Visiting the South Aral Sea, Uzbekistan

There are some things in life that stop you dead in your tracks, grab you by the balls and make you feel utterly disappointed in the world. Things that should not happen. Jimmy Saville for example, should not have happened. Selling Britain’s beloved chocolate company Cadbury’s to a bloody American cheese company should just not have happened (this upset me a great deal as while I’m not particularly nationalistic I adore chocolate and that Brummy choc recipe should not have been passed onto the land of Reece’s and other terrible chocolate disasters.) Plus, it was one of the few things that made me proud to be British: “Yes, we invaded Iraq, yes we’re the arrogant ones in the EU and yes, I’m terribly sorry about the colonial stuff – but have you tried a Wispa? They’re really very good.”

Anyway going back to the things that should not happen. Seas should not shrink. And they should definitely not shrink so fast that they could disappear over just 70 years, killing millions of fish and wildlife, throwing thousands of people into poverty and completely screwing up the climate.

But that is exactly what is happening to the South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Once a significant blue mass on the world map, today you will find nothing more than a few small little blobs around the Uzbek and Kazak border. And even that is probably out of date and not really representative of what is left there today.

This map shows the size of the sea as it was in the 1950s on the far left, shrinking over the years until you can see the small scrap of blue on the right, which is how it stood in 2009. It is even smaller today.


In the 1950s the sea was the second largest salt lake in the world (after the Caspian Sea) but that all changed after the Soviet Union had the GENIUS (please note sarcasm here) plan to divert the Amu-Darya river, which once filled the sea, across the deserts of Turkmenistan to enable cotton farming instead. This man-made channel of water, called the Karakum-Darya, took a whopping 70 percent of the river’s water that would have otherwise been flowing into the sea. It has quite literally sucked it dry.

While Turkmenistan enjoyed the benefits of its new water supply, the Aral Sea started shrinking rapidly and split in two (now known as the South Aral Sea and the North Aral Sea).

Today the water volume is just a tenth of what it was 60 years ago and its shores have moved a huge 170km. Boats were beached as the water withdrew and it also left behind ghost towns and villages that had once prospered on fishing and sea life and were now left with nothing.




Visiting what remains of the South Aral Sea, as bleak as it may sound, was high on our list of things to do in Uzbekistan. Our guidebook, which was published almost three years ago, warned that the sea might not outlast the life of the book. So we tentatively made some enquiries.

But yes, we were told the sea is still there. Shallower than ever and even further away, but yes, still there.

The four of us piled into a khaki green Russian jeep (Matty, the Mongoose and I have been joined by the Mongoose’s lovely girlfriend Karen who has both given me the girly companionship I have been craving, and is supporting my campaign for ’emergency water and biscuit’ supplies on all excursions).

The jeep, while appearing to chunter and chug its way across the urban streets of Uzbekistan uncertainly (while stinking of petrol), came into its own as we entered the dusty, dry desert terrain.



We spent hours hurtling up and down the dried, bumpy mud tracks with our lovely Russian driver Costa, who took no fear in pushing the jeep to its limits. As we sped across the uneven ground, birds and wildlife that had nested in the grassy ridge between the tracks suddenly took flight, sometimes too late and bouncing right off our windscreen.


Often the ridge in the middle of the tracks became so high I felt sure it would damage the underbelly of the jeep or that one wrong nudge on the steering wheel would send us skidding over it and tumbling across the desert.

I tried to ignore these thoughts as Costa cried: “Scream if you want to go faster”, in Russian. Well, we’re not really sure if that was what he was saying but evidence would suggest those were his exact words. So as I squealed and screamed and covered my eyes for what felt like hours on end, after passing only one other vehicle on the tracks, we finally reached our first stop. Sudochje lake.

Once very close to the Aral Sea, ships would come to the freshwater lake for drinking water. Today it is surrounded by dry, barren land and we still had another few hours of desert driving until we were to see what remains of the sea.



We continued the long, hot drive. The Mongoose’s watch, which likes to predict storms on fine sunny mornings and demands constant collaboration with every metre we climb up mountains, claimed it was 41 degrees in the shade of the car. For once I was inclined to believe it.

As we drove we watched pockets of wind whip up dry dust in its path creating mini tornadoes that skidded across the plains, with their skinny tails reaching right up to the clouds.

But then finally to our right, a sparkling blue water came onto the horizon. “The Aral Sea?!” We cried to Costa (something we had done at the lake and every time the landscape changed). He nodded and smiled, “Aral Sea,” he confirmed.

It was glistening and beautiful, and just what our sun-baked dusty bodies were crying out for. As we got closer the scenery changed into a dramatic, dinasour-like land full of rocks and hills, and we found ourselves perched at the top of what would have once been the seashore, not all that long ago. But today it is a plateau with a sheer drop down some 30 metres or so onto the former seabed.

We drove down a track that took us down the plateau before continuing a good mile or so along the dried up sea bed until we reached the shimmering water ahead.

Desperate to get in the cool, refreshing water, we each shamelessly semi-hid behind a jeep door to change into our swimwear and ran towards the waves. It was just like something out of Baywatch. Ahem.


Ok, it didn’t really go like that. The sea is now 10 times saltier than it was 60 years ago when it began to shrink and as a result the ground leading into the sea has a cracked, hard, salty layer on top so we sort of awkwardly hopped and stumbled into the sea.


Then almost as soon as our feet made contact with the sea, the soil turned into a deep, squelching, thick mud that made it almost impossible to walk. The water should have been around our ankles but instead we were knee deep in sinking mud. My strategy was to hold everybody’s hands around me and pull them down too. Matty’s tactic was to take up an odd, quick little run that saw him lift each foot in front of the other as quickly as he could before he could submerge into the seabed. Both kind of worked.

Some serious comedy walking later and we were freed by the mud and released into the Aral’s waves. Our bodies floated in all positions, buoyant from the salt and we slowly drifted across the warm water before smearing each other in the seabed mud, which is meant to be even better for the skin than that of the Dead Sea in Israel. It was the sea dip I had been dreaming of on this landlocked adventure of ours. Sheer bliss.


A swift water-bottle-shower later we returned to the top of the plateau to set up camp and watch the sun say its goodbyes for the day.


As the sun lowered a white haze spread over the sea and across its old, dried seabed.

“It is the salt,” said another guide, who had joined us with a second jeep of travellers.

“It never used to do that,” he added, already his back turned as he walked away from the man-made mess before our eyes.

That’s how everybody here talks. It never used to be like this, they say wistfully when you ask them questions.


And as I stared out to get one last look at the thrashing waves of the sea below the haze, I felt overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness, as if I had been told someone out there was drowning but nobody could reach them.

It should never have been allowed to happen, but it did. And the next time you read about the South Aral Sea it will probably be in a history book.

Travel tips

How to visit the Aral Sea?
You will need to hire a 4×4 and driver who knows the desert well – there are dozens of tracks all over the place and I imagine it would be very easy to get lost.

There are a number of companies that run the trip from Moynaq and Nukus. We used a company called Bes Qala Nukus (phone: 2245169 email: which cost $400 for the jeep hire, plus $35 each for food for two days and camping equipment. As there were four of us it cost $135 each for two days.

Our driver, although he did not speak English, was absolutely wonderful. He constantly went the extra mile and was very sweet (he ran into the Aral Sea jumping the waves as if it was the first time not the umpteenth time he’d done it). The company also had an English speaking driver who was doing a tour over the same days and in the evening he took great effort to explain everything to us and answered all our questions. The food was very nice and we could not have asked for more.

World in Pictures: Uzbekistan – Amazing Tiles and Yum Bread

When I mentioned I was in Uzbekistan to my friend Treebeard (her name is another story but for now I’ll allow you to believe she looks like a tree and has a beard), I got an excitable message in reply: ‘UZBEKISTAN!!! Enjoy the amazing tiles and more yum bread…”

Treebeard is the only other person I know who has visited this delightful little country, nestled between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In fact it is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world. But that’s enough of the facts, back to amazing tiles and yum bread.

At the time when I received this message I had not been in the country long and had spent much of that time largely been confined to the desert, hunting out a shrinking sea (that obviously does not connect to an ocean) and frankly had no idea what she was talking about. And then I left the desert and wow, the abundance of delicous hot, crusty, melt-in-your-mouth bread hit me like a sack of… bread.

And the turquoise and blue tiles that decorate the mosques, minarets and medrassas across the evocative cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara, caught me unaware like a magpie starved of diamonds. I should probably be telling you some fascinating tales of the impressive history of these cities, that are at the very heart of our Silk Road journey, but I think the pictures may just do it better.

So here’s to the amazing tiles, yum bread and much more of Uzbekistan…




















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How to Gatecrash a Traditional Uzbekistan Wedding

It was the day after I fell over while climbing down a 2,300 metre peak, landing on my knees in such a way that took my breath away, and the morning before I fell into a river while trying to jump between large rocks in the water. Really, it is a wonder that my feet keep me upright at all.

But anyhow, it was on this morning between calamities, after eating a breakfast of mammoth proportions, that I found myself at an Uzbek wedding in the village of Langar, near Shakribsabz. We had spent the previous night with a family in the mountainous region and that morning our host announced that we would call in at a local wedding before a short trek through the canyon that connects Langar with the next village.

I looked dubiously down at my formerly black, now mud stained, Northface trousers. As mentioned, I had not fallen particularly gracefully and the impact had not been kind on either my knees – or my trousers, which now sported a childlike hole in the right knee.

“Oh,” I said. “Do you have a needle and thread?”

Ten minutes later, with the trousers suitably sponge cleaned and darned, I put on my hiking boots and looked at my greasy, suntan-creamed face in the mirror. I was ready for the wedding.

We jumped into a cramped minibus, where we sat on top of a few other wedding guests, and overtook a few donkeys before pulling over on the side of the road. From there we followed the sound of loud music over a little stream and up to a house where the wedding party was in full swing.

As we walked up the small driveway to the house, which had dozens of tables and chairs set outside, a man with an oversized camcorder filmed our dishevelled entrance. We were warmly greeted and shown to a table, which was lined with food and vodka within minutes. It was 10am.

The Uzbeks are some of the friendliest people I’ve met on this trip. When they say hello (Salam), they do so holding one hand to their heart, nodding earnestly and flashing entire gums full of gold teeth as they do so. Their hospitality knows no bounds and this wedding was no exception.

Tumbler glasses were soon filled with vodka and huge dishes of Plov, their national dish of fried rice and carrots, with slow cooked, tender chunks of beef or lamb, were placed in front of us. We toasted, we drank, we grimaced. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.



We politely but enthusiastically nibbled away at the juicy, fried dish in front of us, hoping our big grins made up for the small mouthfuls, and wishing we had not all gone for a second egg at breakfast.


Then, as we were tucking into our fourth vodka of the morning, Matty’s smile froze. We heard the words “Anglia” and “Germanie” bellowed out over the PA system that seemed intent on keeping the whole village up to date with the latest party developments.

“They are talking about us,” he whispered.

And sure enough the MC of the party, clutching his microphone and prompt cards, made his way over to our table where he talked in an increasingly excited and frenzied manner, giving a grand introduction that would have even done justice to the final Beatles concert.

And then somebody pulled me up, and to the sound of clapping and cheering, the microphone was put in my hand.

“Salam my friends,” I started. Or something like that. More cheers and laughter. I cleared my throat and went on to say my piece, thanking our hosts for the food and hospitality. Or at least I think that’s what I said. Truth be told, it was all a bit of a blur as I tried to ignore the delayed echo on the microphone as my words carried across the village.


Next up was Matty, he sent his best wishes to the young couple and wished them a life happiness. Darn, I thought, I’d forgotten about them.


And then it was over to Chris, our third travelling companion for these few days, who offered them some words of wisdom in German and was also received with great applause. Sadly the Mongoose was not there to offer them his Irish sentiments as he has nipped over to Afghanistan for a few days. We on the other hand have been denied visas so it was our fate to now take to the dance floor.

Matty tried to refuse initially, a tactic he so easily gets away with at English weddings, but the Uzbeks are as persuasive as they are hospitable and he found he was the first to be dragged to the dance floor. Then one of the women made eye contact with me and I found myself up besides him.

The Turkish and Middle Eastern sounding music bellowed out once more, as deafening as in an Uzbkek taxi, and we found ourselves moving our arms and bodies in unusual ways as we attempted to copy those around us.





Notes of 1,000 Uzbek Sommes were thrust into my hands and into the headscarves of other women around me, which Matty has since likened to a really bad strip dance, but left me thoroughly confused while I danced like an unco-ordinated extra in Arabian Nights. And then a baby was thrust into my arms and I really wasn’t sure what to do with that.


No fewer than four or five songs later we were allowed to excuse our sweaty selves and retired to a shady spot under some trees with the old men, who had been wise enough to retain their positions throughout the dancing.



More vodka was thrust upon us. But despite all the food, merriment, booze and dancing I had that nagging feeling that something was amiss.

“The bride and groom,” I suddenly cried. “Where is the bride?”
Inside, I was told. The bride has to stay inside the house today.

“But she’s missing her own party,” I exclaimed somewhat incredulously. Yes, yes, our guide agreed, but she is with all the unmarried girls in the house.

I asked if I could see her and was permitted to do so.

I was led inside a cool, dark room at the far end of the house and as my eyes adjusted to the light, I spied a small girl get up from the back of the room. I went over to her and earnestly congratulated her in English with a few Uzbek ‘thank-yous’ thrown in. She must have been no older than 17 and incredibly sweet.

She is, of course, the one on the left.


The wedding was actually yesterday, I was told. This was the party for the village and she would not get her ring until the end of Ramadan, which begins in about a week. I couldn’t help but hope she would get more out of the marriage than the wedding party, which sounded like it was still in full swing outside.

As we were seemingly the only guests with a camera, she posed for pictures with her family, which I have promised to send on. And then I was spat back out into the party, where Matty and Chris were holding court with the vodka.

And it was only then that we set off on our canyon trek. And that is why I fell in the river.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.




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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?



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.