Lovin’ it in Lahore

There have been multiple terror attacks in Lahore this year, and the week before I arrived there were clashes between anti government protestors and the police.  My first day in town it was the prophet’s birthday – Eid Milad ul-Nabi – and there were 15,000 policemen on the streets of Lahore to prevent any violence…… so, I was a little bit more reticent than usual about visiting.  It turns out I have never had such a warm welcome to a big city.   My most amusing moments were being surrounded by young girls and their teachers who wanted to ‘selfie with me’.   I was also invited home by pretty much every woman I met, including the lovely woman who sat next to me on the plane on the way over.   The pakistani/british women on my connecting flight through Karachi on the way home, also took charge of me and hustled me to the plane along with them at Karachi and made sure I was fine and safe.  I can’t imagine feeling safer or better looked after!

Jinnay Lahore nu nahi takkeya, o jammeya e nai – He who has not seen or visited Lahore, is nor born yet

Lahore is a delight, and there are lots of things to see and do.  I only saw four other tourists in the three days I was in town, so now is a great time to visit.    My favourite things from the weekend……

Badshahi Mosque

The mosque is built out of Jaipur red sandstone, which apparently is baking hot in the summer.  The locals have tried to replace the red stone in the courtyard with a cooler marble, but the heritage officers won’t let them.  Its a truly enormous space which can apparently house 100,000 worshippers.  I can’t imagine the bathroom queues!, and am glad I didn’t visit on the prophet’s birthday as it would have been crazy.

the mosque in the Lahore smog
Contemplating life
A couple enjoying the morning light
the old classrooms of the mosque glowing in the morning sun
Lahore fort

The fort was lovely and well preserved.  Unfortunately you are no longer allowed to approach the elephant gate, but you can see it from the entrance of Badshahi mosque.  There was plenty to occupy an eager history buff for an hour or so, and I thought the hall of mirrors was extraordinary!

Elephant Gate at Lahore Fort

 

School girls lining up to visit the fort
yes I look like a dork….the guide made me do it
hall of mirrors at Lahore Fort
some of the many girls who asked if they could ‘selfie with me’
having a chat on the mobile at the fort
minar pakistan

The’ tower of Pakistan’ was constructed during the 1960s on the site where the All-India Muslim League passed a resolution calling for a  separate and independent Pakistan on 23 March 1940

the Eiffel tour of Pakistan, on the site of where the document founding Pakistan was signed

 

Jahangirs tomb

Jahangir is the father of Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal).  He is buried in Lahore as this was apparently his first capital city.  The tomb is set in enormous walled gardens, and was lovely.

Gateway to the tomb
Jahangir’s Tomb
Jahangir’s Tomb
The actual tomb – decorated in the same lapis as the Taj Mahal
Asif Khan’s Tomb (brother of Noor Jahan). Next door to Jahangirs tomb its materials wer sacked by the Sikhs for use in the Golden Temple
delhi gate and old city

No visit to Lahore is complete without visiting the bonkers walled city.  I narrowly avoided getting hit by a motorbike and head butted by an ox.  There isn’t a great deal of personal space in the old city, but it was a fascinating walk.   In spite of having a substantial lunch, I couldn’t walk past the five men making buttery naan in a seamless manufacturing process, and it was delicious.

Delhi gate – to the old walled city of Lahore
the honey and spice traders hard at work in the old walled city
making naan bread
smoking ‘strong tobacco’ from the tobacco vendor’s hubbly bubbly pipe
traffic jam
Lahore styles
wazir kahn mosque

This lovely little mosque is apparently the most beautiful mosque in Lahore, and it reminded me of the ‘rose’ mosque in Shiraz, Iran.  Walking into the courtyard from the hustle and bustle of the old wall city, to find people peacefully praying in the late afternoon sun – it was delightful.  This was probably my favourite moment in Lahore

Prayer time in the late afternoon sun
Prayer time in the late afternoon sun

Atchison College

Atchison College is the ultra-posh school where fine young elite Pakistani men are educated.  The architecture is lovely, and that is why it has appeared on tripadvisor as a place to see.  The twist is the you need to email the principal of the school to ask for a visit – but lucky for me he said yes.   While the architecture was the reason for visiting, it turns out that I was most fascinated by the overwhelming British poshness of it all.  From the 200 groundsmen, to the fully kitted out stables for the equestrian lessons and polo ponies, to the three swimming pools.  They have thought of most things – they even have a Sikh temple and a hindu temple to compliment the mosque – so that everyone can worship.  I also was amused by the irony that there was no way I would have been able to visit the British equivalent of Atchison (Harrow? Eton?) so easily.

Administration building
Sikh temple for the students
Main building
Flowers arranged in a bed with military precision
trucks

I love trucks in Asia.  They are more ornately and lovingly decorated than the women, and that says something.  Truck owners invest extraordinary amounts of money (several thousand USD by all accounts) on dedicated truck artists.  I couldn’t resist asking my driver to pause at the truck stop for me to check some of these out.

the drivers requested I take their photo

Gorgeous truck

Shalimar garden

I ended one of my Lahore  days at the lovely Shalimar Garden.  While there was nothing amazing to see, it was peaceful sitting in the shade having a chai, watching the sun go down

 

additional notes
  • Many people visit the Wagah border with India (24km from Lahore) to watch the elaborate daily ceremony where the flags get lowered and the border closes.  I didn’t go, as had seen it 20 years ago from the other side of the border.  Its worth a trip
  • I stayed at the Residency Hotel which was excellent – free airport pick up, drop off and breakfast, and a great gym.  I rented a car and driver for one day to get around town – it was 30USD all in, including kms.    I also simplified my life and organised a guide for one day, as hadn’t had time to do any planning
  • Women – I would recommend long sleeves, a tunic and trousers or long skirt.  A shalwar kameez is best if you have one, but a tunic and jeans worked for me, with a loose head scarf
  • The food is fabulous…. I could have eaten my bodyweight in paratha, Dahl and chicken handi

 

Lahore, December 3, 2017

Independence in Iraqi Kurdistan

I have felt for the Kurdish people for a long time – one of the largest groups of people in the world without their own homeland. The Kurds in Iraq have managed to carve out a relatively autonomous ‘country’ with clear borders with Iraq and Turkey. However, none of their neighbours want them to be independent – the Iraqis want the Kurd’s oil reserves, and the Turks and Iranians don’t want the numerous Kurds within their borders seeking independence. It felt like an interesting time to visit – a week before a referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. Independence the Kurds believe they are entitled to, not least for their recent efforts in battling IS, and for providing shelter to 850,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees who were fleeing IS (a huge number of refugees for a country of 4 million people). I wasn’t sure what to expect!

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I flew via Vienna, and was unsurprised to find the plane filled with aid workers and military personnel. My plane neighbour (Lars from Norway) has lived in Erbil on and off for over a decade. At the beginning he says he was more hopeful and he worked in humanitarian work with living humans. Over recent years, he has found it more challenging to be hopeful and has shifted his emphasis to working with the deceased – specifically identifying the DNA of bones in mass graves. Horrible work, but one that gives family members relief as they can finally know if their loved ones are dead or alive, even if it isn’t the outcome they hoped for.

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Central Bank

Erbil airport was a surprise. Aircon, plentiful cash machines, and a nice cafe. Only the VIPs 4WDs were allowed to approach the main terminal, the rest of us were herded on to an old bus to the pick up area about half a km away – I am assuming for security reasons.

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Muzzafariya Minaret

I stayed at a great hotel in town – the Erbil View. They picked me up from the airport, and I dropped my stuff off and headed out for a long walk around town. It is fair to say there aren’t many jaw dropping sites in Erbil. In the 40 degree heat, I strolled slowly through the streets (not much in the way of paths) and tried not to melt, and visited the Citadel and the Muzzafariya Minaret and the Hot air balloon in Minaret park.

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Hot air balloon in Minaret park

I noticed hordes of people with Kurdish flags heading in one direction and an overwhelming number of soldiers with guns. This is normally a good signal to high tail it in the opposite direction. Today I decided to trust my instincts and follow them – there were plenty of women in the crowd, every body was drinking sprite or Fanta, and I felt really safe when someone gave me a flag and the next person gave me a hat with the Kurdish flag on it. It turns out I had accidentally happened upon the big Independence rally in Shanidar park. I don’t like crowds at the best of times, and I like political crowds even less. But these were some of the friendliest people I had ever met.

People kept inviting me to dance with them and offering me food! It was like going to a super friendly wedding. I stayed for a couple of hours until the music stopped and the speeches started, and headed back to the hotel for dinner.

The next morning, I got up early to try and see a bit more before the heat got overwhelmingly oppressive. A long walk out to Sami Abdul Rahman Park to see the park and the monument to the the victims of a 2004 suicide bomb attack. It is aptly inscribed with the phrase ‘freedom is not free’.

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Freedom is not free

From there I strolled back to town, and wandered around Shar Garden Square and the Qayssarria Bazaars, endeavouring to resist the huge array of fluorescent coloured sweets. It was hot as all hell, and I retreated into a shady tea shop full of old men (you never see women in these places, they are too busy working), where I had tea so sweet it almost hurt my teeth.

From there I wandered up to the Kurdish Textile Museum – probably not a global museum highlight – and then strolled around the citadel. And then I kept walking until I ran out of steam. If I had more time I would have gone to Lalesh, which was recommended to me on the plane. Next time! And then, after an all too brief visit, it was back to work. I would happily recommend a visit to Erbil for an offbeat weekend – it really isn’t that far away. People are extremely friendly , democratic, non secular and they deserve their own democratic leadership just like the rest of us.

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View from the citadel

Erbil, 17 September 2017

Note a week later – the referendum was held. Nine out of ten people voted for independence. Turkey threatened to cut the pipeline that allows Iraqi Kurdistan to export oil to the world. Iran and Iraq banned flights to Erbil, and most Western airlines have ceased flights (a challenge for the western military troops who are deployed against IS, as their base is near Erbil). The ban continues two weeks later when I am writing this, and rumours continue that Baghdad will try and retake Kirkuk

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View of the citadel

From the Observer – While all this may sound rather complicated, in truth, the current problem is straightforward. The Kurds of northern Iraq have proved loyal allies of the western powers since the era of Saddam Hussein. Unusually in a region riven by bigotry and hate, they share the secular, democratic, gender-inclusive and humanitarian values espoused by western society. Whatever the view of Britain and its partners on the wisdom of holding the independence vote, they now have an urgent duty, moral and practical, to robustly support and defend the Kurds as the dark forces of regression and reaction gather.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/30/observer-view-on-kurdish-referendum-independence

My thoughts are with the Kurds and I hope we in the west support them to their rightful independence!

A weekend in Baku

Baku – the best and worst of Dubai and Moscow….it made for fascinating weekend.

I’d been to Azerbaijan before but hadn’t formally entered the country….hmmmmm, so I thought I better make a return visit.

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Local Bus in the Old Town

After a 4.5 hour Friday overnight flight on Azerbaijan Airlines with not much sleep, I arrived in Baku at 6am local (3am London time) on a bright Saturday morning.   The airport is stunning and modern.  I hitched a ride to town to the cheap but central Bristol hotel.  Too cheap to spring for the early check -in, I hit the streets for a six hour 18km stroll around the sites.

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Maidens Tower

First up the old city with Maidens Tower, the Palace of Shirvanshahs and the old city walls.   It was wonderfully deserted at 7am.  The old city is a UNESCO world heritage site which is extremely clean and tidy, almost like it has been recreated by Disney!  Punctuating the views of the old town walls and houses, were glimpses of the huge ‘flame towers’  through the gaps- these are the colossal skyscrapers which overlook Baku from the hill.

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View over Baku

I wandered up to get a closer view!  I hadn’t realised there were so many steps in Baku, and was amused to see a free funicular and some escalators for the less fit visitors.   The more energetic locals were doing Rocky-like stair runs and push ups at the top.  It was a stunning view!

IMG_1003-3.jpgAfter checking out the towers, I strolled along the poignant Martyrs Lane.  The memorials are for those who died when the Red Army attacked in 1990.  I sat in the shade for a few moments and made a new friend – Abdullah – a retired colonel from the army.  He sat down and chatted to me for half an hour, extolling the virtues of the openness of the Azeris.  I hope his word choice was an english error, versus an intentional choice, as he was describing how jews and christians were ‘tolerated’ in Azerbaijan.   The graves were sombre, but I couldn’t resist admiring the array of moustaches on the headstones.

I kept strolling along the ridge line to check out the huge Nariman Narimanov statue overlooking town and then strolled down the hill back to town in search of coffee.  I re-caffeinated at one of the fine establishments on Fountain Square and rested my weary feet.

IMG_1056.jpgAfter that, more strolling along the waterfront Bulvar park.   I strategically stayed in the shade as it got hotter and hotter on the 4km stretch to the modern art museum.   I did opportunistically pop into two nicely air conditioned malls on the way to cool down.  There are lots and lots of posh shops in Baku, staffed by very thin unhappy looking women, catering largely to Arab and Russian tourists.    I didn’t get much more than a passing glance from them as I wandered through in old shorts and flip-flops.

IMG_1078-1.jpgI eventually sweated my way to the Modern Art Museum.  It was fabulous – lots of great Azeri art and a few Picassos.  And they had some lovely beanbags to lie in and look at the art….

I wandered back to town, and finally checked into the hotel and had a wee nap for an hour.   After that more strolling and an icecream.  Fountain square was quite lovely to watch the people walking by.

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Nizami Literature Museum

I managed to stay awake for an early dinner at Firuze – excellent kebabs and Qutar (bread like pancakes stuffed with meat and vegetables), and then passed out to the sounds of revelling in the streets outside.

Dragging myself out of bed for Sunday morning, and after an uninspiring breakfast I headed out the extraordinary Heyday Aliyev Cultural Centre.  I spent a couple of hours walking around the site.  The police blew a whistle at me more than once, I guess because I was walking on the grass.   Unfortunately the interior was closed for a private event, but the outside is amazing. The grounds have a weird collection of rabbit and snail sculptures and some wonderful fountains.

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Heydar Aliyev Centre
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Heydar Aliyev Centre

I wandered back to the old town for another stroll and stopped off for a few coffees.  Having seen all the main sites, it was just nice to wander around and people watch.   Some of the buildings were lovely – I really liked the Nizami Literature Museum.  After just one more kebab, I headed back to the airport- another extraordinary building.

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Old City Metro Station

Baku was fun!  Highlights were the modern architectural monuments financed by oil money!  It was a lovely town to wander around, good food, reasonably friendly people and good icecream.  Whats not to like!

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Seedy Baku Bar
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Nariman Narimanov Statue

Stayed at the Bristol Hotel, ate at Firuze and Kafe Araz plus a random kebab shop.  Flew direct with Azerbaijan Airlines from London.  Easy to get a visa online for $25, but remember to keep the paperwork for your exit – as they asked me for it at the airport on the way out.

Bangladesh – Gossiping in Dhaka

I love being on the subcontinent…. , everything smells pungently of incense, curry spices and sweat!  Traffic lanes don’t exist in Bangladesh and every journey is a crazy game of chicken between gutsy rickshaw wallahs, dented buses, aggressive tuktuks and the pristine cars of the wealthy.  It’s a constant cacophony of horns. Crossing the street on foot here takes nerve. It’s a team sport, best undertaken with an expert between you and the oncoming homicidal traffic.   But its fun!

National Assembly building

I met up with a local guide and for our first few stops much of the discussion was on the liberation from Pakistan in 1971 and the 3 million Bangladeshis murdered during that war.  There is still ongoing anger towards Pakistan for their historical oppression of the Bengali language.  Yet another sharp reminder that my history knowledge is dire. I had made the naive assumption that being Muslim, Bangladesh would be friends with Pakistan. As it turns out they prefer their Indian neighbours, though they reckon the Indians are unfriendlier and cheaper than Bangladeshis.

Paintings near Shaheed Minar, the monument to commemorate those killed in the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations

After seeing Dhakaswari, the National Assembly, Shaheed Minaar, and the Sculptures Terrace (none of which were remarkable apart from the history) we headed out to Sonargaon to see the the lost city of Panam. Fortuitously we were half an hour early so we took a wander around a local village to kill some time. That ended up being my favourite part of the day –

Lovely local ladies in Sonargaon

Every house we walked by, we were invited in by the stunningly beautiful women who lived in them.  We stopped at a few places for a drink  and then some fruit as it seemed rude not to when everyone was trying to force us to sit down and visit

Friendly lady in Sonargaon

Most of these ladies’ husbands are off working in Saudi, according to these ladies it is good money but a horrendous lifestyle…..which doesn’t surprise me having seen how many immigrant workers are treated in the Arab states. It was a lovely way to pass some time, sitting having a gossip with the gorgeous local ladies.   We also wandered by a local school.  We wandered in to say hi – it was a Saturday so there were no formal lessons going on.   The headmistress came to say hello and had the students practice their English on me.

School kids who were practicing their English on me

Eventually Badal the guide got me moving and we went to see Panam. It is quite lovely, and we enjoyed a peaceful twenty minutes before five bus loads of schoolboys arrived. Panam City  is part of the 15th century city of Isa Khan’s Sonaragaon.  The buildings that remain are lovely but falling down at a rapid pace and it was disappointing to see the schoolboys rampaging all over the site, climbing up the walls and dumping rubbish everywhere.

Panam
Panam

One the bright side, unlike India, the hassle factor is manageable. The locals are delighted to see you, western tourists are rare, and I had many new ‘friends’ ask for photos of me with their offspring.

Rickshaws

From Sonargaon, we headed back into town to check out the madness at Sadarghat – Dhaka’s river port.   Getting to river port requires navigating the seething mass of humanity and road traffic in the old market to find another seething mass of humanity down at the port.  The river is a major form of transport and there are about 50 large ferries docked at Sadarghat with all forms of accommodation available from lying on the floor of the open air decks, paying for a japanese style coffin box with a fan, all the way up to an aircon room with tv.

Sadarghat river port

We were there early afternoon before the ferries started to fill up properly but families were already there staking out their claims to the upper deck.  There were only 2 toilets for the open decks, which apparently can fit several hundred, I can imagine that class of travel may not be for the fainthearted or those with a good sense of smell.   I loved the noise, the colours and the friendly people, and the sulphurous smell rising from the pitch black Buriganga river definitely left an impression on my nostrils!

Sadarghat River Port

I also visited the other main sites in town – the Lalbag Fort, the Star Mosque, and the Armenian church.  Honestly, none of these is remarkable.  More interesting is enjoying navigating around the old town getting stuck in the traffic and watching the passers by.

Nap time

I had a wonderful time in Dhaka, probably because I had no expectations having read all the reviews.   The very best thing about Dhaka is the people, who were all incredibly friendly, even when I was wandering down the street.   I felt very safe everywhere, though I have no doubt there were a few pickpockets about.

Folk art

The food was pretty  fabulous also, and I would recommend eating as much Dal as you can!   It is the best Dal I have ever eaten.  I am looking forward to visiting again

My new friends

Note that getting a visa on arrival is pretty straightforward at the airport.  Also Uber works well in Dhaka and is much cheaper and easier as a foreigner negotiating with a taxi!

May 8, 2017 Dhaka, Bangladesh

North Korea – respecting the Great Leader(s) in Pyongyang

When I told people I was going to North Korea, everyone said I was nuts, but it is one of the safest places to visit in the world and profoundly fascinating to see an entirely different culture unblemished by western values.  While it was tricky to keep a straight face when hearing about the evil imperialist US and the divine acts of Kim Il Song, it was interesting how committed the North Koreans are to their country and the Juche ideology.   And the food was pretty good too!  Definitely worth a visit!   

Liberation museum statue

Before we were allowed on the plane we had to sign on the dotted line that we were not journalists and promise that we didn’t have any bibles and were not going to on a mission to convert any North Koreans to Christianity. That done, we then got a detailed briefing on what we weren’t allowed to do in the country, though in fairness it was largely a request to not take the piss out of the great leader (including only taking full and flattering photos of pictures or monuments of him) and being sensible (don’t take photos of the military or make dumb comments about the government)

Captured US enemy tank

Arriving in Pyongyang was an efficiency dream putting European and American airports to shame. There were more staff than passengers and while we were asked a bunch of questions and Lenas books were inspected we were through in five minutes. Our lovely guides took our passports and visas for the duration of the tour and then drove us in to town. 

The enemy ship USS pueblo

Our first stop was the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum. We had an extremely earnest young female military guide who spent two hours explaining in great detail how the imperialist and dishonourable US army had started the Korean War with their ‘puppets’ (South Korea) and without a note of cynicism went on to celebrate how ‘the supreme great leader’ Kim Sung Il had ‘liberated’ the whole of Korea before eventually being victorious in ‘liberating’ the DPRK (North Korea) when the Americans ‘surrendered’ (signed the armistice). 

Postage stamp

It was an endurance test for Lena and I not to burst out laughing at the exhibits and the fervent explanations which were delivered without a single note of cynicism. Highlights were the USS pueblo ship captured from the enemy who were committing evil espionage against the great people of the DPRK, the b grade propaganda films showing the US apologising for their cowardly acts and the extraordinarily 15 minute sound and light show in the revolving tower showing the beginning of the war. I have no doubt their were several elements of truth in the ‘facts presented’, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the US had dropped 410000 bombs on Pyongyang which at that time had a population of 400000 but it would be fair to say it was a one sided view.

Mosaic for the party

By the time we finished it was dark and freezing so we went for dinner and a warmup ‘lecture’ from our guides on why North Korea should be allowed missiles and nuclear weapons. The bibimbap and kimchi were outstanding. And to be honest, while I would prefer no country had missiles I can’t see any sound logic for allowing Trump to have missile control and not Kim Jong Un. They also assured us that given the racial homogeneity of Korea it was much safer than Europe where they know we have ‘problems with refugees and immigrants’. It is frighteningly aryan how often the concept of racial homogeneity came up and it is apparently a core principle behind the design of the flag.

View of the Juche tower across the Pyongyang river

We then checked into the Yanggakdo hotel which was a 50 story monstrosity which only appeared to have two floors in use. Fortunately we were on the tourist floor and the hallway lights worked, the Chinese tourists had to stumble around the tenth floor in the dark to get to their rooms. The hot water and power worked and their was toilet paper, so no complaints.

With our guide before the great leaders

After breakfast we headed out for the day. The highlights included Kim Il Song Square where the great esteemed leader watches the troop marches, the Mansudae Grand Monument where we had to buy flowers to leave underneath and were required to bow appropriately out of respect. Wandering around the town to get there was amusing as it is truly bizarre to see no brands or advertising….. only the ever present communist propaganda posters and pictures of the great leaders.


We were then treated to a ride on the Pyongyang metro which was fabulous. The stations were aptly named Prosperity, Glory, Torch, Victory and Reunification. The investments in mosaics and paintings are impressive, though it is a shame all of that creative talent is limited to depicting the great leaders and the communist struggles. 

Pyongyang metro
Pyongyang metro

Then a visit to the Arc de triumph, which like many monuments in Pyongyang was built for the 70th birthday of the leader.  

Then it was off to Okryugan for the Pyongyang specialty of Goksue – cold vermicelli noodles. While it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, but it was fun watching the slurping techniques of the locals.

Goksue – cold vermicelli noodles

Highlights of the afternoon were the Kwangbok department store which was heaving as it was a public holiday for international women’s day (kudos to North Korea for that!). We were amused by the fights that were breaking out in the cafeteria queue which was not really equipped for the demand. Then we were off to see the Presidents House where we saw where Kim il Song’s grandparents lived in humble poverty.  

Arc de triomphe
Downtown Pyongyang

Next the Tower of Juche. Juche is the Kim Il Song’s philosophy of ‘self determination’ which essentially says that man creates the world he lives in, and this is why religion is irrelevant. Worth a google for those of you with an interest in communism and philosophy. And finally the Party Foundation Monument.
Juche tower
View from Juche tower

By this time Lena and I had both lost feeling in our fingers (it was below zero) so after a quick beer we headed off for Jongol (the Korean version of shabu shabu) which was accompanied by another fervent and friendly lecture on why the DPRK should be allowed nuclear power and why there should be more foreign investment given the stability of the economy.  

View from Juche tower of our hotel and sun going down

Our guides were lovely and we had lots of fun with them. They were surprisingly flexible when they could be and let us flex different elements of the tour. However they did ask us more questions than we asked them and surprisingly knew more about is than they should have given what we put on our visa forms. Lena and I both noticed that they would ask us the same questions about each other to cross check our answers. We also got the standard questions of ‘why don’t you have husbands with you?’ and for me ‘why no kids’ and for Lena ‘why are you not married?’ And ‘how long did you breastfeed for’. We were apparently unusual in turning up as friends and we are pretty sure they thought we were having a lesbian fling. Nonetheless they were pretty amusing and we even got them singing in the bus one day. They were also constantly amused by how much food we could eat and how fast we could do it – I was nicknamed ‘pally pally’, Korean for fast, given how quickly I inhaled my meals.

Party foundation Monument

Honestly it was a fun couple of days and I would recommend it for a novel holiday. I probably wouldn’t stay too long as it is a bit suffocating having to be accompanied everywhere, and it is weird having no phone or Internet. It was a quirky destination, people were largely friendly, the food was great and the sights were pretty unique.  Lena summed it up beautifully as ‘fascinating, disturbing and hilarious’! 

Freezing on top of the Juche tower
   
Notes on the tour 

– You cannot travel independently to North Korea – you must book with a tour company, although you do not have to join a group tour if you are prepared to pay for your own tour. We went with Koryo, who came recommended by good friends and were excellent

– Your itinerary is restricted to open sites. We were happy with what we saw but if we had had one more day we would have gone to the DMZ at the border with South Korea which is apparently fascinating 

– none of the toilet doors had locks on them, mostly you had to hold them closed while precariously squatting. No one could explain to us why locks were not allowed. Learn to be zen with strangers watching you pee or hold on all day 

– Be respectful to your guides, don’t try and ditch them, as they are normal people with jobs not state security police and they get in a lot of trouble if you do anything bad. You will probably also be detained

Pyongyang March 9, 2017

Propaganda

Mongolia – 24 hours chilling in Ulaanbaatar

One day I plan to come and do a long extended tour of the Mongolian steppes, but I would like to do it with the hubby, and he is wildly underwhelmed with the idea of gers, hiking, no showers, and long days in rickety vehicles. Until I persuade him, I am making do with a lightening visit to the wonderful Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Spinning the wheels at Gandan Khiid

I must confess that my planning has been rather poor in this case. While I am now an expert at global flight connections, currency conversions, and general travel prep, every now and then I do something inordinately dumb. In this case I forgot to take a look at the temperatures, and it turns out the weather forecast was for between minus 30 and a high of minus 8. Hmmmmmf! and I was coming from Polynesia where I have been living in shorts and singlets. Oh well, at least wearing all my clothes there was nothing left to carry in the bag.

Gandan Khiid

The first introduction to Mongolia was the plane flight from Hong Kong. Check in was a heaving mass of humanity, and almost everyone was travelling in an enormous family group, grand parents, parents and lots of kids running around screaming. They all look delightfully friendly, big warm smiles on wonderfully chubby faces, however they all seem to have the evil queuing instincts of the french or the mainland chinese, seriously everyone from the 5 year old to the 80 year old tried to cut me off in the check in queue. The plane was a similar experience, but I just can’t helped but be charmed by these chubby smiley people…., especially the kids, the most amazing pinchable cheeks. I am assuming that given the temperatures everyone here wisely carries a few extra pounds to ward off the freezing blimmen cold.

Gandan Khiid

Ulaanbaatar is definitely modern, packed with coffee shops and malls funded by the brits, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. I was expecting Tashkent and I got a cleaner version of Almaty. Modernity offset by the gers/yurts clustered around town – unfathomable how they survive winters at minus 40 in a tent
Given the limited time, I had prioritised the very best there was to see in Ulaanbaatar, and recommend these sights as a minimum:

Gandan Khiid

Things to see

  • First stop Gandan Khiid/Gandantegchinlen a.k.a. ‘the great place of complete joy’, which had unbelievably beautiful standing Buddha statue (no photos allowed – you will have to come check it out for your self). I couldn’t find anyone to buy a ticket from but the taxi driver sent me off to a few side buildings as he mimed monks chanting. I found my way through the curtain into a small incense filled room with monks chanting and drinking tea, I am assuming it was a ceremony as the room was crowded with worshippers but they could have equally been having breakfast. Oddly, given the religious nature of the event, it was more like being in a rock concert with people pushing and shoving to get in and out, I guess I am used to my buddhists being a bit less physical. After getting elbowed in the tit for the third time I beat a retreat. I sat outside enjoying the view of people spinning the prayer wheels until I lost all feeling in my fingertips (approximately 3.2 minutes) and hustled back to the cab
Gandan Khiid
  • Next stop Chinggis Khaan square….. a desolate space surrounded by ultramodern buildings. Suspect old Chinggis would be less that impressed by his nomadic countrymen settling down in bricks and mortar
Morning prostrations at Gandan Khiid
  • Then, i had less luck at the chojin lama palace which is incongruously set against the high rises of downtown Ulaanbaatar, as it was closed on Monday. I asked the security guard to let me in for two minutes and he said sorry, security camera and pointed to the 5 cameras surveilling him, sometimes I miss the days pre cctv when a small gift would have definitely gotten me access. Oh well, one to visit next time
Chojin lama temples with skyscrapers in the background
  • The winter palace of Bogd Khan (home of the last king) was spectacular, even more so given it wasn’t over renovated. Some consultant had clearly given them pricing advice as while the tickets were $3, it cost $20 to take photos but you were still not allowed to take photos inside the buildings. I managed a couple of photos, and really enjoyed the zen atmosphere and watching the icicles drip water on the Chinese tourists
Bogd palace
  • Final stop a nice climb up the Zaisan monument for stunning views over the town. I lost feeling in my fingertips and my phone died of shock from the cold after about five minutes but it was worth it. Apparently Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst smog in the world, but not today. The mountains and plains around town are a tiny taste of what the rest of enormous country looks like, and I am itching to come back and go for some long runs up and down these hills
Bogd palace

Additional notes

  • I stayed at the Hotel Khan Palace Kempinski – recommended as the nicest hotel in Ulan Bator, and at a reasonable $100 a night that felt like a good deal for me given the gym, sauna, wifi, toto loos and free breakfast
Zaisan – with a view of town
  • I rented a taxi for the time I was there. At $10 an hour, it was good value and made sure I maximised the time I had to get around to see everything Taxis to and from the airport are $20.maximum. I used safety taxi.  My taxi driver was adorable, and pointed out all the sights, pulled my hat on for me and even offered me his gloves as he didn’t think mine were good enough – he was right and I should have taken his. It was definitely the best way to get round town in March, as my original plan of walking everywhere would have had me hypothermic within 20 minutes.
Khuushuur – a bit like a cornish pasty but not as yummy

Thank you Mongolia, I will be back

Ulaanbaatar, March 6, 2017

Prayer wheels at Gandan Khiid

P.s. A random fact that I love about Mongolia – women here go to school longer than men, as the men tend to be needed to look after the animals, whereas women need to be better educated to look after the household finances.  As a result 70-80% of the skilled jobs in Ulaanbaatar are held by women

View from Zaisan
Bogd palace

South Korea – 23 hours in Seoul

Convoluted layovers used to really annoy me….. I still don’t love them but I have learnt to better exploit the opportunity to spend some time somewhere interesting.  As part of my 51 hour trip to Yap in Micronesia I spent a lovely 23 hours in Seoul.  Blissful!

Chinese tourists posing at the palace
Seoul is a fantastic town and you can get a lot in in less than a day.   My top tips….

See the palaces – Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung and Deoksugung

I saw the outside of all three but only Gyeongbokgung was open (it was a Monday) to go inside.  Be amused by the beautifully dressed guards and more amused by the Chinese tourists who hire traditional Korean costumes and take endless selfies.  Changdeokgung looked the nicest from the outside, so if you are short of time, focus there.

Guard at Gyeobgbokgung
Visit the museum of modern and contemporary art and the surrounding galleries

Seoul is blessed with world class art and galleries.  Start with the mmca Seoul!  It’s terrific (plus has free wifi, water, lockers and a great cafe).  If you have time also see the smaller sister museum at Deoksugung.  Then pound the pavement around Bukchon taking in some of the wonderful smaller galleries – Gallery Hyundai and PKM galleries in particular.  I didn’t make it to Leeum Samsang museum as it was the other side of town, but apparently it is good too.

Art exhibition created by visitors making balls of clay – this exhibit is about 20m wide
Exhibition created by applying paint to a soccer ball and dribbling!
 

The boots used to splatter the paint
Walk, walk and walk some more

I covered 24k easily on foot taking in all of the above as a lazy long loop from Seoul station up to Gyeongbokgung past city hall and Gwanghwamun square.

Splattered Bentley in Bukchon
Street art in Bukchon
Than I wanderEd through Bukchon traditional village to Changdeokgung and back down to do some shopping at Eujiro 1 intersection after a stroll along Cheonggyecheon stream (a stream which used to be underground and is now a delightful pedestrian thoroughfare).  Then take the cut through Namdaemun market to get back to Seoul station

Cheonggyecheon stream
Back alleys of Seoul
Go food shopping

Nothing helps you understand a culture more than going grocery shopping.  Koreans are tough…. they use their trolleys like bumper carts.   Watch your butt!  If you time it right you can eat for free, there were over 40 women handing out free samples of dimsum, bread and noodles at the Lotte mart at Seoul station at 5pm.  There was a whole aisle for dried seaweed.  I played Russian roulette and bought a random assortment of stuff to try.  I won some, I lost some.

Seafood skewers at Lotte Mart
Pickled veg in Namdaemun
Getting to and from incheon is a piece of cake on the airport train for £5, although it does take 45 minutes.  I stayed at the small but perfectly formed Kpop hotel which is 30 metres from the exit of Seoul station for a bargain £42.

 

Bibimbap – the breakfast of champions
Happy protestors
January 10, 2016, Seoul

Places to Return to – Iran

I had been trying to go for Iran for a while, but hubby was adamant it was not a great holiday destination.  Eventually he relented when there was a change of government and things loosened up a bit with international relations.  He even came with me!  As it turns out, we think it was probably one of the safest places we ever visited.  The people were incredibly friendly!

The highlights of our trip were:

Isfahan

Sadly for us, a lot of the most beautiful monuments in Isfahan were under scaffolding, but the city was enchanting and easily walkable.  The Persians call the town “Nesf-e-Jahan” which means “half the world” and it is a beautiful city.   The best way to see Isfahan is by foot, especially the main Imam square, the covered markets, Aali Qapu Palace and the bridges (Khajou and Siosepol).  But also make time to pop over to the Friday Mosque and Chehel Sotoun.  There is a lot to see in Isfahan so make sure to adequately fuel yourself for the walking – I would recommend the walnut and pomegranate chicken at the Restaurant Shahrzad

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Masjed E Imam

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Interior of Ali Kapu Palace

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Friday mosque (and my husband, who rarely makes an appearance on this blog)

Persepolis and Naqshe Roshtam

The ruins at Persepolis are extraordinary and it feels enormous in the heat, take your walking shoes and start early.  A good guide is indispensable as they explain the carvings properly.  I personally hate having a guide, but in this case, was grateful we had a local expert.

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Persepolis
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Persepolis

Nearby to Persepolis are the small but beautiful tombs at Nashe Rushtam for four of the Achaemenid Kings who were not buried at Persepolis.  You can’t climb up to them, but they look stunning

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Naqshe Rushtam
Shiraz

Shiraz is more of a working town than Isfahan, and in many ways it makes it more interesting.  We absolutely loved the pink mosque of Nasir Al Mulk, and spent quite a bit of time there watching the light change.   The markets were also good for people watching.    We were also treated to a poetry reading at the Tomb of Hafez (Persia’s greatest poet) and had a nice stroll around the Emam gardens.

Oddly my personal highlight of Shiraz was getting up at 5.30 every morning to go for a run.  Given it was holiday time in Iran, the local parks were full of holiday makers in tents.   It was pretty much like going for a run in hyde park and having half of leeds sleeping in pup tents or in the open air.  Apparently this is normal Iranian behaviour and not frowned upon by the parks or the police.  I caused a bit of a stir running past people as they were waking up, but by the second day I had amassed a group of young kids who joined me for my shuttle sprints at the end and gave me high fives for each sprint.

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Market
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Nasir al Mulk – pink mosque

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Yazd

Yazd was lovely and is the centre of the Zoroastrian religion.   The temple still has the original zoroastrian fire burning.  We were really impressed by the towers of silence where bodies were left to decompose after death Tower Of Silence, Yazd, Iran

Most buildings in Yazd have these remarkable wind towers which catch wind and connect them to the underground water channels – its old fashioned air conditioning that works really well

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Wind towers in Yazd
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Amir Chakmaq Square

 

Additional tips!
  • I did struggle a lot with having to wear a head scarf and trousers, given I love wearing shorts.  I especially hated running in a headscarf.  However, it is illegal to go into any public place without a headscarf, so definitely follow the rules
  • You can book with foreign agencies e.g. wild frontiers, but all of them use a local agency for fulfilment.  The bradt guide is good and lists a bunch of decent local agencies
  • Food is good everywhere – but we bought a lot of market food – melon, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese and bread and had tonnes of picnics.  Would suggest you buy some white vinegar and purify the veg in 1 part vinegar/3 parts clean water
  • Hotels are pretty variable in quality – we really liked the outrageously expensive Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan.  The Dad hotel in Yazd was also pretty good and had a nice rooftop terrace.  The Espinas hotel in Tehran was just ok.  The Kerman Pars was pretty bad (but did have a gym!)
  • Iranian people are the friendliest I have ever met, and this is one of the few places in the world where it isn’t necessary to follow my security advice around talking to strangers.  However, do beware, while they are friendly, their political views may not be that aligned to yours.  Our weirdest interaction was in Shiraz where a guy came up and asked us where we were from.  We told him.  And then he said “welcome to iran, we are not terrorists”.  We assured him we knew that.  Then he continued with “its the jews that are the terrorists”….., at which point we made a hasty exit rather than get in an argument

Visited September 2015

Off the Beaten Track – Tajikistan

Another auspicious entry to a country!  I was met at the border by my 20 year old guide and promptly asked him to get the driver to stop 200 metres down the road so I could pee behind a tree.   He was a bit bewildered as to why I hadn’t even approached the public conveniences at the border……, honestly my nose wouldn’t let me get within a 100 metres of the border loo!  Sewage cooked in Central Asian sun does not smell good!
Thus began 48 hours of what I hope was some reprogramming of my lovely guides ‘interesting views’ on women and what they could and should do.  In fairness, he was lovely, very friendly, had terrific english, eager to please and to make sure I had the very best experience that I could in Tajikistan. However, I was his first female tourist – tourism not being a huge thing in these parts.  And he spent a lot our time together trying to reconcile being nice to me, with his view that most women should be like his wife  (who he had recently wed in an arranged marriage) i.e shouldn’t work, should cover herself from neck to toes, and should wear a headscarf.  It was fun!
There really isn’t much to do in Tajikistan unless you have time, companions and money to go and hike in the high Pamirs.   I will do that at some point, but I didn’t have the time or companions on this visit.    So, I went to Khujand – the cultural capital of Tajikistan for a look around.  It is no Uzbekistan, but there were a few things to see, and I didn’t see a single tourist when I was there.  I couldn’t honestly recommend anyone go for the scintillating tourist sites, but I managed to find a couple of things to do
CHECK OUT THE KHUJAND FORTRESS AND MUSEUM
I visited the museum in Khujand in the Fortress.  There is a lot of sadness in the Tajiks, as most of their treasured cultural monuments are actually in Uzbekistan – particularly the tomb of Ismael Samani, the founder of the Tajik society (see the post on Bukhara).  When the Soviets broke up the Stans, many of the boundary lines were drawn without care or reference to the historical tribal lands.   Listening to the old ladies in the museum lament the ‘loss’ of their treasures was powerful, they aren’t easily able to cross the borders and they feel like whole parts of their lives have been stolen.    Honestly, it wasn’t the V&A, but they did have a much loved mosaic tile recreation of the life of Alexander the great (who says I don’t appreciate the arts ;-))
go shopping in Payshanbe
After the museum we went to Payshanba the biggest bazaar in Asia.  Great fresh produce, nuts, meats and the usual plastic rubbish that everyone imports from China.   The watermelons were amazing.  The clientele and the stall owners were fascinating – loved the dresses.  And every now and then I would see an incongruous Russian lady in a mini skirt – not sure what they were doing there.  Next to the bazaar is the Shikh Muslihiddin mosque and mausoleum, sadly no women allowed!  Apparently it is a bit cultural highlight, so if you are a bloke it might be worth checking out.  My most entrenched memory from visiting the market was a deep and abiding gratitude for time and place of birth.  I am not sure I would have coped well as a Tajik woman
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Competitive trading
Why I don't eat much meat when travelling
Why I don’t eat much meat when travelling
Go see some weddings at the arbob palace
We also popped out the Arbob palace, which is actually a bonkers modern building which used to be the home of a Soviet collective farm, and was the place were Emomalii Rahmon came into the public domain.  Rahman is the mad dictator who has been ‘president’ for 24 years.  He’s not popular but has just changed the constitution so he can stay in power indefinitely.   Technically you are not allowed go into the palace, but a small donation to the doorman sorted that out.   The gardens were a hot Khujand wedding venue and we saw 8 weddings within the space of an hour.  Not one of the brides was over 20!!!!
Arbob Palace
Arbob Palace
Wedding
Wedding
Go for a run, avoiding the drunk locals
Had an interesting 10k run one evening in the searing heat around the botanic gardens and along the river.  I had unwisely gone out in shorts and a tank top, so did have to extricate myself from an over-friendly group of half drunk Tajik blokes who wanted to get to know me better.
Check out Mug Tepa and the Shah Mausoleum in Istaravshan
Mug Tepa is one of the ancient settlements in Tajikistan, which is to say it is a few old walls and a dome which are well guarded by policemen.  So, while we tried to visit, we got kicked out.  Apparently they were worried about us being political demonstrators….., which I think loosely translates from Tajik as ‘you didn’t offer a big enough bribe’    We also popped by the Khazrati Shoh mausoleum.
Guide and Driver at Mug Tepa
Guide and Driver at Mug Tepa
Additional tips
  • The food is good – simple and fresh.  Delicious salads with tomato, cucumber and tonnes of herbs and good cheese.  Lots of grilled meats.   I probably shouldn’t have eaten the salads given they were washed in tap water, but my stomach survived
  • I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Khujand – very nice, probably nicer than I needed.
  • The border crossing is a total pain in the butt.  Both the Uzbek and Tajik side were rude, unhelpful and unnecessarily pervy at looking through my underwear.  Ladies, be warned.

Places to Return to – Uzbekistan

Few places have captured my imagination like Uzbekistan. The first time I went in 2011 I was there for two weeks and apart from Russians, I only saw two tourists (Australian ladies). It was astounding that a country with such incredible architecture, reasonable food and friendly people had so few people visiting it, but how lucky I was to visit then (and to have my buddy Rob along for company). I have since been back to Bukhara and Tashkent (in September 2015), and in one day in Bukhara I saw over two hundred tourists. It was certainly different with so many people around, but still worth going.

Visit Tamerlane’s capital – Samarkand

Tamerlane’s capital, and home to some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world. There are amazing buildings everywhere and you should wander the streets until your feet hurt, but make sure you don’t miss

  • The Registan – truly astounding and widely ranked as one of the most grandiose pieces of architecture in the Islamic work and as one of the noblest public squares in the world. While the building complex has been aggressively renovated, it is still largely faithful to the original design, with tile makers today still toiling to create replacement tiles.Registan
  • The tombs of Shah i Zinda are the holiest of Samarkand’s sites. Many famous samarkand historical figures are buried here, but alas my history education in NZ was too pants to give me much of a grounding in the who’s who. However, it is stunningly beautifulShah i zinda
  • Gur Emir – was my favourite place in Samarkand. A little quieter, and the mausoleum of Tamerlane.Registan 3
  • Bibi Khanum Mosque – worth visiting as it hasn’t been intensively renovated and so is more archaeologically interesting. Was built for Tamerlane by his favourite wife, a chinese princess calls Bibi Khanum, as a surprise for him while he was off devastating North India

Stayed at Malika Prime which was fine, unremarkable but with ok wifi. Arrived by fast train from Tashkent. No guide required, take a map and walk everywhere

 

Drink tea in Bukhara
Bukhara is a delightful village with plenty of tea shops (and even a german cake shop) deeply contrasting with the hustle and bustle of Samarkand.  I would happily spend a few days in Bukhara hanging out and drinking tea.    My favourite places to while the day away and watch the light are these:
  • Kalon Mosque and Minaret and the Mir i Arab Madrasah – Both the Mosque and the Madrasah are beautiful, but the Minaret is incredible.  It is 48 metres high and has stood for 850 years.  Used for the call to prayer, and as a city lookout, it also served as a place to punish criminals, who were thrown from the top in sacks!

    The Minaret late afternoon (with Rob)
    The Minaret late afternoon
  • Ismael Samani Mausoleum – the best preserved building in Bukhara.  It is a perfect brick cube with brickwork ‘woven’ to look like a basket.  It looks magnificent in the afternoon light

    Tomb of Tajikistan's most loved son
    Tomb of Tajikistan’s most loved son
  • Bolo Hauz Mosque – a beautiful mosque which reflects in a pool across from the Bukhara fortress.  You can take tea at the chaikana next door

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    Bolo Hauz
  • Chor Minor – last but by no means least, the small but perfectly formed gatehouse of an old madrassah with four minarets.
Chor Minor
Stay at any of the pensions around the Lyabi i Hauz.  They are reasonably cheap.  I have stayed at the Emir and the Amelia Boutique and they were both fine.
Get Married in Khiva
There must be something auspicious about getting married in Khiva.  When I visited, it was 5 degrees celcius i.e. bloody freezing, so hardly peak wedding season, but I saw no less than 8 weddings in the old city that day.  The couples all looked in their late teens, with full ‘big fat gypsy wedding’ regalia.  I tried to figure out how to get invite to some of the parties but with no luck.
Khiva wedding
Khiva is more like a museum than Bukhara, but the old city is beautifully preserved and a lovely place to wander around.  My personal highlights were the  the Tash Hauli palace, which has beautiful carved pillars and incredible tiles, and the Kalta Minaret – one of the few minarets which was fully tiled
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Ichan Kala Khiva
Stayed at Malika Khiva, which was fine but overpriced for food.  Can walk everywhere!
Some additional tips!
  • There are police everywhere, and life as a local citizen is likely pretty crap.  I was stopped often, but always waved on once they realised I was a tourist.  You feel very safe there, but can’t help feeling bad for the locals in such a totalitarian state
  • The trains are amazing!  I did a couple of night trains by myself and ended up sharing with Russian business men both times.  And in both cases they tried to feed me vodka, and also made sure I was ‘safe’ from the locals
  • Tashkent is an ok city, very easy to get around on the metro system which has some great stations
  • The food is ok, but not extraordinary.  Rob wished he had brought his hot sauce to spice things up.  I ate a lot of the local bread (delicious), tea, pomegranates (amazing!) and cheese.
  • Wherever/whenever you can try and visit the sights 2-3 times during the course of the day.  the light and mood changes significantly, particularly in the late afternoon and it is worth the multiple visits to watch the light play on the walls and take better pictures
  • I watched a good documentary on the bbc the other day on Samarkand – worth a look if you are interested http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p03qb25g/the-silk-road-episode-2
 Kaon Mosque and minaret