allochthonous: (the great outdoors)
Owing to a happy conjunction of Independence Day and Orthodox Easter, we have had  a five day weekend, which I used to have a quintessentially Georgian Holiday, involving as it did churches in caves, churches out of caves, an earnest proposition from a fifteen year old (side note: I have apparently become old enough to pull off "What would your mother say?" convincingly), a taxi driver swigging from a bottle of wine while explaining to me how Britain was originally settled by Armenians, a very jolly Easter tea party with some monks, and immense quantities of food. Goodness, I'm going to miss this country.

I also reread all of the Steerswoman books (I love them so much, and am very sad that I can't spend my entire life wandering around being nosy and making maps. Damn you, GIS.), and settled in with The Elegant Universe, which I reread every couple of years to remind myself why I once thought I wanted to be a physicist (turns out I didn't enough to make the effort with the maths, but I enjoy mulling over the weirdness of the concepts). I suspect it's probably quite (well, very; it was published in 1999) out of date now? I'm not really sure that string theory is still a Thing, or at least not The Thing? But Brian Greene writes science extremely well, and the opening chapters on relativity and quantum mechanics are some of the clearest and most intuitive I've come across. Also he did a great TV series about it wherein he attempted to teach physics to his dog.

I am full of paskha (sort of like panettone, but tbh not quite as good) but it's the kind of thing that goes stale quickly so you are required to keep eating it. I wonder if I dare turn it into bread-and-butter pudding?

allochthonous: (we make the golden journey)
That's it, I'm done. I've reached the pinnacle of my professional ambition of the past three years - someone is actually paying for me to go back to Central Asia, specifically Kyrgyzstan - and that achieved, I'm not entirely sure what else I want from work. Mountains! Yurts! Kumis! Felt carpets! Plov! Oh, and I have to give some presentations or something, but I'm sure I can muddle through that.

I also lucked out on my timing with visits home and managed to obtain a Chinese visa (a bugger to get outside your country of citizenship, these days, unless you do it in Hong Kong), so I will finally, finally get to see Kashgar. You hear that almost all of the old town these days has been destroyed, and the Sunday bazaar become a complete tourist trap, but some places you just have to go. In the absence of any knowledge of Mandarin at all, I am pinning all of my hopes on the fact that I bought a train ticket in Uzbek once and Uzbek is sort of maybe a bit mutually intelligible with Uighur if you squint. I have no idea. I'll figure it out. I miss travelling, I miss being on a journey, and it's hard to get that sensation back in only two weeks, but I love Kyrgyzstan so much, love the mountains and the smell and the immensity of the landscape, and Xinjiang sounds like it's going to be a proper challenge. I am so happy and excited to be going back.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying Pi Approximation Day! "Good enough, just not transcendental" has been my life motto for a while and so far it hasn't let me down.
allochthonous: (i cannot rest from travel)
My parents are visiting which would be wonderful even if they hadn't bought gin and baking ingredients (why is brown sugar so hard to find in 90% of the world?), which they did. We had a lovely weekend wandering around Tbilisi and appreciating all the twiddly art nouveau bits, and went to Mtskheta on Sunday to admire 1500-year-old churches with miraculously floating columns (sadly a saint almost immediately came along and miraculously made the column stop floating. Spoilsport)). Unfortunately I have to work this week so yesterday I waved them off to find the bus to the mountains; evidently successfully since I received a rather incoherent text at about midnight saying that they were drinking toasts with three policemen from Kutaisi and their cousin from Moscow. I was a bit worried that they wouldn't really enjoy Georgia and that I wouldn't be around enough to make it fun for them, but fortunately it seems that Georgia itself has stepped up to the plate admirably.

Long weekend to be spent in the wineries and churches of the south east. God, I love this country.
allochthonous: (we make the golden journey)
About to get on the sleeper train from Kiev to Minsk. Coming to the realisation that while this kind of thing is great fun if you're a backpacker who already smells a bit and doesn't have to do anything on the other end, rocking up to a business meeting straight from the station in the clothes you slept in, having been woken up twice in the night to cross the border, maybe isn't something that responsible grownups do. On the other hand, it's cheaper, my WWF colleague has been mollified by my reduced carbon footprint (entirely undeservedly as I have at a rough count taken 25 flights this year so far, which given the nature of my job, drives a tank straight through "ironic" and out the other side) and I apparently have serious ex-Soviet sleeper train nostalgia, which proves that there is no experience so uncomfortable that time can't work its magic.

On the other hand, new episode of Welcome to Night Vale. Neat.
allochthonous: (then you can tell if it's summer)
Home sweet washing machine. I had a gorgeous time in Turkey, of which more anon, but there was rather too much getting up at the crack of dawn to hike or catch buses for it to have been 100 per cent relaxing, and the lovely green landscape of the Black Sea region is brought about by an incredibly humid climate that leaves your clothes slightly damp at all times. Fortunately this weekend I have nothing to do except sleep, cook, and catch up with the Great British Bake Off (sure the highlight of the televisual calendar). I'm thrilled that it's squash season again; living on seasonal produce is a pain in February, but a joy in September, and everything is so abundant, that my giant weekly veg shop cost all of 2 Euro. Pumpkin and ginger soup for lunch, ratatouille for dinner.

I was saddened to come back to the news that Seamus Heaney had died. Like everyone else in the country. I studied this greatest hits at school; Digging and Blackberry-Picking were lovely, but Act of Union was the one that really stuck with me; it was the the first time I'd really encountered political poetry and I remember it really startling me when I read it. I've really enjoyed reading through the tributes online and finding out people's favourites of his work, lots of which is unfamiliar to me. Scaffolding is mine.

Scaffolding

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure the planks won't slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tightly bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job's done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.
allochthonous: (communist party)
I am out of bed, bandages off and well and truly over being any kind of invalid. All my former teammates are enjoying a giant Christmas party in Vienna, and I am hobbling around the house picking disconsolately at a large block of marzipan which I am supposed to be putting on the Christmas cake.

But! The prospect of future employment has cheered me up no end (SO glad I had that conversation yesterday because I got a trickle of rejections today. I do wish that there wasn't a requirement to advertise jobs if organisations already know they're going to fill the position internally - it's such a waste of everyone's time. At least the emails I got today came right out and said that thye'd basically known who they were going to take all along, so I don't feel that inadequate). I still feel that saying anything about immiment Georgia-ness will jinx it as nothing's been signed, but if all goes to plan then I should be retreating to the Caucasus early next year for much eating of dumplings and cheese pies, drinking of dodgy homebrews and cheap red wine, and (if my boss has anything to do with it) being forcibly taught to ski in ex-Soviet ski resorts. Could be worse.

In honour of the prospect of my buggering off somewhere more interesting, here is something I wrote about Albania. Er, six months ago.

In which I have a Byronic moment. )

Now I am going to go and try and make some panettone. Possibly sacreligious, but I think it might work well with cranberries. After all, most things do.
allochthonous: (london)
Back from Croatia which was lovely, what with seeing people again and red wine and national parks and good news for future project funding, which means I have two very interesting job possibilities in fun places with good people. Neither are confirmed and both start next year, so I still have the usual cashflow issues for the next few months, but it's very much better than nothing. I am very excited about one of them in particular.

I don't care how overpriced, middle class and food snobby it is, I bloody love Borough Market. I rarely actually buy anything there, (see: overpriced) but wandering through you can smell your way through dozens of cuisines, taste all the cheese and olive oil you heart might desire, and then get a very nice coffee (although the queues at Monmouth are out of control. Flat Cap is just as good). I spent a pleasant half hour there this afternoon after being hauled out to Southwark for the launch of the World Disasters Report at ODI's swish new offices. It would've been better if they'd talked less and let the audience discuss more, but still interesting (this year's focus: forced migration) and you get a hard copy which is much easier to read than a 250 page PDF.

My mother has won Best Taste in Show at the local honey show for the third time (she also won second prize), which I assume means that it is only a matter of time before she is kicked out for bee doping. I am dead chuffed for her and it makes having to trip over bit of beehive in the kitchen all summer worth it. She first won it in her first two years of beekeeping, stopped entering out of embarrassment, and this was the first time she's entered since (so will probably never enter again. My family does not really consider winning to be playing fair). It's funny because the honeys that win usually aren't the ones we like best at home (the one that got it was an early lime honey that had a very unsubtle flavour that wasn't terribly interesting, and I can't believe I've actually written that about bloody honey), but Mum maintains that much of the criteria is based on how well you managed to remove every last bee leg from the jar, and she may be right. Anyway, her bees have done well this year, and it means that one of our family has a useful skill applicable post-apocalypse and we can barter honey for food when the waters rise.

I am making sweet potato and ginger soup for dinner, I think, and then tackling the Augean stable that is my bedroom desk. There's piles of paper on there dating back to my uni applications, I think, and recently a brochure for gap year projects made its way to the surface. I'm tempted just to set the whole thing on fire and salt the ashes, but that might be the kind of stain that is difficult to get out of the carpet.
allochthonous: (Default)
Macedonia had a lot of hype to live up to, but I knew things were going to be all right when I heard about the miracle. Inside the church of St Demtrius in the old town of Skopje, the frescoes of the saints and martyrs, darkened by decades of candle-smoke, had suddenly brightened over the weekend of Palm Sunday, the haloes of the saints shining as brightly as the day they were painted. Squeezed into the back of the church behind hundreds of the devout and the curious, I can attest that the haloes were certainly very shiny, although not having any basis for comparison I couldn’t really say as to whether they were any brighter than usual. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help approving of the thoroughly practical nature of this miracle, so much less messy than statues weeping blood and more useful than pictures in your toast, which is the kind of thing my church tends to turn up. If even the unpreposessing building site of central Skopje could muster up a bona fide miracle, then surely Ohrid would be able to provide something spectacular for Easter.

Eggs! Saints! Bears! )

Back in Skopje, the novelty of the miraculous frescoes seemed to have worn off rather in the aftermath of Easter, and I had the church more or less to myself when I went back. Spoilsport conservationists had officially attributed the phenomenon to condensation, (which is still I suppose marginally more miraculous than a guy with a cloth) but I left some money at the icons just in case. You never know when a bear might show up.

allochthonous: (i cannot rest from travel)

Just stating for the record that Macedonia has not disappointed, what with peacocks and monasteries and bona fide miracles and coffee and Roman bits and pieces and ten whole minutes of sunshine. There was a bit of minor excitement in Skopje this afternoon which I hope for everybody’s sake does not get any more exciting, but it has otherwise been a gorgeous weekend of which more anon.

No cavemen though, and no sheet-folding lakeside ladies, although in fairness the weather was not terribly conducive to laundry, so I am prepared to let it go for the moment;  I may have to come back in the summer to check.

allochthonous: (then you can tell if it's summer)
When I was living in Uzbekistan,the only English TV channel available was BBC World News. This was a little surprising given that BBC journalists had been banned from the country for several years at that point, but I was grateful for it. When watching Russian dubs of Mamma Mia palled (hard to believe, I know, but it happens), the BBC was my background noise of choice. Since they can’t use commercial advertising, the breaks between the updates on the antics of minor members of the royal family, studio audiences in Qatar arguing over US foreign policy, and interviews with African Union delegates which constitute most of BBC World’s output were filled with promotional shorts from the tourist boards of various countries. You know the kind: spectacular scenery/wildlife/ruins interspersed with shots of an attractive tourist couple being hugged by local children all improbably wearing national costume, learning traditional dances from nice young ladies in spiffy hats, and buying each other necklaces in the shiny new shopping malls, all set to an exciting soundtrack (cliché-filled narration optional) and finished off with a slogan of superb banality and/or incomprehensibility.

In the absence of any other TV, I became quite the connoisseur of these little promos. Back then, BBC World was dominated by Incredible India (I actually quite like this one) and Malaysia Truly Asia (snooooresville) with a sprinkling of South Africa: It’s Possible (the narration wins a prize for the most clichés packed into a minute, and believe me, the competition is stiff in this genre), all countries with well-funded tourist boards that could afford to get these commercials run multiple times a day. However, like all the best trainspotters, I was much more excited by the more elusive appearances from countries with slightly less generous marketing budgets; quite a few, now that I look back on it, came from the corner of the world I’m currently exploring. Kosovo: The Young Europeans (not so much a tourism promo as a political statement), Montenegro: Wild Beauty (featuring a flying mermaid) and Croatia: The Mediterranean As It Once Was (what happens when a advertising company decides it can’t be bothered and just throws a bunch of random clips together) all showed up only once a month or so and were savoured accordingly. But how ever frequently they aired, they are all pretty similar. Mostly they are pretty uninspired. Sometimes they are hilarious (see above re: flying mermaids). Very rarely do they actually pique my interest in a particular country.

The one exception was one I only ever saw a couple of times, but it really stuck with me. It covers all the standard ground (scenery! ruins! dancing!) but you can tell that some genuine thought has gone into it (it even has a framing device!). There are some ill-advised costuming decisions (why is there even a caveman in the first place?), but also some really tasty-looking watermelon. There is a small child involved, but she somehow manages to avoid murderous levels of annoyance. They do not stint on the icons and archaeology. Congratulations, Macedonia, you have my attention.


All of which is an incredibly long-winded way of saying that this evening I'm flying to Macedonia for a week and I cannot wait. If there aren't lakeside ladies folding sheets on their heads (what?) I'm going to be terribly disappointed.
allochthonous: (i cannot rest from travel)
Yesterday I fulfilled a long-held ambition of renewing my passport because it was full. Given that my date of departure has crept up on me rather, this required an obscene amount of money (my first adult passport cost me £30 as I recall - this one was more than four times that), but on the flip side, I was holding the thing four hours after I handed over the cash. It is very shiny and full of birds, and very empty.

One of the very first things I posted on my LJ was a love letter to an old passport, and my feelings are almost identical this time around. That battered little red book full of garish stickers is a record of two of the most remarkable years of my life so far, and I am very loath to relinquish it, despite its unfortunate penchant for hanging out with strange policemen. I trust the new one will have as illustrious and geographically interesting a career as its predecessor, but the Iran-Afghanistan Axis of Showing Off will take some beating. Woe is me, for I will have to go to more places. Oh well, if I must.

While waiting for the new passport to appear I went with my mum to see the Hajj exhibition at the British Museum (and drink coffee. Our BM trips usually double as coffee appreciation trips, as the BM is close to many of the best central London coffee shops, and while Wild and Wood is still just ahead in the coffee stakes, I can also report that the Fleet River Bakery is also does a very reasonable flat white and not bad cake, either). I have Thoughts about the exhibition which I wil write up when I have more time, but I will say that I'm pretty sure quite a few women have made the hajj over the past 1400-odd years, and it would've been nice to hear something from some of them.
allochthonous: (Default)
Loi Krathing and Lumphini Park. Photo blurry because of Art, not incompetence (really)
Loi Krathong is one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing in Bangkok. It is the festival of lights associated with the Yi Peng festival in the north. On the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, Thais launch intricately-decorated vessels called krathongs into lakes, canals and rivers. The belief is that the krathong will carry away the year’s disappointment, anger and bad feelings, and if a hair or some nail clippings are added to the krathong, it will carry the bad parts of yourself away too. It is also an offering to the water goddess, and a wish for good fortune and happiness with candles, incense and flowers down a river. Krathongs are traditionally made out of a section of banana leaves and a section of trunk and decorated with flowers, candles and incense sticks (these days styrofoam and, for the environmentally conscious, baked, coloured bread, seem to predominate). In a normal year, Bangkok on Loi Krathong is supposed to be beautiful sight, with the rivers and canals full of lights, and fireworks being let off everywhere in celebration.

This year, however, people do rather have other things on their mind; due to the flooding, most events in Bangkok were cancelled, and strict instructions circulated that citizens were not, however tempted they might be, to launch their krathongs straight into the flood waters, as the only thing worse than the suburbs of Bangkok under three feet of water is the suburbs of Bangkok under three feet of water and also on fire.The event we all went to in Lumphini Park (which has a lake that can safely accommodate plenty of krathongs without actually igniting anything else) was very low-key, especially compared to the Yi Peng festival a couple of weeks earlier – there were a lot of people milling around, but not heaving crowds, and only a few krathongs. Unlike the strictly-regulated Yi Peng, there wasn’t much in the way of oversight, so we found a free spot, fumbled with lighters and Evidentally our krathongs were overburdened with cares and worries from the previous year; either that or we did not have krathong technique, as they universally either sunk or wallowed sadly in the shallows, candles and incense guttering out and in no way showing any inclination to bear the worst parts of ourselves away (this is where a river would help, I suppose). Traditionally, if your krathong sinks or the candle quickly goes out, then your wishes will not come true; if I don’t get a job this year, at least I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
allochthonous: (Default)
The lanterns fly
When I am overseas, I try and make a point of not being a slave to the guidebook, but occasionally it cannot be helped and I find myself lured in by a flowery write-up or artfully lit photo and on a bus to somewhere quite out of my way just to see a particularly good waterfall or something. This was evidently due to happen at some point here: for the past two months, I had been preoccupied by the front cover of the Thailand Lonely Planet guide. The bible of the dreadlocked masses’ 2009 edtion is adorned with a photo of blissfully happy people launching huge paper lanterns in what seemed to me to be an excessively picturesque manner. This, the caption briefly informed me, was the Yi Peng festival held in northern Thailand in October or November each year. Further research unearthed online writeups of the festivities which dwelt lovingly on the majestic sense of awe that accompanied the sight of thousands of floating lanterns drifting upwards into the night. The phrase “like a school of luminous jellyfish” put in an appearance. When it became apparent that the festival would happen over the long weekend granted to us poor indundated (or yet-to-be-indundated) Bangkokians, I knew that come hell or high water (and of course there was plenty of the latter) I was going to be up in Chiang Mai letting off skylanterns. So thus it was that while back down south central Bangkok was busy Not Flooding in the most frenzied, dramatic and media-friendly way possible, I was squeezed in the back of a pickup truck with sixteen couchsurfers and a baby, trying to locate the right filed in the right suburb of Chiang Mai to set the sky on fire.

The Yi Peng lantern release ceremony is usually held at the same time as the Loi Krathong festival, on the first full moon of the twelfth lunar month (this year it was a couple of weeks earlier). It is a time to make merit and do homage to the Buddha, and the release of the lanterns is associated with releasing the cares and worries of the past year, and bringing good fortune for the future. The whole affair is an brash mix of ceremony and spectacle; plenty of people are there to gawk and take pictures observe, and foreign visitors are heavily catered to by English announcements over the sound system, and hordes of green-shirted marshalls on hand to shepherd hapless tourists through the procedure of unfolding and lighting the lanterns. At the same time, the lantern release is only the culmination of a long ceremony of prayer and offerings, especially the robe-offering ceremony, where lay buddhists bring new robes for the monks, and the vast majority of attendants were Thai families there to make merit.

Clutching our lanterns, we were shunted into a vast field filled with metal burners laid out in a grid every two metres (I couldn’t help thinking that British health and safety officials would have a fit). As darkness fell, the ceremony began: the prayers, the chanting and the processions. A lot of people find this hugely spiritually moving; I have to say that in the middle of the crowd, unable to see exactly what was going on, I mainly felt confused. According to the brochure stuffed into my hand by a marshall, the key to successfully releasing the lanterns was “meditating in order to relax body and mind”. I have never been terribly good at this at the best of times, but kneeling in a field at dusk with cramp in my legs and doing duty as a mosquito buffet meant that my mind was in a particularly poor state – I was slightly concerned this meant I would set fire to my lantern.

Then suddenly the burners were being lit, and the field seemed briefly on fire; then a mass of confusion as ten thousand people, not all of them terribly expert, fought to unfurl their (not inconsiderably-sized) lanterns without catching either lantern or clothing on one of the open flames. This was accomplished in a terrible hurry, and we stood, breathless, grimly hanging on to our buoyant lanterns and waiting (and in my case screaming at my camera, which had, as is its wont, picked the worst possible moment to unilaterally go on strike).

I don’t even remember what the release signal was, but suddenly ten thousand lanterns flew, carrying with them an extraordinary burst of exultation from the crowd. It was one of those rare instants of collective feeling, rarer still for being one of sheer joy, and together with the sight of the luminous beacons rocking and dancing into the sky, it was almost overwhelming . The lanterns continued to rise as people sent up their second and third (some with illicit sparklers and firecrackers attached), but the main flock drifted up and arced across the sky, fading into thousands of tiny points of light, as though we had suddenly brushed past a stray arm of the Milky Way. It was an astounding, and above all, peaceful sight, and no words or photographs of mine can do it justice, but I could have lain watching the lanterns for hours. I don’t know if for me it was necessary spiritual, but the feeling of fierce happiness shared with thousands of other people was such that I could well believe for an instant that all our cares had been carried up to heaven with the flames.

Back in Bangkok, where the flooding threat has receded, so I'm now happily making my way through all my emergency supplies. Dinner is going to consist of tim tams and pringles with marmite for quite a few days.
allochthonous: (Default)
After weeks of false alarms, panic-buying and twitter hysteria, it looks as though central Bangkok will in fact be flooded this weekend. Observing the media reaction, one could well be forgiven for assuming that this means that residents should be fleeing a towering tsunami bearing down on the city, laden with a cargo of venomous snakes, poisonous chemicals and escaped crocodiles; in reality, as Bangkok-based journalist and blogger Richard Barrow (who has been doing sterling work on twitter sorting out facts from hysteria) points out, calling the ankle-deep tidal surges currently assaulting parts of the centre of the capital a flood is an insult to those parts of Thailand (including many Bangkok suburbs) where people have lost houses, lives and incomes under two or three metres of water.

Of course, the real danger hasn’t hit yet: that’s the killer combination of the unusually high tides expected over the weekend and the four billion-odd cubic metres of water that needs to drain from the north of the country into the Gulf of Thailand, with Bangkok squarely in the way of both. City flooding is slow and insidious, and the vast network of pumping stations, storage reservoirs and drainage tunnels throughout Bangkok means that a simple contour map isn’t much help in determining flood risk. The government is providing a salutary lesson in how not to communicate during an emergency, so it's not surprising that people are leaving in droves - no one knows reliably where the flooding will happen and how bad it will be. But even the worse-case scenario is something along the lines of 50 cm in the centre, which is likely to rapidly drain away. The Atlantic, which is doing a phenomenal job of photoreportage on the floods across Thailand, has this photoessay on the flooding in Bangkok: dramatic pictures, but almost all are in the suburbs. No-one wants to have to wade through even ankle-deep sewage, but this scarcely a flood of "Biblical" proportions (yep, I'm looking at you, CNN).

So the city holds its breath as everyone waits for the other shoe to drop. Walls of sandbags and hurriedly-constructed cement barriers protect individual houses and businesses, bottled water and instant noodles have become impossible to find in the shops, but shops and restaurants are open, even if all the talk is about whether you should be hoarding cash in case the ATM network goes down, or how to tell whether a area of water is carrying an electrical current (many of the flood-related deaths have been from electrocution). In the meantime, TV journalists make their reports standing in large puddles outside tourist attractions, carefully neglecting to show that the surrounding areas are bone-dry. The real disaster is happening in the outlying parts of Bangkok, which may experience flooding for months, and upcountry where areas such as Ayutthaya may be underwater for six weeks or more, destroying crops and displacing thousands of people.

On Wednesday, our office announced it would close until the following Monday; I took an impulsive decision to leave that night for Chiang Mai in the north, since there’s a festival there this weekend I’d been planning to see for ages. This decision was either very right or very wrong, depending on your point of view: a friend tried to join me last night but couldn’t get a ticket out of the city, while I’m beginning to worry about getting back to Bangkok on Monday. I'm sitting in Chiang Mai, drinking coffee and feeling unaccountably like I've deserted, while refreshing twitter obsessively to see where the water's got to now. Stay safe, Bangkok, and see you on the other side.
allochthonous: (we make the golden journey)
Arch of Neutrality

I was poking about in old files on my notebook the other day and came across this post I'd written about Turkmenistan more than a year ago, which I ended up never uploading due to the Iran clusterfuck. Turkmenistan was an interesting place, even though I was only there for a few days, so I'm reposting it here.

Of all the odd countries in Central Asia, Turkmenistan is perhaps the oddest. It is known (inasmuch as it is known at all) for Akhal-Teke horses (I have to confess that this means nothing to me and here I must turn to my friend Duncan, my go-to guy on all things equine, who reports that these creatures are liable to transport you to Venus should you attempt anything beyond the most gentle of walks; this, apparently, is a good thing) and, perhaps more widely, for the excesses of its former president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Clearly a firm believer in the maxim that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, this gentleman fully embraced all the possibilities independence had to offer when it came twenty years ago: he promptly christened himself Turkmenbashi (“father of Turkmens”), renamed the months of the year after members of his family, elevated his writings to the level of the Qu’ran, sprinkled the country liberally with large golden statues of himself, and enthusiastically promoted a personality cult that Kim Jong Il might have balked at. This combined with an official attitude of deep suspicion towards outside influences (all tourists must be accompanied by an official guide, the exception being those, like myself, transiting across the country within five days) gives rise to its reputation as one of the more peculiar countries in this part of the world.

Ruined cities, golden statues and some really bad photoshop )

Politics is not a subject which it is wise to bring up in this corner of the world in general, but I did wonder what people in Ashgabat thought about the city and father of all Turkmens and everything which the outside world thinks is so odd. Everywhere in Turkmenistan I had seen the phrase “Altyn Asr” – on the signs for restaurants and bars, on the sides of buildings, on mosques and schools. I asked an Ashgabat taxi driver what it meant. “It means golden age”, he said. “What golden age is that?” “The one we are living in now”. We eyed each other carefully for a moment or two. Russian is a very easy language to do deadpan in.
allochthonous: (we make the golden journey)
so many sausages

I am back from Germany with a severe sunburn and my bag stuffed full of lebkuchen; I think overall the latter makes up for the former. I may have slightly overdosed on gothic architecture but I was dead impressed by the quality of the relics in the Bavarian churches. Skeletons in silk robes in glass cases is something one does not get enough of here in my opinion.
allochthonous: (we make the golden journey)

My dissertation placement does not appear to be working out and I may have to make a last-minute dive to India, which is problematic because the funding application deadline is tomorrow, and I am unlikely to know by then which is going to happen. SO MUCH RAGE. To keep me from beating my brains (or someone else's) out with a hammer, here is a book meme.

The book I am reading: Travels in West Africa, by Mary Kingsley. She is a hero of mine: a dutiful Victorian daughter who stayed at home nursing her parents until they died, whereupon she packed up and headed straight out to explore Gabon. She is one of the best and funniest travel writers I have ever come across and I must write a proper post about her. This edition I got off Amazon is sadly abridged (how could they possibly miss out her epic battle with the crocodile in her canoe?) but still brilliant.

The book I am writing:  I am finding that combining my favourite genres of alternate history, fantasy and historical adventure into a swashbuckling, heroine-dominated thriller set in Reformation Europe is not working out in a particularly coherent manner, but is great fun to imagine all the same.

The book I love most: I am deeply suspicious of anyone who can provide a one-book answer to this question. That said, the book I turn to most for comfort reading when I am tired or upset is The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay. It is possessed of one of the greatest opening lines in literature, and anyone who doesn’t want to read it after that has no soul. “’Take my camel, dear’ said my Aunt Dot as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass”.

The last book I received as a gift: Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus for Christmas. I am trying to read more female travel authors, and this is supposed to be excellent: she follows the Indus along its entire length, travelling through some of the most dangerous parts of Pakistan on her own. I’m saving this as a treat for when term ends.

The last book I gave as a gift: I am my mother’s primary book consultant when she buys presents for her teenage godchildren, and she has recently distributed on my advice copies of Nation, by Terry Pratchett (one of his best recent efforts, IMO) and Temeraire, by Naomi Novik (anyone who is not reading these should be. Napoleonic wars with dragons – what’s not to love?).  My friends and I tend to lend rather than give books (I guess because we’re cheap students), and I have recently lent out The Hunger Games far and wide. I have a small collection of texts on my phone sent by lendees at 3 am, all variations on “DAMN YOU I PICKED THIS UP TO READ ONE CHAPTER BEFORE BED AND STAYED UP ALL NIGHT FINISHING IT”.

The nearest book on my desk: Gender and Climate Change: An Introduction and Dirty Russian: Everyday slang from 'What's up?' to 'Fuck off!'. My Russian teacher would be so proud.

Other things that have made me happy today are the casting news for the BBC Richard II (I don’t know enough about Ben Whishaw to tell if he’d be a good Richard, but Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke? Yes please) and the news that the Pratchett Watch books are being made into a CSI-style police procedural, which could prove to be a stroke of genius if done well.

Now it's back to writing country non-specific travel grant applications again. I need this week to be over.

allochthonous: (Default)

I received  my new passport yesterday (£77! Bankruptcy looms, as per usual), but was furious to find that they hadn't returned my old one. It surprised me that I was so upset, but that thing's been all over with me (usually living in my pocket, and I can't count the number of times I've been tapped on the shoulder by a helpful/eye-rolling Guatemalan/Tanzanian/Australian/Thai etc who has then patiently pointed out the escaping document several yards behind me. My old passport was a free spirit). All of the gold had been worn off the front, the photo page had been bent, and it had been completely soaked at least twice, rendering most of the stamps fairly illegible. The number was engraved on my brain from filling out so many entry cards, and it was almost entirely full of stamps and stickers, mostly from the stamp-happy Africans, and it had six turquoise Guatemalan stamps with the weird symbol that looks like a giant squid molesting a seahorse, and the excitingly purple Jordanian stamps with Arabic writing. It endured being left under the bed in a Thai hostel for three days (yes, it took me that long to realise that my passport was missing), being dropped in a Greek stream, and being sat on, trodden on and crumpled far too many times to count. My old passport was a survivor.

I'm not entirely sure I trust the new one. It is biometric (and has a weird little symbol on the front to inform everyone of the fact), far too stiff and shiny, has weird drawings of birds on the visa pages (OK, fine, I like the birds - better than the weird swirls they had before), and I am wearing an expression of terminal boredom in the photo (as opposed to one of slight confusion in the previous one) . Worst of all, it is STAMP FREE. No longer can I bring out my passport, confident in the knowledge that it can compare to any traveller's, and sit back smugly while people flick through it admiringly.

This passport looks well-behaved. I suspect it is less likely to take flying leaps out of my pocket at every available opportunity. I'm also pretty certain it will actually break if I sit on it the wrong way. I doubt it'll take kindly to being buried overnight on a Mexican beach (no, I'm not entirely sure why either - tequila was probably involved). I remain unconvinced that it will survive until April 2017.

Happily, there was a knock on the door this morning, and the postman passed me a heavy envelope which to my great joy contained my old one (minus its corners), complete with the tatty two-year-old Mexicana stickers on the back. Still, I'm going to have to break in the new one at some point, so there's only one thing for it. I'm going to simply have to go to the Red Sea this Christmas.

allochthonous: (Default)

Back in the land of regular meals and someone else doing my washing (hi Mum!).

My last few days were a bit of a blur, as I picked up some pretty awful flu in Sarajevo and had to get to Budapest to catch my flight (sleeper trains with six border stops? Not so much with the fun when you're feverish and hallucinating) rather than just curl up in a ball and ignore the world for a few days, which would have been my preferred solution. There was a point at which I was getting pretty freaked out, since my health insurance had run out the previous day, and I was seriously doubting my ability to get from A to B, even to walk. My diary from those two days is full of incoherent gibberish mixed with me wishing that Mum/Dad/best friend was there, and when I finally got to the central train station at Budapest and I realised I had no way to get to the airport I nearly sat down and cried. There were no taxis, I didn't trust myself to find the minibus stand, and all I wanted to do was call Mum or Dad and get them to sort it out, but short of actually flying out and getting me, there was pretty much nothing that they could have done. I just sat at the station for three hours wondering what on earth I was going to do, and for the first time in three weeks I actually felt the lack of a travelling companion. In the end, I told myself that if I was going to make a big deal about being self reliant, then I was damn well going to have to rely on myself, and somehow I figured out the subway system and got myself there via train and bus. I was nearly weeping with relief by the time I got to the airport.

Of course I was fine (two days of solid sleep in a non-bunkbed! Who knew that could feel so good?), and it probably wasn't nearly as bad as it felt at the time, but it brought home quite sharply one of the problems - or rather, challenges - of solo travelling. Without a doubt, the past three weeks were some of most rewarding I've spent, and taking that first step and deciding to just go for it was one of the best decisions I've made. If I go on a big trip next summer, I will seriously consider going alone, and I think I'd have a better time than I would with a travelling companion who was even slightly non-ideal (currently there's only really one other person I know I can travel with long-term with no issues). Most of the time it's great  - there's always loads of people to meet at hostels, there's usually someone going your way if you need a travelling companion, and you can always ditch them if need be! I spoke to more people in three weeks this time than my friend and I did in two months last summer in Central America. This was largely out of necessity, and I talked far more to local people (whose English was always embarrassingly good. I have got to sort semi-fluencey in at least one language at some point - monolinguality is getting depressing). Having a flexible itinerary was truly joyous - I felt that I could go anywhere and do anything I wanted, even with time constraints. After the previous six weeks it was wonderful to have time to myself and to be entirely on my own if I chose.

However, you do have to be proactive and get up your backside and sort things out. Which is something I'm generally bad at, but once I realised I wasn't actually going to go anywhere if I didn't steel up my courage and brave the ticket booth armed only with about ten words of Serbo-Croat, I just did it and it was fine. The only hard part was realising that there was no way around it. Ill, tired, grumpy, depressed or hungover, I still had to go and carry my bag and change money and find a hostel and get food and generally cope, and no-one was going to do it for me. That was HARD - and I am proud that I did that, and know that I can do it in the future. People at home are all expressing shock at the fact that I travelled around on my own, because I was a girl and wasn't it dangerous, but I never once felt threatened or harrassed because of my sex. The challenges I had to overcome I would have faced whether I was male or female, and I'm pleased that I pushed my comfort zone and extended it.

Wow, that's enough navel-gazing for now. I'm going to go watch my pirated versions of Superman and Pirates of the Carribbean (legal in Bosnia!)

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