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.

Bibi Fatima Springs, Tajikistan: No Bikinis Alllowed

I’m not one of those travel bloggers with a “bucket list” (things to do before you kick the bucket, so to speak) and I have no desire to jump from a plane, swim with sharks or do anything particularly adventurous at all. Don’t get me wrong I have a growing list of places I’d love to visit, as well as plenty of dreams and ambitions, but I also much prefer life to be an open book than a list of things to do.

But there was something I wanted to do before turning 30. That’s right – this year I turn the dreaded 3-0 and like most landmark birthdays, it inevitably prompts a bit of soul-searching and question-asking to check life is in order and expectations have been met etc.

So after I little self-reflection and concluding that yes, life is pretty much on track and things are going pretty well (perhaps there will be more on this when the landmark is crossed), I realised there was one big gap in my 29 years and 10 months of life.

I have never been to a nudist beach. And I just sort of feel like that is something every 30 year old should have under their belt. Really, who cares how many countries you’ve visited or how many beers you can drink before your alter ego emerges? The big question is, how did you cope on the nudist beach? Was it liberating? Horrifying? Did you ogle at others or barely (pardon the pun) notice them?

But just five months before my nudist deadline, I began my land-locked adventure through Central Asia and suddenly it looked as if I would reach 30 with so many unanswered questions.

But then came Munich with its Englischer Garten. Just like a nudist beach… but a park, in the city centre. That’s right, this huge pretty park in south Germany is just full of naked people lolling around on their lunch breaks or resting between shops.

You know the scene… taking a naked lunch break with the girls over a bratwurst or two (no strap mark worries there), before bumping into your boss who has the same idea. Gulp.


So anyway, there we were at the Englischer Garten at the end of April when it was still quite cold and while I could spy see a few naked people, there were more people dressed in coats and hats than their birthday suits. Plus, we had just finished a city walking tour and I hadn’t expected this, I hadn’t packed for nudity, I had nothing to sit on you see.

Needless to say the boys would not even entertain the idea and somehow sitting naked, on a patch of cold grass, on my own in the middle of Munich seemed less like a lifetime ambition and more well, just a bit weird.

And so, with our clothes still in place, we walked on to check out the local beer halls instead. I accepted, somewhat reluctantly, that my nudist ambitions would have to remain hemmed in until after my birthday. After all, what opportunities could possibly present themselves in conservative Central Asia?

But then, in the deepest darkest Wakhan Valley of Tajikistan, we visited Bibi Fatima Springs. The natural hot springs attract women from around the country, as legends say the water boosts fertility – but after three days of trekking and staying at home stays with no showers even Matty wasn’t put off.
Travelling with a lovely French couple, Blandine and Florian, the boys went to one room, while Blandine and I were shown to another. Clutching our bikinis and towels we walked down a little path to a hut-like building that was attached to the side of the rock face.

Walking into the room, the hot air immediately steamed up my glasses, but I made out a long bench with hooks above it. Ahhhh, the changing room. And then there were some steps down into what looked like another room, where the hot springs must be.

The view from the changing room window.

We quickly changed into our bikinis but as we tried to walk down into the springs, a woman started talking to us, very fast in Tajik, shaking her head furiously and pulling at our bikini strings. We looked confused and she crossed her arms in front of her in a big X-shape, which incidentally is everybody’s favourite body gesture here, and we got it… No bikinis allowed.

The French are obviously infinitely cooler about this sort of thing than the prudish Brits and I was keen to not let the side down. So without so much of a “Ooh la la,” the bikinis were off and we strolled down to the springs, passing the same woman who nodded and grinned at us enthusiastically, happy to see us in our nude state.

As we walked in to the springs, behind heavy plastic sheeting, I was amazed to see we were now amidst the huge mountains that surround the building and gloriously hot water was pouring down the rock and spraying out, creating natural showers all around us. There were a few other women in there who greeted us with big smiles and encouraged us to sit down.

One of them put the “plug” in and soon the small room around the rocks was filling up like a big bath. More women came in, followed by more women, and just when our bath was full to the brim (with both water and women), more women came in. It was rush hour at the baths.

And so it was with this growing audience, that we were invited to climb into the “fertility cave” inside the rock wall, the very reason that Bibi Fatima Springs earns so many visitors from far and wide. The hole in the rock is about 50cm long and perhaps a little less wide, but it is a good metre or so from the ground.

We watched one woman easily pull herself up to the hole and fall in, agilely folding her body into two. Then it was my turn. Grunting determinedly, I managed to haul myself up legs akimbo, and managed somehow to crawl into the small space, before victoriously jumping out again. And only then, did I remember I was not wearing a bikini.

And now I feel ready to turn 30.

PS Sorry for distinct lack of pictures in this post… Didn’t seem right to get the camera out.

How to Ruin a Good Cuppa Tea

Now I don’t want to alarm you but I have some disturbing news. Maybe take a seat, pour yourself a stiff drink and take some deep breaths.

The picture above is of a cup of tea.

I know, I know, I can already hear you screaming: “What? How? What pollution is this before my eyes? What sadist is responsible for such a creation? How was this allowed to happen? WTF?”

Just keep breathing, it’s not going to get any easier I’m afraid.

Allow me to set the scene. We are travelling along the Wakhan Valley of Tajikistan, a beautiful and remote area of huge, towering mountains and glistening lakes, and the previous night, after some arduous trekking, we had eaten a strange meal of frankfurters, spaghetti, garlic and onions.

Now it is the morning and in the same hotel we are served rice pudding for breakfast (which makes for a surprisingly good start to the day) alongside the regular green tea. Tea here comes green or black, but never with milk. The green tea is fabulous and we have been known to drink pots of it, one after the other, like it’s Stella or something.

But then suddenly out of nowhere, our driver Deesh was poured a cup of what looked like English breakfast tea with milk. I stared in fascination, instantly craving the Saturday Guardian, and a bacon butty to go with it.

But then he did something I will never forgive him for. Never.

He added spoonfuls of yak butter. And salt.

He put yak butter and salt in his tea. And then he stirred it.

And then he drank it.


This is the said madman.

Somewhat unconsciously, I let out a small cry of horror and started shaking my head furiously. I think I murmured: “No, no, no, no, no,” repetitively as I searched his face for some explanation, some reason, for his absurd behaviour.

But instead of any justification, I just heard laughter from the local women around me, who were also stirring their buttery tea.

And just when I was at my most vulnerable, trying to take it all in, I was unknowingly poured a cup of the filth myself. Butter and salt were added before I had time to say: “Milk, no sugar please,” and the bread was pushed my way.

I looked to Deesh, in disgust, for some guidance. He ripped off some bread and dunked it in his tea – all nonchalant as if it was a bloody Rich Tea or something.

I bravely tore a piece off myself, muttering oaths to Yorkshire Tea under my breath, and dunked.


I brought the sloppy bread to my mouth and bit down.


The warm, wet bread dissolved too easily in my mouth, overloading my tastebuds with a greasy tea flavour that tasted neither of tea nor butter.


Note: This is not the tastebud equivalent of drinking a cup of tea with a slice of buttered toast.


It tastes more like bread that has been slobbered on by a dog before being drizzled in dripping.


But I knew, to really know what this “local delicacy” was all about, I would have to drink it in its pure, defiled form straight from the porcelain cup.




And quite frankly, it was alarming.


It was downright dirty.


It horrified me to my core.


The subtle flavours of tea were washed out by a greasy, buttery sensation that stuck to my teeth and the roof of my mouth like glue.


So I should have just brushed my teeth and left it at that. But I wanted to ruin your day too.

(PS Picture credits go to the Mongoose who took great pleasure in documenting the ghastly affair).

Walking in the Pamirs, Tajikistan: A Trek from Darshai

The problem with trekking, you see, is I’m not very good at it. I thoroughly enjoy it (except the scary, sheer, steep parts that always make me feel slightly outraged they didn’t come with prior warning) but largely, I throw myself into it enthusiastically.

I think the main, and most logical, problem is that my feet are a bit too small to keep me upright. I hold my size 4 feet largely responsible for the scars on my knees and general skidding of stones that goes on around me as I eye up Mountain goats with envy.

The other problem is that I often struggle to keep up with Matty and the Mongoose. This gets blamed on a whole range of factors – my short legs, their long legs, the altitude, my picture-taking, their long legs and their legs etc.

In fact, in the time it took me to amble around the base of a mountain in Uzbekistan, Mongoose, aka Mountain Boy had run up to the top and down again.

But now I have found a solution that makes trekking a wholly more enjoyable experience… Piling Mountain Boy up with extra luggage. Specifically my luggage.

That’s right, if I pile enough kilos of make-up, wash stuff, mirrors, hair straighteners onto his back then he walks at my pace. Genius or what?!


I discovered this on a recent two-day trek in the Pamir mountain range in Tajikistan, which incidentally is stunning. But more on that later.

We set off from Darshai to embark on a 20km hike along a gorge where we planned to stay in a yurt overnight before heading back. Sadly Matty, who had been up all night with a dreaded dose of the Central Asian Gruesome Guts Syndrome (Caggs), was unable to come along and so on this occasion the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers became two, joined by the lovely French couple Florian and Blandine who are travelling the Pamirs with us.

And there was so much to take. Huge sleeping bags (borrowed from the homestay), warm clothes, cool clothes, 6 litres of water, lunch, dinner, breakfast, snacks.

“How are we going to carry all of this?” I cried.

“I’ll carry it all in my big rucksack,” Mountain Boy offered.

“Oh no, I couldn’t let you do that,” I protested. “Ok, if you insist.”

And that is how the genius solution to all my trekking woes came about.

After 15 minutes of setting off on the trek and climbing a good few metres (having started at an altitude of 2,500 already) Mountain Boy was almost as breathless as me. Brilliant.

Admittedly I still tripped and stumbled across the paths but I haven’t figured out a way of shrinking his feet yet so that’s jut something I’ll have to live with for now.

Led by the lovely Gul Mohammed from our Darshai homestay and his dog Jacques (pronounced with violent kicking k in a Russian accent), we climbed up the side of a gorge and walked across it.




Some bits were very steep and when I tentatively offered to swap bags, Mountain Boy gave me a stern no.


And I’ve never been so glad to hear that two letter word. I mean look at that drop.

And so we ambled along, gradually climbing up to about 3,500 metres altitude, at this wonderful pace. Chatting, climbing, skidding (well me anyway), and pausing when we got out of breath.

We also kept a keen eye out for Ibexes, huge mpuntain goats with big old beards and horns, but sadly we only came across their body parts, which were cast aside on the ground and hanging off trees.


We crossed bridges made from just stones and branches, precariously balanced over the fierce flowing, icy cold river below.


As I kept my eyes on the broken ground in a bid to remain upright, I was distracted by the sparkling stones that looked like quartz and glistening soil. It was as if someone before us had scattered the ground with glitter glue.


Occasionally Gul would sprint ahead and start a little fire by a stream to boil up a pot of chai – and a smoke on a Cuban cigar that Mountain Boy had donated him.

But, alas, we didn’t have cups. He looked gutted, as he choked away on the cigar he insisted on inhaling, and we were mortified that we a) could not translate he should not inhale the smoke and b) had no cups. Soon I was drinking tea out of an old tuna pot.


And then, just as our feet began to ache and our bellies turned the rumbking up a notch, we reached our lovely home for the night. Truth be told there was no real dinner to come and the yurt was freezing, but it all looked good nevertheless.



Later that night, to conclude our dinner of bread, biscuits and raisins, I decided to eat half my Snickers bar, saving the rest for that all important energy kick at breakfast.

As I passed the half-eaten bar to Mountain Boy to put in the food bag, I saw a wicked glint pass his eyes and before I could grab it back, the whole thing was in his mouth, which was simultaneously breaking into a smug grin.

“Rucksack tax,” he simply said, once the chocolate had cleared his vocal chords.

“What you going to do? Write a blog on it?”

Travel Tips

We have hired a jeep to travel the Wakhan Valley and Pamir Highway of Tajikistan, shared by five people (us three, plus Florian and Blandine.)

We organised the jeep and driver thought the agency PECTA (Pamirs Ecotourism Association Information Centre), based in Khorog. They are just inside the City Park or you can call them on 22469.

They were absolutely wonderful, spoke amazing English and made all sorts of suggestions we would never have thought of including this trek. The Land Cruiser jeep we have hired costs 0.75 cents per km plus $20 per day for the driver.

We are taking the jeep from Khorog to Murgab over seven days, although we also have to pay for his return mileage, which is standard. It will cost us about $23 per day (for seven days) for the driver and jeep.

The Lonely Planet tells you all homestays provide sleeping quilts etc and this has been true except in this yurt! We ended up borrowing massive, bulky, but quite thin sleeping bags from the homestay to take with us, but were freezing all night. Also, there is a little stove in the yurt but no food so you need to bring your own.

What is the weather like in the Pamirs in July?
Lovely! It’s about 30 degrees (C) or hotter during the day but does get a bit chilly in the evening so take warm fleeces and jackets etc. At 8am in the morning when we were returning on our trek it was 12 degrees Celsius, but it felt colder than that.

What do I need to pack for the Pamirs?
Take water purification tablets! Shops rarely sell water because locals drink from the springs but there are lots of animals grazing around them so best to be safe! Fortunately Florian and Blandine had plenty of these tablets, which we gratefully borrowed! Also, be sure to pack a torch and buy enough water and snacks to last you however long you plan to be on the road – you can just load the jeep up at the bazaar in Khorog, so it’s not really a problem.

If you have a small, warm sleeping bag it’s well worth packing but apart from the yurt we have been well provided for in terms of quilts and blankets.