Date night in Oslo

My husband has visited over 80 countries in the world without really trying.  He accompanies me sometimes, when he has time and appetite.  As a result, he has been to Afghanistan, Angola, Sao Tome, Mauritania – some pretty obscure travel destinations.   However, as we met after I had travelled extensively in Europe, he has never been to Scotland, Ireland, Germany or Norway or any number of ‘normal’ countries in Europe..

So, I have decided to take my husband on monthly date nights to European cities that he hasn’t been to before.  I am also secretly trying to get him to visit 100 countries.   This month, its Oslo!

Its not a detailed post, (really its just an excuse to publish our photos), but here are our tips for how to have a date night/weekend in Oslo

After a delayed flight from London, we only got to downtown Oslo at 2pm, so we checked into our hotel (right next to the station) and headed out ….

 

Take the ferry to the Bydog peninsular

The peninsular of bydog reminds me of cape cod – enormous white wooden villas, trees and lots of yachts.  It is also home to a handful of excellent museums.  To get there, take the ferry included in the oslo pass from Aker Brugge

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Ships in the harbour
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Choppy water for sailing

Visit the Norwegian Folk Museum

I mostly went to this museum  to see this for the beautiful old stave church, and it was worth it.  For the more down-home among you, you can see them working the traditional farm on the weekends

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Old stave church
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traditional Deli
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solo sign

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Check out the viking ship museum – just like amazonprime

okay, this was purely for entertainment, inspired by watching vikings on prime.  the ships are quite beautiful

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And then wander over to the Kontiki Museum

I found this museum oddly irritating as it was about six white guys who built a raft to prove you could get from Peru to easter island on a small vessel. Given my ancestors were canoeing around the pacific a millennium ago, i am not sure why we should celebrate that some white guys can do it.

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Kontiki museum
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Kontiki raft

Cross the road to Norways most famous museum – the Fram museum

This was the boat with which the norwegians conquered the south pole before anyone else figured out how to deal with the ice.  It was great to visit, you actually get to wander around the ship interior.

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Prow of the fram

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Wander around the peninsular

The peninsular is lovely, especially on a September day, with the sun shining and the harbour full of yachts

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Wander around downtown

After taking the ferry back to town, we spent a couple of hours meandering around town before dinner.  There were lots of nice buildings, but it was these loos donated from france (with the national motto of Liberte, egalite and fraternity) which caught my eye.  They were donated to celebrate 200 years of the Norwegian constitution, which was to some extent based on the french constitution

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Have dinner date at a Michelin starred restaurant

We went to Galt.  It wasn’t cheap but it was amazing.  The highlights were a cured lamb flat bread snack, and halibut with griddled cabbage.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  10 courses, and then we had to walk back to the hotel to digest.

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Check out the Vigeland installation at Frogner Park

We got up relatively early and had a huge Nordic breakfast (mackerel, eggs, rye bread, bacon, sausage and fruit).  Then we headed up to Frogner park to see the sculptures.  Mr Vigeland was a man before his time, most of his works were completed in the early 1900s.  Frogner park has over 200 of his sculptures and they were extraordinaryIMG_3454.jpgIMG_3457.jpgIMG_3462.jpgIMG_3465.jpgIMG_3468.jpgIMG_3470.jpgIMG_3475-3648655052-1537711245655.jpg

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Don’t pee on the walls

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Check out the Astrup Fearnley Modern art museum

Its a lovely museum on the harbour.  Small but perfectly formed with an excellent cafe.  Also check out the sculpture garden next door

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Wander around grunerlokka

Grunerlokka is a hip and happening neighbourhood with some spectacular graffiti.  There is a small but love sunday market at bla.  And after a wander you can head to mathallen for lunch (its an upmarket foodhall).  From Mathallen it is an easy half hour stroll along a stream back to town

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Walk on the roof of the opera house and check out the interior

The opera house is a lovely structure, but the highlight was walking up the sloping roof to check out the views of the harbour.  We were fortunate that there was performance going on when we visited so we heard some of it

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It was an excellent weekend, where we ended up walking about 15km each day.  Also is delightful, really lovely, wonderful food, and easy to stroll around.  Though bring your wallet, as everything is eye-wateringly expensive (average salaries in Oslo are almost double what they are in London, and so are the prices)

Oslo, September 23, 2018

Additional notes

  • Stayed at Opera Thon – right next to Oslo Central Station (Oslo S).  
  • Definitely use the Oslo Pass – its 400 NOK for 24 hours for free entry to most museums and free public transport.  Given most museums were 120 NOK, it was a good deal, and included the ferry to the bydog peninsular
  • Flights are super cheap with Norwegian
  • Take the NSB/local train to town – its only 23 minutes, a couple minutes slower than the private express train which is double the price

Hiking around Monte Rosa in four days (150km, 11000m of ascent)

So while I typically blog about my adventures around the world, I do have another hobby I love almost as much as travelling – hiking and mountain running!   So my ‘holiday’ this week is a wonderful jaunt around Monte Rosa – through the mountains of Switzerland and Italy – 170km with c. 11,000 m of vertical ascent.  To make life easier, i have signed up to a stage race, as it means there is company and you get the luxury of clean clothes ferried from town to town.  Fortunately its a small race with only about 150 people doing the four day version.  I am recovering from a chest infection I picked up in Niger and have an old back injury which is a pain, so will be taking this race nice and slow 🙂

Day 1 Grachen to Zermatt, 37km +2224m/-2206m, 8hours

Start line

Up at 5, a quick breakfast and three espressos and off to the start line.  Given i am sick, i hung to the back, and promised myself i wouldn’t run.   Unfortunately it took more self discipline than I possessed to walk when everyone was jogging past, so i gently jogged the first 10k and then settled into a steady hiking pace.

View from Europa Hutte

The first 14k was pretty flat, and then there was an epic 1800m climb up to europa hutt.  I managed to overtake quite a few people on the way up, but to be honest was puffing like thomas the tank engine as my breathing was off.  I loaded up on coke at the checkpoint at the hutt then headed back down to cross the longest swing bridge in the world – 500m and hanging over a sheer drop.  I am petrified of heights, so kept my eyes firmly fixed on the back of the runner in front, 100m ahead.

Worlds longest swing bridge

Between the bridge and the next checkpoint, 9k away, I was blissfully alone, and the trail was wonderfully technical (but bless the swiss they had ropes so you wouldn’t fall off).   I got overtaken by one lady between the bridge and the checkpoint at Taschalpe.

I love motivational check point signs

From there it was an easy couple of hours up and then down to Zermatt with epic views of the matterhorn (which I have never seen before).   I wanted to run down the hill, but knew my back wouldn’t thank me in the morning, so strolled and tried not to be irritated as i was overtaken by three people.

Trail markings and my first view of the Matterhorn

I came in 33rd woman out of 52 in just over 8 hours, which is not bad given how ropey I have been feeling!  My delightful roommate Tabea actually came in fifth, but she is not in social media, so she didn’t know!  Time for carbs and a lie down.

View of Matterhorn from above Zermatt
Day 1 race photos
Day 1 race photos
Day 1 race photos

Day 2 Zermatt to Gressoney la Trinite 42.9km +2984m/-2971m, 11 hours

View of the Matterhorn from 2000m

We were up at five and loaded up with coffee, croissants and nutella!  Our host at the City hotel was delightful and even patted our back on the way out.   The start was a bit more frenetic than usual as everyone knew we only had 1.5km before we got stuck on the single track to do the first relentless 1700m climb up to Theodul pass at 3300m.  After the first hour people were huffing and puffing behind me, and I slowed myself down as i knew we had at least two more hours to go.  The views on the way up of the Matterhorn were amazing, and i managed to get some photos in between huffing and puffing myself (note to self, it isn’t a great idea to race when you are recovering from a chest infection – it makes breathing very difficult).  The glacier at Theodul pass was amazing, though i did lose feeling in my fingers

The glacier at Theodul pass
The glacier at Theodul pass
Heading down to Italy

From the pass we headed down into Italy, which was unfortunately hidesouly ripped up mountain side for skiers near Lago Cima Blanche (Checkpoint 2).  We eventually got up to the Col Nord with stunning views down to Grand Lac, and it was like being back in the alps again.  It was a long technical way to Refugio Carrera, and i thought it would never arrive.  I was grateful i finally got there at 1.30pm, as the cut off was 2pm.

TMR this way
prayer flags
Italian lakes
Italian lakes

From there, i struggled mightily up the 700m of climbing to Saleroforko.  The people in front of me disappeared in the distance, but at least only one person overtook me – i was going so slowly it was going backwards.  The heavens opened up, the fog rolled in, but it was still nice to see the view from the pass.  From there I rolled down the hill – a punishing 1000m of descent over 3k into the town of Gressoney.  I only jogged about 1km today (in zermatt) and hiked the rest, so was heartened to finish before quite a few runners.   Came in 36th in 11 hours (one hour before the cut off out of 52 starters (6 DNF’d).

The last pass before heading to Gressoney

I was soaking wet and freezing so went for a shower, and then sorted my email.  Thankfully we are in Italy so while too long, dinner was a wonderful four course affair with appetisers, risotto, roast beef and tiramisu!  excellent

Day 3 Gressoney la Trinite to Macugnaga 48.2km +3276m/-3583m, 12 hours

Today was supposed to be the longest stage, one big uphill in the morning and another in the evening….., I decided to pace myself and not worry about the cut offs, as I had pushed it too hard on Day 2 and run out of steam in the afternoon.  Our first big hill climb was directly underneath a chairlift – there was a lot of grunting from my fellow runners up the hill.  (For those of you who aren’t accustomed to ultra running, there was a lot of blowing your nose with your finger and peeing in bushes also).   It was a tough climb, but there was coca cola at the top.

Heading up the Passo dei Salati
500m is still a long way when it is straight up!

This followed by a very long 2000m descent through beautiful villages into Alagna- one of the adorable villagers even left out free tea for the ‘athletes’.  And when we finally made it to Alagna  there was an outstandingly good checkpoint with boiled potatoes!.

Descending to Alagna
Descending to Alagna
Village houses

From Alagna there was an endless grunt up a 1700m climb.  it wasn’t steep enough to kill you, but it was too flat to get you to the top fast.  I was going very slowly, but so was everyone else.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make the 12 hour cut off in Macugnaga.  We were all moving so incredibly slowly

I reached the summit with two Swedes with 2h45m to go before the 6pm cut off, so we thought we had plenty of time to go 14km…. except it was 17km, and lots of it was pretty bouldery.  I kept waiting for the mythical checkpoint that was supposed to be 4k from Macugnaga, and when it finally arrived (3km after my GPS said it would), they had updated the sign to say I had 7km to go to Macugnaga and only 45m to do it in.  Oh well, i could have run it in that time, but my back really didn’t want to.  So, i strolled into town arriving about 10 minutes after the cut off.  Hilariously the Race director decided later that evening to extend the cut off by 20 minutes as the course was longer than it had been previously.  I wasn’t too fussed either way, i was just happy to have made it.  I scoffed down two pieces of pizza and hobbled to the hotel.  My lovely roomie Tabia bought me some crisps and that was pretty much my evening, I wasn’t hungry enough to go for dinner

Colle de Turlo
On top of the Colle

Day 4 Macugnaga to Saas Fee 20.2km +1728m/-1400m, six hours

Another night of not much sleep, and up early again for the steepest start of the race…. a 1500m grunt up Monte Moro to the border with Switzerland.  The sky was clear, and we had the most extraordinary views of Monte Rosa in the morning light.

Monte Rosa as the sun comes up
Above the clouds
Full morning on Monte Rosa

Unfortunately I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to my feet, and too much attention to the mountain, so i tripped and badly twisted my knee.  It felt ok provided i didn’t put too much weight on it, so i continued up the hill slowly to finally arrive at the best checkpoint of the race 3 hours after starting (apple strudel was amazing!).

Trail marking above Monte Moro
Final glance at Monte Rosa before heading down into Switzerland

After the checkpoint we passed the famous golden madonna and begun the icy boulder scramble down into Switzerland.  Unfortunately twisted knees and downhills are not happy companions, so while it was a stunning beautiful morning, it was a tortuously slow descent.  I descended a full 1500 m and 10k to the road, and then managed to hitch the final 4 k to the half way check point at Sass Fee before dropping out.

Waterfall
Cows! Big cows!

The great thing about it was a midd-day icecream and a good gossip with all the other runners who had timed out at this checkpoint, and we had a bus back to Grachen.  I spent the afternoon in the sun cheering runners in and eating sausage and chips.  It was a great race, highly recommended!!!

The final motivational sign I saw

 

 

Grachen, 8 September 2018

Bouncing around Bangui, Central African Republic

Another full day of flying…

Another day experiencing the delights of west African airlines.   Taking off from Niamey at 7am, and eventually landing in Bangui at 17.30 via Ouaga, Lome and Douala.   Happily I only had one minor hiccup which involved a sprint through Lomé airport to get the Bangui flight, if I had missed it, the next one was two days later.
The flight to Bangui was relatively full and most people on the plane were from the UN or a NGO.  The friendly Malian chap next to me was probably not the ideal companion as he spent most of the time telling me that Bangui was incredibly dangerous and that the locals would ‘kill each other like animals with hardly any reason’.   Hmmmmmm!

A deserved place at the bottom of the development index?

In fairness, Central African Republic undoubtedly deserves a reputation for violence and chaos – hence the number of UN and aid workers. In a continent of mad dictators, CAR has had some good ones –  most notorious was Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who took the power by force on 31 December 1965, and then declared himself Emperor of the Central African Empire. He was eventually overthrown in a coup.   More recently war broke out in 2014 between the Muslim Seleka (largely nomads) and the Christina anti – balaka’s (largely agriculturalists).  More than 20% of the population of 5 million have been displaced (thats the highest displacement ever recorded globally in a conflict).  Now the country is largely partitioned with the christians in the south/west and the muslims in the north/east.  While the government is in Bangui, it is obvious they are not in control of the country, and by all accounts, they are barely in control of the city.  There are now at least 14 armed rebel groups active in the country as both of the major factions have splintered and criminalised – which makes peace negotiations pretty difficult.   The UN have 14,0000 troops here, but their mission is at best perceived as ineffective.  Worse, there have been signifiant allegations of sexual abuse against the peace keepers.  The going rate for a prostitute is a 1000 CIFAs for the UN peacekeepers (about €1.50, enough to feed the children given there are few other options to earn)  CAR is the country rated lowest on the global 2015 UN development index (188 out of 188), it had the lowest GDP per capita (at PPP) in 2017, it is estimated to be the unhealthiest country and the worst country in which to be young….Its not an optimistic outlook. 

DRC embassy
National museum – apparently it has been looted and there is hardly anything left to see

Arriving in the poorest place in the world

Arriving in Bangui airport there are tonnes of UN planes and a decent military presence.   The immigration procedures are as chaotic as you would expect  and I was forced to give a minor manners lesson to a guy with a UN passport who tried to shove me out of his way at the visa desk (my manners lesson combined my sharp kiwi elbows with some appropriate French questioning about how his mother would feel about him shoving a lady).   Formalities complete I was let out of the airport by the UN soldier and met by the lovely Benjamin to go to the guesthouse who assured me that things were relatively calm at the moment.

Boganda monument
Post office

Getting lucky with the guesthouse

I had gotten lucky, after months of persistent email communication I secured a reservation at the Karakandji guesthouse, which is the best place to stay in town, but normally booked up with long term guests.  The other alternative is the Ledger plaza which at Usd300 per night is highway robbery given the AC barely functions (and when it does it pumps mould spores in the air) and most people who stay there get food poisoning.   In contrast the Karakandji is a reasonable 70 usd per night, and is actually inside the Norwegian/Swedish consulate and owned by Charlotte Mararv – the Consul -her family have lived in CAR for 40 years and she was born here.
The guesthouse is simple but lovely, and my room was in one of the houses with shared bathrooms.  The advantage of staying in a place like this is that you meet more interesting people than you do in a posh hotel.  My housemates were a wonderful collection of strong women from around the world (Niger,Haiti, France and America) and we had a wonderful evening discussing politics, men, life and Africa.
I went to sleep with the rain hammering down on the roof and it was still going strong in the morning.  I eventually roused myself out of bed, made a coffee and wandered off to find some breakfast.   One of my housemates was worried about me wandering around as everyone else gets cars everywhere, but I decided to give it a go.  Again the most problematic issue here is petty crime, which I am fine with.
the guesthouse – and the swedish and norwegian consulate

The ‘streets’ of Bangui

Navigating the ‘streets’ required some of my trail running skills, but I managed to submerge my foot in the red mud within two minutes of leaving.   I don’t think street maintenance is high on the agenda here
School – called toast and chocolate
typical bangui street
First stop the grand cafe for a pain au raisin (which amusingly contained three raisins) and a terrible coffee.  After that more wandering.   Everyone here seems reasonably friendly, although a bit surprised to see me walking around.   People are staring.   Though the polite ones (normally a bit older) follow up the stare with a bonjour.  The atmosphere feels pretty relaxed, tonnes of vendors and some excellent African beats pumping out from various stalls.   I like this place.
PK0
PK0
I stopped off at the patisserie capitole in a vain attempt to get a decent coffee.  Fail!  And then wandered around the cathedral which is pretty lovely.  I sat outside for a while watching some local girls practise some sort of hip hop dancing – no photos though, they were camera shy.
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
Then a bit more aimless wandering as I had already ticked off the main tourist site on trip advisor (the cathedral).  No 2 was a beauty salon with two reviews.  And no.3 was PK5 – the Muslim District which is a no go area given recent tension and gun fighting.   I found a posh supermarket and bought some lunch and wandered some more and then went back to the meditative gardens of the guesthouse to read a book!

UN harassment and a nice arse

In the afternoon I headed out for another long stroll which was significantly less tranquil.  It started well with another swing by the cathedral and then a stroll round the government buildings.  The guards at the central african bank were polite when denying my request to take a photo of the very groovy building.  Unfortunately the UN guards at the presidential palace were less polite and two of them pointed guns at me… oh well!  You will have the check out the palace for yourselves – its a very cool art deco building.
Roundabout at PK0 – kilometre zero
Peace and national concord for development

I then wandered into town, where I was yelled at by an officious looking man for filming, which I wasn’t.  And then a lovely young man (not) followed me for about 5 minutes telling me I had a nice arse (‘jolie fesse’)…. which is ironic, as I have no arse to speak of, and the women here have magnificent backsides.  To round out my stroll, on the way back to the guesthouse, the road was blocked by about 50 angry folk all yelling and brandishing fists, with some police at the scene.  I figured out it was a car vs truck accident (the car lost), but everyone decided to weigh in to the melee.  I backtracked and came home the long way round.

Friday night in Bangui

Some of the lovely ladies at the guesthouse had offered to take me out for the evening.  We went to the Oubangui hotel and watch the sun set over the Ubangi river – with the DRC on the other bank of the river (apparently there are always men with guns on that side so none of the pirogues cross over).   And then we went to the very low key Escale to have an outstandingly good maboke, which is a mild fish curry, made of capitaine, cooked in a banana leaf and served with plantains.  It was excellent, and the best meal I have had in this trip.   More gossip ensued, though I had an easier run this evening as we were mostly in frenglish, rather than french.   It was a delightful way to end the day.
Ubangi river
Ubangi river
Housemates from Karakandji at La Escale

Only two bribes

The lovely Benjamin was bright and early to take me to the airport. Just as well as the battery was dead in the 4wd and he had to run around the corner to the consul’s dads house to borrow another one. The streets were already lively at 6.30 with the street side stalls opening up. The airport was a typically chaotic west/Central African experience. My bag was searched a full six times! I was however mildly concerned about their standing on the corruption index, as I was only asked for two bribes….. I expected more. They clearly need to up their game. Note that I do occasionally pay bribes but it’s rare and I need a good reason to do so. These guys were all fine when I said I had already spent my last local money and sadly didn’t even have enough for breakfast. Amazingly we left on time! Next stop Casablanca where I have a layover long enough to visit the art museum, have a nice dinner and a sleep. Onward to Gatwick tomorrow morning
Four more to go
Bangui August 25, 2018

Side note

Our flight back from Casablanca to London was delayed by five hours as one of the pilots didn’t show up! It was interesting to watch the crowd….. there was outrage, shouting, threats of solicitors and frequent demands to see the airport manager. Quite a few of the passengers were moaning like it’s the end of the world. Having just left CAR which is a war zone where women prostitute themselves for €1.50 to feed their kids, it is hard to get upset about a flight delay in an airport where there is air con, WiFi and a Starbucks. That is the gift of travelling in Africa, it makes me more grateful for everything I have. And yes we eventually got to London six hours late.
the no.2 attraction in bangui according to trip advisor

Sacrificing sheep in Niamey, Niger

Six airports, six countries (four not on purpose), five flights, 14 hours from A to B ….. where A to B was only 90 minutes of flying time apart

Getting to Niamey wasn’t as easy as it should have been! In theory, Niamey is about 90 minutes flying time from N’djamena. Unfortunately there aren’t any direct flights, or even any indirect flights. I had booked a route leaving N’djamena (Chad) at 7am that was supposed to arrive in Niamey at 17.45, after four consecutive flights (via Douala (Cameroon), Lome (Togo) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)). West Africa being the fun place it is, I got a surprise bonus country, as we also ended up going through Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire). Apparently one of the Asky planes was broken, so they just shoved us all on one plane and added a drop off in Abidjan – but they didn’t tell us that until we had boarded. Note I had already spent a lot of time in each of those four countries previously, so there was no upside to revisiting their airports. On the bright side I only had to get off the plane in Lome, and they had wifi in the terminal. I had contemplated going overland, but it would have been three days in a bush taxi and it wasn’t particularly safe at the moment with Boko Haram.

These things used to bug me when I started travelling, now i feel like 12 hours of travel on five flights with free food, aircon and loos is better than 12 hours in the back of bush taxi smushed between sweaty passengers. I wasn’t even that bothered by the extra two hours going to Abidjan…. in Africa, I am just grateful to arrive :-).

Relaxing evening – steak frites

I finally arrived at Niamey at 19.20 just in time to watch the sun setting over the river as we landed…. 12 hours since the 7.15am departure from N’djamena. There were twenty of us disembarking – 4 chinese workers (all of whom had tried to get off in Ouaga by accident), one lebanese guy, 4 african business men and three women with an assortment of children. We really are at the end of the world.

Mr Amadou was there to pick me up, and i was surprised by how lively the streets were, and how many motorbikes were going past with live sheep on them. He explained that I have arrived just in time for the festival of mutton – Tabaski or Eid el Adha (the festival of sacrifice) – in celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Apparently everyone has to slaughter a lamb, give one-third to the poor, one-third to friends and neighbour’s and have one third for your family. That would explain the flocks of sheep road side, and the sheep on the moto -taxis, its a bit like being back in NZ

I arrived at the lovely Tabakady restaurant and hotel to be greeted by the lovely Ida from Togo and the lovely Moroccan manager. Its nice to meet some women. This place is one of the best restaurants in Niger which also has a few basic rooms attached. I highly recommend it. I have said it before, and i know i am repeating myself, but the upside of french colonisation is that you can get an excellent steak frites with sauce au poivre in the unlikeliest of places. It was an excellent dinner! Off to bed to get some sleep after my 4.40am wake up call, i needed too rest up for the lamb festival.

I woke up freezing – the air conditioning had two settings – ferocious or off. I decided to drag myself out of bed to get going before it got too hot. After an excellent breakfast of omelette, croissants and Bissap juice I headed out to stroll around town. Apparently Niamey is famous for muggings rather than kidnappings, and I’m ok with mugging so was happy to walk. Kidnappings I am less cool with! (note I did avoid the two main mugging spots of town, I am not a complete fool.)

Wandering the streets

It was a sleepy morning for a Wednesday, and it turns out the the downside of the sheep festival is that pretty much everything is closed. The upside is that the smaller streets were full of friendly locals preparing for a feast. I do love walking around African cities. Locals aren’t used to seeing toubabs (white people) walk – toubabs are a species normally spotted in 4wds. As a result most people are surprised to see you and are keen to say hello. I also get optimistically chatted up by all manner of young men, who seem to be using me as a good excuse to try out their pick up lines….. am pretty sure most of them would run screaming if i appeared mildly interested.

First stop the perpetual lady of succour – the main cathedral. It was an interesting brutal concrete building with natural air con provided through the designed holes in the brick work. It was sleepy and lovely.

Niamey cathedral
Niamey cathedral

Crying in the zoo

After that, I went to the national open air museum. It was officially closed but an entrepreneurial guard let me in (i.e. in return for a modest bribe). All the pavilions and shops were closed so there wasn’t much to see. I hadn’t realised the museum also had a zoo, and by accident I ended up near the animals. I hate zoos in general, but this was awful. Tiny filthy cages. I started crying when I saw the chimps and then the lion cage. It was vile. Poor animals. I decided it was time to move on.

Dinosaur at the zoo
Zoo pavilion
Zoo pavilion

Coffee and the NationalAssembly

I stopped into Amandine cafe to fortify myself with a coffee and take advantage of the air con. It was 10 am and I was already drenched in sweat. Its not technically that hot here – probably 35, but it feels like 45. Properly restored I headed out to continue sweating and walking. I saw the National Assembly (and the guard gave me permission for a photo), and also checked out some of the other government buildings.

Congress
Main square
National Assembly
Hotel du Ville

Rubbish in the grand market

I then headed around the Grand market. The actual market was closed today but there were a few stalls open. When open, there are 5000 stalls in the main market, but it has burnt down more than once given the closely packed quarters. The rubbish was depressing!

Grande marches entrance
Grande marches entrance
When closed the vendors leave most stuff there but cover it up

Blood in the streets

After that I meandered through the streets strolling the few kilometres to the Ghadaffi mosque. The small streets had become abattoirs with blood literally running in the streets. They weren’t joking when they said that it was a festival of lamb sacrifice – i gave up counting when I had passed 100 slaughtered lambs. There are clearly no butchers here with nicely vacuum packed cuts of lamb. Groups of men with sharp knives were slaughtering, skinning and gutting the sheep every few metres along the streets. It was extraordinary. The small kids were digging holes to bury the entrails. The young boys were sent off to buy sticks to skewer the whole lambs. Other family members were building fires. If i was ever going to become a vegan again, today was the day. On the bright side, it was quite nice to see men actually doing physical work, typically its women in Africa who do all the work. Today the ladies were in their finest clothes and observing proceedings from afar.

These men were butchering street side – it was a continual bloodletting
Later in the morning, butchering done
Later in the morning, butchering done
Now time for cooking

Ghadaffi’s gift

I eventually reached the Ghadaffi mosque – which was gifted to Niger from Gadaffi. Prayers had finished for today so I was invited in to take a look around. It was a stunning mosque, with beautifully intricate tile work, and unusual yellow tiles. After having a gossip on the steps with the custodians, who were trying to persuade me to go and buy them a lamb, I summoned up the energy to stroll back to town.

Ghadaffi mosque
Ghadaffi mosque
Ghadaffi mosque
Mosque guardian

It was sweltering by the time I got back to the hotel so I opted for a laze by the pool with a Diet Coke, and a chat with the wait staff who gave me some free lamb to eat (honestly it was pretty delicious).

Another wee stroll, some more energetic exercise catching a huge cockroach in my room, and then a quiet pizza by the pool. And so ends my amusing time in Niamey. Another early night as have another 5am pick up

I was up early this morning, earlier than my driver so had an amusing ten minutes hanging with the security guards outside the hotel who were fully kitted our with laptops and phones and watching Nigerian dance videos – hilarious. And now am loving the airport, after two nights of dial up speed, the high speed WiFi provided for free by the Chinese corporation at the airport is amazing! Also reinforcing my view that we are at the end of the world, there were only 10 passengers on the flight with 50 spare seats.

5 more to go, next stop Bangui
Niamey August 23, 2018

Additional notes

  • Stayed at Tabakady – a restaurant with a few rooms and a nice pool
  • Flew in with Asky and out with Air Burkina when asky cancelled their flight ; RAM might be a better choice though

Negotiating in N’djamena

I am on the final count down to my list of 197 – just 7 more to go.  Most people quickly figure out from that number the implication is that the remainder are largely sketchy countries.   And they would be right.  This week we have a trifecta of UN development index winners.  There are only 188 countries on the UN development list (out of 193 UN sovereign states some like Tuvalu, San Marino and Monaco are too small).   And this week I get to visit no.s 186,187 and 188 respectively.  It will be an interesting week.

First stop N’djamena, Chad

The flight from Casa seemed unusually touristy, with a lot more pale folks than I am used to going to central or west africa.  Turns out the flight was bound for Nairobi, and only 40 of us got off at N’djamena.  The airport was clean and lovely, and staffed with more people than passengers.  The men here are charming and I was asked out twice before i got out of the terminal (they must have a thing for grubby backpackers with wrinkles and grey hair).   The lovely Toide picked me up and bought me to the Hilton – an extraordinarily lovely hotel that I had found a cracking deal on for 90 euros a night.
After a good night sleep and an excellent (if absurdly over-priced) buffet breakfast – I headed out to see the ‘sights’ of N’djamena.   It is a little tricky to take photographs in town as the police are quite sensitive, so I had decided to go with a guide as at least that way I was less likely to get stopped, hassled and bribed. (At least two of the nutters facebook group have had probs with the police here, so i come forewarned)

Bustling street life

The streets are bustling… and N’djamena is wealthier than I expected.  There is plenty of money in this town – lots of lovely hotels, new buildings going up, and vast numbers of shiny 4wds…. though undoubtedly the wealth is in the hands of the minority.  The main avenues are broad and wide, with lots of commerce on the street, including a lively sheep market
Street life
Street life – this place has an odd name thought – the buvette (cafe) of Wembley from the centre of greenland – someone’s geography is a bit off
Street life

Fossils in the museum

We headed to the national museum of Chad.   Museums are never top of my list of things to do, but as trip advisor will indicate, there isn’t a long list of things to see in ndjamena.   Honestly I get bored in the V&A so there was limited likelihood I was going to be enthralled by this museum.  The museum was small but enthusiastically kept.   There isn’t a huge amount to see but some of the Jewelry and fossils were fascinating.    There is a bonus exhibition about independence from France, which consists of about 20 pictures of politicians, it was riveting.
Mother Africa
Chad museum

Kuran slates at the Chad museum
Kuran versus at the Chad museum
Chad museum

Organised chaos at the grand Marche

Next up, my favourite thing to do in Africa – head to the markets.   N’djamena’s grand market is true to African form – it seems chaotic but is incredibly organised.   Each quarter serves a defined purpose – second hand clothing from Zara and mango piled high to be picked through, pharmaceuticals tended by white robed Muslims, women from the villages with fruit and veg, and the obligatory Chinese plastic tat which you find worldwide.   We wandered round for half an hour soaking up the vibes and avoiding the kids asking me for cash.
Market

Market

Market
Market
Market
Market

A war of attrition with the souvenir stall holders

Honestly, I try and avoid visiting souvenir markets, but apparently there wasn’t much else to see and we had some free time (yes we have all heard that one before and I fell for it willingly).  Business was probably pretty slow, so the fifty or so stall holders were pretty happy to see me.  It was exhausting to be 1 tourist with 50 vendors, and it was a war of attrition I had no hope of winning.  It is rare that I buy souvenirs, but some of the masks were lovely, so my pack is now weighed down with two more plus a very groovy comb.  I would like to think that i held my own in the negotiations, but these days I am a lazy old tourist of the type I despised when I was backpacking around Asia at 20 hustling everything down to the last rupee.  Now I don’t really care what the price is provided it isn’t daylight robbery…..
Successful vendors
Successful vendors
Successful vendors

Celebration of ‘independence’

We headed to see the Place du nation.  African nations do monuments to independence well!  This one was a treat.  The highlight for me was the world globe, mostly because NZ was actually on it!   Taking photos here was a sensitive manoeuvre – we were only allowed to face in one direction with the presidents palace behind us.  God forbid someone take a photo of the presidents palace.   Idriss Deby is a model of African democracy…. he has been president since 1990, and he removed the term limits to enable himself to be ‘elected’ five times.   He doesn’t hold the record – I think that is still Equatorial Guinea with 38 years of the same ‘democratically’ elected guy.

Place du Nation
Place du Nation
Across from the palace is the cathedral which is sadly closed for renovation.   It was tricky to get a picture given the proximity to the palace but eventually a vaguely official looking dude in camouflage gear said it would be ok.  I imagine it was lovely and will be again.
Cathedral

“No tourist card no photo” at the Mosque

We passed by the grand mosque and stopped to see if we could take a photo.  The ‘friendly’ militia were adamant that I couldn’t take a photo without a tourist card – irrelevant that such a thing doesn’t exist.  Oh well!  Apparently I could be boko haram scoping it out for bombing (and they have executed suicide bombings in ndjamena numerous times).  It isn’t the nicest mosque in the world in any case, but have popped in a picture from google images for your edification.
picture from beautifulmosque.com

Sunning by the river

After that back to the hotel for a couple of hours sunning myself next to the river.  Its incongruous hanging out in the Hilton in N’djamena, as I don’t really feel like I am in Africa.  The guest list of the hotel was on display as i was paying this evening, and half the US consulate appears to be living here…., its not my typical African experience.    Heading to Niger tomorrow at the crack of dawn, and normalcy will be restored as I am staying at one of the cheaper guesthouses I could find.   I will be looking forward to a bed of any description after four flights with Asky tomorrow (N’djamena to Douala to Lome to Ouagadougou to Niamey),  🙂
View of the river from the hotel
View of the river from the hotel
6 more to go
N’djamena 20 August 2018

Notes

  • I stayed at the Hilton N’djamena.  It was lovely, staff were delightful!  Shop around for a deal
  • I cut a deal with the hilton driver to take me around town, you can contact Toide on toide2006@yahoo.fr or +23566471272.  he speaks english and french.

Side note – i still hate flights in africa

Travelling in Africa is never boring.  The flight times are loose guidelines versus actual commitments.  Getting to three of my last four countries in Africa was never going to be easy given the limited connections.   I had constructed an optimistic flight booking through Casablanca to ndjamena, then on to Niamey (the neighboring country)  via Douala, Lome, and Ouagadougou, then back to Bangui via Ouagadougou, Lome and Douala (don’t ask, I tried to do it in the other order but it didn’t work), then back to London via Casablanca.   Things had already gone a bit pear shaped with Asky cancelling the first leg of the Niamey to Bangui leg a few weeks ago, but I had found an exorbitantly priced ticket on Air Burkina to replace that leg.   And I was unsurprised when I got to Gatwick this morning to find my flight was delayed an hour.  Given my connection time was originally only 75 minutes, I was not wildly hopeful I would make it with just 15 minutes.  I did a dead sprint across the airport, smiled my way to the front of the security line and made it to the gate with one minute to spare!  Happy to have done so, as the next flight to N’djamena wasn’t for two more days.   Fingers crossed the rest works out….., I don’t expect it to, ….but thats part of the joy of being in Africa…., you are pleasantly surprised when stuff actually works.

Faces of Afghanistan

Its a few weeks since we have gotten back from Afghanistan, and I shared most of my photos in earlier posts.  However, regular readers will know my hubby is a much better photographer than I am, and here is a guest post of his favourite faces of Afghanistan….

 

 

 

Waterfalls in Zambia and Lesotho

Who says weekends need to be ordinary?!?! When I was a relentless corporate warrior in my thirties I used to use weekends for laundry, chores, sorting crap out, catching up on tele, sleep and email. Hmmmmm. Not that much fun.

Now I squeeze as much enjoyment as I can out of life! So, I have figured out you can have some pretty entertaining weekends, travelling or hiking, provided you get creative. Courtesy of some BA miles and a free companion ticket, hubby and I were off to Zambia to revisit Victoria falls (I love it) and then heading up to Lesotho (country 190/197) to check out Maletsuyane falls. I left the office late Thursday and would be back at my desk Tuesday morning.

Seeing the falls in Zambia

An overnight flight to Johannesburg and then a quick transit through to pick up the flight to Livingstone. Jo’burg airport puts European and American airports to shame. It’s clean, functional, has excellent shops and good food.

We landed in Zambia after a quick flight full of posh South Africans, and after a long wait for an inept visa process, found a luminous purple taxi with a soccer mad driver to take us to the hotel – David Livingstone safari lodge (it wasn’t bad as we got a half price deal on booking.com)

Zambezi
Zambezi

We revelled in the African sky. I love the sky in Africa, it’s so close you can almost reach out and touch it, whilst simultaneously being so vast it goes on forever. We had a lazy afternoon lounging in the sun enjoying the view of the mighty Zambezi flowing past and watching the clouds lazily floating by and being entertained by the monkeys trying to steal our food. It’s a tough life.

Victoria falls
Hubby at the falls

Up early, we headed down to the falls. It’s easy to visit both the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides of the falls but we had already been on the Zim side. I liked the Zambia side and got a better appreciation for the geography of the falls…. the wide falls with torrential flow narrowing from a width of 1700 meters, falling 108 meters, to become a fast flowing river through a narrow gorge. It’s an easy stroll to the view points and the baboons are entertaining. Everyone else hired ponchos, but we just enjoyed the soaking :-).

Victoria falls
Border bridge between Zambia and zimbabwe
Knife edge bridge

We headed back to the airport for the afternoon flight to joburg. Sadly given schedules we weren’t able to get to Lesotho in one go, so had to overnight in JNB. If you ever need to, I highly recommend the city lodge at the airport. The service sucks, but the rooms are clean and you can’t beat the location

Jo’burg from above

Landing in Lesotho – the rooftop of the world

Up early, I availed myself of the airport shops to pick up a puffer jacket. In true last minute form I hadn’t checked the weather in Lesotho before leaving the UK. I had packed for sun. But the temperature in Lesotho was max 12 degrees and below freezing at night.

Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. Famous for being the only country in the world which is entirely above an altitude of 1000m, it’s lowest point is 1400m… hence the nickname the ‘rooftop of the world’. Lesotho became independent in the sixties and was lucky that it was under British rule at a key point in history and avoided being subsumed into a larger South Africa. That said, Lesotho is heavily dependent on South Africa for currency and 60% of the working population cross the border to find jobs.

Lesotho near Roma

The flight to Maseru was on a tiny plane with 40 seats. The airport was tiny, and as is so often the case in tiny countries. We picked up a car and headed out on the long mountainous drive to semonkong.

Heading through the high passes to Semonkong

The landscape was at once completely empty but full of life. The countryside seems totally barren, no electricity wires or signs of life, there seemed to be no one but if you looked there were people everywhere with their cows and sheep, every inch of the land is being farmed or grazed.

Endless highway en route to semonkong

The mountains and high valleys were stunning. The road was a miracle of engineering, although I wouldn’t have driven it at night as it was windy and hadn’t been well maintained after some recent rock slides. The highest point passed thabia putsoa at 3096m, with the road at 2750m. The photos don’t begin to do justice to the vast open spaces.

African sky
Bustling village

The people are as unique as the landscape. Everyone is dressed in a Basotho blanket. The men wear them as capes and balaclavas and look stunning in them on their horses. The women wrap them around their waists like sarongs to keep their bums warm. It is pretty cold here – sunny and up to 12 degrees during the day but minus five at night. We feel like we have been transported to gaucho land in Patagonia, except we are in Africa! Horses and ponies are the main stay of life and even now are how most goods (including quite a lot of beer) gets transported to remote villages.

Semonkong pub
Another semonkong pub
Espresso stop

We drove 2.5 hours to semonkong. We stayed at a rustic lodge, miles from anywhere. When we arrived, we couldn’t quite figure out how to get our 2wd car down the steep rocky ‘road’, so left it at the chiefs house and walked the last 100m to the lodge

They gave us room 4, an old stone rondavel, which is apparently where the king sleeps when he stays (and no it wasn’t that flash).

The waterfall at Maletsuyane – the highest in Southern Africa

We set off to hike to the famous Maletsuyane falls. Going up hill at 2300m isn’t that easy, but we managed to overtake at least one donkey and two horses. It was a glorious walk, exchanging greetings with the locals as we wandered by. The villages and huts are simple but well kept, and there are lots of latrines (pretty unusual on Africa). There were also plenty of corrugated shacks serving as shebeens, even a ladies one, and I got a hearty ululation when I greeted them.

Locals heading home
First sight of the gorge

After about 30 minutes in a high valley we spied the beginning of the gorge. Strolling along the cliff side we eventually saw the falls. South facing, much of the waterfall was frozen, and probably would be for a while. It was lovely, but I imagine it looks even more spectacular in the summer with lush green foliage.

Maletsuyane falls

We hung out in the sun for a while, and then at 4, the sun dropped behind the mountain and the temperature plummeted. We headed back, enjoying the sounds and smells of the locals heading home for the night, looking after the animals and cooking dinner.

Donkeys at work
The sun dropping behind the mountain

We had an enormous dinner of local bread, aubergine chips, steak and malva pudding, sitting next to the fire warming up and playing with Butternut the lodge cat (for sure the happiest cat in Lesotho). but we also dreaded going to bed, as our rondavel was freezing! There was a small fire going in our room when we got back, but it didn’t seem to shift the temperature. We both went to bed fully clothed (and I had a hat and a puffer), and it took me a while to get feeling back in my fingers. Eventually the mountain of blankets seem to start working and I warmed up and fell asleep.

Hubby and butternut – the lodge cat

There was no electricity from 10pm to 8 am as it runs on hydro and they turn the dam off, so I decided to skip a morning shower once I figured out it was ice water. I headed back to the lodge and was delighted they had a fire going, which warmed us up while we consumed a huge breakfast. It was a delightful lodge! Highly recommended

Checking out the bars and shops

We meandered back to civilisation, taking tonnes of pictures as we went. We did pick up a Hitchhiker when we went to get our car from the chiefs house, and in a country where transport probably isn’t cheap it seemed churlish to refuse the young lady’s request for a ride, so we took her with us.

The chiefs house in semonkong

There isn’t much in the way of traffic on the roads, probably saw two cars, four minivans and a couple of 4wds in the first 60km after leaving Semonkong. However we did have to deal with a few horse and sheep obstructions – horses in particular have the right of way here over all traffic – mechanical or otherwise.

Pony roadblock

I couldn’t help but admire the numerous pubs and shops along the roadside.

Vatican fast food
Public phone box
Rural gas station

Thabo Bosiu – Moshoeshoe’s fortress

We headed up to Thabo bosiu – fortress home of moshoeshoe – the former kIng of Lesotho. It’s also the best place to view the ‘sharp hat’ rock, so named as it resembles the famous Lesotho hat, so ubiquitous it features on the license plate. There isn’t much to see at the site – some restored huts and some gravestones – but it was a nice walk.

Thabo Bosiu
Hubby on moshoeshoe’s seat

View of the sharp hat from Thabo Bosiu

Is there any gas in Maseru?

After that we headed to the airport, but we’re slightly delayed by having to go to three gas stations. The first two had run out of fuel. No one was sure when they would get more – ‘maybe today, maybe tomorrow’. Such is Africa.

I loved the shack on the right made of empty cans
Bros and sons
‘sharp hat’ on the license plate

The airport is hysterical. Four flights a day max, with 40 passengers max. There were probably 40 people working there. The checked bags got hand wheeled to the departure gate and put on a trolley. The sole immigration guys computer didn’t work, so he just jotted down our names. The sole scanner was powered by a frayed extension lead hanging from the ceiling. The lounge was full of mismatched old sofas. I bought some chocolate at the bar but had to return it, as it was well past it’s best before date. On the bright side, we didn’t quite have enough money for what we wanted to buy, so the barman gave us a discount

Lesotho was amazing. The landscape, the horses, the friendliness of the people. We will definitely be back, though probably in the summer. For runners there is a great ultra trail in November

Extraordinary how much of a holiday you can have in four short days! It was brilliant!!! Now back to work. Seven more to go

July 9, 2018, Maseru

Killing time in Kabul part 2 and 3

Coming back to our lovely guesthouse was like coming home! We went out for a stunningly good local iftar dinner – lamb, lamb and more lamb! It was delicious!!!! Unsurprisingly the streets were deserted at 8.30 when we headed back to the guesthouse, I guess Kabul doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife. Some more tea and another quiet nights sleep.

In the morning, after another enormous breakfast, Kausar offered to take us to the bird market, provided we followed his instructions about how fast we had to move – as we didn’t want to attract too much attention. The market is an extraordinary set of lanes in old Kabul where you can buy racing pigeons, fighting birds, song birds, and just about any bird you might want . We were quick in and out for security reasons, but every time we stopped to take a photo, others would clamour to get in the photo. For some professional photos check these out

Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
Kabul bird market
A sikh man in Kabul whose family has lived here for 300 years

We stopped to see the Shah e de shamshira mosque -it was built by someone who had been to europe and wanted mimic the design of a church.

Shah e de shamshira mosque

We then visited the Shrine to the murdered girl – Shaheed Farkhunda – on 19/3/2015 she was tortured and burnt to death ostensibly for disrespecting the quran. The monument expresses disgust at the “barbaric ignoramuses” who murdered her. That it happened in Afghanistan didn’t surprise people, but that it happened in Kabul, and was not perpetuated by Isis or the taliban but by everyday citizens, and in 2015! that was the surprise! More here

Farkhunda monument

The traffic was appalling, and we were basically liquifying in the back seat of the van, moving about 10 metres every five minutes so we retreated to the Bookseller of Kabul (as written about in two books of the same name). They have an excellent selection of new and old books, and it was gloriously cool. I didn’t actually buy any physical books (too heavy) but did use the inspiration to buy some good local titles on my kindle.

So far the first book has made for mostly depressing reading about how grim life is as an afghan woman with a life expectancy of 44, (WFP 2014), daughters are a form of currency for their fathers, if they are raped they get arrested for pre-marital sex and/or have to marry the rapist, most women still wear burqas and are illiterate (not having had access to education), and women routinely burn themselves to death with cooking oil to escape domestic violence (The Underground Girls of Kabul, Jenny Nordberg). I don’t expect the other books to be any happier.

As we were leaving the shop we heard reports of a bombing and gunfire at new interior ministry, Originally we thought it was old ministry which we were right next to. The policy of isis and the taliban is to destabilise the government, which they do by attacking government offices and the public. As a result, lots of monuments are closed – multiple shrines, the intercontinental hotel, the land mine museum, and chicken street were all off limits following attacks – but then Isis and the taliban just find other targets.

We popped into to see the last jew in Afghanistan – Zablon Simintov – he has a synagogue on Flower St above a juice bar, and has lived here all his life. His family fled to tel Aviv years ago but he refuses to go. He sounds like he is quite a character (check out his wikipedia entry which details his feud with the other jew who lived in Kabul for a time).

Zablon Simintov in the synagogue
Synagogue windows
Torah

We met a foreign affairs diplomat who had been visiting him, and got into an extended debate about Isis, Iran and eu intervention into the affairs of the region. We lounged around on the matts for a while, ostensibly having a chat, but largely to stay off the street while the gun battle was ongoing at the ministry. Details of the battle here

We headed back to the airport for our flight to Mazar. I was recognised by every security lady – you get patted down at five different checkpoints before you get to the domestic terminal. We are off to Mazar for three nights, back to Kabul for part 3 on saturday morning.

May 30, 2018

Part 3 – returning from Mazar…..

Back to Kabul for the third time after a very early flight from mazar…. it really does feel like home. We had some bread cheese honey and coffee and then went to check out the mini mobile circus for children (afghanmmcc.org). This was the two hours that made me the happiest the whole time I was in Afghanistan, as it was the first time I had seen confident young girls (mostly from refugee/IDP camps) laughing and playing, and more importantly learning to read. The school teaches (for free) circus skills (including acrobatics, pop and parkour), but girls are limited to what they are allowed to do, which is pretty much juggling and acting – well they were some damn good jugglers. Once the families are ok with them coming to circus school, they get persuaded to let them to go real school also, and so they learn how to read

Circus school
Circus school

One particular young girl had beautiful green eyes and was full of energy, but apparently had been woefully malnourished when she arrived. She taught me how to swing on the hoops hanging from the ceiling (am not sure they are used to grown ups doing that). Another was playfully punching the male director, behaviour that would never have been allowed outside of the circus walls, so I gave her a few tips (thanks Jenny Garbutt) for hitting harder and getting your hip behind the punch :-). If you are in Kabul, go visit them, it’s a remarkable organisation, and give a generous donation while you are there.

We then popped by to see one more fort on a hill in Kabul – there are many, and the different Mujahideen groups did a great job levelling Kabul from their hilltops as they battled over Kabul when the soviets left.  Most of the buildings have bullet holes and bomb damage.

 

And then finally, for the first time ever in my travelling career, I went to a carpet shop.  I never go to carpet shops, as I am sure I would feel obliged to buy something after drinking tea and chatting.  This time, both Rob and Hubby wanted to buy a carpet.  Hubby wanted a war rug!  These are quite famous in Afghanistan – rugs with kalishnakovs and bombs.   We had seen one once at a friends house in rural England.  Apparently his neighbours had seen it also through his window, as the police turned up to check out they weren’t terrorists (worth noting that my friend was Sri Lankan and it was a very pale English town)….   Anyway, our carpet seller was a former mujahideen commander from Mazaar, so in between tea and carpets we got to hear some of his fascinating history.   And yes, we left with two carpets

2011 carpet
Rob Lounging while shopping
Carpets

 

And then we went for one final wander down Chicken street (so named as it was where you could once buy chickens, but there are no chickens anymore)..  It is as famous as Freak street in Nepal and Khao sahn rd in Bangkok as part of the legendary hippy trail.  I can imagine the hippies having a fabulous time in Kabul in the 70s before the soviets and the Taliban.   There were fabulous souvenir shops – with fur hats, great carpets, wonderful jewellery, but not so much in the way of customers.  I found out afterwards most aid and govt organisations have banned their employees from shopping there after a spate of recent bombings As is often the case, this has made it safer for the few of us still going, as isis and the Taliban have gone looking for other targets.

Chicken St jewellery

To round out our wonderful 9 days we went for dinner at Bukhara.  The family room was deserted and a bit sterile so we went downstairs and ate with the men.  We were joined by Gull and his lovely daughter Mohadesa, and as usual ate far too much!!  After tea and baklava, time for bed, as an early wake up call to head home the next day.

Hubby, Rob, Gull, Mohadesa, Me, Kausar and Big Ishmail

We had an amazing time in Afghanistan, and I will definitely be back to visit Bamian.  Gull has agreed to run the Bamian marathon with me when I come back!   Until then, I hope that security improves for our Afghan friends!

3 June 2018, Kabul

Additional notes if you are visiting

– women’s dress – in Kabul, skinny jeans or leggings with a dress that reaches to close to knee length is appropriate, with a headscarf. Sleeves must go to the wrist and obviously necklines must be high. Outside of Kabul I felt most comfortable on the street in an abbaya (long black ankle length zip tunic) and a headscarf which was still less than most people wore.

– men’s dress – go local! it costs less than $15 for an outfit including the waist coat, and you look great in it. The benefit being you only need to come in the clothes you are wearing…. but two sets of local, wash as require, and then put your original clothes on the day you leave

– guides/tours – I recommend Kausar at untamed borders without hesitation – he was amazing! I will be coming back and would only go with Kausar!

– hotels – am not sharing where we stayed for security reasons as best not to publicise where the foreigners hang out. Suffice to say, they aren’t five star!!!

– drinks – coffee – lots of places either didn’t have it, or had the weird three-in-one packets with sugar added. If you want sugar free black coffee, carry some instant with you. Most places also had a water filter which saved on plastic bottles.

– communications – WiFi is available lots of places but isn’t great. For $14 you can buy a SIM card with 4gb of data which is more than enough for a week or two.

 

Mosques in Mazar e sharif

We arrived in Mazar as the sun was going down, checked into our hotel (which could have won awards for the pungentness of the smell of pee and cigarettes), and headed out for dinner as iftar was approaching. Our destination – the king – was closed, so we went to the ‘chife’ burger ( ie chief) across the road. I walked in first and got shouted something in Arabic, and the only word I understood was ‘family’, as the man ushered me out of the room. Result! This means I get to eat dinner with women tonight!!!! I took my four husbands (actual husband, Rob, Kausar the guide and Nowruz the driver) upstairs for dinner. It was pretty noisy as there were kids, which turns out to be an unexpected upside in segregation – no screaming kids over dinner. Dinner was various fried things with a token salads. And after dinner we went to the ice creamery where three strong men literally churn the icecream in big vats in a block of ice in front of you. It was delicious – milk and cardamom and sugar.

Mazar -icecream makers

We got up at 5.30 to see the famous shrine of Hazrat Ali in the Dawn light. It is extraordinary, and is the most famous shrine in Afghanistan. However, it is unfortunate that they have taken a few modernisation liberties and there are a few too many air conditioners, power lines and down pipes in evidence, as well as some neon signs on the dome. However, it was amazing. The shrine is a little contentious as most Muslims agree Ali is buried in Najaf, however everyone agrees it is a holy place. I enjoyed practising wearing my burqa – it’s bloody difficult, but given we aren’t supposed to photograph women, I figured I could charge rob and hubby baksheesh for walking atmospherically in front of the mosque. It turns out I have the wrong gait for a burqa, and the local kids were in fits when I tried running to get the burqa to flow behind me.

Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar -cleaner
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar -famous holy doves
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar – me in my burqa
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar – non muslims not allowed inside
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar – me and hubby

Yes that’s me and hubby in the photo above….

Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar
Hazrat Ali Shrine Mazar

We came back for a wee nap and then had a very weird afghan breakfast of bread, jam and what seemed like clotted cream….. served in a dusty conference room which was last used by the Norwegian refugee counsel. It was delicious but probably not nutritious.

We headed to Balkh – once the most famous city in the world and birthplace of Rumi the poet and Zoroastrianism. We went to see the largely ruined Noh gonbad mosque – oldest mosque in Afghanistan, which had nine domes. They are restoring it, but slowly. In the garden we met a Sufi mystic who lost his family 20 years ago in the war, renounced his life and moved here to care for the shrines and the mosque. He reputedly smokes 250g of hash per day, and I can’t comment, but it smelled impressively strong, so not sure how he remained upright

Noh Gonbad Mosque under restoration
Sufi mystic smoking
Sufi mystic with his crop

We then went to see the citadel walls. Alexander the Great conquered Bactria/balkh and married Roxana the former kings daughter – apparently the best looking woman in Central Asia – she decided it was a practical way of staying alive

Old Balkh city walls
Old Balkh city walls
Old Balkh shrine
Nowuz checking up on us

We went to conservative downtown Balkh (Kausar made us ditch our sunglasses so we didn’t look too foreign) and checked out the Mosque and shrine of Hoja Pasha, which was lovely.

Hoja Pasha mausoleum
Hoja Pasha mausoleum
Hoja Pasha mausoleum
Hoja Pasha mausoleum

More interesting was the shrine to Rabia Balhi, a female poet. She fell in love with her slave so her husband and brothers tied her to the walls and she wrote poems in her own blood until she died. Now it is a pilgrimage site for romantics

Rabia Balhi mausoleum
Rabia Balhi mausoleum
Rabia Balhi mausoleum

We then had to make a stop at the Shrine and tomb to Baba Ku Mastan, who converted marijuana to hash for the first time ever. Hashish is a big deal here as the Sufi mystics smoke it all day long. Who knew you could be a religious stoner? Sufis come from all over country to celebrate and sing poetry for him.

Sufi at Baba Ku Mastan shrine

We headed back to Mazar – passing the ruins of the German consulate, which was bombed out by the taliban last year – there is nothing left and the windows in all the neighbouring buildings were blown out

We stopped at am unassuming mud building which turns out to be the main Cock, quail and dog fighting ring. Not really a sport I understand or support but these men are very proud of their birds and they are apparently very valuable

Mazar bird fighters
Mazar bird fighters
Mazar bird fighters

After that we went for a quick tour around the bazaar. Usual Kausar security rules applied – keep moving and don’t stop too long – but it was tricky to obey when everyone wants their photo taken and to say hi! It was different here than Herat as there were women working on some of the stalls and plenty of women out a shopping, though most in burqas

Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar
Mazar bazaar

After another nap and a sneaky non Ramadan snack of fried afghan pizza we went back to the shrine for the early evening. It was an entirely different place. Bustling with people and lots of groups sitting round relaxing. We sat for a while to give Kausar time to go pray and were a source of great amusement to the locals around us who were amused by my burqa, which I was wearing in a style that some local ladies do, with the veil flipped back so you can see and breathe. They had a good laugh when I decided to retreat under my veil entirely. They came over to befriend us and I ended up with some new Facebook friends as Steph had taken some nice photos of them.

Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hubby at Hazrat Ali Shrine

We hung out in the setting sun enjoying the amazing sounds of two Sufi singers chanting to god – these were ‘real’ sufis as opposed to the hash smoking ones. And we watched the mosque set up for iftar, where they feed everyone for free, rich and poor together (though women last of course, and in a separate place). There really isn’t much like Ramadan to see the best of Islam, it was a lovely evening.

Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine
Hazrat Ali Shrine

Another iftar dinner, with more lamb. Lamb cutlets, lamb rack, lamb shanks, lamb casserole and lamb pilau – Kausar likes lamb, and it was all delicious

We are quite close to the border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, so mazar I sharif is an important cross roads (and has been for thousands of years). As we were driving out of town we saw evidence of that, both in the trucks, shipping containers, shiny Petrol stations and the newly built rail line from Uzbekistan to bring in oil, but also in the numerous camel trains that we passed.

Camels by the road
Camels by the road

We stopped at Bagh I jahan, the amazing kings hunting lodge. Fascinating architecture designed to keep them cool in the heat. What was more stunning was our first glimpses of the Hindu Kush in the background. The pictures aren’t great as there is a lot of haze, but the colours and the ridge lines are stunning.

Bagh I jahan with the hindu kush in the background
Bagh I jahan with the hindu kush in the background
Burqa and a tank

Our guide is also a journalist and photographer, so he got us to stop and take some burqa tank photos, which were corny but hilarious. Note to self, next time climb up on the tank and then out the burqa on…. it’s quite hard to climb while wearing one (it’s quite hard to do anything while wearing one – which I guess is part of the design, to keep women partially handicapped).

We went through the tashkurgan gorge – a small break in the line of the Hindu Kush…. stunning! The valley runs for a long way, and after the barren desert, it is lovely to drive through a lush valley full of almond and pistachio trees, herds of goats and mud houses that look they have been here for a millennium, with the mountains rising up on both sides

Tashkurgan gorge
Tashkurgan gorge
Tashkurgan countryside
Tashkurgan countryside

It was a lovely drive. Nowruz had the afghan beats playing, and in spite of it being 40 degrees it was pleasant in the moving van with the wind blowing through.

The purpose of the drive was to see Takht-e roshtam! Buddhism was the reigning religion for a long time here and since the Taliban destroyed the standing buddhas at Bamian, Takht-e roshtam is the most important and impressive preislamic sure in Afghanistan. It’s a stunning stupa which is dug into the ground like the churches of Lalibela. Part of the stupa has been blown up as one of the local warlords thought there might be gold inside

Takht-e roshtam stupa
Takht-e roshtam stupa
Takht-e roshtam stupa

Close by the stupa is a monastery complex with an amazing dug out temple where the standing buddhas were until the warlords looted them, and an amazing ancient bazaar. The photos don’t really do it justice but it was lovely

Takht-e roshtam monastery
Takht-e roshtam monastery
Takht-e roshtam monastery
boys in the river

By the time we got back to mazar it was 42 degrees so time for another nap! After that, we decided to head back to the shrine to enjoy the ambience of Friday night prayers. And then another iftar dinner – more delicious food, lentils, chicken, kofta, aubergine, spinach dumplings, bread and spinach dumplings. Our delightful driver Nowruz took us out to another ice cream shop as he reckons he knew a nicer place than we had the first night – we tried three flavours – cardamom, mango and cherry. Amazing. Then we needed to get to bed for an early flight. I had found out earlier that night that our driver Nowruz had only ever seen one woman drive a car, so I offered to drive us home, and he said yes. The boys weren’t too keen, especially given it was dark, roads in Afghanistan are pants, and the van was a right hand drive (ie steering wheel near the footpath), but I couldn’t refuse!!!!!!! Well we are now safely home so all good!!!! Back to Kabul tomorrow :-).

Mazar-e Sharif, June 2, 2018

History in Herat

The landscape from the plane between Kabul and Herat is like a long rolling wave of rock! It was extraordinary! The people on the plane were amazed to see foreigners , several of the women actually asked me (while I was on the plane or the bus on the way to the plane) if I was going to Herat – well I hope so! I am guessing it isn’t a tourist hotspot these days.

Apparently the dress code in Herat is a little more conservative than normal, and I was approached by a lady in the loo at Herat airport who told me I wasn’t wearing enough clothes – oh well, just as well I bought an abbaya.

Herat traffic – this boy doesn’t look old enough to drive
Herat traffic – tuktuks – mostly with guitar motifs
Herat wheelbarrow men waiting for work

We checked into a glorious hotel which is painted in a riot of pastel colours, and then headed out for iftar dinner. The restaurant was in a delightful courtyard with lounging areas. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with the place until I realised I was the only woman in sight. Odd!!!! Apparently women have to sit in a different room or in the family room, but I get an exemption as a foreigner. Many quips were made by the hubby and rob about the women’s room – which was obviously the kitchen! Dinner was an amazing feast of grilled meat and bread, preceded by wonderful iftar pastries – glorious combinations of sugar and fat. We were joined by a kiwi guy off my nutters group of Facebook travellers who was coincidentally in Herat staying with a taxi driver and his family, and having quite an experience!

Back to the hotel for a good nights sleep where I discovered I had been eaten by something, I am covered in huge bites!!! Oh well! I scratched most of the night and then we were up early to start sightseeing before it got to hot.

Herat roadside stalls
Herat roadside stalls
Herat roadside stalls

The lovely Mahboob picked us up in his beat up van with the cracked windscreen and drove us round to the mosque. The street near the entry was lined with scholars who write letters and applications for those who are illiterate- which is apparently quite common here.

Herat writers
Herat writers

There is a lovely tile factory adjacent to the mosque entry where craftsmen make beautiful mosaics in the same way they have for thousands of years, it’s extraordinary work, and was lovely to visit.

Herat tile factory

The main mosque was delightful….. huge and very much still in use. There was a cadre of wizened old men who were busy cleaning up after morning prayers with brooms whose design probably hadn’t changed for centuries. It is easy to see why the locals often come and rest and meet their friends in the mosque as it is a wonderful place to lie down and chat, far from the cacophony of the busy Herat streets.

Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque – nap time
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque- cleaners
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque – happy man
Herat Friday mosque
Herat Friday mosque

We wandered back to the van, passing a famous souvenir shop as we went. While I thought I was fitting in with the locals, it is obvious I stand out, as quite a few women stopped and stared at me – it’s probably a combination of my sunglasses and kiwi walk!

Herat souvenir shop
Herat souvenir shop owner
Herat -boys wanting a photo taken

Next up the Herat fort. A stunning piece of architecture! We paid the curator some baksheesh and he let us into the royal palace, the highlight of which was the queens bath!

Herat fort
Herat fort
Herat fort
Herat fort
Herat fort – me in my abbaya

Driving around the streets is fantastic – there isn’t a spare piece of space which isn’t being productively used for retail – from trucks of watermelons to wheelbarrows of soap. The vendors are all men, and for some weird reason many of them are in cowboy hats. The driving in Afghanistan is generally chaotic, it is the first place I have ever seen anyone go the wrong way round a roundabout! No one seems that bothered as the traffic moves so slowly everyone has time to react.

Herat roadside
Herat roadside
Herat roadside

We headed up the hill to the jihad museum – a tribute to the mujahaddin who had died fighting the ten year occupation of the Russians. The gardens are full of old helicopters and anti aircraft guns. It also had lots of wonderful fruit trees, so we were surreptitiously stuffing our faces with apricots and mulberries while the guard wasn’t looking (naughty given everyone is fasting). The museum had a wonderful diorama showing Afghans bearing Russian tanks with stones and sticks…. if it wasn’t so serious it would have been hilarious

Herat Jihad museum
Herat Jihad museum
Herat Jihad museum
Herat Jihad museum
Herat Jihad museum

Next up the wonderful shrine to Ansari. It is the first time I have seen a mosque type building filled with graves. Women were allowed on one side and men on the other. There was a woman at the shrine wailing and banging her head against the concrete. The women around her were giving me hostile stares and ignoring her. Eventually one intervened and held her to stop her doing it. I have no idea why – but have to assume she is in mourning. You do see quite a few female beggars here, they have lost their husbands in the war and apparently their families often won’t have the means to take them back. I saw very few women working in public in Herat, so I imagine it is difficult for these women to look after themselves. Kausar is terrific at sharing around donations to different people in need, in keeping with good Muslim tradition.

Ansari shrine
Ansari shrine
Ansari shrine
Ansari shrine

We picked up some snacks and retreated to the hotel for a break. It is hot here! There is a wind that blows 120 days a year, and it drives the locals bonkers, but I love it for the respite from the heat. My abbaya is a big black sweat sack – I bought it for £12 from amazon – it’s made from polyester and isn’t very breathable. I took a shower, turned up the AC and lay down in my underpants for two hours to cool down!

Refreshed, we went off to see the shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum- two shines with wonderful Sufi scholars, one of whom interrogated us about Jesus and encouraged us to convert.

Scholar shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum
shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum
scholar shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum

We drove by a bread shop, and had to stop for our fix of fresh bread. The guys invited us in to see it made – it’s an extraordinarily efficient process with no labour waste – and the bread cooks in 30 seconds. We hurriedly stuffed our faces in the van (we aren’t supposed to be eating in public, so we were hiding) before arriving at the Gauwar Shawd mausoleum.

bread shop- 15c per loaf

She was the legendary daughter in law of Timurlane who lived to 79, and was responsible for much of the early development of Herat.

Gauwar Shawd mausoleum

Next to her mausoleum are 5 lovely ancient minarets. There were originally 21 but the British bombed the rest in the 80s as they thought they were Russian watch towers.

Minarets

Next some more shrines. The tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami which had some stunning gravestones. And then finally we headed to the Khaltan shrine – famous in Herat for having a female Sufi. It is also at this shrine that you can get your wishes granted if you roll along the gravel with your eyes closed – i did it, but the boys weren’t keen.

tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami
Man at tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami
Female sufi at Khaltan shrine

By this time I was starving, so I have no idea how Mahboob and Kausar were still functioning. Another lovely restaurant with an amazing feast of mantoo dumplings, local samosa, shashlik, lamb shank, pilau, beans, salad, bread and watermelon. The food here is amazing. Fully iftar stuffed we headed home! I got an ok nights sleep punctuated by waking up to scratch my huge bites.

Our hotel are delightful, and make us breakfast every morning even though they don’t get to eat. This mornings feast was a random but sumptuous assortment of eggs, soup, sour yogurt, bread, jam, cheese and pudding, together with the local mahmood instant coffee which is brutally strong!

A slower start this morning. We went to see the lovely shrine near the fort which has a unique arch made of silver. The kids from the madrasah were hard at work studying the Quran under the watchful eye of an old man.

We then had an amazing few hours wandering around old Herat. Kausar knows where all the ancient and hidden caravanserai can be found, and he showed us all of them. The local men were all eager to chat. They see few tourists here, and all were willing to have their photo taken. If you took a photo of one guy, his friends would want one too. They were all genuinely delightful and most would summon up their best ‘how are you’. While we are still dressed as locals, we do stand out….

Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar – wheelbarrow man
Herat tailor
Herat tailor
Herat child who followed us around
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Herat bazaar
Old caravanserai in Herat bazaar
Old caravanserai in Herat bazaar

We stopped off at one more shrine – the tomb of sultan agha. It had more security than usual as it was a Shia shrine and is apparently an Isis target. They also had an imprint of Ali the prophets foot!

Tomb of Sultan Agha

Mahboob the driver had arranged some amazing musicians to play for us for an hour before we went to the airport. They were extraordinary! Two men, two hand drums and a harmonium, and amazing voices. What a way to end our visit, eating melon and drinking tea!

Herat wasn’t originally on our itinerary, we were only here as couldn’t get to Bamian, but it was lovely and am so glad we came!!!!

Herat, 29 May 2018