The Road to Hell .., as they say, is paved with good intentions - and I did have such intentions to keep an up-to-date record online of our journey, but what with travelling, sightseeing, keeping a journal, working on the machines, the (very!) odd bit of painting, writing (by snail mail - probably quite literally from this distance..), etc.. it just hasn't happened. Sorry folks! I'm afraid you'll just have to rely on Debs no doubt very comprehensive and accurate (unless it says anything adverse about me - in which case I fully reserve my right of reply!)
As will no doubt have been recorded elsewhere, we have had so many incidents / happenings that it would fill a modest book already. I look forward to sharing these with everyone when I (eventually) return home - some may be on a Pay-per-Tell basis - to be negotiated!
Anyway, for me the real highlights of the trip so far (since Mariupol, when I last did a comprehensive blog), have to be (and again, perhaps not in order, as I don't have my journal to hand!):
- Astrakhan - the faded gentility/mysticism of 19th Century Russia - sadly fast disappearing beneath some possibly over-enthusiastic 'restoration' work
- Camping in the desert once into Kazakhstan underneath a jet black planetarium of stars, having off-roaded over the dunes to put a sufficinet distance between ourselves and the former Silk Road to China
- Aral Sea - witnessing the catastrophic consequences ascribed to Stalin's project to create a cotton growing industry to compete with that of the US, resulting in the desertification of vast areas of Kazakhstan and meaning that the former shore of the Aral (once the worlds' 4th largest Sea) is now 100k distant from what remains. As a consequence the fishing industry that had existed for centuries (if not millennia) in that area, has completely ceased to exist, along with entire communities. Horrible and very depressing..
- Nukis - where we saw the amazing Museum of Modern Art, which was established during the era of Soviet occupation and formed a haven for those avant-garde artists of the 20' and 30's in aprticular who found their works declared 'un-Soviet' and counter-revolutionary. Indeed, even as recently as 1960 one well-known painting - 'The Blue Bull' - so enraged the newly appointed Museum Head that she ordered it's removal on precisely these grounds! (The artist, incidentally, was imprisoned in a mental asylum for 18 years shortly after its production).
- Khiva -a World Heritage city which has been restored to pristine condition (ok, again, there might be a degree of over-restoration in places), but overall it gives the uninformed - like me - a very good idea of the development of this former slaving centre ( a trade which incidentally extended here well into the last century) over the past 2,500 years. The feeling of tranquility which existed throughout the City, which extended all day and night, was truly magical and a very striking contrast, I'm sad to say, to so many of our town and city centres back home..
- Bukhara - further along the desert road and again a regional centre which in former times contained a separate (and competing) Kahnate. Larger than Khiva and more vibrant, but still containing some amazing mosques and madressas (universities). Had a massage here in vaults that had been used for such a purpose since the 16th Century.
- Samarkand - larger still. Here we spent some time sorting out the vehicles. Purely by chance I was invited by a young Uzbek (who had been living in Bristol for the past 7 years who his wife and two young girls, gaining a postgraduate degree in molecular physics) to join him and his large family - there were seventeen of them in all - for lunch in their courtyard garden. It was a wonderful experience and, again, another reminder of the genuine hospitality that is the rule, rather than the exception, in this part of the world.
- Osh - staying at the Osh Guest House, which is just over the border in Kyrgistan. Lovely place, set up principally to help an NGO develop a scheme to help local farmesr diversify and modernise their businesses. Lovely place with every facility & modcon (unlike the horrific Hotel Khokand in the town of the same name, where we stayed the night before. Too grisly to put down in print, but I have the pictures!)
- Sary-Tash - up at about 11,500 ft, where we again stayed at a Guest House, although this time one with rather fewer facilities and a Yurt thrown in! Nonetheless, it was expertly run by Elizabeth, a native of this remote Kyrgh mountain village, who spoke 6 languages fluently and was just about to depart for Germany (Hamburg) on a years 'exchange'. Sadly, the UK (where she would have much prefered to come) does not offer such an arrangement, which I can't help feeling is a huge mistake given the very evident commercial opportunities that exist in this part of the world.
- Kashgar - the first major town over the Chinese border, where we spent the day today. I have to admit that I was staggered (entirely due to my own ignorance, I concede!) by the vibrancy and modernity of the city, which boasts every convenience that one would expect to find in the West, but combined with the informality and cheerful chaos of the East - e.g. 3 or 4 adults/children astride (or even 'side-saddle!) a motor scooter - without helmets, of course! The Old City was magnificent, with each street being given over to some trade or craft. In one, for example, every open-fronted workshop revelead a balcksmith's forge & bellows, with men hammering furiously to create some axe or knife. Other streets contained shop after shop offering spices and herbs that one would never see in the West. This evening 7 of us dined in the private dining room of the former British Consulate where Eric Shipton, the great explorer and one of Steve's all-time heroes, was Consul General early in the last century. In the courtyard was a 124 year old elm tree, planted during the construction of the building, that brought it home to me how very few (if any) elm trees we see nowadays back home. Presumably this one is sufficiently far distant from any others to escape the dreaded Dutch disease?
As we approach the halfway point of our trip, with India and Pakistan (both entirely unknown to me) still to come, I cannot believe how much I have learned. I already have a 'books to be read' list as long as my arm and can only begin to imagine how the journey that we have underrtaken will change my views on the various regions through which we have travelled. Certainly I hope I will be slightly better informed (and more inclined to seek out additional information) if nothing else.
Finally - should anyone read this - I must confess that I am missing Mary, Laura, Tobs, Jo, Rachel (aka Bleut) & Addy (aka - no - I'll spare his blushes!), The Pips (with all its animals/reptile/invertabrates & birds) as well as family, friends and colleagues, more than I can say. The expedition has and will continue (I hope) to be incredible - but so will the homecoming..
Love and very best wishes to one and all
Jeremy / Dad