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.

Yerevan, Armenia: The most unsoviet Soviet city?

If Armenia was your friend she would be the funny, smart and pretty one – but more importantly, she’d be the jammy one. The one who always gets what she wants, despite the odds thrown her way, due to her (unusually charming) combination of brains and balls.

In fact, she’d be the kind of girl that if mugged at at gun point, would not only convince the balaclava-donned thug to put his gun down, but actually to lend her a quid or two for the last bus home. Because that’s exactly what she seemed to do to the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century.

Most countries that were absorbed by the swelling USSR in the early 1920s have been left with physical scars that will take decades to fade. Centuries old archaic churches were replaced by functional, concrete tower blocks while grand, old homes of the rich paved way for linear, grey and brown bus stations or post offices.

Inevitably there is plenty of that to be found across Armenia, but its capital Yerevan has emerged grand and glorious, despite almost the entire city being designed and built in the early Soviet years. It is nothing short of a miracle.


Like the very impressive Republic Square, for example, which comes to life every evening with fountains that dance to everything from Beethoven to Cotton Eye Joe, with the Superman theme tune somewhere in between.



The design of the stately buildings around Republic Square are grand and intricate. They feel like the complete antithesis to Soviet architecture, despite being built in the 1920s. One of the buildings even has the exact same engravings around it as a ruinous 17th century Armenian Church, in a bid to let the legacy to live on.


‘Errrm, how exactly did you manage to get the Soviets to let you do this… and fund it?’ We asked our guide incredulously.

She gave us a knowing smile and instead told us the story of how Yerevan got its underground metro system. She explained the capital had originally been denied a metro because it had less than one million residents and only Soviet cities with more than a million could develop an underground network.

But, she continued, the Armenians, refused to just lie down and take this news, so a cunning plan was hatched. When Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev visited the city soon after, massive traffic jams were promptly organised on every street he visited. He took the news of Yerevan’s terrible traffic congestion back to Russia and voila, by 1981 Yerevan’s metro was up and running.

Similar, mischievous tales were regaled to us throughout our time in Armenia. Take the ‘Mother Cathedral’, the world’s first state built church, for example, which was under orders to be knocked down by Iranian Shah Abas in the 17th century.

The Armenians caught wind of this and hastily engraved his head at the top of the cathedral. So, in due course when his troops arrived they found themselves in quite a quandary… How they could demolish the very cathedral that was devoted to their very Shah? The building was saved.

Fast forward some 300 years and Armenia decided it wanted a grand, steep staircase leading up a huge Yerevan hill. So what did she do? She built a monument at the peak, devoted to 50 years of Soviet rule and asked for the cash to build a staircase to lead the people to the monument.

She got denied. She revamped the design, threw in a set of elaborate fountains, each representing a different Soviet republic, with Russia in the middle, and pronto, the staircase (aka The Cascade) was built with Soviet funds.


Admittedly it’s still not finished today, but that is not the point. And if anyone can get someone to complete the job, it will be Armenia.


The top of The Cascade is the perfect way to spend an evening in Yerevan, admiring the city skyline (don’t forget to take a bottle of Ararat’s finest brandy, mind.)


But perhaps most impressive of all, was Armenia’s success in building a monument devoted to the 1.5 million Armenians who died in the Turkish genocide of 1915.

It is a tragedy that remains at the very core of Armenian people today. Families were ripped apart as the Young Turk government sent hundreds of thousands of Armenians into barren deserts to starve to death or simply shot them dead in a bid to make the Ottoman Empire, which included the area which was formerly known as West Armenia, more ‘Turkish’.

One day, during our time in Yerevan, we visited an Armenian family for lunch. After serving a delicious and generous lunch time feast, the father of the house pulled out an old black and white family photo. There were a few men in military uniforms, a few women (I presumed to be their wives) and about five little children. After we admired it, we were told that all had been killed in the genocide apart from one little boy. The table went silent, it was hard to take in.

But to take you back to the significance of the memorial… during the Soviet times it was frowned upon to commemorate any events that were deemed to be too nationalist. The Armenian Genocide fell firmly into that category, so the nation remembered in silence.

But in 1965, 50 years after the tragic event, Armenia raised her voice. Expats around the globe were commemorating but she had nothing in her homeland. The movement for a memorial began and by 1967 the obelisk was opened.



While we were there school children lined up to place a flower beside the eternal flame. Today there is also a very impressive museum about the genocide which is well worth a visit.


Perhaps some of these facts have been elaborated and embellished to enhance the tourist tale – and I have certainly only heard one side to each story. The Turkish, for example, deny the Armenian genocide ever took place.

I don’t profess to be a historian, or even deliver a balanced blog (that’s what my years in newspapers were for), but I can tell you that after meeting Armenia and listening to her myself I walked away admiring her passion, her guts and her sheer determination in times of strife. And I like that in a girl.

Travel Tips

We stayed at the Envoy Hostel in Yerevan, a clean and extremely well facilitated hostel, which runs fantastic day trips from the city.

The tours are led by the hostel’s manager Arpine Yesayan, who is the primary source for most of the tales above. Her excellent humour, witty jokes and fabulous story telling skills make for extremely memorable tours. They cost €30 (pretty much a day’s budget for us), but worth every penny!

She also runs free city walking tours of Yerevan, which are every bit as good as the paid excursions.

Envoy hostel is at 54 Pushkin Poghots and their website is at

Walking in the Debed Canyon, Armenia

Does it sound strange if I admit that during my time in Armenia I asked our guesthouse host if she knew anyone with sheep and cows who I could go and hang out with for the day? No, I don’t think so either. It was a perfectly legitimate question.

The thing is, in Armenia you don’t just see the occasional field scattered with a smattering of farmyard animals, you literally find them in their hundreds, being herded down the road like a massive army of floating woolly jumpers by a charismatic looking man carrying a crooked stick. And I just kind of wanted to hang out with him and his animals. And squeal and take pictures.

So it was in this vein that I found myself asking Irina, our wonderful host at Iris guesthouse in Debed Canyon, if she could set me up with a shepherd for the day. She seemed a little confused by the request and as I tried to explain myself, Matty and the Mongoose just sat back in silence, smiling as I dug myself deeper into a crazy-sounding hole.

A glimmer of hope appeared when she started dialling a number, explaining she had some friends with sheep, but then the whole thing was suddenly forgotten about and people started talking about monasteries or something.

So, instead of spending our last day in Armenia with a shepherd or cow herder, we opted to do a 7km walk from Haghpat Monastery to Sanahin Monastery in the Debed Canyon instead. And it wasn’t that I was disappointed with this decision as such, it’s just that we had already seen our fair share of religious sites and I just fancied hanging out with the locals, and their animals.

But as we approached the monastery even the voice in my head, that had been threatening to just get out of the taxi if I saw a cow herder and insist on spending the day with him, fell silent. Because it was very pretty indeed.


And after a quick look around, we left the monastery behind us and clambered down the hill to begin the walk.


We had scant details of the route but with an air of boy scoutishness about us, we crossed a gurgling river, climbed up a huge hill, found an ancient, neglected fortress and clambered over huge rocks that made me feel like Tarzan.



And then finally, after crossing an entire gorge and climbing up the other side, we reached what can only be described as a riot of flowers. A wild meadow of flowers, right up to our knees…




The flowers seemed to go on for miles and miles, as if multiplying in front of our eyes as they swayed in the wind. At first we tried to be careful not to tread on them but as they got thicker across the fields it became impossible not to.

After having a hearty skip through the daisies (well, Matty and the Mongoose that is) we reached a small village that had that reassuring smell of cow pat. What is it about cow pat and horse manure that instead of screwing up your nose in disgust as you do on train toilets, you simply fill your lungs with the stuff and sigh contently?

But it wasn’t just the smell, there was something else… a sound. A sound not dissimilar to that of the Mongoose tucking into a medium rare steak, I might add. As the boys walked on ahead I peered over a fence on my tip toes, to find something that made me positively squeal with delight.


And this:


And then, just when I thought my discovery couldn’t get any better, I looked to my right and chanced upon two baby calves. Just sitting there all doe eyed with their gangly little legs tucked under them.



By now the squealing and frantic photography had reached a great crescendo and a bemused woman stepped out of her house, confused to see an excitable blonde girl cooing over her calves.

“Awwww, look at the little runt,” I cried in sympathy, pointing at the little brown piglet that attached himself to his mum too late for a decent position, still trying to get some milk from here teats after the others had long sucked her dry.

The woman smiled at me, she understood. She opened the pen gate and the little runt came flying out, oinking squeakily as he scattered across the road as if still a little uncertain on his legs. The woman ushered me into the driveway of her home and starting filling a little saucer of milk, which the little piglet scampered up to and started lapping up.



I wanted to stroke him, but I’m not sure if it’s socially acceptable to stroke pigs in rural Armenia so instead I just continued to coo in excitement. The woman, by now probably thinking she had stumbled across some mad city folk that did not get out much, asked us if we would like a coffee.

I jumped at the opportunity (it had got to the point where I probably couldn’t hang out with the animals for much longer without getting to know their owner) and the Mongoose had that caffeine haunted look in his eyes.

She led us through a door into a small room that seemed to be the living room, bedroom and kitchen in one. She pointed on the bed for us to sit on, while she poured ground coffee and water into a small pan, which she then placed on a single gas ring in the middle of the room.

Sweet, soft bread was torn into pieces and placed on a plate on the table pushed against the back wall, which we ate with strong, soft sheep’s cheese, which was probably produced by a neighbour down the road. (I made a mental note to find the sheep before we left.)

She spoke no English but we communicated in pidgin Russian, body language and smiles. We did not need a common language to understand that she was kind, had nothing but offered us everything, and for her to understand that we were very, very grateful. As we bid our farewells, she pulled me in, held me tightly and gave me a big kiss on the cheek.

It was splendid. One of those rare days that grabs all your wishes in one big bag, as crazy as they may seem, and just dumps it on you. But as we started walking home, just when I thought they’d all come true, we heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on a stony path and saw the crooked stick of a smiling cow herder…




Travel Tips

Where to stay in Debed Canyon?
We stayed at Iris guesthouse, run by the lovely Irina Israyelyan and her husband. The accommodation is exceptional – the three of us were given two bedrooms and a huge adjoining lounge with two balconies overlooking the lush, green valley.

The couple were extremely attentive, cooked delicious meals for us each evening and on our last morning with them, Irina even baked us a beautiful cake that was deliciously syrupy. We were quite spoilt.


A room costs 8,000 Dram per night including breakfast, plus 3,000 (a total of about £17). You can call Irina on +374 (253)23839 or email her at