The Tale of Three Silk Traders and an Onyx Egg

So here’s the slightly embarrassing thing about our recent jaunt across the Silk Road from Turkey to China: We made for terrible traders.

Following the ancient trade route from the west to the Far East, we felt obliged to get involved with a little trading of our own.

So when we were in Turkey, the first post of the Silk Road on the west, we thought long and hard about what we could trade for some silk in the Far East.

What had traders never before carried across 7,000 miles of treacherous desert, remote mountain ranges and right across the Caspian Sea? What would be gazed at in awe as soon as we reached China and have our fellow merchants fawning over us to give their finest silk in exchange?

And then suddenly we saw it. The shiny, almost marble like onyx egg.

We were in Cappadocia at the time, admiring fairy chimneys and what-not, when we spied a man spinning onyx stone into egg shapes.

Yes, we thought, that will secure our fortune and reputation as great traders. So we purchased one at the bargain price of £5.

We lovingly wrapped it in the plastic bag that it came in and tucked it safely away in a corner of Matty’s day bag. The egg would make us rich, we vowed.

We carried it through Turkey and pulled funny faces with it.

In Georgia we took it all the way to the Gergeti Glacier.


In Amenia we showed it a large lake by a beautiful church.

In Azerbaijan Matty got a bit inappropriate with it.


In Turkmenistan we took it to the ancient ruins of Merv.


In Uzbekistan the egg saw the beautiful blue tiled mosques of Samarkand.


In Tajikistan the egg got all giddy at high altitude.


In Krygyzstan the egg got all arty among the rolling hills.


And then it got all the way to China… and enjoyed posing by the Bell Tower in Xi’an, our final stop on the Silk Road.


And it had its last moments with the Face of Ignorance…


And then finally the big day arrived. Four and a half months after making that fateful purchase Cappadocia, it was time to trade the egg at the far eastern post of the Silk Road; Xi’an, China.

Our first mistake was that we had grown unnaturally attached to the egg. It sort of felt like the fourth member of the clan, so to speak. It had seen everything we had… If eggs could talk. I fear this may have affected our professionalism.

Our second mistake was the egg was no longer in top notch condition. Truth be told the plastic bag didn’t quite provide the protection we had initially hoped for and as Matty threw his bag down after a few local special brews, we would hear it smash against the hard floor and cringe, hoping for the best.

Our third mistake, and I think this was where we really went wrong, was that someone had already taken onyx eggs to China. To our dismay we found rows and rows of egg shaped onyx creations, even onyx egg holders and other strange, elaborate statues that we fear somewhat undermined the status of our own little onyx treasure.

And finally, we couldn’t find the silk market in Xi’an so we headed to the Muslim quarter and hoped for the best.

After spending a couple of hours being distracted by the great street food and souvenirs that line the lantern adorned lanes of the Muslim Quarter we remembered our mission and hunted for a silk trader.

Eventually, by a stroke of luck as we made our way to the train station almost completely defeated, we chanced upon a lady selling silk scarves.

We played by all the old ancient trading rules – causally running the scarves trough our fingers, pretending we were only half interested. Well, until I cried: “This one, this one,” pointing enthusiastically at a piece of white silk with Chinese writing on it. That might have been another mistake.

So, the haggling started. She started the bidding at 100 Yuan (about £10), to which I came back with an offer we thought she couldn’t turn down: The Egg.

“This egg has travelled 7,000 miles from Turkey – it’s original onyx from Cappadocia,” I explained.

“We saw it being made by hand,” added the Mongoose.

We all looked towards her expectantly. And then something happened that I never, ever foresaw.

She laughed. She looked at our little old egg and broke into a great, mighty cackle.

“Ok, 10 Yuan and the egg,” I offered quietly.

More laughter. The bidding continued but she seemed to be more preoccupied with the money than the egg. It was not going to plan.

After a little while she softened and took the egg into her hand. She smiled.

“50 Yuan and the egg,” she offered.

Ok we agreed. We had a train to catch after all.


We took the silk scarf into our hands, which we plan to cut into three pieces because what better souvenir could three traders ‘cut from the same cloth’ possibly hope for?

As the exchange was made we watched in surprise as she placed the egg into her handbag instead of on the market stall.

“I think it will bring me luck,” she said smiling, still giggling a bit.

And we nodded in agreement. Financially it may not have been our best move – travelling the egg across the Silk Road cost us about £5,000 each, plus the £10 spent on the two transactions. We were left somewhat in negative equity.

But luck? Yes, the egg had definitely brought us lots of that.

A Video of a Silk Road journey: The tale of the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers

Matty has made a video of our trip so far… It’s been on his website for a little while now but I wanted to share it with those of you who don’t follow him too. So, without further ado, in the words of Matty himself…

Here it is. The ups and downs of the last three months have finally been cobbled together into 3.5 minutes of celluloid gold.

It’s been gritty.
It’s been emotional.
But it has, quite simply, been the time of our lives.

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.




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.


Almost idyllic…


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.




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.


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.


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.


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


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.





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.




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.


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.


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.

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

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…



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’.


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



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.




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.

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.


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.