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.

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.