightings, but on the last night of the cruise, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the northern lights were visible. I raced outside and was lucky to briefly glimpse the effervescent green lights dancing across the sky. It was not the spectacular, light-up-the-sky display with green flashes seen in Instagram photos, but given how early we were in the season (prime viewing is November to February) and my disappointment in failing to see them in Iceland, I was thrilled.
The Norwegian fjords are captivating and the Hurtigruten ferry offers plenty of spectacular viewing options in comfortable surroundings. Seven days aboard it didn’t convert me into a cruise fan, but it is definitely the best way to see the fjords. I’m glad I splurged for the experience.