The Silk Road, China

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Mongols, The Karakum Desert and Gas Craters

Getting into Turkmenistan is not easy; the bureaucracy is quite astonishing. In order to obtain a letter of invitation ($40) which is in turn required to obtain a visa ($40), we had to hire a guide from our supporting travel agency ($$$). Of course, this in no way precluded a 2.5 hour border crossing involving painful attempts at communication with no less than five sets of officials. The frustrating thing was that all of them sat next to each other in a room no more than 30 feet long, but - despite the fact they could communicate rather more easily than we could with them - they did not speak to one another, meaning that each time we had to restate our country (and then spend five minutes exchanging names of Premiership footballers), our business ("Tourist!"), our route through Turkmenistan.

Wary of the corruption of Turkmen officials, we were also interested to find out the 'receipt' for our entry tax would cost $1. Our polite suggestion that perhaps we could live without yet another piece of paper was not well received, and after a minor stand off we thought that if it would make the pain go away, then two dollars was worth paying. We were in - and this is what we needed to navigate the bureaucracy:

The Silk Road caravans from Iran would have headed to Merv and straight to Bokhara (in Uzbekistan today). But having got into Turkmenistan, there was no way we were going to leave so quickly: from Merv we headed west to the capital, Ashgbat (see separate post) and then north to Konye Urgench through more than 800km of the Karakum desert where temperatures reach 50 degrees in summer. By then we would ready to leave the country.

Luckily our guide, Oleg, was not only a nice guy but was also extremely enthusiastic about the history of the Silk Road in Turkmenistan. Merv and Konye Urgench both provide examples of how the path to prosperity for Silk Road towns was not without danger. Both were enormously important trade hubs in the day and major beacons of Islam (although Merv predates Islam) but both fell foul of the Mongols. In return for not paying their taxes, the Mongols rerouted a river through Konye Urgench and slaughtered perhaps as many as one million people in Merv.

One of the few buildings still standing in Konye Urgench

Looking out of the window of our car, as the outskirts of Ashgabat thinned the Karakum desert quickly greeted us. The road was dead straight as far as the eye could see, with only mirages and windblown sand dancing across it in the distance. We drove for five hours stopping only once to refuel.

The petrol station

We had arranged to camp overnight at the Gas Craters in the middle of desert. As its name suggests, a Gas Crater is a large hole in the ground out of which seeps natural gas. And that is where the story dries up: a description rather than an explanation. Almost certainly man made, these holes originate in Soviet times (nuclear testing was also carried out in Central Asia) and no-one knows how or why they were formed.

We saw three. One was just a hole, the other bubbled with gas and the third - where we camped - was alight. Interesting by day, it was truly mesmerising by night, emitting an orange glow that lit up the sky and - although burning quite peacefully - managing to create a passable impression of the entrance to hell.

Several chicken kebabs and two bottles of vodka (with Oleg leading the drinking, Russian style) later in the evening we found ourselves almost hypnotised by the fire and by several flocks of birds who were lit up in the night sky as brightly as fireflies. Transfixed, we watched them circle the crater and swoop down towards the fire.

It isn't every day you sit round the gas crater drinking vodka and watching the birds....!


Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Ashgabat - you have to see it to believe it

Ashgabat is surely unlike any other city in the world. At the heart of the small (in population at least) Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan is a quite extraordinary waste public money. Despite the fact that the country is the hottest and driest in the region, there are literally thousands of fountains and water features set amongst carefully manicured and watered lawns.

Monuments, ministries and museums abound, including: a 12m gold statue of Niyazov, the late president and self styled 'Turkmenbashi' (or ruler of all Turkmen), which with outstretched arms, rotates througout the day to face the sun; a massive monument to mark the recent declaration of neutrality (at which the international community must have heaved a sigh of relief); the tallest (and most grotesque) fountain in the world and - perhaps most ironically - a Ministry of Fairness.

Fairness is not something normally associated with a dictatorship. Amongst a catalogue of extraordinary decrees, Niyazov closed all hospitals in the country outside the capital so the sick would have to come to Ashgabat, renamed the words for 'bread' and April with the name of his grandmother and outlawed ballet and opera on the grounds of being 'unnecessary.' He also blessed his subjects with a book outlining his view of Turkmen national identity and his version of history. The book is compulsory and imposed on the educational system. Needless to say, there is also a monument to the book in Ashgabat which opens once a day and passages are recited from it.

The book

We found all this construction in Ashgabat initially impressive, often tasteless and increasingly unsettling. Unsettling because downtown Ashgabat is eerily deserted and clearly nothing more than veneer designed to impress the President and any official visitor who does not care to wonder why it is so quiet.

Downtown Ashgabat - heaving

It is not clear whether anyone is allowed to enjoy it all. Armed guards prevented us from approaching public buildings - most ironically, we were prevented from approaching a massive open air television, thereby slightly calling into question the reason for its existence. The thousands of park benches - often in beautiful surroundings - were also deserted; we suspected that the police discouraged locals from using them so that they remained 'tidy.'

The official restaurants were empty - some staying in business only thanks to state subsidy, others decaying just a decade after their lavish construction. The array of 30 themed state hotels were a serious overkill for the supposed 3,000 tourists that visit the country each year. Ours, the Hotel Asia, was almost completely deserted except for a Chinese business which had rented some office space on the first floor (the rest of which was literally gathering dust). Even the stunning replica of Istanbul's Blue Mosque - built to celebrate the return of religion to the country - is unused: 3 deaths during construction were seen as a bad omen.

So it seems that most people working in Ashgabat are either state workers or prostitutes. The former are either the notoriously corrupt police (who extract bribes for 'motoring offences' by day and (we were told) sometimes beat up or rape innocent citizens by night) and hundreds of mostly women who toil in the blistering heat for $100 per month to maintain and keep clean the fountains and vast public spaces. Meanwhile, the prostitutes are busy; they approached us in the shops by day and in the discos by night.

This bizarre place came about because of an extraordinary set of circumstances which combined to fuel the ego and indulge the delusions of grandeur of the former President Niyazov. Selected as Moscow's yes man under the old regime, Niyazov was far too comfortable with the status quo to want independence for his country, but he was forced to accept it in 1989. So, he duly gave his communist party a shiny new name that including the word democratic (and promptly banned political opposition), renamed the country and mainted the bureaucracy. Of course, the one big change that was pushed through at independence was a total clear out of anyone of Russian origin from positions of power and officialdom in the name of nationalism.

It is perhaps lucky to be handed a power structure with yourself at the top of it, which you can control with vice-like grip through Soviet style bureaucracy. But to be able to tap into the vast revenue potential of the country's natural gas resources gave Turkmenbashi spending power too. Add to this extraordinary position the tragic earthquake of 1948 which literally levelled Ashgabat, and this former town planner was gifted by fate a blank 'canvas' in order to express his 'creativity.'

We were allowed to explore Ashgabat - and only Ashgabat - without a guide. Therefore we seized the opportunity to track down the 'real' Ashgabat. Perhaps as many as one million live in Ashgabat, away from this eery madness - it is just a question of looking a bit further afield. The real homes are tucked away in sprawling concrete high rises, almost completely out of sight of the bizarre centre. On one evening we finally found a restaurant with some atmosphere; a terrace overlooked by high rise buildings - effectively in a housing estate and proudly removed from Niyzov's downtown area.

We also found the real Turkmenistan at the down-to-earth Torkuchka weekend market. Here we spent a morning wandering through the rows of lorry containers and corrugated iron stalls, which displayed for sale everything from car parts to carpets to the crowd that flocked there from Ashgabat and outside. We loved feeling as though we melted into the scenery here; tourism is not yet developed enough to create a signficant market and the hard sell culture that comes with it.

The market - a far cry from the fountains of Ashgabat

It is a fascinating time to visit the country. Turkmenbashi clearly lived in his gold domed Presidential Palace (no photos allowed!) in a bubble called downtown Ashgabat. Now that he lies in his massive mausoleum just outside the city, will the bubble burst? It is too early to tell, and we not able to get much information out of anyone we spoke to. Since his dentist (thankfully also the former of Minister of Health) has taken over, the main change has been a relaxation of the grip of the police. It also appears that the new President has decided not to replace the ubiquitous portraits of Turkmenbashi with his own. In the critical power struggle for oil and gas, he also appears to have thrown his lot in with Russia, recently signing a major deal with Putin and Kazakstan. We can only hope some of the benefits are spent on the people rather than massaging the presidential ego.


Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Iran - khoda hafez (goodbye)

I arrived in Iran with few preconceptions. I was determined to get behind the headlines and Ahmedinejad's war of words with the US. I had read two books to give myself a brief introduction to Iranian culture: We are Iran - an edited collection Iranian blogs; and Persepolis, a well known (graphic) novel by Marjane Satrapi about her life during and after the revolution and her love / hate relationship with her country. If anything, I expected a groundswell of opposition against an overtly oppressive regime.

So how is Iran today, more than 25 years after the revolution that created the world's only Islamic state? In our brief two week visit (spent mostly in central Iran, but also in the North, Tehran and the East), my impression is of a proud and deeply conservative people and a state that taps into that conservatism rather than imposes it by force.

Iranians' pride in a culture which is deeply rooted in the past is unquestionable. Their awareness of it is both broad and deep, spanning the arts (back to the great poets), politics (back to Cyrus the Great) and of course religion. It does not appear to stop abruptly before 1979 as Turkey's appears to pre Attaturk.

This pride manifests itself in a strong sense of identity and separateness from (and sometimes even contempt for) Iran's neighbours: in Farsi not Arabic; in being Aryan not Arabs; in being Shias not Sunnis. This identity has withstood constant foreign intervention (whether Arab or 'Western') ever since. Iran is a case in point of the complexity of the Middle East and how dangerous it is to think of a heterogeneous thing called 'Islam.'

That we would find such a conservative people - both young and old - surprised me enormously. Superficially, this is expressed in Iranian politeness. Ta'arof is a social code whereby you must refuse any offer 3 times so as to allow the offeree to escape from the offer without losing face. For example, in Tabriz a young man we met in the street suggested we come to his house within 30 seconds of meeting us. We declined once and that matter was finished; textbook Ta'arof!

Iranian hospitality is genuine and generous, however. In Shiraz, 60 year old Mahmoud took his duties very seriously, refusing to allow us to pay for anything and seeming almost protective at times when others came to speak to us. In general, we found Iranians to be sincere and warm. They are people of smiles more than raucous laughter.

More profoundly, perhaps the conservatism goes some way to explain the total lack of overt criticism of the regime we found, even when gently probing for it. Of course, this is not to say that opposition does not exist, nor can we really know how much fear of the regime still remains, but desipte lengthy conversations, we heard nothing either from Mahmoud who spoke warmly of the days before the revolution or from Eshan, a 25 year old who at least in terms of clothing, football and music was as 'Western' as we were.

Police presence on the streets in Iran is minimal: less than Syria and far less than Turkmenistan, which is a true police state. Perhaps the lack of activity in the evenings suits the importance Iranians put on family life: we did not see a curfew being aggressively enforced.

Of course there are many (vocal) opponents of the regime and this culminated in a string of reform bills in 2003. But if our experiences are at all representative, they seemed to suggest that mainstream Iranian society is actually rather conservative. This might explain why Iran swung to the right in its most recent elections and why an initially socialist revolution in 1979 could be so spectacularly hijacked by the right.

There are forces driving change, however - both economic and social. And both are felt most acutely by the young. Making ends meet in Iran is tough - with inflation running at c15% p.a. and property prices soaring way ahead of this, particularly in the capital (which is bigger than London). Many prices, particularly but not exclusively 'Western' clothes and food, seem out of kilter with earnings (the average salary apparently being 200 USD per month). We heard from one man how the government is under competing pressures on the one hand to decrease the massive subsidies of fuel (diesel coming in at a whopping 1p per litre!) and on the other to keep inflation under control and maintain the popular vote.

Jobs are hard to come by, putting a premium on education. Ali, a school teacher in Tabriz, told us of fierce competition in University entrance exams: only 10% of male applicants are successful, resulting in 16 hour days of revision. Even if they make it, they must then complete their 18 month military service before getting job. By this time, a young Iranian man will want to marry (which requires a sort of reverse dowry payable to the bride's family) and to buy an increasingly unaffordable house to live in with his wife.

Competition for jobs may also be putting a premium on the English language. I was astonished by how much people valued talking to us in order to practice their English. This combined with new technology (mobiles are ubiquitous in the cities and the internet increasingly tolerated) will allow increased access to English language media. This suggests that the days when middle aged people who have not encountered English for decades (we met two) must surely be over. It will be interesting to see whether the traditional social activities that we saw spanning young and old in Shiraz will stand up to increased choice amongst younger Iranians.

So my sense is that Iran is changing, but at its own pace. Perhaps the conservatism has become more pronounced in recent years - it is hard to know without previous experience of Iran. Either way, the liberal reforming zeal that achieves some coverage in our media is perhaps no more the whole picture than it was in 1979.


Esfahan nest-e jahan (is half the world)

Whatever superlatives exist regarding Esfahan, it manages to exceed them. Somehow picture postcard beauty is matched with a lively contemporary atmosphere.

Its centre of gravity is the Imam Square - the second largest (after Tiananmen - more on that in a couple of months...) in the world and the vision of the seventeenth century Shah Abbas the Great. Two tiers of arcades surround the square, each containing miniature, carpet and Gaz (local nougat) shops and the odd teahouse. At one end is the massive entrance portal to the breathtaking blue domed Imam Mosque and at the other the entrance to the bazaar which takes you 2km north to an equally imporessive Jameh (Friday) mosque, which allows you to walk through 1000 years of Persian architecture. In the middle of the square, as ever, is carefully kept green grass and a pool; horse drawn carts take people around the outside of them.

Iranians flock to the square in the late afternoon, creating the buzz that makes Esfahan so special. On more than one afternoon we sat eating tea and sweet pastries overlooking the square, simply watching the world go by.

Anywhere else and this would be enough. But Esfahan has more. To the south of the square is the river, and across it is a number of stunning bridges, carrying a steady stream of people to and from the shops of the south, including Jolfa, the Armenian district.

The promenade by the river past the bridges which are illuminated at night suggests a Florentine appreciation of the water. Somehow Esfahan oozes romanticism despite the fact that it is officially forbidden before marriage and overt displays frowned upon even after it. Needless to say, the young were out in force by the river, parading their wares - or, if lucky - on a surreptitious date. As the light faded, the couples moved closer...

Words, least of all mine, are inadequate to attempt to describe Esfahan. I will add some more pictures and let them speak for themselves. These are the images of Iran that will remain etched into my mind.