All Hail the Biscuits of Uzbekistan

The Uzbeks are onto something big. Something genius, something amazing. And if it hasn’t gone global in the next five years then there is something seriously wrong with the world.

Try Before You Buy Biscuits.

Yes you heard me correctly, you can try biscuits here before buying them. So just to clarify, you can stand in the supermarket aisles munching biscuits BEFORE buying them.

Admittedly, there would need to be some biscuit reform back home before this could really take off. I’m not sure how McVitie’s would feel if people were opening fresh packets of Ginger Nuts, taking one and then discarding the packet before reaching out to try a Maryland instead. But here you see the biscuits aren’t wrapped – they are just baked and thrown onto the shelves in neat little lines, ready to be sampled and bought, and mixed with others.

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It is a much better biscuit system altogether. Who wants a straight pack of 36 ginger nuts instead of a selection of cookies, ginger nuts, chocolate sensations and melt-in-your-mouth-butter-numbers… and more?

But this is just the beginning of biscuit philosophy. There are after all so many unanswered questions. Why do mixed biscuits only appear in fancy tins at festive times in the UK? Why can’t we pick n mix our biscuits and taste them as we go?

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Allow me to set the scene for you. We are in Globus supermarket in Tashkent, it is hot and sticky but the store has air conditioning so we spend a little longer than necessary there, looking at the shampoo on offer and the size of tomatoes etc. Then, suddenly I turn a corner to find a whole aisle – devoted to pick n mix sweets… And biscuits.

The next bit is a bit of a blur, but I definitely stand there gawping long enough for the biscuit supervisor to come over and give me a sympathetic look. Her job is to look after the biscuits and bag up the glorious nibbles as requested.

I think I give a goofy smile at this point and mutter something in English. She nods understandably, she’s seen my kind before. The kind from the land of formulaic packets of biscuits and Bourbons.

Gently she guides me through the process and I blink enthusiastically. ‘This one?’ She seems to say in Russian, holding a Catherine wheel of a biscuit up in her plastic-gloved-right-hand.

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Yes, yes I nod, grabbing the biscuit a little too hastily. Deliciously crunchy, the thick biscuit breaks away in the middle to reveal a gooey, rich chocolate filling. I can’t help but exclaim as my tongue makes contact with the centre and she smiles and laughs. She’s seen it all before.

Next up, the big, brown, crunchy number that tastes like a Ginger nut with a slight cinnamon twist. It makes me grin like a mad woman and insist she bags up a fistful of the biscuits. And the lighter ones to the left, they seemed to taste even better – although I can no longer remember what of.

She has me and we both know it.

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I am glued to the spot just tasting biscuits and moaning inappropriately.

Matty finds me in this sweaty, sugar induced coma-like-state and starts talking like someone who is on a very different level. “What’s going on here then,” he said, or something like that.

Smiling, she hands us two wafer like tubes. I nod fiercely at Matty, somewhat relieved he was getting his own to sample and not sharing mine.

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This time the crispy wafer oozed with a chocolate-caramel flavoured filling inside its crispy shell.

“Yes, yes”, I cried, hurrying her to fill up the bag.

Matty looked down at my hands, now clutching at least five bags of different biscuits.

“I thought we were getting some lunch,” he said.

“I’ll get an orange or something as well,” I assured him.

But truth be told I had already had my lunch. In the biscuit aisle of the Globus Supermarket in Tashkent. These were for dinner.

Georgia Press Pictures

KAZBEGI REGION

Image: G01 Climbing from Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi. By Delia Monk.

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Image: G02 Delia takes a photo of Tsminda Sameba Church in the distance. Picture by Matt Evans.

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Image: G03 Delia climbs a hill on trek to Gergeti Glacier, Kazbegi. By Matt Evans.

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Image: G04 Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi. By Matt Evans.

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Image: G05 Cow infront of Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi. By Matt Evans.

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Image: G06 Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi. By Delia Monk.

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Image: G07 The dog that followed us up the mountains from the town of Kazbegi. By Delia Monk.

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Image: G08 Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi. By Delia Monk.

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BATUMI PICTURES

Image: G09 Batumi beach. By Delia Monk.

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Image: G10 Matt Evans and Donagh Houlihan look out from Batumi beach. By Delia Monk. (Matt Evans and Donagh Houlihan pictured.)

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Image: G11 Shoe statue, Batumi beach. By DeliaMonk.

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Image: G12 Gold statue against Batumi flats. By Delia Monk.

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Image: G13 Batumi beach. By Delia Monk. (Matt Evans and Donagh Houlihan pictured.)

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WINE

Image: G14 Drinking Saperavi wine. By Delia Monk. (Donagh Houlihan pictured).

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Armenia Press Pictures

CHURCH IMAGES

Image AM01: Noravank Monastery. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM02: Inside St Hripsimeh Church, where a nun by the same name lies after being killed by an Armenian king because she would not marry him.

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Image AM03: Akhtala Monastery in the Debed Canyon area. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM04: A priest in black robes walks through the entrance to one of the cave churches at Geghard Monastery. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM05: A man prays at Khor Virap Church. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM06: Candles are lit inside all Armenian churches. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM07: Two ladies sit outside St Gayane Church, built in 630 AD and home to Armenia’s only two nuns. By Delia Monk.

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BRANDY PICTURES

Image AM08: Ararat brandy samples at the Yerevan Brandy Company. By Deli Monk.

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Image AM09: Matt Evans (left) and Donagh Houlihan (right) sample the Ararat brandy samples at the Yerevan Brandy Company. By Delia Monk.

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YEREVAN PICTURES

Image AM10: Republic Square in Yerevan. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM11: View from the Cascades, looking out onto the city. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM12: Fountain show at Republic Square. By Delia Monk.

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DEBED CANYON PICTURES

Image AM13: Walking through wild flower meadows in the Debed Canyon. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM14: Photographing wild flowers in the Debed Canyon. By Delia Monk. (Model is Matt Evans).

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Image AM015: A piglet enjoys some milk at a rural village in the Debed Canyon. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM16: View of the Debed Canyon. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM17: A shepherd in the Debed Canyon. By Delia Monk.

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Image AM18: The cake made by Irina at the Iris Guesthouse in Alaverdi, Debed Canyon. By Delia Monk. (Picture of hosts available upon request).

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Please attribute the photographer if reproducing images and note that copyright belongs to the photographer unless you wish to buy exclusively. Model release forms have not been signed by subjects in the photos – except for those of Delia, Matt and Donagh.

Azerbaijan Press Pictures

Image AZ01: Baku skyline by Matt Evans

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Image AZ02: New meets old: Taken from Baku’s old town by Matt Evans

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Image AZ03: Delia Monk and Donagh Houlihan look out onto Baku from the marble viewing gallery. By Matt Evans.

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Image AZ04: Baku’s Fountains Square by night. By Delia Monk.

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Image AZ05: Central Baku by night. By Delia Monk.

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Image AZ06: Baku’s main shopping street. By Delia Monk.

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Image AZ07: Baku fountain by night. By Matt Evans.

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Image AZ08: Baku old town by Delia Monk.

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Image AZ09: Baku old town by Delia Monk.

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Image AZ10: Baku old town by Delia Monk.

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Image AZ11: A pot of cey, as served in Seki, Azerbaijan. By Delia Monk.

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Please attribute the photographer if reproducing images and note that copyright belongs to the photographer unless you wish to buy exclusively. Model release forms have not been signed by subjects in the photos – except for those of Delia, Matt and Donagh.

Darvaza Gas Craters, Turkmenistan

Today I want to take you somewhere truly mental. Ordinarily you would need a 4×4 jeep, a reliable compass and a boot full of provisions for such a journey, but if you have a cup of tea or coffee to hand and a sense of adventure that will also do nicely.

We’re going to the Darvaza Gas Craters in the middle of the scorching, barren deserts of Turkmenistan. I think you’re going to like it.

The adventure begins in Ashgabat, a city full of truly bizarre and ostentatious monuments, but things are about to get weirder. After breakfast you lug your rucksack into the big (air conditioned!) jeep outside. The air conditioning is a significant luxury, you are taking on Central Asia’s hottest desert in 45 degrees and the sun-scorched sand dunes are a somewhat intimidating prospect.

You mutter something about picking up some water sooner rather than later after realising supplies are low but are scoffed at by your fellow travellers who think you are somewhat paranoid. They laugh and say ‘no sweat’ and unhelpful comments like that. But you eye the rapidly reducing water supply suspiciously, remembering only too well the recent memories of being ‘lost at sea’ in the Caspian Sea. Ok, you weren’t quite lost, but it was dramatic nevertheless.

The city is soon left behind in a trail of hot orange dust and the road ahead cuts through swathes of brown, beige and orange flat sandy terrain. Nothing can be seen except different shades of brown with the odd camel or donkey for company.

Then suddenly the car just fizzles out. There’s no dramatic bang, no explosion and drama, just the slow purr of an engine dying and the sound of a hand slapping the steering wheel.

“Machine ist kaput,” says Alec, your driver. It’s the first thing you’ve heard him say and it’s odd that it’s German but your guide tells us this was a commonly used word in the Soviet period.

“Oh,” you reply, somewhat glad you understand why your Turkmen driver broke out in German but nevertheless still a little put out by his news.

You watch as they take their phones out the car (they have three between them) and wave them in the hot sun rays from the top of a sand dune. You’re not sure what will happen first, if the phones will melt or they will get signal.

But then your guide returns looking pleased with himself as his phone was the victorious one. Another driver is coming for you and you need not worry, he may only be 45 minutes because he ‘drives like a maniac’, you are assured. Wonderful.

Somewhere between the German speaking and the phone waving the air conditioning has been turned off and there is no sign of it coming back on. So you lethargically peel your hot, sweaty body from the now sticky leather seats, cursing yourself for bringing so many black clothes on a desert summer holiday, and look for some shade. You eye up shrubs that are a little taller than others in hope of finding a shadow big enough to curl into, like a desperate snake that needs to shed its skin in cool, dark hole.

It turns out there is a little derelict railway station over the road with ample shade. The guide even gets out some blankets and offers you some tuna. The boys get out the iPad and a game of Trivia Pursuit is soon underway. But you wonder how long it would take until you would happily trade in an iPad for a bottle of water. Thirty minutes, you conclude.

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The next half an hour is spent trying to ignore your pounding head as you swallow two paracetamols with the last dregs of the water. Then just when you’re considering grabbing a camel to go in search of provisions, the rescue mission arrives and after transferring the bags and camping equipment you are on that bumpy beast of a ‘road’ again.

50km later you finally reach the first water stop and, ignoring your fellow travel companions, you decide to buy enough water to keep a small herd of camels alive for a week or so, whilst muttering something about being right all along.

Now the sun is getting low in the sky and it is time to push on. Another hour or so later, your driver turns off the main road, and stops by a huge hole in the dessert.

You jump out, and gaze down into a deep, deep crater, full of emerald coloured water at the bottom. It’s a long way down and it’s somewhat ironic to see all this water lying deep beneath the scorching desert plains.

But the next crater, just 10 minutes or so away, is every better. Just as big, but stinking of rotten eggs, this crater is full of bubbling mud that made a curious gurgling sound as you snap away with the camera.

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The craters were all created in the 1950s, apparently a consequence of Soviet era gas explorations. Turkmenistan is seemingly riddled with gas supplies, as I mentioned before, residents don’t even pay for gas here – it’s completely free.

But it is the third crater that is the real reason you have now been driving for six hours into the middle of nowhere. For it is the third crater that somehow, somewhere along the way, was set alight and now burns gas all day, all night and has been blazing for some 60 years.

You’ve seen pictures of it and even had a little peek at a YouTube video but nothing, I repeat nothing, can prepare you for what you are about to see.

To reach this crater you’ve been ‘off-roading’ for more than half an hour, climbing up sandy desert dunes and dropping down the other side in the jeep, which despite its sturdiness still feels a little precarious in the deep sand. And then suddenly, the final crater emerges. You can see the red glow and can smell the gas as soon as the car door is opened.

It smells like someone has left the gas on for a long time. It looks like the world’s biggest bonfire or the burning pits of hell. Suddenly you understand why fire was worshipped in times gone by. It is, quite simply mesmerising.

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You stand there with your travel companions, gazing into the deep 70 metre by 50 metre crater watching the flames jump into the air, licking the sky. The wind changes and suddenly the heat and smell is unbearable, forcing you to turn the other way and close your streaming eyes.

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But almost just as quickly you turn back again to gaze into the pit. Everyone is worried someone will fall in so you stand a good metre or two away from the edge as you walk around the crater in an anti-clockwise direction. You talk about how long you could survive down there and discuss whether it would be worse to fall into the pit of fire below or a great hole of slurry. Opinions are divided. You walk a little further from the edge.

After setting up camp a few hundred metres away from the crater (it’s not safe to camp closer), you return to the fire to watch the last rays of light disappear from the sky that is now illuminated only by the raging fire below.

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After returning to camp for a delicious barbecue dinner, where you enjoyed tender pieces of charcoal grilled chicken and vodka in almost equal measures, you feel yourself drawn back to the burning inferno of the crater. Now the warmth from the wild flames is more welcome as the chilly desert air whips around you. For some reason you do a devil dance, which is filmed by your bemused travel companions. You’ve probably inhaled too much gas. It’s time to drag yourself away from the fire again.

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Few things get you up before sunrise, but the fire does just that. Rubbing your eyes in a sleep deprived manner you find yourself wandering down the path to the crater once more.

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The sky is a very pretty, pale blue as the sun makes its first hellos of the day. The fire jumps and blazes away angrily as if to remind you it has not slept at all for 60 years. It is just as menacing as in the thick of night.

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And then, somewhat reluctantly it is time to say goodbye to the flames, pack up and drive the last, bumpy stretch of the Turkmen desert to get to the Uzbek border in good time. But that’s ok because you’re kind of in a fire trance for the best part of the journey.

And then two days later, when you’re in another country – another world, you realise it’s all still happening. It’s still blazing away. And that someone else may be devil dancing around it. And that is when you conclude that the burning Darvaza Gas Crater is probably the most mental thing you’ve ever seen.

Travel tips

Warning: Travelling Turkmenistan is expensive and intensely bureaucratic to organise. You can either apply for a ‘transit visa’, which can take a few weeks to come through and only allows you to spend 3-5 day in the country or a ‘tourist visa’ which can be picked up in a day with a letter of invitation, and in our case gave us 20 days in the country. One massive downside of the ‘tourist visa’ is that you have to travel with a guide and driver at all times except in Ashgabat so expect to pay $100 – $150 per day.

We opted for the latter to see as much as possible so our excursion to the craters was included. We booked with Stan Tours, as recommended by most people online and the Lonely Planet.

To be perfectly honest we were disappointed with our guide who failed to bring the country to life for us and at that pricetag, you expect that.

Tents, dinner and breakfast at the campsite were all included in our tour cost – although we had to pay $10 extra each for a sleeping bag, which felt a little bit cheeky.

Visiting Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: Pack sunglasses and a sense of humour

Walking around the capital of Turkmenistan, I was reminded of those ‘If I was president I would…’ conversations I had growing up.

“If I was president I would end world hunger… I would make lip balm free for all… Roll out electric cars… Sack David Cameron.”

The list goes on. The point of the game is that it doesn’t have to be realistic… What would be the fun in that? Who wants to hear “If I was president I would re-examine the country’s fiscal policy with the aim of blah, blah, blah.”

It is meant to be outlandish, it is meant to be far fetched, it’s meant to be different. Sod it, I if I was president I would give citizens free wine and gin on tap.

But never when I was playing such games did I hear anyone say: “If I was president I would create huge, towering gold statues of myself that slowly rotate so that the sun is always on my face. And I would cover the country in even more statues… Of myself. And marble, there will be marble everywhere.”

But that is exactly what President Saparmyrat Niyazov of Turkmenistan did. Ruling as ‘Turkmenbashi’, which means leader of the Turkmen, he embarked on a truly bizarre dictatorship from 1991 to 2006 when he died.

One of his most popular policies was free petrol and gas for all. Gas remains free today, while petrol costs about 12p a litre and residents get 120 litres free a month anyway. Mental.

But it gets more mental. Aside from actually naming a city after himself – yes you can visit Turkmenbashi on the west coast of Turkmenistan today – he also embarked on a white marble building project so big that I felt my sunglasses did almost nothing to shade my eyes from the vast brightness when walking around the capital.

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The apartment blocks are white marble, the hotels are white marble, the business centres and shopping centres are white marble and that is before we get onto the university, the palaces and mosques, which quite frankly display enough white marble and gold to blind a man with Primark sunglasses on a summer’s day. Because that’s another thing – this white marbleness just rises out of the desert as incongruous as a camel in Oxford Street, London. It’s all very odd.

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Here’s Turkmenbashi himself, just draping a gold jacket over his gold sholder, with his gold hand… infront of a monument that looks a bit like a posh toilet plunger.

Even the subways are prettydamn swanky.

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In fact I was reliably informed by a sweet girl at an Ashgabat market that the capital recently made it into the Guinness Book of Records for being the most white marbled city, or something. Well, as I say, every president has his dreams.

Despite the fact that I now see Turkmenbashi adorned in gold robes, sitting on a white marble throne saying: “If I was president I’d create a white marbled city”, while his minions politely cough, remind him that he is in fact president and watch him clap his hands in glee and order in bus loads of white marble, I actually felt quite sorry for him. Kind of.

You see in 1948 the entire city of Ashgabat was wiped out in a huge earthquake, killing two thirds of the citizens including Turkmenbashi’s two brothers and mother.

You could imagine any nation that had suffered such an enormous loss may want a monument of sorts to commemorate their loved ones, right?

Ladies and gents allow me to present just that.

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Here we have ‘baby Turkmenbashi’ being saved from the earthquake when he was eight years old. He is being carried out by a bull, which we were told represents his mother who carried him to safety before dying herself. This sits on top of the Earthquake Museum.

But it gets better. Turkmenbashi wrote a book. Clearly a man with a lot to say and 5 million subjects to read it, he wrote it, got it published in more than 100 languages and then launched it into space. That’s right, there is a copy of Ruhnama (which I am told is a collection of his thoughts and philosophies) floating around in space. He also did what any sane author would do and built a huge gold and pink monument of the book in central Ashgabat.

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Then there’s the giant ‘Arch of Neutrality’, a huge rocket-like beast with a gold statue of Turkmenbashi holding his arms out to the city, with flame-like gold leafs behind him. It has recently been moved from a prime spot near the presidential palace to an out of town manicured garden spot. Perhaps a sign that it was too much for the Turkmen, or perhaps more probably, the new president, who has taken to putting up pictures of himself around the country, felt there wasn’t room for the two of them. ‘No statues of the new president, yet,’ our guide told us.

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But my favourite obscenity of all has to be the Turkmenbashi Mosque. It has the air of being built for Islam from afar but as you get closer you realise actually it is just another oversized Turkmenbashi monument. And it’s quite oversized. In fact, it is the largest mosque in Central Asia and can hold a whopping 10,000 people.

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And just incase your thinking I’m perhaps being a little rash and unfair in claiming Turkmenbashi has glorified himself in building a mosque, allow me to read the inscription above the mosque entrance: ‘Ruhnama is a holy book; the Quran is Allah’s book.’ Oh, and it is also in his boyhood home of Gypjak.

Inside (no pics allowed) we were greeted with more than 20 huge marble pillars, a dazzling dome and a carpet of intricate detail that was apparently weaved by more than 100 of the finest carpet makers around. In the distance at the end of the vast circular room, we saw 10 men on their knees facing Mecca.

To the right of the mosque lies the huge white marble mausoleum, guarded by soldiers, where Turkmenbashi now lies with his family. It seems a fitting ending for a man whose biggest dreams and surviving legacy revolves purely around marble and gold.

In the meantime I have a new game to play on the long journeys through the Turkmen desert: ‘If I was a megalomaniac I would…’

Travel tips

Ashgabat is not an easy city to get around without a car. The roads are endlessly wide and long, the monuments and attractions are quite spread out across the city – and the bus network is a complete mystery. Unidentifiable bus route maps can be found at the bus stops but we could not make any sense of them.

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You’ll be waiting a while at the bus stops, even if they are the nicest ones of Central Asia.

We found the best way to get around was by hitching lifts from ‘unofficial taxis’. Just stick your thumb out on the road and someone looking to make a few bucks will pick you up. General rule of thumb is 2 Turkmen Manats per person for city journeys.

Crossing the Caspian Sea by Ferry: A dirty, magical affair

It’s that time of year again when it is great to be in England. All hail the month of Glastonbury, the beginning of a three month Pimms season (which will flow heavier than the rain in good old British stoic defiance of the weather) and of course, summer holidays are just around the corner.

So as we soak up the ancient cities of Central Asia, walking along dusty city walls surrounded by turquoise minaret adorned mosques, my country folk back home will be raving under muddy canvas and perhaps enjoying a fortnight break in the Mediterranean. And to be quite frank, I feel a tad jealous.

Or at least I did, until we got stuck at sea for a few days that is. Because it turns out that crossing the Caspian Sea is a bit like a three-day dirty festival, in the middle of the ocean in 35 degrees sun. So I kind of got everything I wished for. Kind of.

The Caspian Sea, which is almost like a huge lake in the middle of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Iran, is actually the largest ‘sea’ in the world that does not connect to an ocean.

And we were crossing it on a cargo ship from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. I was excited about this for a number of reasons but the main one being the mythical sounding name of the sea. In fact I couldn’t even say ‘The Caspian Sea’ without making snake-charming-like motions with my hands and singing it like a magician. I felt convinced it must be the nautical equivalent to a flying carpet and that the journey to central asia would be nothing short of magical. I refused to listen to the gentle reminders, from Matty and the Mongoose, that we were in fact travelling on a cargo ship. No, no, I insisted, we would feel like mystical sheikhs of a bygone era.

Admittedly the border control in Azerbaijan was less than magical, taking about an hour and involving rigorous checks of our cameras to check we had not been to an ‘illegal territory’. And, granted, the Caspian Sea looked thick with oil at the Baku Port but as we climbed on board the big ship, my optimism remained intact.

The crossing only takes about 14-16 hours but we had been warned there can be delays on either side so we took extra provisions on board, which we hoped would last a few days.

We were meant to set sail at 10am that morning, so after dumping our stuff in our little cabin room, we ran up to the top deck to say our goodbyes to the Azerbaijan capital.

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After a while of not moving we realised we were actually in a prime (albeit unconventional) position for…. sunbathing. That is right, I was going to actually get to sun bathe on my landlocked adventure through Central Asia. There were no visas to sort, no accommodation to book, no sights to see. In fact there was nothing to do but sunbathe, and read, drink and eat. And repeat. And repeat.

I dug out my optimistically packed bikini from the bottom of my rucksack, and ran back up to the top deck for my ‘summer holiday’ experience. I’d find the cocktail bar later, I thought.

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Almost idyllic…

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Well, kind of.

And so it was, in the slightly polluted and industrial backdrop of Baku port that we spent the day doing nothing but turning our t-shirt-tanned-mainly-white-bodies in the sun every half an hour.

When the anchor was finally lifted and the boat set sail it was gone 5pm and I realised with some alarm that we had made a serious dent in both our food and water supplies.

Nevertheless, our spirits remained high and a small kitchen and common room was discovered below deck, where beers were purchased in time for sunset. As our beer bottled whistled in the wind, we danced to the sound of the Caspian Sea and our newfound instruments.

“It’s just like Glastonbury,” I cried.

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But the festival experience was only just beginning. A short trip to the one single toilet for all passengers and staff on the ship (of which there were about 50 – most staff) proved we were in for more than we had bargained for.

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The old school festival trick of entering the loo with the nose firmly pinched helped somewhat deal with the terrible stench although the cubicle was so small you had to climb onto the foot stands either side of the loo in order to close the door. And even at Glastonbury you don’t have to stand on the toilet to squat.

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And then there was the lack of showers. Having being woken up by our hostel owner that morning and told the boat was ‘leaving in an hour’ (there is no scheduled timetable) we dashed to the port without showering so were already feeling a tad grubby.

“This is just like Glastonbury,” I cried again.

The next day we woke up and the Caspian Sea was glistening in the sun. We ran back up to our ‘sunbathing spot’ and threw our towels down for a few more hours of relaxing. By lunch time we got our first glimpse of Turkmenistan as the coastline appeared on the horizon.

But then we heard the clanging and banging of the anchor being unreeled and realised we were no longer moving.

Two hours later we were still not moving.

Four hours later and the view was still the same. More boats had joined us and we now seemed to be part of some sort of cargo flotilla destined to spend the rest of our days in no man’s land.

I decided it was probably time for a wet wipe shower.

Of course nobody could tell us why we weren’t moving or when we would be moving or anything at all.

But someone in the kitchen did offer to cook us spaghetti with ketchup and some grilled chicken for a few dollars so all was not lost.

I started to collect water and purchased a few bottles from the kitchen staff, who when they could be found acted like they were doing us a favour and that the provisions were not really for the few tourists on board. How much water did they have, what if the ran out? My overactive imagination went wild while the boys discussed cannibalism and debated which member of the crew would keep them going longer.

The sun got lower in the sky and we settled in to enjoy another sunset, and another night’s sleep on the boat. Only the kitchen had run out of beer. “This is how it starts,” I thought.

The next morning we awoke to the same position – the coastline of Turkmenistan was as tantalising close as it had been 17 hours before. Now entering our third day of not showering I resorted to a sink hair wash, just like the collapsible bowl ones of Glastonbury.

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We ate half the remains of our food supply and returned to our sunbathing positions on the top deck (with rations of water).

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There was an anxious air among the other 12 tourists on the boat, who were all part of an organised tour. Even their guide could offer no assurance on departure time.

But then suddenly, with no kind of announcement or fanfare, the banging of the anchor could be heard, as if sounding the final act of the weekend… We were on our way to Turkmenistan.

We watched in fascination as our great big steel ship was led into the port by comical looking battered tugboats and cheered as the anchor went down for a final time… 55 hours after getting on the boat.

And so over the next few weeks as my Facebook newsfeed no doubt fills up with pictures of Glastonbury goers having a whale of a time, I will remind myself that I too have had three days of pure filth and wild hedonism (yes, a sunset beer counts) and a summer holiday akin to a Mediterranean cruise on the magical Caspian Sea, ahem.

But I am definitely missing out on Pimms so if you’re reading this back in blighty do have a stiff one from me.

Happy summertime x

Travel tips

Catching the cargo boat from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan is notoriously unreliable and there is no real pattern to its schedule.

Once we had our tourist visas for Turkmenistan from Baku we headed to the port to enquire when the next ship would sail. A woman in a little hut literally waved us away and said no boat, call tomorrow.

The hostel owner at the Caspian Hostel happily called for us at 10am the next day and we were told there was no boat but one might sail the following evening. Then she woke us at 8.30am the following day, saying the woman in the port had called and a ship was sailing in an hour! Needless to say we arrived at the port somewhat unprepared.

The ferry cost 71 Manat (about £60) and while the boat kitchen does provide water and food the service is somewhat erratic so take ample supplies with you.

World in Pictures: Baku, Azerbaijan

Places with pavements that are too clean alarm me. I am used to pigeon-crap splattered floors that have been discoloured by dozens of discarded pieces of chewing gum, spat out then slowly and gently trodden into paving slabs over the years. I am used to frowning and shaking my head at occasional pieces of litter on the floor – or, as was the case in our Nottingham street, entire contents of wheelie bins strewn out for all to see.

So one of the first thing I noticed about Baku was how clean its streets were. They were not just clean, they sparkled – as if polished by a team of undercover street fairies who dance over them in silk shoes when the city sleeps. And this unnerved me.

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But then you step into the old town and it feels a bit like a set out of Aladdin. Cobbled pavements are lined with ‘magic carpets’ and little stone doors lead into cave-like shops selling richly decorated fabrics and shiny brass trinkets. But even the odd, cobbled little stones on the ground were very clean.

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But the prize for the cleanest, most sparkling floor in all of Baku must go to the marble viewing platform. Yes you heard me right, a far cry from the well-trodden floors of the Eiffel Tower or London Eye pods, Baku has a grand, shiny marble staircase (a bit like that one in the Sound of Music house, but this is outside) that leads up to a huge, impressive viewing platform with tremendous views across the city. The floor was so shiny I needed sunglasses to look down. And, to top it off, it was built in honour of Eurovision.

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As we said our farewells to Baku (via a three-day ferry crossing, but more on that later), I concluded, just as I once did about tablecloths determining the expense of restaurants, that street cleanliness is indeed a clue to a city’s wealth. And that I am more more likely to fall in love with the poorer cousins of the street scene.

Travel tips

Baku is a very expensive city for budget travellers. The cheapest accommodation in Baku that we could find, after searching countless websites, was the Caspian hostel. It has a fab location in the middle of the old walled town but was overpriced. It cost 16 manat (about £13) for a dorm bed in a room that was cramped with beds. In saying that it was clean enough and the owner was friendly and helpful.

I would also really recommend the old city audio walking tour. It costs 5 Manat, takes about two hours and really brings the old town to life. Well worth it. Baku is also great for shopping and makes for an ideal place to stock up before travelling east to Central Asia.

An ode to fabulous hospitality in Azerbaijan

I know it sounds a bit naff but sometimes I can’t help but think that things really do happen for a reason. Like the last time I was travelling and I didn’t get the job on a newspaper back home, causing me to spend another six months in Australia and meet Matty, or the time that mum wouldn’t let me sit in the front seat once and two minutes later we crashed into a van carrying ladders, which went straight through the windscreen on the passenger side. Or the time at Baku train station when I decided to buy four beers for our overnight journey to Seki, a mountainous village in northwest Azerbaijan.

As I’ve mentioned in every post for the last two months, there are three of us on this trip – me, Matty and the Mongoose. Three beers would have been the normal choice, but as I pulled them out of the fridge, my hand instinctively went back for a fourth. Matty and the Mongoose eyed the fourth beer suspiciously upon my return.

We climbed aboard the beautifully retro train, introduced ourselves to the two others in our little room and then took our beers to that strange no-man’s land of trains, between carriages, that rattles and shakes precariously across the tracks for a night-cap.

It was there we met Elchin. A country lad who now works in the capital Baku, he was returning home to visit his family for the weekend. His English was brilliant and we started chatting about cultural differences between our countries. This might not sound of much significance but few people we’d met spoke good English and we were bursting at the seams with questions, or at least I was. We dashed off to get that fourth beer for Elchin.

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As we all clinked bottles, Elchin said: “You must come and visit my family tomorrow, I’ll show you around.” By the end of the bottle we had a plan, we were to spend the next day in Seki as planned, but the following day we would travel to Elchin’s home town of Zaqatala, to spend the day with his family.

Two days later we saw his smiling face again, as he met us off the bus in his home town and loaded our bags into his brother’s car. As we wandered the local market he was continually greeted by old friends and acquaintances. He had not been home for three months, he explained.

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Here he is buying what I can only describe as deep fried bread, which incidentally is bloody good.

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This is the man responsible for said deep fried bread. Good man.

Then we turned a corner and found ourselves in the live meat section. A couple of chickens had a cross word…
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We left the fighting cocks behind (fret not, it was not a real cock fight just a couple of chickens squaring up to each other) to explore the little known city of Zaqatala, which must be pronounced in a mythical spellbinding manner, like a magician crying ‘abracadabra’.

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And enjoyed a pot of cey (tea) in a lovely park at the top of the city.

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Then it was time to return to his house for a spot of lunch. As we pulled into his lovely farmyard home, we were greeted by grazing cows, clucking chickens and his beaming mother who warmly embraced us as we each stepped out of the car. His father, brother, sister in law and their two little children all greeted us with friendly Salam’s and we were soon settled down in a shady spot under a large hazelnut tree for a bite to eat.

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And then just when we thought the day could not improve, Elchin announced he needed to tend to the cows, and somewhat amused by my enthusiasm to help, agreed that yes I could help water them.

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My hose holding skills were second to none.

Finally, somewhat overwhelmed by the fabulous hospitality, kindness, good food, and farmyard labour (what do you mean, I was only holding a hose?), we returned to our shady spot for a snooze.

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As the cows nudged us awake we realised, with some regret, it was time to get the sleeper train back to Baku. The four of us piled into the car and stopped for a quick beer at a shady little cafe by the river that runs alongside the railway line.

“Four beers please,” Elchin ordered in Azeri. And as we raised our glasses for a second time in 48 hours we toasted to kindness, hospitality and new friends. Because really, there is no finer way to see a country.

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Death by Drawings: Noratus Cemetary, Armenia

I must start this post with a big apology for the long silence and lack of blogging. I’m going to blame being stuck on a boat for three days, spending a week in deepest darkest Turkmenistan and then camping by a shrinking sea. But I am now back (with plenty of material)! I say ‘back’ in the loosest sense of the word… We have entered a world where the food is meat and the wifi is slow. So slow it is almost impossible to blog at times. Nevertheless, I am determined to continue telling the world in words, so please bear with me if there are big gaps.

In the meantime, I have lots to tell you about. And I intend to start on a morbid subject. Sorry about that.

Rarely a day goes by when I don’t think about death. I don’t mean that I spend hours morbidly planning my own funeral or fretting how I will spend my last days, although, everyone indulges in that a little, don’t they?

I just mean that more often than not I’ll get a fleeting morbid thought. I blame the years of sitting in inquests as a reporter… the man who died after a candle melted down the back of his TV has left me suspicious of romantic lighting, the countless cyclists who sadly never made it home left me seeing even the smallest of vehicles as the biggest of threats when I cycled to work every day, and then there was the spot, outside a nightclub near my work that I passed too often, where a man died from a single punch.

But the other day, when visiting an Armenian graveyard, I was presented with an entirely new line of thinking on the subject. Let me put it to you.

If your gravestone had to tell the story of your life, or death, through pictures, what would it look like? Traditionally in Armenia when a loved one dies, the friends and family will gather together to think about how their story should be engraved on the gravestone – some choose to tell the story of their life, while others opt for death.

Visiting the Noratus graveyard in east Armenia, we were presented with a whole range of stories. From dramatic massacres to the mundane routines of life, the tales of the dead come alive on the gravestones. Two personal favourites, of such extremes, are the ‘wedding banquet’ stone and the farmer’s stone.

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The wedding banquet shows just that – a large, rectangular table, crowded with smiling people, clinking glasses and cheering the happy couple in the middle. But to the left of the party, coming through an open door, is a man brandishing a weapon. The gravestone shows the scene seconds before he slaughtered the newlyweds and all their guests at the table, our guide explained. The couple are buried underneath.

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Not such a happy scene after all. We were swiftly moved onto the farmer’s stone, that read more like a comic strip sequence of pictures. The first engraving showed the farmer leaving his house in the morning, the second showed him hard at work in the field and the third showed him coming home to a big Armenian barbecue cooked by his wife. Because that was his life. Day in, day out.

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I looked at the big plate of food being carried by his wife and concluded his story was definitely a happier affair than that of the poor newlyweds. And as I walked across the field of story-telling stones, I couldn’t help but wonder what my tale would be. It had to be about life surely, not death, because it is life that should be celebrated.

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I looked at the old women, knitting scarves and mittens to sell to tourists in the scorching 30 degrees sun, and wondered what their story was. What had they lost, what had they gained, what few pictures would sum it all up?

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I turned to Matty as we gazed at the stone of the drunk fisherman who got bitten by a snake while he slept, and asked him what our story would be. He looked thoughtful for a minute.

“Wine, smiles and air miles,” he concluded.

And I decided that yes, the good times, the smiles, the laughter and travel would make for a very pretty picture in the graveyard. And suddenly it all felt a little less morbid.