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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Horse kebab anyone?

I’ve just got to the end of 3 highly productive days in Uzbekistan’s capital – Tashkent. Although the guide books don’t exactly rave about the city, after rough-round-the-edges Bishkek and the boiling hot train experience, I’m now completely enamoured with the place. Tashkent must be about as far east as you can get in Asia whilst still feeling like a modern European city. It is incredibly clean (much cleaner than London) with a fantastically cheap and efficient underground metro, huge wide tree lined streets, loads of fountains, beautiful buildings (and a few not so beautiful soviet ones) and very friendly people. I really like it, and I think it’s a great place for teams to start their adventures in Uzbekistan. Central Asia can be quite daunting, but Tashkent is so well organised that it softens the blow a bit.

I’ve been staying in the old town on the northern edge of Tashkent. It looks like the pictures of Afghanistan that you see on the news – ancient flat-roofed dried mud houses with dusty lanes between them, ramshackle market stalls, donkeys dozing against trees and old men playing chess in the shade – a complete contrast to the slick new city centre, though only 15 minutes away on the metro. The B&B I’ve been in is absolutely great though – the most delightfully friendly family, immaculate new bedrooms with ensuite, and delicious breakfasts (loads of fresh fruit, freshly baked bread with honey, and of course green tea). The owner is a lovely lady called Feruza who speaks good English. Like most people in Uzbekistan her family is Muslim and as it is Ramamdam at the moment that means no eating in the day, but each night they’ve very generously invited me to join them for supper where they break the fast, eating on cushions round a low table under a canopy in the courtyard. The food is delicious: plov (Uzbekistan’s national dish, a pilaf of rice, vegetables, raisins, mutton – a bit like Moroccan tagine), tomato and dill salad (dill is the most liberally used herb in Central Asia, sprinkled on everything – including pizzas and yoghurts!) and really tasty fresh peaches and melons. It’s been brilliant – really like staying as a guest in their family home. At the moment they’ve only got 13 beds, but next year Feruza is adding more rooms (inshallah) so will have beds for 20 people, in which case I can’t think of a better place for the teams to spend their first few nights in Uzbekistan.

I had a huge list of things to do in Tashkent over my 3 days in Tashkent, and somehow managed to get them all done. First stop was visiting Chorsu Bazaar – old town’s enormous farmers market. This will be a brilliant ‘first taste of Uzbekistan’ for teams. It’s very well laid out and organised, but huge and bustling, and you can buy pretty much anything you’d want, from handicrafts to electronic gadgets, hundreds of varieties of fruit and vegetables (July and August are the absolute best time to visit in terms of range of fresh produce), household items, and more varieties of rice than I ever knew existed. It’s not unlike the bazaars in Marrakech, except there’s not another tourist in sight, just rows and rows of ancient Uzbek babushkas with their billowing floral dresses, wide flat sandals and colourful headscarves. With the help of the Central Asia phrasebook I managed to get the price of some team essentials – a mobile phone, sim card, various quantities of rice and pasta – as well as establishing where to change money. There’s a gaping 30% gulf between the official and black market exchange rates, so the trick is finding somewhere were teams can change money at favourable rates without compromising safety and security.

Uzbekistan has surely the world’s most ridiculous currency – the Uzbek som comes in at around 2300 som to 1 US$, but with highest denomination note being 1000 som – i.e. less than $0.50! This means it’s impractical to change any more than $50 at a time – my money belt was struggling to zip shut and I was looking distinctly pregnant with $50 worth of som under my shirt. But it’s not going to be too much of a problem for the teams, as you can change dollars everywhere you’d need to, and in many places dollars are accepted outright. It means that the trusty World Challenge calculator has been well used though, as food bills are routinely running in to the 10’s of thousands!

After my first visit to Chorsu it was then on to inspect Gulnara’s B&B – an old town backpackers stalwart. Unless Feruza has her extra rooms finished in time for the first team, this is probably where teams will stay in Tashkent. It’s ideal – beds for 30 people (singles, twins, triples and dorms), a kitchen where you can prepare meals, a lovely shady courtyard full of trees where breakfast is served, and a very friendly and helpful owner. Then in to the city centre for 2 days of interviewing potential in-country agents, meeting with a local NGO to discuss projects, visiting the local supermarket to get an idea of food costs for if the teams are self catering, visiting the bus and train stations, checking out 3 other local guesthouses, and trying to find an internet cafe with a non-Cyrillic keyboard...

My proudest achievement of the last 3 days (after careful writing down and rehearsing – thanks again to the invaluable Central Asia pocket phrasebook) was going to the train station (where absolutely no-one speaks English), and in very slow and badly pronounced Uzbek asking for and buying a 2nd class train ticket for 2 days time on the express train from Samarkand to Bukhara. Left with ticket in hand feeling extraordinarily pleased with myself. It’s also good as it shows that, although challenging, this is well within the grasp of teams to do for themselves, without needing to get interpreters and travel agencies involved. Note to teams: get yourself a Central Asia pocket phrasebook and start practicing now!

My least proud achievement of the last 3 days though has been failing to correctly translate a Russian menu, and ending up inadvertently eating a horse kebab... Oh dear.

It’s been a busy but very satisfying 3 days in Tashkent, but it’s time to leave horse kebabs, the zippy metro and friendly Feruza behind me now and head west to the fabled golden cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, then in to the Kyzul-Kum desert for a camel back adventure... Next update when I’m
back from the desert.

Yöl bolsin!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

No-man's land and Kazakhstan

Bishkek to Tashkent via Kazakhstan
Well the journey from Bishkek to Tashkent was every bit as adventurous as I guessed it might be. After a morning exploring the Ala Archa base camp near Bishkek (beautiful snowy mountains, yurts and a thundering turquoise river slicing through the valley) the afternoon’s journey from Bishkek to the Kazakhstan border was incredibly quick – just 40 minutes. The border crossing out of Kyrgyz was the usual hectic crush, complicated by all forms being in Russian (definitely going to make sure we supply teams with a translator to get them across the border – I was very glad for mine!), then a short walk across a no-man’s land bridge to the Kazakh border post, with more forms, more stamping of papers, and finally stepping in to Kazakhstan – the world’s 9th largest country, land of Borat – for the first time. Again, my translator was a godsend in helping to find and negotiate a rate for a taxi for the 1 hour journey to the small town of Otar, and helping me change some dollars in to Kazakh Tilgrit. The ride to Otar showed a completely different landscape to Kyrgyzstan. While the area around Bishkek is all snowy alpine peaks, this corner of Southern Kazakhstan was just vast gently rolling grassy Central Asian steppe as far as the eye could see.
Otar itself – one hour from the border – was a dry dusty one-street town with a small provincial railway station. The friendly station manager looked at my ticket and confirmed that the weekly train to Tashkent was indeed running, and should arrive on time. And miraculously it did. Onboard the train it was heaving. I had chosen to travel 3rd class – open plan bunk beds full of women and children in one big carriage – as I’d been advised this was safer for a single traveller than being in an enclosed compartment (as per first and second class). I found my pre-booked top bunk, scrambled up, and settled down for the 20 hour journey. Though roastingly hot (no AC, though thankfully the windows opened) the carriage was very civilised – clean duvets, sheets and pillow for each berth, a toilet at each end of the carriage, and at one end an urn with an endless supply of boiling water for making pots of tea and noodle snacks – very handy. In my bunk area there was a lovely family from Almaty on their way to visit relatives in Shymkent. The 11 year old son spoke some English so we chatted for a while, then we all shared dinner (my contribution of crackers, raisins and jelly babies was pretty paltry compared to their vat of rice, chicken stew and green tea, but they were very gracious about it). The train journey was pretty smooth and quick, mostly through the night, but the real fun started the next morning when we finally reached the Kazakh-Uzbek border...
First the train came to a halt at the border, and instantly – without the benefit of the breeze from the moving train – the temperature in the carriage started to climb. Slightly menacing Kazakh guards and police boarded the train with sniffer dogs and started rounding up everyone’s passports and papers – again all the forms were in Russian, but this time I didn’t have the benefit of a translator, so had to take an educated guess as to what I was supposed to write in each box, and where to tick. For all I knew I could have blithely ticked the ‘I am carrying weapons’/ ‘I take drugs’/ ‘I work in espionage’ boxes – I had no idea, but had all fingers crossed as I handed in my papers... (Learning point: I took an extra form and I’m going to ask our resident Russian speaker Emma to translate it when back in office and make a template for teams so that they know what to put in which boxes and don’t get caught out).
Our passports were then taken away, stamped and returned. The whole thing took 2½ hours, by which point the temperature in the packed carriage was about 47C. Then a brief respite of 20 minutes breeze as the train rumbled on to the Uzbek border, and the whole thing all over again – police, dogs, passports rounded up, and another 1½ hours stuck in the furnace-like carriage by this time completely pouring with sweat, and with a carriage half full of fretfully grizzling toddlers just to heighten the stress levels. Finally we moved off again, passports all stamped and in order, and from the Uzbek border it was just 15 minutes further to Tashkent station. Incredibly, just as it had arrived exactly on time in Otar, the train pulled in to Tashkent at 14:20 on the dot as scheduled – very
impressive! This shining and immaculate air conditioned new station was a very welcome sight, and from the station I was picked up and whisked off to my fantastic B&B for 3 nights in Tashkent.
Each element of the journey – Bishkek to the border, then a taxi to Otar, then confirmation in Otar that there really was going to be a train, to the train actually arriving dead on time, and finally making it across the border from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan and arriving in to Tashkent’s glittering new train station – felt like a minor triumph. I had a healthy wad of emergency dollars in case border bribes were required or the journey failed and was fully preparing for the train not to turn up and to have to travel to Almaty in Kazakhstan and fly to Tashkent from there, but amazingly the whole thing came together!
Travelling by train along the Silk Route is going to be a brilliant adventure for the teams: a bit challenging at times because of the language and logistics, and a little bit hot and stressful at the borders, but overall good fun and a great chance to interact with the extremely friendly local people. I was really pleased to make the journey myself and see that it’s definitely do-able – it looked like a good option on paper but very few foreigners use this route so it was definitely worth making sure before we send the first teams!

Friday, 12 August 2011

Alex Auden - Silk route recce part 1

After a stressful start to my Silk Route recce (nearly refused check in at Heathrow under the threat that I’d be deported as soon as I touched down in Moscow for not having a Russian transit visa... inspite of Aeroflot strenuously confirming earlier that week that I definitely wouldn’t need one) my move from London to Kyrgyzstan took a further blow following the announcement that the Heathrow – Moscow flight was running over an hour late. This meant it was going to a very close call to make my connecting flight to Bishkek, and even if I made it my bag was unlikely to be so lucky. A tense 4 hour flight to Moscow was then followed by a 3am breakneck sprint through a dimly lit airport to make the connecting flight to Bishkek. Which also turned out to be an hour late! Aeroflot can at least be relied upon to be chronically late. Good news for me, and for my bag, as on arrival in Bishkek it was the first off the carousel. And since that auspicious start everything has gone completely to plan and I’m now at the end of my second day in Bishkek.

The ride from the airport was a great introduction to this part of the world that I’ve never been to before. Gigantic watermelons, peaches and apricots piled high on road side, decrepit Ladas being skillfully welded back to life, whirling dust storms, clattering trams, wooden shacks selling vodka and lottery tickets, and little huddles of men sitting round playing some sort of board game in the shade to escape from the balmy 36C summer temperatures – all as we whizzed along from airport to city centre. Exploring Bishkek itself I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Although undeniably a former Soviet concrete jungle and pretty scruffy in places, it’s very leafy with wide green boulevards, open air parks, gloriously gaudy memorials and fountains on every corner, and with the most spectacular back drop of the jagged snow-capped Ala Archa Mountains just 20km to the south. And with the mountain snow melt sluicing and gurgling through Bishkek’s storm drains, the city is fairly clean feeling and pleasantly dust free. Although the lack of English street signs can make things a bit tricky, the streets are laid out in a very straightforward grid, and it’s always easy to get you bearings as at every intersection you just have to look for the glittering snowy mountains to know you’re facing south.

The last day and a half in Bishkek have been hectic: visiting the supermarket and Osh bazaar to look in to food prices (it’s been 2 years since we last had teams in Kygyz, so a quick supermarket sweep to get the team essentials costed up is a worthy exercise), meeting with our in-country agents and 2 former project hosts to discuss plans for 2012 and future project work, confirming how much mobile phones and SIM cards cost and where the best places are to change money, looking in to white water rafting and helicopter availability, and trying to find suitable accommodation for the teams. Tomorrow I’m off to the Ala Archa base camp to see the area where our 2012 will undertake acclimatisation treks, and also to see the project site of one of our 2009 teams. Then in the afternoon, after a brief stop back in Bishkek to buy supplies, one of the more adventurous legs of the recce begins: a taxi ride to the Kyrgyz/ Kazakh border, another taxi ride from the border to a small town in Kazakhstan called Otar (I’ve prepared a sign in Kazakh Cyrillic saying ‘I need to get to Otar train station please to catch a train at 6pm’ just in case my scant Kazakh eludes me at the crucial moment...) and then a 20 hour train journey across the Central Asian steppe to Tashkent – the capital of Uzbekistan. So with a little luck that is where the next blog will come from.

If it comes from somewhere in deepest Kazakhstan though, then something has obviously gone a little awry with the trains... Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A Galapagos ending for Matt

There is a reason why our Ecuador expeditions are so popular at the moment (well, there’s actually many reasons, but this is amongst the top!) – The Galapagos!

I feel very fortunate to work for World Challenge most days but over the last few days that I have spent in the Galapagos I have felt that very strongly! It really is an amazing place and for the teams that are lucky enough to be coming over here there really is a treat in store. I have visited three of the islands that we go to, I have met with Lonesome George (the World’s most famous Giant Tortoise), I have swam with sea lions (who are my new favourite animal) and I have hiked up volcanic peaks to be treated to some breath-taking views. Hopefully the pictures that are included here are enough to convince you that it is worth coming, but all I can say is that it has been a truly amazing experience and the warmth of both the sun and the people has been a welcome end to the trip and a nice contrast to the cold high altitude temperatures that I found in Cotopaxi. My main Galapagos tip would have to be, make sure you save enough room for photo’s because there is lots to take pictures of. If however you want to try and get pictures of penguins swimming, I wish you luck, as you can see from my effort, I wasn’t very good at it!

Thank you Ecuador for an amazing time and I hope that you too get to see it soon.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Trekking in India

Hi Everyone! Back from the mountains and had an amazingly successful trek recce. The first of 5 days took us on a cultural extravaganza of “Little Tibet” as Ladakh is often known. Indispersed between hard, hot and long days trekking, we visited many gompas or monasteries which are the focal points for each village. They often reside at the highest points of a valley overlooking their community which does not bode well after a long day’s walk! It is fascinating to see how Buddhist culture features in daily life in these rural areas; houses and mountain passes are covered in colourful fluttering prayer flags who’s prayers fill the sky with blessings when the wind blows. There are other religious structures such as pepper pot like stupas and mani walls filled with carved stone tablets along footpaths and at community entrances. Ladakh is rich in culture and is rightly proud of it.
The second half of the trek took us over a number of passes just short of 5,000m which was quite tough going. As the first people over one of the passes since the winter we were not sure what to expect but the snow had melted sufficiently to enable safe passage. I always feel deeply privileged when I look up into the sky and spot a distant aircraft vapour trail and then told that it is the only aircraft we will see that day. I am now back in Leh and leaving tomorrow having spent 2 weeks in the magnificent country visiting nine projects and reccing two short treks. I will definitely be back again and perhaps this time for a little longer!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Trekking in Ecuador

Wow! What a busy week, and what an amazing country. This recce has had two key objectives, one being on the mainland and looking at new treks and ensuring that all of the documentation that we send out to our leaders is of the highest quality and the second on the Galapagos (where I go tomorrow!), but first this week. After several meetings and lots of very official form filling I got to get out onto the hill and do one of the things I enjoy the most – trekking. One of my jobs has been to check on the suitability of a new trek in the Piñan lakes area, and I’m pleased to say it is stunning! I’ll included a couple of photo’s next time for you to see and I hope that the teams will enjoy it as much as I did (all-be-it in a slightly more relaxed way, we did the 4 day trek in 2 days!). The first day will be a good amount of uphill, but you are rewarded with a great little campsite and then 3 more days of amazing views (weather permitting!). Plus, we didn’t see a soul – my kind of walking. From here I went to check on our horse riding provider in the Machachi valley where I got to see a number of the wonderful mountains in the area. A brilliant spot and if your itinerary goes there then there are a number of walks or rides that you can do. I rounded off this week by visiting the Cotopaxi NP to see one of our most popular treks and it’s not hard to see why! A beautiful mountain and a landscape that genuinely makes you feel like you’re in another World. Top tip though, make sure you take some good warm clothes as it can get a little on the cold side out there.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Matt in Ecuador

Hi Everyone!

I arrived into Quito in the early hours of the morning today after our flight got diverted to Guayaquil, it is something that happens from time to time due to poor weather, and whilst frustrating, the airline was very helpful and we all got here in the end. The altitude in Quito is notable but I know it is good acclimatisation for the trekking that I am going to be doing later on this week. The people of Quito are very friendly and the area that we stay in with World Challenge groups is very nice (La Mariscal), with a good selection of restaurants and a wide array of artisan goods to buy, I can see that I am going to have to buy lots of nik-naks for the team back in the office! I will update further once I have more news.