Thursday, January 19, 2006

Midnight Melons

No this is not the name of one of my late night haunts in Almaty. No it's just an observation that even in the early hours as you speed in a taxi from wherever you will always see some guy with an enormous stack of watermelons sitting on the corner. Kazakhstan does seem to be that kind of place. Almaty has 70 casinos (many more than Las Vegas), of which I saw at least half as taxi drivers (I use the term loosely as everyone is a potential taxi driver) consistently wanted to drop me off at them. Some other observations, no place seems to close at night, there are more fountains than people (probably), there seems to be a property boom on and all the girls are dressed up for a night out (even at 10 in the morning). Most importantly the beer goes down really well after a day climbing the hills to see an enormous ice rink or the longest pipe in the world or equally well after a homemade meal at my friend Anna's house. Other discoveries have included the fact that foreigners who don't speak Russian get offered free fruit at the markets, kebabs in tortillas are fantastic and the only number I can remember is three hundred (therefore all my purchases must be made for 300 tenge, around £1.50).

Oh and, of course, virtually no-one speaks English. This made today's trip from Almaty to Bishkek a little too entertaining for my tastes. I attempted to arrange a share taxi although the driver couldn't believe that I didn't want to hire the whole thing. After an hour or so he finally managed to get some other punters and all seemed set fair. However a taxi driver who likes to video his passengers whilst driving at 100km per hour on unsealed roads is not to be trusted. Things started to go wrong when he ignored the advice of a road worker and decided to travel down a "road in progress". All too soon it was a road no longer in progress and a little overland diversion was required. I can't think this did the car much good as we eventually broke down somewhere quite near the middle of nowhere on the baking Kazakh steppe. In 40 degree heat with no water, but quite alot of dust, we wondered what to do. Several cars were flagged down but no one was carrying a spare radiator so instead I was suddenly bundled into another car sharing with 4 other gentlemen who didn't seem quite as surprised as me. They got me to the border but I was delayed as the border guard seemed to find my visa quite unusual. In the meantime my car had left as the guys in it needed to catch a train or do some management consulting or something. It seemed another taxi would be the obvious choice except for the fact that all transport from the border is prebooked. I wouldn't have known most of these things if it wasn't for Alina, my sometime taxi companion who did a little translating. She worked at American sponsored "democracy camps" out in the Krygyz mountains (I didn't find this strange at the time) but more importantly for me managed to get us on a fully booked bus to Bishkek. The big losers in all this were the two passengers who'd prebooked the bus but were then not allowed out of Kazakhstan. I considered their unfortunate situation for a while, but not until I was safely sitting in their seats.

Tonight I have booked a yurt stay somewhere in the mountains with the help of some Belgian translators and some fermented mare's milk. I'm sure it will be great.

Hope all is well wherever you all are. Must go find a menu that I can actually read.

This was originally written on 21 July 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

Back Home

The sunshine is gone, the food suddenly got blander and I just about understand what people are saying to me. It's at this point that I intended to look back at my Mexico experience and perhaps focus on some of the experiences I missed previously. But, on reflection, I probably left them out for a good reason so instead here's a couple of photos. And to pad this thing out abit I'll be putting in some reports from earlier trips. I don't know how long this will take but until my next holiday (not so far away) I'll be off.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dark Tales from Sexyport

I wake late to the sound of the Pacific Ocean, if I listen more intently I can hear the bird song and maybe a lazy cockeral. From my hut I can see over the palm trees to the breakers only yards away. The sun is already climbing in the east, it looks like a perfect day, it´s always a perfect day. You might think it to be some kind of earthly paradise.... But this paradise hides a dark secret.

I get ahead of myself though, there is so much else to say. Well not really as we´ve been remarkabley lazy on this trip. For those who read the last report I did survive the toxic shaving foam incident although my ability to speak Spanish seems to have been severely affected. Oaxaca seemed fairly relaxing without the terrors on the streets. It´s colonial centre is busy but always worth a wander especially for the pleasure of the sumptuously decorated Santa Domingo church. We landed on our feet with our second hotel there, it was so close to the action that you could be watching VH1´s obscure hits of the 80´s in the room and two minutes later be drinking mezcal (similar to tequilla) in the main plaza. Unfortunately my sickly companion was unable to enjoy the culinary delights of Oaxaca, particularly the mole (not a blind, furry mammal but type of sauce) until the final night where we dined on delicious steak in the market and I amazed a whole family of Mexicans by crying tears of joy at the hotness of the salsa.

Our three days in Puerto Escondido saw even less attempts to actually do anything (just eating and frisbee on the beach). Our hotel was run by a couple who´d clearly done one too many drugs and therefore spoke very slowly. They weren´t however slow to leave a note in our room complaining when we accidently left the fan on. The only event of note that took place during our stay was that sometime on the late afternoon of the second day James spotted a cloud.

And so to Zipoliti, or as the Rough Guide memorably calls it, ¨Sexyport¨. It sounded like the ideal place for a bit of sun, sea and surf. If only we´d read the write up a little more carefully. Descriptions of yoga retreats and worse may have been enough to make us reconsider. But so it was yesterday that we surprised our Escondido hosts by ordering a taxi all the way to Zipoliti (a one and a half hour journey). This was not what backpackers do (a couple of local bus journeys followed by an ancient converted pickup truck being the prefered form of transport) and I´m sure they lost what little respect they had left for us. It all went incredibly smoothly and soon we were ensconced in our delightful beach hut at Lo Cosmico (maybe the name should have been a warning). Self congratulation was in the air, we´d done amazingly well to pick up such a fine place right on the beach at a good price. All that was left was to explore our new kingdom. We had barely emerged on the beach when I saw one. I wasn´t sure but a second glance confirmed it. Then another squatting behind a rock and a third lying spreadeagled on the sand. All my worst nightmares had come true, we were living next to an enclave of naked hippies. In theory they were confined to an area behind some rocks at the western end of the beach (by cruel misfortune this was our end of the beach). But often one would escape. A leatherly middle aged individual would wander slowly along the shore like a lost pyschiatric patient but tragically there were no white coated doctors to drag him back to where he belonged. One particular bearded speciman took to standing in grand actorly pose, legs three feet apart, wearing nothing but a straw hat. When we saw him approaching we knew it was best to lie low for a couple of hours. Frisbee in this situation was a true test of nerve. I had previously thought that having to apologise in Spanish to the large number of innocents that James managed to hit on head with the plastic disc was trying. However the huge stress involved in playing fisbee amongst the nudists made this a whole new ball game (so to speak). One misplaced throw (James was erratic at best) and sights never meant for mortal eyes could be unleashed. It was like a particularly disturbing game of Russian roullette.

The final, terrible chapter came today. I awoke late, as is my habit, to find James had gone. But no sooner had I realised this when I heard a scrabbling at the door. It sounded like a paniced hamster but was infact my travel companion. I have read alot of nineteenth century horror fiction and there is usually a moment when one of the protaginists witnesses some event of unspeakable horror. If you want a description of James at this moment then I suggest you visit your local library (if you still have one) and borrow one of these minor classics. Suffice to say his appearance was enough to make my blood run cold. I struggled to understand what he was saying (mainly because of a large amount of wax and seawater in my ears) but I was eventually able to make sense of the simple but terrible words he was uttering. ¨Naked yoga¨, he kept repeating, ¨Naked yoga¨....

Monday, January 02, 2006

When New Years Eve Goes Bad

One of the more esteemed guide books refers to Mexico as a very surreal country. It can certainly be rather odd. My travel companion, nearly famous Bath spice trader James Ransome (check for some great offers), and myself have been eschewed the the offbeat backpacker trail for a shamelessly touristic trip. We are making an effort to make no effort. All difficult to get to or difficult to pronounce places have been avoided, hostels have been shunned (except for the unfortunate double bed incident in Oaxaca which only hardened our attitude), whilst mariachis, sombreros and large moustaches have been warmly embraced...

Sorry about the delay I´ve just had to explain "take care, mate" to a Mexican fellow internet user..

Top Tip 1. Anyway the first piece of travel advice I can give you is never to fly Air Canada, particularly if if invoilves a transit in Toronto. The Canadians don´t seem to have quite worked out what is necessary for a hassle free transit (or perhaps they have and it´s all part of a dastardly plot to annoy Americans) but somehow me, my bags (eventually) and my annoying "handluggage only" companion made it to Mexico City....

I´ve just had another delay whilst I try to help my new Mexican pal find his English girlfriend´s phone number on the internet..

Mexico City was a whirlwind of tacos...

I´ve just discovered that my new friend´s house was destroyed in a volcanic eruption which also destroyed his phone. It just proves that you should always keep a list of important phone numbers away from active volcanoes.

To continue... Mexico city was a whirlwind of tacos, saltly beer and... well it was pretty much as you´d expect except for being cleaner, less polluted and marginally safer than I would have imagined. We´ve stuck resolutely to our tourist agenda, our only failure being when we foolishly made our way to Mexico´s largest produce market (in search of some fabled spice or other) and were unable to find our way back again. A long walk at dusk through a less than cheery part of town convinced us never to make this mistake again.

Tip number 2. The Mexico metro system is great. Apart from the occassional armed robbery it is really safe, all the stations have really elaborate symbols to differentiate them (such as a cannon or a feathered head dress), and you can buy some cool things from the many salesmen who spend their lifes riding the metro. My personal favourites were the book of mathematical formulas and the questionable hits of the 80s DVD (Bonnie Tyler anyone) in which all of the tracks appeared to have been copied seperately from MTV or VH1.

All good things come to an end and we had to leave Mexico City behind, but with fresh memories of bizarre pub conspiracy theories, chillies that made me cry and the best fruit cocktail/salad thing in the world, I realise it will always be in my heart.

So on New Years Eve, after a 6 hour bus ride, myself and my tetchy companion rolled into Oaxaca, a lovely colonial town up in the mountains. Unfortunately, due to illness, James wasn´t able to accompany me to the New Years celebrations in the city´s main plaza. So after I´d tucked him up at the pathetically early time of 9.30pm, and pausing only to eat a rather salty tasting grasshopper, I headed out alone to find the action.

Suffice to say that things were so exciting on the streets that I found myself attending mass. Now it was a spectacular church and the conveyor belt nature of the whole service (with people coming in for a few minutes and then heading off again) was quite interesting but it really wasn´t part of my New Year´s plan. The tequilla fuelled parties in the streets had failed to materialise and instead kids tried to bounce enormous sausage shaped balloons onto the cathedral roof whilst Mexican families shared sparklers. No-one even seemed to know or care when midnight was, if it wasn´t for my radio controlled travel alarm clock (great Christmas present Polly) I wouldn´t have been able to celebrate the passing of the old year quietly to myself. It was at this point that things suddenly fell apart. The group of kids who I´d seen throughout the evening spraying what seemed to be high powered jets of shaving foam at each other suddenly multiplied exponentially. Rapidly the main square was becoming a very dangerous place to be. I took photos from the sidelines as expensively attired couples on after dinner strolls were suddenly attacked from all sides by rampaging kids who´d obviously eaten too much candyfloss. In addition to the shaving foam came the new dangers from flour bombs and confetti filled eggs (these 3 substances don´t mix well). As any war correspondent will tell you, there is a fine line between getting the story and becoming part of the story. In the frenzied atmosphere I´d made my one, fatal mistake, I´d become detached from the tourist spectators and found myself surrounded by cream covered dervishes. I had no chance. Within seconds I looked like a posh dessert (my stripey top only adding to the effect). I even took a direct hit down the throat as I tried to shout for help. I valiently tried to fight them off and even paid a couple of dollars for some cans of foam myself (no time to haggle with the conviently placed street sellers). It was now a free for all, no-one was safe....

When I came to my eyes, ears and throat were stinging and raw. The little devils had cunningly used highly poisonous foam that had been dumped on Mexico by multinational companies who were blocked by health and safety regulations elsewhere. When I awoke this morning I had the pleasant surprise that I could still see but I am still not sure whether I only have days to live. If this is my last email then have a great 2006 and try to learn from my mistakes. Otherwise I´ll be in touch.