Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Cape Town Trance Music Scene

We've settled into a new apartment in Cape Town closer to the beach and in a better area. It was a bit of a nightmare because the previous tenants owned a dog. They locked the poor thing up all day and it peed all over the house. Then they stopped paying rent.

When we moved into the apartment it smelled of dog pee, had no hot water and had bad leaks in the kitchen. Most of the first week was spent waiting for various trades people. On top of that they lady who owns the apartment lives in the UK and compensated for the distace with, to put it kindly, great attention to detail. We had to do a complete inventory of the contents down to the number of cheap plastic shot-glasses in the cupboards. The lease agreement was 20 pages long. We were then expected to pay an administration fee for the labor in doing this inventory!

As home owners ourselves we were as sympathetic as we could be. We didn't pay the administration fee given how much time we took to meet all the trades people, but we tried to be as helpful as possible, and to the owners credit she got right onto getting all the problems fixed. We now have new carpets and are enjoying a great apartment close to the beach. We no longer have to burn incense around the clock.

From our new home we finally started connecting to the cool stuff in Cape Town a bit. Down the street from us is a Psy-Trance pizza shop which is just one of the many facets of the incredibly
active Trance Music scene here. For those people who don't know what trance music is, it is basically a form of electronic music commonly associated with all night dance parties. If you haven't been to an all night dance party, you've probably never heard the music. It isn't something you will typically hear on the radio.

In Calgary the Trance music scene is limited to maybe a half-dozen parties a year, most of which are private or semi-private events held for a few hundred people. I've always enjoyed going to these parties as I love the music and I can dance until my legs fall off. In Cape Town the scene if far bigger. There are at least 3 clubs which have weekly trance nights with visiting DJs. On top of this there are outdoor parties almost every weekend for 8 months of the year, each of which can draw thousands of people. Most of the parties feature a host of artists from all over the world. The parties are held in private venues like farms and forest preservers and many of them have rivers to swim in and places to camp. We went to our first party last weekend and really enjoyed it. On New Years we are going to a 3 day party in the winelands that has hot showers and a dam to swim in.

Another really nice thing about the parties here is that because they are private events law enforcement generally keeps a low profile. Certainly there are many people who take drugs at these parties, and I can't argue that some of them are potentially harming themselves. Yet I've never seen any evidence that the drug taking at music parties is any more harmful than the consumption of alcohol in any western city on a Friday night. The South African police for the most part seem to agree and they let people have fun as long as they don't cause problems.

By comparison, a few years ago I was at a party in Vancouver with some friends when the police showed up at 2 AM and kicked everyone out. In Vancouver it is (was?) illegal to dance after 2AM, a rule which the city the nickname "The Land that Fun Forgot". I would personally question the wisdom of sending 200 highly inebriated people to their cars at 2 AM in the morning, but I guess that is why I'm not in law enforcement.

In Cape Town we danced through the night and had a great time. There was security there to help keep people safe but they weren't there to spoil the fun. Many people brought tents so that they could nap for a while the next day before heading home. I guess this is why Cape Town has a reputation as such a fun city. We've certainly enjoyed it so far!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blame South Africa for the Tragedy in Zimbabwe

One of the most amazing things about South Africa is just how multi-cultural it is. And I'm not just talking about the mixture of white and black and colored and indian people. When we talk to people on the streets we run into people from all over Africa. There are people from Ghana, DRC, Malawi, Namibia, and every other country you can name.

The saddest is the people from Zimbabwe. Zim (as they call it here in the papers) borders on South Africa and as Mugabe has systematically destroyed the country it has caused somewhat of a refuge crisis here. The cholera epidemic that has started with the rainy season, combined with the complete collapse of the Zimbabwe economy, has caused straving, sick refugees to flood across the borders. To their credit the South African government is trying their best to help them, although on an individual level life for the refugees is very hard.

The situation for Zimbabweans in South Africa is similar to that of imigrants all over the world. They are desperate and poor and therefor they are willing to do work that local people don't want to do, for salaries that local people wouldn't want to be paid. The result is that local people resent them and accuse them of stealing jobs. In South Africa this got to the point where imigrants were being burned alive on the streets in anti-immigration riots. I talked to one man who sells things to tourists down the road from here who said that he had lived in a township for years when the riots started and he had to flee when the local people came to burn down his house. He was lucky that he had savings in a bank and most of his supplies in storage but he says many of his friends lost everything they owned.

There can be little doubt now that there will be a tradgedy of enormous proportion in Zimbabwe this coming year. The economy has completely collapsed with the value of the currency falling by 50% every two hours last week. There is no food production, the water supply is contaminated with cholera, and the government has ceased to function. Solidiers were running rampant on the streets last week because they hadn't been paid and were trying to steal their salaries. Mugabe had a bunch of people randomly executed to restore order but it is unlikely to last as more people starve and die.

Much of the blame for the situation in Zimbabwe rests squarely on the shoulders of the South African government (the ANC). Sure, Mugabe is an evil bastard, but it is the ANC that has actively worked to keep him in power all these years. Every time Mugabe steals an election the ANC hails him as a great democrat and an example for Africa. Every time people attempt to bring Mugabe to justice or suggest pressuring him to leave, the ANC blocks the action and says they will stand by him. Post-apartheid South Africa had a strong start as a moderate country and a voice of freedom around the world. It is a real shame that only 15 years later these principles have been so completely forgotten that the ANC is willing to let millions of Zimbabweans continue to suffer.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Monkeys and Penguins

We've decided to spend another two months in Cape Town.  Lara is doing some volunteer work with a children's shelter to get an idea of the volunteer sector here and I'm playing around with writing a nove. On Monday we are moving to a new apartment close to the beach in a place called Sea Point. It's about 5 minutes from downtown Cape Town so it'll still be very central.

South African has been great so far but I haven't talked about any of our trips so I thought I'd tell you about two cute animal experiences we had.

A few weeks ago we went to a place called World of Birds which is a big animal rescue place on the Cape Peninsula. Almost all the animals at World of Birds are injured animals which couldn't be re-released, and one thing that makes it really nice is that you can often go right into the cages with them and see the up close. While I loved the owls and parrots and other birds the best experience by far was the monkeys. They have a big forested cage which is full of spider monkeys, and you can go in with them. The monkeys are about the size of a beer b

ottle and are very tame and will crawl all over you. They are also very clever so they stick their hands into your pockets, try to open zippers on backpacks, etc...

Lara is the big one in the middle

We hung around for a while and one of the volunteers showed us that she had some raisins. She gave the raisins to me and the monkeys went wild. I had about 15 of them on me, all of them trying to open my fist with their tiny little paws. It was very, very cute although the monkeys do have a habit of peeing on you from time to time and my shirt smelled a little ripe the next day.

The other really great place we went to was Boulder's Beach, which is one of the few on-shore nesting places for African Penguins. We knew we were in for a treat when we saw a sign that said “look out for Penguins under vehicles.” There were penguins everywhere on the beach although they were molting so they weren't in the water. The molting made them look very cute though because a lot of them had big clumps of fluffy winter feathers mixed with the sleeker summer feathers.

Lara admires a penguin on the beach.

The Penguins were so tame that we could just walk up and grab them if we wanted to, although we didn't because that would be bad form. Actually, penguins also have very big beaks that rip small fishes apart so I imagine they could do some pretty serious damage.

I have to say I do like the more interactive approach where you can get very close to the animals. I can appreciate the logic of zoos where they keep a real gap between the humans and the animals, but in World of Birds it seemed to me that the animals enjoyed having the people around. Birds, especially parrots and other clever social ones, get bored easily and having people close by can be very stimulating if they are tame enough not to be frightened.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

After Apartheid

When people think of South Africa often the first thing that comes to mind is apartheid. South Africa was certainly not unique in having racism as part of government policy. In the 1950s the United States was also deeply segregated, and first nations people in Canada live on reservations. The South African difference was one of scale; whites were outnumbered nearly ten to one.

South Africa remains a very racially divided country. Some of these divisions are voluntary. When we walk through Cape Town we see some restaurants and shops that are full of white people, and some that are full of black people. Bars work much the same way. Sometimes this is price related, but often it is cultural. Blacks do have a different culture and the choice of music and food in an establishment will change who that establishment appeals so. If somebody opened a dance club in Calgary that played Indian Rock videos and served Dahl it would get a very different audience than one that played rap music.

The bigger divisions are economic though. Since the end of Apartheid, the incomes of Indians have risen sharply and are now on par with those of whites. Black incomes however have seen little progress. So while whites can't send their kids to white only schools and live in white neighborhoods, they can certainly send their kids to expensive private schools and live in expensive neighborhoods. While some blacks have moved in they are still a tiny minority.

Initially there was hope that with blacks running the country conditions would improve rapidly. And while some things have gotten better, South Africa certainly hasn't turned into the tolerant multiracial democracy that many people had hoped for. While Nelson Mandela was a wonderful surprise, the current leadership of the ANC have been a profound disappointment. The post Mandela ANC has two main claims to fame: their unwavering support for unsavory dictators like Robert Mugabe who they hold up as a paragon of democracy, and destructive AIDS policies which blamed the disease on a white conspiracy rather than a virus.

What the ANC haven't done is make any progress in tackling the vast underemployment of the black population. Some of the attempts have actually been counter productive. Affirmative action programs have removed many qualified whites from their jobs and replaced them with blacks. Unfortunately, many of the whites were highly-educated and experienced professionals while, to be blunt, many of the replacements aren't. The result has been catastrophic on two levels. First of all huge numbers of educated whites are fleeing the country because they have trouble getting jobs in the current climate. Nearly everyone we talk to has family living overseas. Secondly, lots of jobs are now filled by people who are under-qualified, with enormous consequences to how well things run.

For all the problems though, South Africa would be unrecognizable to somebody who lived here under the apartheid days. Racial mixing is unusual on a close friendship level, but most white people now work with black people, live near at least some black neighbors, and have at least some black children in their schools. There is also a palpable sense that the blacks are in charge and that, for better or for worse, it is them who will determine the fate of South Africa.

Ending Apartheid was the easy step for South Africa compared to what will come ahead. Two hundred years ago power was found only at the point of a spear. Even today tribal hatreds run deep and people here don't see themselves as black or white, they see themselves as Zulu or Xhosa. The problem is that democratic governments cannot function properly in such an environment. As long as people identify more strongly with their tribe than with their neighbors then power in politics lies in appealing to old tribal hatreds. Canadian politics actually suffers a version of this problem; our federal politics is hamstrung by the presence of a separatist party chosen unfailingly by our French-speaking tribe.

For South Africa to flourish people must put aside their tribal hatreds and choose a government based on its ability to rule. Mandela recognized this. Unfortunately the current ANC government has recognized that as long as the tribal divisions exist there will be no threat to them. There are few governments that have the integrity to pursue policies that would result in them eventually losing power. The flame of democracy in South Africa has nearly burned out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Safety in South Africa

Undoubtedly the biggest concern most people have about traveling in South Africa is the security situation. South Africa has one of the highest rape and murder rates in the world, and everyone has heard the stories of daylight car-jacking on the streets of Johannesburg. After the safe and friendly countries of Central Asia, Lara and I were more than a little intimidated at the thoughts of spending every waking moment in fear of our lives.

The reality of course is far different than what you read in the media. In most ways the South African security situation is every bit as bad as it has been made out to be. Even here in Cape Town, arguably one of the safest parts of the whole country, most people live behind electric fences and alarm systems. At night the streets are strangely silent. There are a few streets where there is active night-life; security is provided by dozens of police in reflective yellow jackets. But you go there and back in a taxi, even if you live nearby. Many people won't even drive there because they would have to park in the surrounding neighborhoods and walk back to their cars in the dark.

South Africans we talk to are no more reassuring. We were warned to keep the doors of our car locked, to not go hiking alone, and to stay away from quiet streets, even in daylight. It seems everyone has a story of being robbed at gun-point or carjacked. One woman we talked to had been raped; a masked man grabbed her as she put he keys in the front door of her own house in a good neighborhood.

Yet, although we are constantly aware, these things somehow fade into the background. People still go about their lives. We still go walking downtown in the daytime. We still go to the video store after dinner. We still go hiking in the mountains. We are alert, but we do not live in constant fear.

But that is not to say that there is no impact. It is strangely oppressive to sit in our apartment at night, looking down on the city six stories below and feeling afraid to walk in the streets. After the open friendliness of the people of Central Asia it saddens us to be on constant alert, aware that anyone who comes up to talk to us may be a distraction for a bag snatcher or a pick-pocket. South Africa is a beautiful country that is well worth visiting. Most tourists have little to fear from the security situation; hotels, parks, and other tourist hot spots generally have good security. Yet I don't know that I could live here, imprisoned in my own house by an electric fence, and feeling a small joint of fear every time somebody walks past my car at an intersection.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fear and Loathing in the Used Car Lot

Few things in life cause me more anxiety than buying a used vehicle. I've had several bad experiences. Used vehicles are expensive and unpredictable and I've heard the horror stories about people who drove a vehicle off the lot only to have it fall apart at the next corner. And since I know nothing about cars I'm entirely at the mercy of the dealers. Buying a car in South Africa was the last thing I wanted to do. It was also the first thing we needed to do. South Africa isn't a place that can be visited by bus, and renting a car for six months was not an option.
We started our used car shopping with the name of dealer. It had been given to me by some South Africans I met in a pub and seemed as good a starting point as any. Lara and I hopped in cab to throw ourselves at their mercy.

“My parents in law have a car for sale,” said the cab driver. “It's an Opel Corsa. 100,000KM. If you want I can phone them and we can go to take a look at it. It's only thirty thousand rand ($3000 dollars).”

He made a couple of phone calls and a few minutes later we had stopped at a grocery store to pick up his in-laws..

“Is it far?” I asked nervously, eying the still-ticking meter.

“Only 15 km, don't worry. You'll be safe. Foreigners always think we are going to rob them.”
About 25km later we pulled into a small house and Lara did a test drive of the vehicle. It seemed OK but it was small and cheaply made. We decided to continue shopping and the cab driver took us back towards town. We went down Voortrekker road, a busy street studded with used-car dealerships. We had an address mix up and couldn't find the dealership we were heading for so we took a chance and stepped out at a random dealership. We paid the whopping cab fare.
“I've got just the vehicle for you” said the helpful young man. “It's a Toyota Camry. 3.0L motor. Lots of power. Whatever you do, don't buy a vehicle privately. Too many crooks. It could be stolen and you'd never know until you went to sell it. And if you mess up the paperwork you'll have all sorts of problems later.”

We took the Camry for a test drive. “Isn't it supposed to accelerate when I put the pedal to the floor?”, asked Lara.

“We've got a 4 wheel drive station wagon coming in tomorrow. I think that would be perfect for you. Come here early and you can go for a test drive.”

The next day we rented a car so that we could continue our shopping without taxis, and we drove off to the dealership that had been recommended to us. Unfortunately it was more high-end than what we were looking for. We were still debating whether to spend more for a better vehicle and risk losing a lot in the resale, or buying something cheap that might give us all sorts of problems. Unfortunately this dealer was completely outside of our price range, and not to friendly to top it off.

We went back to the first dealership to test drive the station wagon.

“That's it over there. Just sold it. You should have been here earlier. But I've got a Volvo coming in tomorrow. That'll be great for you! It's exactly what you need.”

The next dealership was Xenith motors. It specialized in older vehicles. “We sell to lots of foreigners” the gregarious owner assured us. “We'll even buy it back from you in six months, though of course not for what you paid. We are a business after all. And if anything goes wrong you can always call us. We rely on repeat business. You can trust us.”

We told him about the Volvo.

“Nobody buys Volvos. Impossible to get parts. No wonder they are trying to sell it to you. You want a cheap, common car with a small engine so that it gets good gas mileage. Like this Honda over here.”

“The Honda probably isn't a very good choice” said the next dealer. “If you are going to Namibia the only common vehicles are Volkswagon and Toyota. This Volkswagon over here is very nice and has very low mileage.”

We took it for a test drive and were amazed at how a vehicle with such low mileage could have such worn seats and pedals. The service history was conveniently missing. We continued our search.

“This one has had only a single owner. See the yellow license plates.” It drove great but the price was a little high. Still, if the dealer was willing to stand behind it and buy it back.

“If you give me a month's notice I might be able to find somebody to sell it to when you leave,” said the dealer. “It all depends on the market. I'm not promising anything.”

“It sounds very over-priced.” said the next dealer. “And you said it's green. Nobody buys green vehicles. And it's a big motor so it'll have no resale value. We have some great vehicles here but they might be a bit expensive for you. We can arrange a buyback if you like but the more expensive the vehicle the more you lose on the trade-in.” Their honesty was refreshing and the vehicles were beautiful. Too beautiful for me unfortunately. I couldn't see how these beautiful cars would survive driving through game parks and dirt roads for six months without some serious wear and tear.

Two days passed in a confusion of dealerships and conflicting advice. Just when we thought we had it figured out we'd find yet another option to consider. This one had fuel injection which was good. Or was it bad because it was hard to fix? The one thing almost all the dealers agreed on was that there were a lot of crooks out there who would rip us off. We were shown a number of times how to tell if a vehicle had been in an accident, and how to accurately assess the age.
In the end we went back to the Xenith motors and settled on an old VW for just over $3000.00. Of all the dealers we'd seen they had been the most welcoming and they seemed happy to buy the vehicle back from us when we left. The VW has very high mileage but it drove nicely. The only problem was a worrying pull to the left.

“Don't worry, I'll sort it out before you get it. We do a full service of all our vehicles. I want you to be happy. If anything goes wrong just call me.” We paid the deposit.

“It'll be ready in a few days. We've sold lots of vehicles this week and it takes a while to get them inspected and ready to go out.”

The next few days were agonizing. Had we made the right choice? It was cheap, but the mileage was very high. Maybe we should have bought a newer car, or a smaller one, or a whiter one, or a different model. Every time we passed a car dealer my eyes scanned the prices. Why was that 2001 Toyota so cheap compared to ours? By the time we returned we'd almost talked ourselves into abandoning our deposit and going shopping again.

“We'll take it for a test-drive before we pay the rest,” I reassured Lara. “If we aren't happy we'll just walk away. It's only a couple of hundred dollars.”

We did the registry paperwork in the morning and then waited in a shopping mall for most of the day while they finished the car. In South Africa all cars need a road-worthy inspection when they are sold. When we arrived back at the shop at 5 PM our car was still in pieces. They'd been having troubles with the brakes. It has passed inspection, we were told, but Michael felt the brakes weren't good enough and he wanted us to be happy.

“What about the pull to the left?”

“Don't worry about it”, he said. “I know these cars. It's just the tires. It's good now. You'll see.”
Finally the brakes were done but the shop was closing and we took it for a hurried test drive. “It seems good” said Lara worriedly. We paid the rest of the money and they closed the shop.
We drove off in our new car. We turned left onto Voortrekker road and drove three blocks to the freeway entrance. We turned right onto the freeway and accelerated.

Whump, whump, whump. WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP.

“What the hell is that?” said Lara.

The car was pulling badly to the left and the front end was making a sickening noise. We pulled over, but nothing was obviously wrong.

“We can't drive it like this.”

“We can't leave it here either.”

We drove slowly and made it home. If we only turned left it felt almost normal.

I didn't sleep much that night. All the horror stories about used cars floated in my head. We had only Michael's verbal assurance that we could trust him. Surely we had just been suckered. What better way to get rid of wreck then sell it to some stupid foreigners who couldn't tell the engine from the transmission.

It was a nerve-wracking weekend but fortunately the weather was nice and we were able to climb Table Mountain to take our minds of the car.

On Monday morning we hopped back into the car. It wouldn't start.

“Oh, wait a second.” said Lara. “It has a manual choke.”

She coaxed it to life and got it out onto the freeway. We drove noisily towards the dealership when the engine coughed and died. Lara pulled it over the the side of the road. The needle was on empty. In all the excitement we'd forgotten to fill up the gas. Lara went off for gas. I waited.
By the time we got to the dealership our nerves were shot. I bent down to look at the wheel one more time before we went in and my fingers instinctively probed the lug nuts. The nut turned in my hand. So did the other ones. The wheel was loose. They had forgotten to tighten the nuts after doing all the brake work.

Michael came out. “I wish you'd called me.” he said when he saw the problem. “This has happened before. One time the wheel came right off. Passed the guy on the highway. I keep telling the mechanic to double check but its hopeless.”

“It doesn't start very well either”, said Lara, still shaken.. She demonstrated.

“Oh, that's the choke. You only pull it half way out. If you pull it all the way out it floods the engine.” He demonstrated. It started flawlessly.

Our fears evaporated like the clouds pouring off Table Mountain behind us. Michael took us on a long test drive. “It's nice to be out of the shop for a while”, he said. “Our baby keeps us up all night. We get so little sleep.” The car still pulled a bit so he took us to an alignment place and negotiated a cheap price on a wheel alignment.

“It's a used car,” he said. “It's unpredictable. I can't see the future and I don't know what will go wrong, but if people are nice to me I'll try and help them out as much as I can. Just don't yell at me. If you have any more problems, just call me. Now follow me and I'll show you a place where you can get some great sausages for cheap.”

Used cars, like people, are unpredictable. We won't know until the end of our trip if we got lucky with our vehicle. We do know that we were fortunate with our choice of dealer. That's a big comfort.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama: The World Cheers

On Wednesday night Lara and I got up at 3:00 AM South Africa time to watch history being made. From the country where Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president less than 20 years ago we got to see the United States experience its own Mandela moment. I could not have imagined what a big deal it was to see him win the presidency. It was electrifying.

It is hard for most North Americans to understand just how much impact this election will have on the rest of the world. In Central Asia we saw the enthusiasm the Muslim world has for Obama. In the 'stans there is a nearly universal belief that the war in Iraq is a war against Islam. I don't think any but the most naive Muslims believe that Obama will end the war overnight. But because of his color, and his background, they do believe that he will understand them better. And perhaps he will. After six months of travelling in the Muslim world we have an appreciation and understanding of Islam that we could never have gotten in North America. Obama's background gives us every reason to hope that he will have a wider world view than is typical of his countrymen.

In Africa the effect of his win has probably been even greater. Among white and black South Africans alike we found almost universal enthusiasm for Obama. In Kenya, birthplace of Obama's father, they have declared a national holiday to celebrate his election. In one stroke the American dream has been awoken again. Minorities the world over can look the America and see a land where somebody's abilities can transcend their skin color. America is once again the land where anything is possible. A billion disenfranchized people woke up yesterday with the knowledge that they live in a world where there is a hope for a better future for their children.

Pages of ink have been spilled describing the challenges that lie ahead and I won't go into them again. As the world has become more connected our problems have become more global. The housing crisis in America is putting blacks on the street in South Africa. A terrorist network in Afghanistan kills people in New York. The trees we cut down in Brazil will create a desert in China. The decisions we make in the next ten years will determine the future of our species.

The world needs a strong leader to pull us all together to fight these problems.

In Obama, for one magic moment, we have somebody who has that potential. Obama's miracle is that he represents the hopes and dreams not just of American's, but of everyone. To moderate Muslims he is somebody who will understand them. To the oppressed he represents hope. To the young he has brought an enthusiam for politics that we last saw in the 1960s.

The expectations are so high that Obama cannot possibly meet them all. Many of the things people believe Obama to be are contradictory. Yet two years ago, nobody would have thought it was possible for an unknown black senator from Illinois to defeat both the Clintons and the Republicans to become president of the United States. There is no doubt that Obama is a remarkable man. If he governs with the same intelligence and imagination that he has run his campaign we have every reason to be optimistic.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Arriving in South Africa

We've been in South Africa a little over a week now. It's been pretty hectic so far. Lara got a bad stomach bug in Asia and by the time we arrived in Cape Town she was ready for the hospital. After a few days of travel and little sleep it wasn't the best way to arrive, especially since we didn't have any place to stay and we had heard all the safety warnings about not wandering around at night.

Luckily there was a tourist information center in the airport and I booked a reasonably priced hotel from them. Then we took a cab straight to a emergency where the nice English-speaking doctors took Lara away from me for a couple of days. It was actually the first time we've really been apart in many months, which would have been nice under other circumstances. I spent my first few nights in South Africa in a colorful, run-down hotel called the Kimberly all by myself, wishing that Lara could be there to enjoy the old tin ceilings and colorful pub downstairs. Lara spent it wondering if she could make the bathroom in time with an IV strapped to her arm.

Lara got a bunch of anti-biotics and tests but nothing conclusive came up so after two nights the hospital let her go. She spent a few more days in bed at the hotel. I spent some of the time hunting for a place to say since we wanted to rent an apartment for a while. After seeing some pretty nice little places that weren't quite right I was lucky enough to meet some people in the hotel pub and we lucked in a wonderful high-end apartment right in the downtown for about US$700 per month. Apparently it rents for many times more but somebody cancelled at the last minute and as they had paid a deposit that already covered much of the rent the manager was happy to rent it to us for a bit of a discount. It has two bedrooms, a full kitchen, laundry facilities, two baths, satellite TV, and a fantastic view of Table Mountain from the sixth floor balcony. It's within walking distance of everything. It was wonderful to rest after all the travelling. The first few days Lara was still not feeling well and we just rented lots of videos.

Now we are looking for a car. South Africa doesn't have good public transport, and renting for six months is a little pricey. Unfortunately buying hasn't been as easy as we'd like. We've found all the things we want, but not in one package.

Buying a used-car is classic trade-off. If we buy a $1000.00 vehicle we can pretty much walk away from it at the end of the trip and still be happy. Unfortunately we might spend most of our time repairing some old piece of junk. At the other end of the scale we can spend $10,000 on something in good shape, but we are unlikely to be able to get our money back out, and even if we did we might have to spend quite a bit of time selling it. Not the type of thing we want to cram into a vacation.

We've found some used car dealers who will contract to buy back a vehicle from us for about $1000.00 less than we pay for it. Unfortunately they don't carry the vehicles we want. We are looking for a Toyota or VW because we want to go to Namibia and those cars have the widest availability of parts. We found a great VW at another dealer, but it is a little pricey and he doesn't seem very interested in helping us out if we want to sell it back to him.

Cape Town is great city though, and we are really enjoying spending some time here with a flat to go back to. Lara will be hunting for some volunteer work, and I have some things I'd like to try too. If we can find a posting in Cape Town we will probably spend 3 months or so here. Otherwise we'll move wherever the work is. Either way, the adventure will continue.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Goodbye Central Asia

Six months in Central Asia, gone in a flash. Amazing. Spectacular. Inspiring. Humbling. I can't think of enough good things to say.

"Are the Stans worth it?" That was the question that the Lonely Planet posted on their discussion forum a few months ago. Most people felt that they weren't, and I can sympathize. It was some of the hardest travelling I've ever done. Almost nobody speaks English and it is endlessly frustrating to never be able to communicate. Visas are a never-ending nightmare of red tape and changing rules. Any trip in a taxi involves almost certain "robbery" by the taxi sharks who try to rip off foreigners with outrageous prices. The food is some of the worst we've ever had.

Yet for us the Stans are the most amazing travel experience we have ever had. I would recommend them to anyone who like adventure travel in out of the way places.

Central Asia has some of the nicest people in the world. It is amazing how many Central Asians will invite you into their homes, feed you, and give you a place to sleep without expecting a thing in return. From shop keepers to hotel owners to people we me on the street, we were constantly made to feel welcome.

Central Asia has some of the best historic sites in the world. The cities of Uzbekistan are amazing. Samarkand just celebrated it's 2750th anniversary. Everywhere you look there is an old fort or an ancient shrine. In Tajikistan we saw Bronze age cave paintings and silk road forts. In Uzbekistan we saw some of the most beautiful buildings people have ever created.

Central Asia has some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. The Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan and the Pamirs and Fan mountains in Tajikistan are nothing short of incredible. These are some of the highest mountains in the world and I've never seen anything like them. Until you've seen it you can't imagine what it is like to be at the base of a 2500m high vertical face that is covered with ice and has the wind whipping a plume of snow off it's summit.

Central Asia has some of the best lakes in the world. Song Kol in Kyrgyzstan is a little slice of heaven, a blue pearl surrounded by lush grasslands and beautiful peaks. Issyl Kol is a weird an wonderful vacation spot, full of Russian tourists swimming in the reflection of the glaciers that surround the lake. And the lakes in Tajikistan are like nothing I've ever seen. When you first see Karakul lake in the Pamirs it is like seeing a new color you didn't know existed. How could water look like this? How could water even exist in this landscape?

Central Asia is one of the biggest travel adventures that remains. There are whole cities that aren't in any guidebooks. There are whole valleys where no tourist has ever trekked. There are ridges nobody has ever climbed. There are ancient ruins that nobody has ever studied. And through it all there are a warm and welcoming people who will go out of their way to help you.

Yes, it was worth it!

A Good Day in Uzbekistan

We had many great experience in Uzbekistan and it would be hard (and dull for readers) to describe them all in detail. Instead, I'm going to describe one wonderful day to give a sense of what this quirky little country is like.

Lara and I decided that we wanted to catch a Sunday market at a little town near Samarkand that was described in our guidebook. We woke up and had a breakfast of freshly-baked bread, tea, jam, cheese, and oatmeal at our B&B and then walked 20 minutes to the Registan shared-taxi stand. We easily found a van that was going where we wanted and after a few minutes of waiting it filled with passengers and departed. It cost $1.00 each for the 90 minute drive.

Most of the passengers were muslim women wearing their colorful dresses and headscarves. The lady ahead of us had a beautiful daughter in a pink dress. She was about six years old and kept smiling and sticking her tongue out at me. In Uzbekistan you can still look at people's children and even talk to them and play with them without everyone thinking you are a pedophile!

We arrived at the market and were blown away by the scale of it. It was a teeming mix of fruit, clothing, food vendors, textiles, brooms, coal, carpets, nails, and any other thing you can imagine. We saw maybe 4 other tourists there in the entire day. Everyone was dressed in their traditional clothing, except that for them it wasn't traditional clothing. It is simply what they wear every day to go about their business: Uzbek hats and often suits for men, colorful "pajamas" for the women.

Everyone wanted to talk to us. People gave us samples of different foods to try. Everyone wanted to know where we were from and how we liked Uzbekistan. Nobody was at all pushy or rude. "Welcome to my country" was what we were told both by people's actions, and a few times in those very words.

The market had a huge selection of old textiles although we decided not to buy any in the end because we didn't find anything that really struck us. The craftsmanship of the local weavers is incredible, but Lara and I just couldn't decide on a pattern that we both loved.

Several people wanted to practice their English with us, and we gave one young man some advice on what he needed to do to work abroad ( a common question). Then a youth with fairly decent English came up to us and offered to take us to a nearby old mosque.

We accepted the offer and he and a friend hopped in a bus with us and drove to the edge of town, from where we walked uphill for about 20 minutes to a lovely old Mosque. It was in a park of 1000 year old trees which line a small river that came out of natural spring. Two old men in white beards were sitting in front of the Mosque. One of the trees had such big roots that you could pay $1.00 to sit in a little room that had been built underneath it.

We walked to the source of the spring, a pool of incredibly clear water filled with fish. A group of girls were playing there when we arrived and they all wanted to have their photos taken. When we walked back into town the kids insisted on buying us an ice-cream (an example of how the hospitality can really get crazy here). Then they helped us find a shared taxi and we drove back to Samarkand.

We went for dinner at a nice little BBQ place near a flower market. I actually considered buying a flower for Lara but thought it logical not to buy one since she would have to carry it around all evening. Apparently logic isn't called for on these occasions as Lara kindly explained to me afterwards. The flower vendors know this apparently. When we walked back out of the market we stopped to smell the flowers and one of the vendors gave her one. Luckily I was better looking!

To finish the night we went for a beer a little pub where we had met a local business owner last time we were in town. He didn't speak any English but we (Lara) managed to communicate incredibly well with a paper, pencil and sign language. He has just finished planning an English menu and we proof-read it for him. It was pretty good for having been done using the Internet. (In China by contrast we were offered "Flesh" and "Baked hairtail" on one train menu). We fixed a few minor mistakes and gave him some suggestions to help attract tourists.

He insisted on paying for our beers.

We walked back in the dark, feeling very safe even though we were in a big city and obviously had lots of money. All in all, a good day in Uzbekistan.

How to Visit Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is a very touristy place, even if you've never heard of it. This year it got about 1.5 million tourists, most of them French of German, and 99.9% of them on package tours. As a matter of fact, the government so heavily promotes the idea of the package tour that is pretty hard to visit the country independently. We had to get a letter of invitation to get a visa, and that will only be issued with help from an Uzbekistan travel agency. Of course most of those travel agencies want you to book a tour with them, but there are a few (notably Stantours) who cater to backpackers.

Travelling independently is a wonderful way to see the country. The Uzbeks are warm, funny, and lively people, but it is hard to see this if you are in a group of 20. There were many times where we were chatting with a shopkeeper only to see him totally change as a big guided group swept in and out.

The other advantage of travelling independently is that the tour groups travel a very well-worn trail. As soon as you get off it you experience a side of Uzbekistan almost nobody sees. We often got invited to stay with people and join them for tea simply by being away from the tourist hordes.

The Uzbeks are wonderful people and if you like old stuff there is a lot of stuff to see in Uzbekistan. Ditch the guide and do it by yourself! The country has a great rail system and lots of English speakers in the tourist industry and is by far the easiest Central Asian country to travel in. It's well worth three weeks.

Three Magic Cities

We spent a little over 3 weeks in Uzbekistan and saw most of the main sights. The main attractions are the ancient silk road cities of Khiva, Buhkara, and Samarkand.

The first of these that we visited was Khiva. We went here after the Savitsky Museum in Moynaq in a shared taxi. Khiva is a breathtaking place. It is a world heritage site and the inner city is essentially an open air museum which is little changed from the way it was 100 years ago. The inner city is surrounded by it's original mud fortification walls; walls that until 100 years ago were still repelling invaders and keeping people safe. There is little stone in the area so all the buildings are made of mud or baked clay.

The main attraction in Khiva is the numerous minarets (towers) which poke out from everywhere, as well as a couple of wonderful medrassas (religious schools) which date back as far as 1200 AD. When you walk around the streets the tour groups vanish and you can try to imagine what it was like 200 years ago when this place was ruled by ferocious warlords.

We spent about 5 days in Khiva soaking up the atmosphere. One of those days was spent doing a side-trip to visit some ruined forts in the surrounding country side. We hired a car with Shane (our Australian friend) and took a tour to 5 different forts in various stages of ruin ranging from little more than eroded mud walls to a few somewhat better restored sights. The ruins themselves were not that interesting but they were breathtaking in their scale and age. Whole walled cities with thousands of people dotted this area 2000 years ago and now we know almost nothing of the people who lived there. Kings who created huge walled fortresses and ruled huge areas of land have vanished so completely that even their names are forgotten. All that remains is mud walls and the outlines of the extensive irrigation system that was turning the desert into fertile farmland before Jesus walked the earth.

From Khiva we went to Bukhara which was our favorite city. Bukhara also has a very compact historical core, but it is a bit more spread out and we really enjoyed the laid back feel of the place. In Bukhara the main attraction is dozens of medrassas, all studded with blue tile mosiacs. The Uzbekistan government has been criticized for overdoing some of their restoration efforts and many of the building feel a bit too new, but overall we were very impressed by the architecture. Many of the buildings date back to just after when Ghengiz Khan razed the city to the ground. The exception is the Talon Minaret, a tower 1000 years old that so astounded Khan that he ordered it spared. It apparently survived until the early 1900s without any restoration work before the Russians bombed it and put a bunch of holes in. Luckily it didn't fall down and they fixed it up very nicely.

In Uzbekistan the government rents out space in a lot of the tourist sites to vendors who sell all range of wonderful crafts from textiles to pottery to carving. The quality of work here is really quite amazing and I'd have to say that I've probably seen the best pottery, carving, textiles, and metal working of my life in the markets here. Many of the pieces belong in museums and it was a lot of fun to shop for them although they sometimes distract a little from the buildings that house them. Still, many of the buildings are themselves ancient bazaars and it lends them life. The vendors are also pretty mellow on the whole.

Our hotel was very close to the center of town where there is a 500 year old pool surrounded by trees that were planted the same time. There are a couple of very reasonable restaurants around the pool and we had a number of meals there.

Our final stop was Samarkand, which we had already spent a few days at on the way in. 150 years ago few westerners had seen it and , although it was an important stop in the silk road. Now we could get there in 3.5 hours on an express train.

Unlike Khiva and Bukhara, there is no big concentration of sites in Samarkand. The sites that there are though rival anything in the world in their scale and beauty. The best known site is the Registan, a set of three six hundred year old medrassas that are lavishly decorated with tiles and paints. The restoration work is excellent and it is breathtaking to imagine what the ancient city must have looked like before it was wrapped in modern Russian suburbs.

We spent a few days in Samarkand and then headed to Tashkent, the laid back and pleasant capital. The best thing in Tashkent is probably the subway system. The stations are beautifully decorated, each one a unique work of art and architecture. On had tilework on the ceiling reminiscent of some of the old mosques. Another series of stations had beautiful pillars and really nice wrought iron lamps hanging from the ceiling. The subway would make a great photo art book if it weren't for the fact the for some unexplicable reason it is illegal to take photos!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

How We Lost Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is lost. The generals won't admit it yet, but nobody would expect them to. As long as their are still troops in the country it would be irresponsible to declare their task to be hopeless. The politicians won't admit it either. But nobody would expect them to. They've made great promises that this was a war we were going to win. We were going to bring stability and democracy to a country that has seen nothing but war for a thousand years. It was going to be shining victory for the forces of light.

Everyone knows that the south of Afghanistan has been a problem almost since the invastion. The optimists however, pointed to Kabul and the north. Girls were being educated for the first time in a generation, the economy was growing, and the security situation was pretty decent. A year ago some NGO workers were actually camping in the countryside in the north. Those days are past. NGOs have now banned all travel between cities in the north except with armed escorts. Many workers aren't even allowed to leave their guarded compounds to buy groceries except in a private car with an armed driver.

The reconstruction effort in the north is a complete shambles. A friend of ours who just returned from Afghanistan says that the security situation is so bad that the road building program just simply stopped. There is simply nobody who will build a road any more. For any price.

Around Kabul the situation is even worse. The only place that is still safe for foreigners is Chicken Street with it's armed perimiter and metal detectors. The hills around Kabul are all controlled by the Taliban now. Recently bandits attacked and killed a bunch of police officers just outside town. When the bigwigs arrived to investigate a car bomb went off and killed even more. The insurgents are getting more sophisticated, and the Afghan police don't have the training or staff to do anything about it.

If it was just security though, there would still be hope. An Iraq-style "surge" might restore stability and win the day. But the real loss is the hearts of the Afghan people.

To understand what is happening in Afghanistan today, one must understand it's history. Afghanistan is cursed with a geography that makes it at once isolated and at the same time strategically important. It is at the crossroads of Asia- the logical path from India to Russia and from Iran to China. Yet at the same time it is isolated by impenitrable mountain ranges and terrible deserts. This geography makes it a hard country to control. So Afghanistan has spent the last thousand years at war, overrun by one army after another, only to beat them back when their supply lines crumbled or they got too complacent.

In the 1800s Afghanistan featured as the center piece of the "Great Game", the battle between England and Russia for the control of Central Asia. The Russians encroached on neighboring states, capturing most of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan through a series of small advances. The British, worried that the encroachment would continue invaded Afghanistan twice to their great cost, before deciding it was better to support friendly warlords instead. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the British and Russians defined the boundaries that make up modern Afghanistan. The Afghan's weren't even consulted in the process. Afghanistan was simply a convenient buffer state to keep the two great empires apart.

Afghanistan was then forgotten. It languished under tribal warfare and terrible leadership until communists took control in the 1970s. At their "invitation" the Russian army invaded, and the seeds of today's problems were sowed. The United States started a proxy war against the Russians, mainly by providing money to Pakistan's Intelligence Services so that they could train and arm fighters. The Pakistanis however, had their own interests in mind, and funded a variety of competing warlords and unsavory characters including Osama bin Laden. The Russian army was no match for suicidal mountain men armed with modern American weaponry, and they pulled out at the end of the 1980s.

Afghanistan was abandoned.

A terrible civil war broke out, but the United States, who had laid the seeds for the war by funding all the competing groups no longer had any interest in Afghanistan. The world forgot about Afghanistan. The fighting was so fierce that Kabul was destroyed. There wasn't a building left standing. Millions of refugees poured across the borders.

Into this chaos came the Taliban. Their strict Islamic law wasn't particularly popular, but they were well led and they provided peace (at the point of a gun). The Taliban ended the fighting, as well as education for women, music, playing of games, television, movies, the arts, books, and any teaching not related to the Koran.

Nobody cared though, until September 11th, 2001.

A few months later the Taliban had fled to the hills and an international security force was promising peace and prosperity to Afghanistan once again. The only problem was that they weren't prepared to deliver it. The United States somehow became convinced that the real problem was Iraq, and the attention of the world shifted. Much of the reconstruction money that was promised never arrived. Afghanistan has only received a fraction of the money per-capita that Rwanda has gotten for example.

There simply weren't enough troops to provide stability for the whole country. A weak central government was set up, but with no power to back it up it was largely a joke. Afghan's refer to their president as the "Major of Kabul". Most of the areas outside of Kabul fell under the control of warlords, drug lords, and other unsavory characters, and since the government was powerless, there was no choice but to work with these groups and bring them into the fold.

With one important exception.

The newly resurgent Taliban are once again a power to deal with. Nobody in Afghanistan likes the the Taliban (most Afghans say that even the terrible situation today is better than the Taliban rule). But the Taliban are motivated and unstopable. Their insurgency has made the country ungovernable and driven out most of the groups who could help rebuilt it. Girls are no longer being educated because teachers are afraid of being killed. Women are back under the Burkha. People live in fear.

President Karzai knew that he couldn't defeat the Taliban and tried to arrange a deal with them. No surprisingly this was vetoed by the United States. The unfortunate result was that a powerless government was left trying to control a lawless country where even the miltary can't travel safely.

There is no winning now. The Afghan people are fed up. Our friend said that anti-western sentiment is so high that a local man who was helping him couldn't find a single bus that would take him from Kunduz to Mazar-i-Sharif (both in the far north) because the drivers were too afraid to carry a westerner. A guard he talked to at one of his hotels said that his Afghan friends have become increasingly radicalized as they realized that all the western promises were empty.

The path forward is clear if not that pleasant. There is no winning in a situation like this. You can't bring peace when the population of the country is against you. If I were being elected to the Presidency of the United States I would increase the number of troops in the country in order to put pressure on the Taliban. Then I would work with the Afghan government to negotiate a ceasefire along the lines of what Pakistan has done with its tribal areas. The Taliban could get autonomy in the South on the condition that they end the insurgency in the rest of the country. And maybe, just maybe, the rest of the country could be saved from another dark age. The Afghan people have suffered enough for fighting our wars.

The information in this article comes from a number of sources including people who have been in Afghanistan a few weeks ago. I've tried to relate everything as well as I could, but as history is always written to support a point of view there are no doubt other interpretations of some of the events I describe.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Savitsky Museum

The Savitsky Art Museum is one of the more unlikely art museums on earth. It is in Nukus, Uzbekistan. If were possible to put the middle of nowhere on a map, Nukus would be a front-runner. Nukus is in the Kyzylkum desert, a day's drive from Tashkent (the capital) and far from any tourist attractions. We spent 18 hours on a train from Samarkand to get there. It would get no tourists except that it is a stopping point to go to the Aral Sea. And it has the Savitsky Museum.

Many people don't realize just how repressive the Soviet Regime was. The Soviets controlled almost every aspect of people's lives including the art. Stalin decided that art should not have western influences. Art should be realistic, and it's purpose should be to promote the ideal of socialism. Smiling happy workers were good. What most of us consider to be art was bad. Artists who voilated these rules were jailed, locked in mental institutions, or killed. Their works were destroyed.

Savitsky was a Russian painter, scientist, and archeologist who lived in Uzbekistan. He collected a vast array of clothing and jewelery from the area. He also did a lot of archeological work. As a result the Savitsky museum has an excellent collection of costumes and other ethnographic exhibits, as well as some great archeological stuff.

The museum is famous for another reason though. Savitsky decided to try to save some of the art which Stalin's regime had banned. With the help of supportive local authorities, and at great personal risk, he collected over 90,000 paintings, prints, sketches, and other questionable works of art. His focus was on little known artists, and he often bought hundreds of paintings by the same person. Many of these works would have been lost forever if not for his bravery.

Times have changed and Savitsky's work is now housed in a lovely museum. For $18.00 three of us got admission and a three hour tour with an English-speaking guide. We saw lots of examples of local art, and some of the best pieces from the vast Russian collection. Because there are so many works of art in the museum there is a rotating exhibit which changes regularly. Unfortunately (in my opinion) not enough space is given to the rotating exhibit. I found it much more interesting than all the costumes and pot fragments which you can see in many other museums. Still there are many great paintings and if you like art it is worth going to the museum for the story alone.

Ships in the Desert

(Sorry for the lack of posts. Internet is really spotty here!)

Fifty years ago Moynaq, Uzbekistan was a thriving fishing village. It was situated on a peninsula at the edge of the Aral sea, and every day dozens of fishing boats filled their holds and brought their catch to the local cannery. The fish were cleaned and canned right in town and distributed throughout the Soviet Union.

Then Stalin came up with the idea that Uzbekistan would be a good place to grow cotton. There was only one problem. Uzbekistan is one of the driest places on earth and cotton requires a lot of water. The two main rivers leading to the Aral sea were diverted into thousands of cotton fields and Uzbekistan became the world's second largest cotton producer. And the rivers no longer reached the sea.

The sea began to dry up.

Moynaq is now a living monument to the tremendous damage we can do to our planet. The rusted hulks of ships lay just outside of town in a canal that was dug in a desperate attempt to maintain a path for the water. It wasn't enough. The sea is now hundreds of kilometers away. What is left of the Aral sea has become so concertated that there is nothing alive to fish for anyway. And it continues to shrink. From Moynaq all you can see is a parched desert of dunes and low shrubs. Beetles make their home in piles of tiny shells.

With the sea gone the real environmental disaster has begun. There is nothing to protect the former seabed from erosion, so every year the winds blow millions of tons of salt into the air and onto the neighboring farmland. As the sea shrinks in one direction and ever widening ring of blighted lands spreads in another.

Lara and I hired a car to take us to Moynaq because we felt we had to see it for ourselves. At the edge of town is a sign with a big fish on it. You can go past the old fish canning plant although the locals don't like you to take pictures. I guess it is hard enough to live in a place like this without all the tourists coming to gawk at your misfortune. And you can experience the ships. You can climb in their rusting shells, stand on their decks, and protect yourself from the blazing sun and blowing sand in their shade.

Moqnaq is a terrible place. There is no future for the people. No agriculture, no running water (it is brought in by truck). It is an environmental version of Auschwitz. And like Auschwitz we haven't learned our lessons. We saw what happened in poland and yet we allowed Rwanda, Somalia, and Cambodia. And we've seen what happened in the Aral sea, and yet we allow the destruction of the Amazon, the poisoning of the ocean, and the modification of our very climate.

Sometimes it is hard to be optimistic about our future.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Uzbekistan Money

The currency in Uzbekistan is the Som and it is our first real experience with runaway inflation.

The biggest note you can get is 1000 Som, which works out to about 75 cents.

When we changed $200.00 into Som this morning we ended up with a stack of bills the thickness of the yellow pages. We have to carry our money around in a backpack since there is no way it will fit into a money belt.

Vanishing Pedestrians

(This happened about 10 days ago, but it is worth repeating)

We were walking down the main North-South street in Dushanbe in the middle afternoon. The street is broad and treelined and has a nice smooth sidewalk on both sides. There are lots of pedestrians.

Suddenly we heard a scream and turned to see a lady's head and shoulders sticking out from the ground. She had stepped on a loose manhole cover, which had pivoted and dropped her into the ground.

The moment was so slapstick that we didn't know whether to laugh or be horrified. Fortunately she was OK, but both Lara and I step carefully over manholes now.

Washing Clothes

We checked into a nice guesthouse in Samarkand yesterday. My laundry was filthy so I asked for a bucket so I could wash it. Then I asked where I could get water, and where I should dump it when I was done. They looked at me like I was crazy and asked me to repeat the question.

Apparently there was running water in the room. And I could just dump the dirty water down the sink. It's been so long since we've been in a place that has a tap that I didn't even consider the possibility.

Monday, September 29, 2008


We just arrived in Uzbekistan today. We got up at 6AM at our guest house in the Fan mountains, hit the museum at Panjikent, saw the ruined ancient city of Panjikent, crossed the border, and took a taxi to Samarkand. We are in a lovely guest house that costs twice what anything in Tajikistan did but apparently they get electricity for 24 hours a day, water comes out of the taps, the shower is warm, the staff speaks English, and the toilet is something you sit on instead of a couple of boards over a hole in the back yard.

We will be here for 2 days and then catch a train (we love trains) to Nukus in the far NW of the country. From there we may go to check out the ruined ships in the Aral Sea, before heading to the ancient silk road cities of Kiva, Bukhara, and then back to Samarkand. On October 22nd we catch a flight from Tashkent to Turkey and on to South Africa, where the second half of our adventure will begin.

As usual, the Internet sucks, so don't expect any photos. We tried to mail photos back from Tajikistan on CD for my mom, but it is illegal to mail CDs out of the country. Luckily you can take them over the border by hand:-)

The Fan Mountains

Our Tajikistan Visa expired on September 29th so we had time for one last adventure before we left this wonderful country and headed to Uzbekistan. We decided to head north from Dushanbe to the Fan mountains which is a popular trekking destination according to the Lonely Planet.

The shared taxi from Dushanbe was relatively uneventful although after the mellowness of the Pamirs we weren't quite expecting the taxi driver frenzy that met us at the taxi station. We took a local taxi from out hotel and as we pulled up to the taxi stand drivers started converging at a full sprint from all directions. Drivers were literally trying to grab our bags out of our hands so that they could claim us for their taxis. Everyone was yelling at once; we were surrounded by a frenzied mob of taxi drivers all pushing and shoving and grabbing. Lara finally resorted to putting her hands over her ears and shouting at which point they quited down enough that we managed to pick a driver and depart almost immediately for a reasonable price.

The 200km drive to Panjikent took 12 hours mainly due to extensive construction delays. The Chinese government is apparently building roads in exchange for some trade concessions. Its quite the sight as all the crews are Chinese and they live in little tent villages along the roadway. Given the incredible infrastructure we saw in China I can see why the Chinese would use their own crews.

Our guest house in Panjikent was great. Neoskul, our helpful host gave us all the information we needed to do our trek. For the first time in our trip we could actually take public transport where we were going and the next morning we set off on an ancient bus and rattled up to Jakahoma (near Artush), the start of a 3 day trek into the Fan mountains. Neoskul had given us contact information for another guesthouse in Jakahoma and the owner met us as we got off the bus. He offered to rent us a donkey and donkey man for $25.00 a day to carry our packs, but we decided to do the hike unsupported. It can be a lot of work to have another person along as we feel we have to talk to them and it changes the experience.

From Jakahoma we hiked about 5 hours uphill (900m elevation gain) to an uneven rocky plateau studded with juniper trees. In the low spots of the plateau were a series of small lakes. On the south side rose a mountain the likes of which we have never seen. Although "only" 5500m high it had a 2km vertical cliff dotted with precariously perched hanging glaciers. The snowy top of the mountain was hidden in a seething cloud which occasionally parted to give us views of the most inaccessible looking summit I've seen. It was beautiful.

We camped by one of the lakes and got up early the next morning to do the next part of the hike. We had originally planned to backpack to Alauidin lakes and camp there but the distance was too great for us to complete the loop and return all the way to town the next day. Instead we decided to do the entire loop as a day trip without the packs so that we could travel more quickly.

We had been warned not to leave gear unattended so we decided to hide our packs as best we could. This was made a little bit more complicated because the local people were gathering firewood in the area, which meant they were randomly looking around under bushes for dead branches. I had just finished reading a spy novel though and in true Robert Ludlum style we hid our packs between some rocks, wrapped in a gray tarp, and covered with stones. Nobody was going to find them (including ourselves we feared) so we GPSed the location before we left.

The hike started as a brutal 900m ascent to a 3800m high pass. After a week in Dushanbe we had lost our tolerance for altitude and were exhausted by the time we hit the top of the pass. To make matters worse the weather was overcast and there was a howling wind. I was ready to turn back, my hands numb from the cold and my lungs aching from the altitude, but Lara had some enthusiasm and we spent a few minutes sheltered behind some rocks at the top of the pass deciding what to do. We decided we were there to hike, and we ventured out from our shelter into the howling wind and into a most amazing view of jagged peaks. The clouds had lifted for a minute to reveal a landscape of mountains so sharp and desolate that we really couldn't wrap our minds around them. I would describe them as snowy teeth, but no teeth are as sharp and jagged as these peaks. It was amazing.

Far below us lay the impossibly blue Alauidin lakes and we made a quick descent to the valley bottom where we were met by a dog of all things. There weren't any people around, but the dog was friendly and well fed so we assumed it belonged to someone. It decided to follow us and we went down the valley with the dog to find our return pass and complete our journey.

About 1km downhill from the lakes there was a serious of buildings that looked like an old climber's camp. A solitary old man was sitting outside in his robe and we asked him for directions and then hurried on our way. The dog seemed to know him, but continued with us as we did another brutal 900m ascent up a second pass. The clouds which had been spattering rain on us all day finally started to dissolve revealing another enormous peak behind us. We snapped several photos before the clouds broke even more to reveal that the impossibly sharp bit we thought was the summit actually had another pinnacle of rock on top of it. Wow!

We hit the top of our return pass at 5pm, by now thoroughly exhausted, only to find that instead of the lake we were expecting the trail skirted a wide alpine bowl to yet another pass. Across the valley the lower front ranges of the fan mountains were bathed in the evening light. They were not snowy like the center ranges, but their rocky desolation was no less beautiful. The dog didn't seem to care. It just wanted to follow us. I even threw stones towards it to scare it home, but I lacked the heart to do it properly and the dog only looked puzzled and then wagged it's tail.

At 5:30 we finally got to the top of the second pass. At this point we met two shepherds who were leading a large group of sheep out from the highlands for the winter. They had four dogs with them and our dog played with their dogs. That was the last we saw of it. We wondered if shepherd dogs simply move from flock to flock, themselves travelers in their little dog worlds.

The descent was bone jarring but the trail was excellent (as it had been all day). We got back to our tents about 30 minutes after dark by the light of our headlights, having covered 1900m of elevation and about 30km of distance. We felt pretty heroic but ate a handful of Ibuprofin each to head off pain!

The next day we had to return to town. We slept in and did a nice hike to the base of the big mountain before heading back down the way we came. The hike was pleasant and uneventful although our feet ached by the end of it. As we approached Jakahoma lots of local people came out of their fields to greet us. This may be a popular trekking destination but it hasn't affected the friendliness of the people. It was hard to make progress as every 100m another group of people would stop us to talk. One couple even sent their young daughter down with us to make sure we found the guest house. Lara had energy for it all however, and her Russian is also much better than mine since she talks to people more. I just collected the apples and walnuts that we were given.

We got to our guest house just before dark and enjoyed a cold shower, a warm soup, and smashed apples and peaches freshly fallen off the tree. It was one of the best hikes we have ever done.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Civil War in Tajikistan

As I've already said, Dushanbe is a lovely city. People are nice, the weather is great right now, and the streets are pleasant. At night there are lots of people about sitting in outdoor restaurants and enjoying the parks. There are even streetlights.

It's hard to believe that martial law ended here only a few years ago, and that 10 years ago the streets were controlled by armed gangs. I won't pretend to be an expert on local history and most of my information come from the Lonely Planet. It's an interesting story however, because it shows just how different the collapse of the Soviet Union looked from the other side.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was much more complex than many people in the west realize. We saw an old enemy vanquished. The Berlin wall came down; people who had never been able to travel to the west could now cross borders that had been closed for nearly 50 years. The world seemed a safer, kinder place.

But some countries didn't really want independence. The central asian countries didn't exist until Stalin invented them. As a result, the borders are a crazy jigsaw of lines on the map; lines which often serve arbitrary political purposes rather than grouping related peoples together.

Tajikistan has a section which is entirely enclosed in Kyrgyzstan. It exists because Stalin needed 1 million people to make an administrative unit and the original borders didn't have enough population. So Stalin just cut a populated bit out of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan has two such chunks inside Kyrgzstan and a large Tajik population in the east. Kyrgystan has a large Uzbek population in the west, and the western part of the country is hard to even get to because the old Soviet roads run through the Uzbek and Tajik enclaves mentioned above. The eastern Pamirs in Tajikistan are mainly Kyrgyz speaking.

This isn't the recipe for stable countries with a strong sense of national unity although it worked OK when these countries were all welfare states controlled by mother Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed however, the money was cut off and a power scramble ensued.

For the most part the former dictators won questionable elections and ran the countries as their personal piggy banks; some of them have been in power ever since. These countries are some of the most corrupt in the world; Tajikistan ranks below Zimbabwe according to Transparency International. Turkmenistan is described as the "North Korea of Central Asia". The recently deceased ruler named one of the months after himself, created a "Ministry of Fairness", and made a big golden statues of himself that continually rotates to face the sun.

In Tajikistan there was a horrible civil war when the Pamir area, which felt little connection to the rest of the country, tried for independence. The results were catastrophic. Apparently security forces went around Dushanbe and executed anyone with a Pamir ID card on the spot.

The war eventually ended and foreign donors flooded in to help rebuild the country. The Aga Khan foundation was probably the most influential; they rebuilt much of the infrastructure themselves and the the Aga Khan is revered in most of the Pamirs. Almost every house has a little picture of the Aga Khan on the wall.

It's neat to travel in a countries that are still so young. Central asia is shaking off it's Soviet roots and trying to find it's own identity, a process which has been hard and has led to lots of excesses. Yet these are also the most beautiful countries I have ever visited, and the people are the warmest and most hospitable that I have ever met. When I walk the streets and think of the war a decade ago I can see the progress. These countries are still inventing themselves. They have some incredible materials to work with.

Getting an Uzbekistan Visa in Dushanbe

One of the biggest challenges in central asia continues to be the visas. Each country we've been to requires a visa and many of them have additional requirements.

To visit Tajikistan for example, you need a visa, which is theoretically possible by simply going to a Tajik embassy and waiting. To visit the Pamir area you also need a GBAO permit, which you can theoretically only get in the country. Finally, when you show up in the country you have to register with the KGB within 72 hours of arriving.

We got both a 45 day visa Tajikistan Visa and a GBAO permit in Bishkek simply by filling out a form and writing a brief letter saying why we wanted to visit the country. We've heard though that they subsequently changed their rules and now the Bishkek embassy requires a letter of invitation from a travel agency, doesn't give GBAO permits, and only issues 30 day visas. That would have totally messed up our trip as the main border crossing into Tajikistan is only possible with the GBAO permit.

Tajikistan is not the only country that does this nonsense. Kyrgyzstan has wisely got a policy of issuing visas in the airport (Tajikistan does this too). They also didn't require visas for CIS countries like the Czech republic. They changed the rules for this in July, the middle of the tourist season. We ran into a cyclist who had cycled all the way into the Pamirs only to find out the entry requirements had changed and he couldn't complete his trip because he now needed to go back to Dushanbe and wait a week for a Kyrgyz visa. Ridiculous.

Our next destination is Uzbekistan, and the Visa requirements for there are even more silly. Canadians need a letter of invitation from a travel agent in the country. This was quite a job to get because the only decent agency that does this doesn't accept any normal payment system. We tried to pay them with a bank transfer but my bank didn't recognize any of the routing numbers and said the money would likely just vanish into a puff of electrons. Instead I paid online which required a painful registration and confirmation with some weird online payment system. In the end we got our letters, a second copy of which were sent to the Uzbekistan consulate in Dushanbe.

We had heard horror stories about this embassy from other travellers. The consul has a reputation of being none to friendly and yelling at you if you can't speak Russian. And apparently all the forms are in Russian and Uzbek only and have no translation. As a result we decided to ask for a favor. We had made friends with a guy in Khorog and we asked his brother and a female friend to come with us to the embassy to help translate. It was probably a good thing we did.

We got to the embassy at 8:30 only to find out it didn't open until 9:00. We waited on a bench for a while and then clued in and turned the corner where a small crowd had gathered at a doorway. At about 9:25 the doorway opened and people stampeded in. An unhappy man stood on stairway, barked some stuff in Russian, and gathered a handful of out-thrust passports. Then he vanished.

Our friend fought his way up the stairts and into an office for us, and after a while we were invited inside a room where we were given some forms to fill out. With our translator this turned out to be relatively easy, and we soon handed the forms, a Visa photo, a copy of our letter, a copy of the first page of our passport, and our actual passport to an unhappy man behind the desk. We were told to wait outside. Our translators were quite stressed out by now and both agreed that the people in the office weren't about to win any hospitality awards.

About 30 minute later somebody yelled "Dwa Canadensaya" (or something similar) out of a window, and we went up to the office. We paid our money and we got our passport with a Visa. The whole process had only taken about 2 hours, but I'm sure that having a translator along helped a huge amount. I've heard from other people though that you can find the form online somewhere and print it out yourself so this may work too!

Lara's decision to print out a stack of about 50 visa photos on our computer at home has turned out to be a real time saver many times over. We've used them for China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan (including the KGB registration) and Kyrgyzstan. It would be nearly impossible to get a passport photo done over here. Don't travel in central asia without a photocopies of your passport, lots of passport photos, and a healthy tolerance for ridiculous red tape.


(This article features improved use of capitals to make Rachel happy!)

We are out of the mountains and into the capital of Tajikistan, a pleasant and peaceful city of 600,000 called Dushanbe. It's probably one of the more pleasant big cities I have ever been in and it reminds me a lot of Oaxaca Mexico in terms of the overall feel (although there is really no other resemblence whatsoever).

We are staying at Hotel Vaksh, which at $35.00 a night is ludicrously overpriced. It's another run-down soviet monstrosity which has seen just the minimal amount of maintenance to allow it to keep customers. The carpets are worn, the lights flickers, the doors don't close properly, and there is no sink in the room so you have to brush your teeth in the standup showers. We actually moved out of our first room because the bed looked like somebody had butchered an animal on the mattress and the toilet didn't flush. Our new room is slightly better except the hot water tap has an annoying habit of coming off in your hands. Lara has an OK bed, but mine is roughly banana shaped so I'm sleeping on the floor on my thermarest.

The good part is that the hotel is brilliantly located across from a beautiful square which is full of life and fountains and surrounded by big trees and nice historical buildings. Five minutes down the road is a wonderful market where we can get grapes that were picked just hours ago and bread that is still warm to the touch. In the other direction is the main street in Dushanbe which has some high end shops and lots of parks and beautiful buildings. The street is broad and has a big pedestrian walkway down the middle. There are four sets of mature trees lining the whole street, two on the central walkway, and one on each sidewalk.

There are basically no tourists and a lot of people ask as where we are from or stop us to chat if they know a bit of english. Everyone is extremely friendly and laid back. Cars even stop for pedestrians which we first though was a trap based on our experiences with drivers elsewhere in central asia.

The parks are all pretty sparkling and all the lawns are freshly cut around the government buildings. We heard that this is mainly because there was a big conference between the central asian countries, Russia, and China that was held here in August. Apparently the paint was still drying in many areas when the leaders arrived, but for us the results are great and we love seeing all the lovely green spaces.

The biggest problem is probably the infrastructure, which is nearly medieval. Internet here is little better than dialup speed, and often stops completely for many minutes at a time. Uploading photos is simply not possible. The electricity goes out randomly in parts of the city and apparently last winter the whole country was without power for several months. The government claims things will be bad again this winter and is predicting that people will only have 2 hours of electricity a day. This in a country where temperatures regularly drop to -40 in the mountains.

People we talked to in the Pamirs said that the situation was so grim last winter in the country that many people died. The government kicked out several NGOs that might have been able to provide statistics (MSF is no longer welcome for example) so nobody really knows the true extent of the problem. We did hear that the Murghab hospital was without power for months and they had no heating in the wards to they had to send people home.

Burning a CD with our photos has also turned out to be a challenge. CD burners seem to be an amazing new technology here and most of the internet places we've tried haven't got one. It's like walking around Calgary trying to find a particle accelerator. We've finally found a cafe that has one and we will mail our picture back in several redudant envelopes as we also don't trust the postal system.

Dushanbe is a wonderful city and if you ever get a chance to visit it is a very pleasant place to hang out. Come in September when the days are warm, the nights are cool, and the markets are full to the brim with delicious fresh fruits.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Vanj Valley

One of the more interesting valleys in the Pamirs is the Vanj valley. It runs east from the border for about 100km before ending abruptly in the massive mountains surrounding the Fedchenko glacier. The Lonely Planet doesn't mention anything about this valley, but we had talked to some people who said that there was nice hiking. We decided to have an adventure and check it out on our own on the way from Khorog to Dushanbe.

Because it was quite a distance from Khorog, hiring a car was not really an option. Instead we decided to do it the Tajik way and rely on shared transportation and hitchhiking. In Khorog everyone laughed when we said we were going to Vanj, but we did manage to eventually find a Dushanbe-bound vehicle that was willing to drop us off at the turnoff into the valley. We crammed into a van with a bunch of other passengers and slowly made our way north.

At around 4PM in the afternoon we were dropped at the turnoff. There was nothing there other than a police checkpoint (which promptly examined all our documents), and a small restaurant where some men were playing backgammon. Lara chatted a bit with some prospectors who were camped 1KM up the road, and I sat on a bench and read my book.

The road was silent. We waited.

After about 30 minutes a vehicle came from the north, but it continued to Dushanbe. I was starting to get a little worried that we'd have to camp right at the turnoff when another vehicle came and turned up our road. Improbably there was nobody in the back seat, and they were happy to give us a ride up the valley.

It took about 30 minutes to go to the town of Vanj, which was about 15km up the 95km long road that runs to the end of the valley. This turned out to be the stopping point for our vehicle which was driven by some bank employees transporting money to the local branch. I think they probably wouldn't have stopped for locals but we didn't pose a threat and they actually recognized us from the bank in Khorog.

Vanj is a pretty little town nestled in the mountains. The houses are neatly kept and many of them have multiple stories with metal roofs and decorative windows. There are lots of fruit trees, but obviously very few tourists as we drew a lot of attention. Lara went in search of a place to sleep while I stayed with our packs. A little while later she came back after having been shown a nearby guesthouse by a helpful man on the street. It wasn't until the next day when we ran into him again that we realized that he had first offered to have us stay with him. I wish we spoke more Russian.

The guesthouse was run by an old lady and her granddaughter. The granddaughter was friendly but somewhat odd, sometimes communicating only in sign language. The guesthouse only had a couple of rooms and it was nearly full so the granddaughter wanted Lara and I to share a bed in a room with two other people. The bed was pretty small, and normally people in this part of the world wouldn't mix men and women in this way so the whole thing was a little strange. Still, we didn't have much choice and we grudgingly agreed.

We wanted to get some fuel for our stove so we went in search of gasoline. This turned out to be a very lucky decision since we met Berus, a wonderful man from Dushanbe who invited us to join him for dinner. He was observing Ramazan and had been fasting all day. The meal with nothing short of a feast. He spoke a bit of English and we spent some time talking with us. He told us that there was little transport further up the valley and agreed to help us find a driver the next morning. He also invited us to stay at his house, but since we were already in our strange hotel we declined the offer.

We returned to our hotel to find that the grandmother had realized what her daughter had done and now insisted that Lara move to a couch in another room. I decided to join her and just sleep on the floor so we moved all of our gear.

At this point the police showed up. They had heard that there were foreigners in town so they wanted to check all our documents. They told us that we needed to register with them in the morning before we went off on our trip. This turned out to be no problem except that the power was off when we went to the police station and we had to wait an hour for it to come back on so that they could photocopy our passport covers.

After the police left, the other guests showed up. One of them spoke great English and he came equiped with a beer he had bought for me in a store down the street. We chatted for quite a while and found out that they were part of the Tajikistan Anti-Drug initiative that was travelling the country educating children about the dangers of drugs. They told us that the guesthouse staff was a little crazy and that they had reorganized themselves into one room so that Lara and I could have the other room to ourselves. We explained that we'd already moved to the couch but they insisted, and we moved back to our original room which had now been converted to a private room.

After some chatting we went to the toilet. Unbelievably, the guesthouse didn't have a toilet and we had to walk a block to a public toilet. Like most public toilets in the country it was a little worse for wear. I've never been able to figure out how people manage to shit on the ceiling, but it does happen and this was that kind of place.

The best was yet to come however, as the next morning at around 7:00 AM the owner's daughter marched happily into our room to say hello. Lara was sleeping with the covers pulled over her head to try and keep some annoying flies off her, so she missed the entry. She couldn't miss what happened next though, as the curious girl pulled all the covers off her to see if Lara was actually in the bed.

The four star rating system for hotels simply doesn't cover situations like this, but this guesthouse would clearly earn a negative rating.

After the police registration and a breakfast of incredibly revolting processed meat we went off to negotiate with our driver. He was very reluctant to take us to the end of the valley, complaining that the road was bad and that he wasn't very keen to spend two nights waiting for us while we went hiking. In the end we agreed to pay him $0.60/km for the rough road and $15.00 for each night of waiting, and we set off down the valley.

The drive was pretty smooth until we got close to Poi Mazar, the last town in the valley. At this point the road vanished altogether and we started to do some serious driving over big boulders and through a river. We were glad we were in a jeep and not a smaller vehicle, and it was with some relief that after 1km of rough road we found ourselves on something decent again.

We had planned to stay at Poi Mazar but realized when we got there that we really wanted to be further down the valley. The driver agreed and said that he would sleep in the vehicle for two nights while he waited for us. At this point we noticed that he just had a T-Shirt. No sweater, no blanket, no pillow. He insisted that he was tough and didn't get cold easily. We didn't believe him but figured we'd be able to help if things got bad.

The drive to the end of the valley was heroic. At one point the road vanished to the point where Lara was urging the driver to stop because she was afraid we'd get completely stuck. Somehow we made it to the final bridge in the valley at which point there was no continuing. The bridge was completely rotten and even walking across it was a scary experience.

The scenery was amazing. To our left was an enormous glacier, black and covered with rocks and debris. This glacier was part of an enormous jumble of ice which continued for 20km to reach the Fedchenko glacier 1000m above us. All around us where huge, snow-capped peaks, including the completely snowy 7000m high Revolution peak in the distance to the south. We did a short hike to the foot of the ice and then scrambled up the side of the valley a short distance to try to get some better views.

We pitched our tents on a sandbank next to the river and cooked some noodles as the temperature started to drop. I gave my down jacket to the driver, and Lara gave him a hat, extra pants, and a shell. He insisted he didn't need them, but as the temperature dropped he quickly put them on and still looked none to warm.

The next morning we went for a long day hike up the valley to the south while we left the driver to thaw in the sun. The road continued on the other side of the bridge and we walked several hours in a lovely valley before we hit a big glacier coming in from the east. We tried to continue south for a while towards Revolution peak but the going was pretty tough and we decided to head up along the glacier instead. We took a shortcut over the nose of the glacier and hiked several hours along the grassy slopes on the south side of the glacier until we could go no further. The views were incredible, with the rocky cliffs sandwiched between their snowy summits and the jumbled ice below us.

To our amazement we saw that there had at one stage been an attempt to mine the area. There we several nearly vanished roads carved into the cliffs on both sides of the valley, including one that clearly had crossed the ice. There were also remenants of a power line which led improbably to a summit far above us to the west. I have no idea what they were mining, but clearly it must have been valuable given the tremendous efforts that had been made to construct a road. In this case Russian engineering was no match for nature, and there was little left of all that hard work.

On the descent I convinced Lara that we could cross safely across the center of the glacier. Generally this isn't a very good idea, but I've taken some courses in glacier travel and since it was late in the season the glacier was bare ice without any hidden crevasses. We had a really fun time picking a route around the big twisted blocks of snow and over the big piles of rock, and eventually emerged on the other side of the glacier where a nice road led us back to the trail at the bottom of the valley.

The next day we woke to a very cold driver and a car that wouldn't start. By now we were so used to breakdowns that we payed little attention and we went for a morning wander to explore the glacier 100m across the river from our tents. We had initially hoped to walk along the bottom edge of it, but it was literally raining down rocks and debris as it melted in the hot autumn sun. Instead we found a path onto the top of the glacier and spent another few hours wandering around on the ice looking into crevases and admiring some of the enormous boulders that had been transported from who knows where by the awesome power of the glacier.

We push-started the jeep and drove back to Vanj, stopping along the way to collect gifts of walnuts from all the local ladies. We paid the driver an extra $20.00 for his heroics. That night we stayed at Berus's house in Vanj and enjoyed another fantastic dinner before falling asleep under the stars on his tea-bed.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Gesiev Valley

After a few days in Khorog we decided to do a overnight side trip. Lara was recovering from a cold so she didn't feel like hiking with a full pack. As a result we decided to check out an eco-tourism project in the Geseiv valley just north of Khorog. We found a driver who would take us for $0.50/km (the going rate) and would wait for us overnight until we returned the next day. Hiring drivers to wait is fairly typical here and it saves a lot on transportation costs.

The Pamir mountains are dominated by a set of large valleys which run more or less East-West. In the southern Pamirs these valleys run right to China but as you get further north the mountain range dominated by the enormous Fedchenko glacier blocks the way. About 60km North of Khorog is the Bartang valley, stunning and wild with huge mountains that loom over both sides. The walls are steep and brooding and there is little sunlight in the deep valley that the road runs through. A river provides water, but there is little arable land. It is a canyon in stone. It is the last of the valleys that crosses the country, and about 20km in is a side-valley called the Geseiv. This is where we wanted to go hiking.

Our driver dropped us off at a footbridge across the river. A sign in English and Russian explained that an eco-tourism project had set up a series of homestays in the valley. As usual it was sponsored by the Aga-Khan foundation. The homestays were a big attraction for us because it freed us from having to carry a heavy pack (although as a precaution we both took our sleeping bags and a bit of food).

The valley was beautiful. We followed an excellent trail along a fast flowing river. The walls of the mountains were nearly vertical and it was hard to judge how high they were (though our map claimed that some of them stretched to 2500m above us). The valley bottom was littered with fallen stone; even the fortress-like walls of the mountains were no match for the shattering winter ice. Occasionally there was a flat spot where trees hung heavy with wild apples.

About 2.5 hours hike up the valley we reached lovely Pamiri village of mud huts. There was no road and no electricity and I found myself humming the "shire" theme from Lord of the Rings. A group of people waved to us and smiled in greeting. "Please come in for tea", they said to us in Russian.

The Gesiev valley actually has 3 villages in a row and initially we'd planned to stay in the second or third village, but everyone was so nice that we decided to stop hiking for the day where we were. We stayed in "Lola Guesthouse" which was a spacious pamir house that we had all to ourselves. Lola's husband Towakal (Lara remembers all these names somehow) sat with us through dinner and peppered us with questions. Our meal was eggs and fresh bread, prepared (so they said) on a gas stove so that tourism wouldn't put increased pressure on the limited wood in the valley.

We learned that since the eco-tourism project had started there had been lots (150 anyway) of tourists in the valley. All the homestay providers we talked to were very happy and the reception we got from people couldn't have been friendlier. We did a day hike the next morning before returning to our car; everyone we ran into invited us to join them for tea even though they knew we were staying elsewhere. Our only complaint is that we didn't spend two nights.

This is one of the best eco-tourism projects we've seen. The people in the valley are marvelous, the views are fantastic, and the homestays are spotless and cozy. We felt like we had been transported to a different time. We went to bed that night to the sound of a family playing musical instruments together and we woke up to a meal of fresh eggs from the local chickens. Yet another highlight in a sea of good experiences.