Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Dubai the by

Posted by Andy Hockley on 23 January, 2008

So in a miracle of rapid reorganisation, my Afghanistan trip has been placed in Dubai. That means that not only do I have a new destination, but so do a bunch of Afghans, Iranians and Kyrgyzstanis. Within 3 days of the bomb going off (and I mean that literally) more or less everything bar a few last minute visa hitches had been put in place for the new venue.

Hence I sit here in the Emirates lounge at Munich airport, bound for the highly peculiar city of Dubai. (I was actually the first person in this lounge so I got the run of the place including the TV remote, meaning I am sitting here sipping a very nice “Schneider Weisse” beer, watching Tunisia vs Senegal on a big screen TV and pootling about on my computer. It’s all very civilised. To begin with I was outnumbered 10-1 by staff, but now others have arrived to disturb my center-of-attention status. None of them have ventured into my zone though, finding themselves uninterested in African football – which is sad for them as it is a cracking match.)

I had been hoping for a spectacular temperature differential between Csikszereda and Dubai so I could flaunt my destination in people’s faces and tell them I’d be on the beach while they shivered in sub -30 icy chills, but in a curious turn of fate, on Monday this week it reached 11 degrees in Szereda (that’s PLUS eleven) while the temp in Dubai was a mere 18 (and even dipped as low as 9 at night). So, my heartless gloating was put on hold. This morning was much better though as we drove through a raging blizzard to get to the airport (much better from a “ha ha I’m going to Dubai” perspective, rather than a safe driving perspective).

Last weekend we went up to the local ski resort, amid the slowly melting snows in the unseasonal thaw. You may not be aware but in your house you have an almost perfect sledge. Slick, glossy, plastic, slightly cambered for minimum friction. Know what it is yet? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a toilet seat. We found one on the mountain (presumably used by someone else for the same purpose – at least that’s what I’m telling myself), and zipped down the snow in our virtually frictionless way (note to any scientifically minded pedants whose fingers are as we speak hovered over the keyboard angrily composing a response – yes I know it’s not frictionless or even close to being so, but it’s poetic licence. If you’d flown down the side of a mountain on a toilet seat you’d use the same level of hyperbole. Honest). More sedately, I went cross country skiing for the first time in bloody yonks, and remembered how much I like it. In Dubai apparently there is a shopping mall with a ski resort in it (that’s Dubai for you). I wonder if they have any cross-country sections?

Posted in travel, weather | 4 Comments »

Kaboom

Posted by Andy Hockley on 16 January, 2008

This time next week I was due to be in Dubai, pootling around that odd city back and forth to the Afghanistan Consulate to get a visa ready to fly there on the 24th (on that well know airline “United Nations Humanitarian Air Services” – anyone know whether they offer free beer or peanuts?)

Sadly however, I will not now be doing that. I was to be in Kabul doing a 5 day workshop in the fancy Serena Hotel, while staying in the same place. If that name rings a kind of recent bell in your mind it is because the Serena Hotel made the news on Monday when it was attacked by the Taliban.

Now when I was first told that the next stage of this project would take me to Kabul, my first reaction was slightly nervous, but after I had assured myself that it was safe and would actually be pretty interesting, I was looking forward to it. I’d read up as much as it was possible to read up (since tourism isn’t especially big, and anyway the situation has been fairly, let’s call it fluid, ever since the Soviet invasion), and was beginning to really feel enthusiastic. Over the course of various jobs and travels I have been lucky enough to meet a number of Afghans and, without exception, the ones I have met have been wonderful people.

Anyway, the news is obviously much more terrible than the small fact that it has meant my trip has been cancelled. Is there any country that has suffered more in the last 30 years? I suppose most places that have been at the centre of what is euphemistically called “Global politicking” (which as we all know actually means “Creation of human suffering”). Palestine I guess would be up there.

Still, I won’t be in Kabul next week, thanks to those lovely people in the Taliban, and I have no idea where I will be. Almost certainly Csikszereda at a guess, but there are other faint possibilities of a plan B for the Kabul workshop. We’ll see.

Posted in travel | 4 Comments »

The Sodden Road to Samarkand

Posted by Andy Hockley on 10 December, 2007

We had one day off in Uzbekistan, so my colleague George and I decided to go to Samarkand. It is obviously one of the things that nearly everyone who goes to Uzbekistan as a tourist goes to see, and I’d heard enough about it to really want to go (though when you get to Uzbekistan, everyone tells you that Khiva and Bukhara are even more beautiful – but we didn’t have the time to get to either of those).

We took the early morning train from Tashkent, which in itself was an experience. In our first class compartment (which only had us in it) was a tea set all laid out. We had a kind of train-stewardess who came round from time to time to check that we were OK but as we didn’t have any common language it was difficult to have any meaningful conversation and it wasn’t really possible to actually make use of her services (and to be honest we didn’t really work out until the end of the return journey that what she was asking us were questions about our well-being and needs). She did come by and turn the TVs on in the carriage though so we could be assailed by pop music and subsequently the execrable post-Bean “Johnny English” film badly dubbed into Russian. After we’d booked the train, one or two people had told us that we should have gone by taxi since the road went through the mountains and was beautiful whereas the railway line didn’t and wasn’t. We still thought it would be a fascinating landscape, since it would be our first glimpse of Uzbekistan beyond Tashkent. We were wrong and they were right. Flat featureless and scrubby would be the best way of describing it. Someone in Tashkent had struggled to come up with an adjective and had settled on “grey”. It was apt.

Sadly, this one day off happened to be the only one during our stay which featured bad weather, and as we got closer to Samarkand, the already grotty conditions deteriorated, until it was just grey, pouring with rain, and utterly miserable. And bitterly cold, as we found out when we stepped out of the warm train onto the platform. We were met by Dilya, our guide, a very nice Tatar woman, who proceeded to take us round the sites. Unfortunately while she was all wrapped up warm and had an umbrella we (and in particular I) were ill prepared for this English weather, and were not really enthused about standing around in the cold and wet, while we learned about the history of Samarkand. I had to keep asking her if we could go and stand out of the rain as she told us about the mausoleum of Tamurlane or the Registan. It’s difficult to fully enjoy and appreciate the majesty of some of these buildings, when you’re freezing your arse off and getting soaked. At one point George, who is diabetic, needed to urgently raise his blood sugar level, so we asked Dilya if there was a café nearby. There was in one of the madrassahs of the Registan, and this small cozy warm place was possibly my best memory of what is probably, seen in better conditions, one of the wonders of the world. While the Registan is possibly the most famous place in Samarkand, my favourite place (and not just because the rain had eased off by this time) was the Shah-i-Zinda cemetery. A stunningly beautiful place.

We had been disappointed originally that we would only get to spend the day in Samarkand and not be able to see it at more leisure, but in the end, we were quite glad to get back to the station at the end of the day, and reboard the same train that had brought us there – with the same staff. This time though, we had company in the compartment. Three women (and subsequently one bloke who we think was probably drafted in to act as so kind of impromptu chaperone for the women). The young one, Nargiza, spoke fairly good English and we learned that she was travelling to Tashkent with her mother-in-law and aunt (the other two) to visit her husband. It was quite a weird conversation as she was obviously friendly and eager to practice her English, but was (despite her marital status) extremely young (at least to old men like us), and the conversation had to bear up under the strain of two strong cultural differences – the first, the Uzbek/British one, being actually interesting and worth investigating, and the second, the teenage girl/middle-aged men one, being somewhat more insurmountable. Her mother-in-law seemed like a right battleaxe, and re-reading “Murder in Samarkand” I was reminded of these two when Murray describes the life of virtual slavery that young girls enter into for their in-laws when they marry in Uzbekistan. Many young married women in Samarkand attempt suicide every year, by the method of dousing themselves in flaming cooking oil. It is an intensely sobering thought.

This time round we were served a diet of Uzbek movies on the TV, all of which seemed to have the theme of puppy love and people pining for the traditional life of the countryside. The love stories also were all based around the city boy/country girl (or vice versa) intrigue. They weren’t exactly too difficult to follow despite the language issue.

When we arrived, Nargiza and family invited us to her husband’s house to have a tea, in typically hospitable Uzbekistan style, but we declined citing another appointment. It was very nice to be invited, but we felt we had gone about as far as the conversation could possibly have gone in the 4 hour train journey, and extending it didn’t seem like something that would be greatly enjoyable for either party, really.

Here are some pics of Samarkand, in the grey and wet weather.

Your correspondent, looking bedraggled and freezing in the RegistanOne of the Madrassahs in the Registan. For an idea of scale look at the two women huddled under an umbrella in the foreground. (For more info about the Registan, check out the wiki page)

Madrassah detail, with autumn tree for photographic effect

Yet more Registan pictures. I had by now managed to find a place sheltered from the rain to take these shots. Note all the tile work on the big building ahead and the pillar in the foreground. Much of this is not original, sadly, but reconstructed during Soviet times after a big earthquake in 1966. However the reconstruction was, as far as I can tell, extremely faithful to the original, and they did a fantastic job of it. It must have cost a fortune.

Inside one of the madrassahs (behind one of those massive facades that face on to the square. The doorway on the lower right led to the wonderful cozy cafe that nourished my need for temporary warmth and dryness.

The ceiling inside one of the buildings of the Registan. It’s not really a full on dome, they just decorated it to make it look that way. There were something like 15 kgs of gold used in the reconstruction work. Apologies for slight fuzziness, I needed to turn off the flash to get a good shot

Detail of the wall inside the mausoleum of Tamurlane / Timur (this bloke)

More from the same mausoleum (wiki page)
The Bibi Khanym mosque (wiki page)

Samarkand bazaar. Dried fruits and nuts are the big thing in Uzbekistan. You might almost say they are Uzbekistan’s raisin d’etre. (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself)

Girl and bread. This round bread is very typical of Uzbekistan. The ritual around breaking it is quite formalised.
What the fashionable man about Samarkand is wearing this season.

The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis. This street wends its way between amazing mausoleum after amazing mausoleum. It’s an amazing place. (Wiki page)

Posted in travel | 2 Comments »

A Sense of Humor

Posted by Andy Hockley on 7 December, 2007

A few weeks ago during my lengthy blogless phase, Erika and I went to a meeting in Iasi (in Moldavia in the east of Romania). I’d been to Iasi a few times before, and I like the place – it has a very interesting history, and seems to be in many ways the traditional centre of Romanian literature and “high culture” (along with another city the name of which escapes me which is actually now in Ukraine). On this trip, though, while we did get to sample the delicious Sapte Coline, we managed to get out of the city and take a trip to visit a couple of the famous painted monasteries of Bucovina.

On the way from Iasi you actually get a further sense of how Romania plays host to many different ethnic groups – we drove through one town that has a significant Lipovan community (Russians who I’d thought only really live in the Danube Delta), another that contained more of the amazing houses that wealthy Rroma build, and a third which actually is a Polish town (dating back from when a group of them came to that town to mine salt some centuries back).

Eventually we reached Bucovina, which is an area very reminiscent of Maramures, very beautiful houses, traditional lifestyle, gentle rolling hills etc. We headed for Gara Humorului, and thence to the village of Voroneţ , which is the location of one of the most beautiful of these monasteries.

Voroneţ is an amazing place. I’d seen pictures, but seeing it in the flesh (as it were) is pretty extraordinary. This is a monastery which was painted on the outside 400 years ago (so that the congregation who couldn’t fit in the church would get a kind of picture of what was going on inside. A kind of 17th century close circuit TV.) Nothing so amazing about that, perhaps, except that all these years later through 400 years of weather, the paintings are still there.

Latterly, after a huge and amazing Moldovan lunch, we also visited a similar monastery at Humor (hence the post title – I presume you didn’t really think I’d forgotten to put the “u” in did you?). That one was less impressive, but still fascinating.

Not much I can add, really, so I’ll do so through pictures:

Voroneţ monastery in all its finery. It wasn’t very sunny, I’m afraid, otherwise you might get a better impression of the vibrant colours

Plato and Aristotle, not characters often featured in biblical texts, but important because they were seen as vital pieces of the European (and hence Christian) tradition

One whole wall of the church is given over to this epic mural showing this kind of red chasm running between the people who’ve made it into heaven on the left and those who haven’t on the right. Here we see Moses attempting to persuade the Jews ands the Turks over that line. Not very PC I’m afraid

Not quite sure exactly what is going on here, but I think that little white bloke emerging from the child’s mouth (you may need to click on the picture to be able to see him) is supposed to be his soul

Here we see the signs of the zodiac. Apparently these monks/priests/whoever were not averse to throwing in any other superstition that came to mind. Or perhaps it was just a ruse to keep the punters coming. Yes, yes yes, we’ll save your souls and tell you your horoscope. Two for the price of one.

A more modern hand painted mural in the village of Voroneţ. Wonder if this one will last quite as long?

Posted in romania, travel | 2 Comments »

Train travel in Romania

Posted by Andy Hockley on 7 December, 2007

You may be wondering why, after a short silence, I posted two things yesterday within about ten minutes of each other. This is because I was stuck on the train journey from hell, and had lots of time to write blog posts. Bucharest to Miercurea Ciuc is approximately 250kms. Yesterday by train it took me 12 hours from getting on a train in Bucharest’s Gara de Nord to stepping off the train in Csikszereda station. That’s not terribly fast. I am a pretty even tempered person, but towards the end of this marathon I felt like I was about to explode (not helped by the fact that the train I was on was like an oven, and nobody would let me open a window since the biggest fear of any Romanian is that of drafts. If a future president wants to whip up support for an invasion of Moldova or somewhere, he or she would only need to imply that the government of that country were planning on exposing Romanians to cold drafts of air, perhaps by installing fans on the border. Forget WMDs.

Anyway some tips about travelling on trains in Romania

Different train types: There are a number of different types of trains in Romania. The lowest level is the “P” which stands (amusingly) for “personal” These trains are old, rickety, and stop everywhere – even in the middle of fields in the middle of nowhere. Above this are the trains marked “A” on the timetable – Accelerat. Slightly faster than Personals (they only stop at every second hut), they actually appear to be dying out to be replaced by ever increasing number of “R” trains – Rapid. These trains are often actually very new and modern stock. Clean, fast-ish, and with fully functional heating/air conditioning, many people will rave about the “blue arrow” for example, as being the evidence that Romania (and the CFR) has entered the 21st century. You should be careful though – these modern trains have absolutely no leg room and have obviously been designed for amputees or 4-year old children. Anyone taller than 5 foot/1.5 metres will find their journey to be painfully uncomfortable. On arrival you will need at lest 20 minutes of exercises in order to be able to fully uncurl your body. The Personal trains, despite other drawbacks are much more comfortable. Finally there is the Intercity “IC” trains, which combine the best bits of the rapids (fast, clean, functioning systems) with the advantages of the personals (legroom and comfortable seats). Sadly there are very few such trains, and there is a corresponding price hike for such things.

Heating on trains: You will quickly become aware that in winter the trains are seriously overheated (and in summer they’re just hot anyway). The heating is cranked up to the max (actually that implies that there are settings beyond “on” and “off” which I suspect there aren’t), and you will sweat buckets. You will of course want to open a window. This will either prove impossible (since most of them apparently don’t open) or will create huge problems (as everyone will complain). Romanians hate cold air, or drafts of any kind. Take a look at old people in the winter and you will often note that they have cotton wool in their ears as a further barrier to the evils of drafts (or of hearing anything). Opening a train window is like standing up in the carriage and saying that you a paedophile. Erika tells me that this is because people were cold and shivering for so many years under Ceausescu that they cannot forget and would rather swelter in stinking trains than be reminded of that time by feeling a breath of air. Which actually seems quite logical, although even young people who cannot possibly remember that time do it too.

(By the way, on our summer holidays I worked out what the British equivalent to the fear of cold is – it’s the fear of too much sun. While I was panicking around Paula, making she had sunscreen on and trying to keep her in the shade for a while so she didn’t get sunstroke, everybody else was relaxing without a care. If I dared to take her out without a hat in a temperature of 15 degrees though, I’d be lynched on the street by concerned mothers. I can safely say though that the British fear of sun is not brought about by too much of it)

Getting up when it is your stop: You will notice that people stand up and put their coats on and take their luggage to the door of the train about 10 or 15 minutes prior to the arrival of the train in their station. I have no idea why, but rest assured you do not need to do the same. If people want to stand by the door, with their coats on (in the sauna like conditions) that’s their business.

Platform/Train incompatibility: You will often notice that the vertical distance between the train and the platform (if there is a platform at all) is quite large, and will necessitate some climbing skills to get in, and an abseiling rope to get out. On Wednesday when I arrived in Bucharest this was reversed and we had to climb up out of the train. Here you can endear yourself to people by offering assistance. The elderly in particular will need to have some aid in getting up and down.

Tickets: I’ve noticed recently that people seem more and more to be buying tickets and not “discreetly” slipping the ticket inspector a small bribe instead. I don’t know whether there’s been some kind of crackdown. For Rapid and Intercity trains you will need to have a seat reservation.

Dangers: I’m told that theft is quite common on trains, and you have to be alert. I have to say I’ve never actually experienced this, but I’m told it’s true, so take this with whatever pinch of salt you need. Sitting near the door of the train, with your bags on the luggage rack is reckoned to be the biggest danger – the thieves get on, grab your bag and jump off just as the train sets off.

Other annoyances: Trains stop for no apparent reason in the middle of nowhere for ages, and you never get any info. This is often because much of the network is single track only, and there are certain places where trains pass each other. If you are on time and the train coming the other way is late, you have to wait until it comes. Thus creating a knock on effect around the system. In this way, trains are very often late. Personal trains are particularly susceptible to this since the thinking appears to be that if you are happy to take a personal you are happy to sit around for ever in a field somewhere.

Remember, despite how I felt last night at about 10pm when I had been travelling for 11 hours, CFR does not actually stand for Complete Fucking Rubbish.

Posted in romania, travel | 9 Comments »

Airports of Europe

Posted by Andy Hockley on 6 December, 2007

Over the course of the last couple of years I have been “fortunate” enough to experience some of Europe’s major airports and thought I should probably compare and contrast them. If you ever have to change planes somewhere in Europe and have any choice about where to do so, this could come in handy. Also if you are involved in any way in airport design or improvement, you could do worse than visiting the first couple of places on this list. The list below is in rough ranking order.

Munich – clean, organised, efficient, well laid out, easy to find your way around, generally a very good airport, with every major facility you could wish for (bar one – there’s no free wi-fi access, which is a feature of a couple of other airports – if they added that it would be a clear winner) 9 out of 10

Vienna – excellent in nearly all regards. And, unlike Munich it has free wi-fi access all over the airport, which is a brilliant idea (see also Istanbul). It has only one major failing – when you enter the departure area you don’t go through any security check, just passport control. This obviously makes your passage into that area much easier, but obviously you still have to go through security somewhere. So at every gate they have a single security machine and set of guards. Of course nobody actually goes to the gate until the flight is called, so when that happens, the entire plane load of people are forced to get into one massive queue to go through security at the same time. It’s a ridiculous system. I have no idea whose brilliant idea it was, but they need to be made to fly in and out of the airport every day until the realise how bloody stupid it is. 8.5 out of 10

Istanbul – free wi-fi, fairly good selection of things to do. But some rubbish features too – the same gate-based security checks, which for whatever reason also involve you switching on your laptop when you pass through – this is the only airport other than those wankers at Tel Aviv that asks you to do this. It’s a pain in the arse. The business lounge is a bit rubbish too, though they’ve recently done it up a bit, so it’s slightly better. 7 out of 10

Prague – some good shops, fairly easy to find your way around. Inoffensive. 6 out of 10

Charles de Gaulle – Bit of a mess really, but a nice building, with very good use of natural light. Not brilliant by any stretch. 4.5 out of 10

Bucharest (Otopeni) – On the plus side, the business lounge is very good. On the minus side, the rest of the airport is pretty bare and functional. Nothing to do to while away the time, and the most overpriced snack bar of any airport in Europe (not in European terms, but in Romanian – charging 10 RON for a cup of coffee is disgusting, frankly, and is the kind of captive-market rip-off that most other airports have thankfully now abandoned). One day, hopefully Henri Coanda will too, but they’ll probably wait for prices in the country as a whole to reach airport levels, rather than daring to reduce theirs. 3.5 out of 10

Barcelona El Prat – great name, rubbish airport. Basically a huge shopping centre, that has planes leaving from it. Nowhere to sit, unfriendly staff, overpriced food/drink. 3 out of 10

Heathrow – Terminals 1-2-3 are horrible. Lots of shops (obviously, this being shopping leisure paradise England™), but always being renovated, uncomfortable, confusing and unhelpful. Terminal 4, to be fair is much better and would probably get a 6 out of 10. The lower the number of terminal the worse the experience. They also have this ridiculous system of calling the gate for the flight only half an hour before it is due to leave, so that the passengers have to then walk for 10 minutes plus to their gate, and thus obviously ensuring that no plane ever leaves on time. 3 out of 10

Amsterdam – I seem to remember a time when Schiphol was viewed as an ultra modern, very good airport. I don’t know when that was, but I’ve always hated it. Uncomfortable, nothing to do, very inhospitable. 2.5 out of 10

Frankfurt – Not just because of my wine theft experience, but because it’s awful – badly designed, ill-signposted, chaotic, dark, dingy and depressing. Everything that Munich is, Frankfurt isn’t. 2 out of 10

Milan Malpensa – God, where to begin. Just an utter utter mess. I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it. You can see mountains from it. That’s the best I can do. Oh, and it’s better than Moscow. 1 out of 10

Moscow – miserable horrible dark and dank. These are just some of the words I associate with the place. Add to the general ambience the legendary surliness of Russian service staff, magnified to the nth degree by the grimy and inhospitable surroundings. Urrgghh. 0 out of 10

(Outside Europe bonus airport – Dubai. Like Amsterdam there was a time that Dubai airport was seen as the future of airports. Like Amsterdam, if it had better days, they are long gone. Utterly chaotic and overcrowded. 3 out of 10)

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Murder in Samarkand

Posted by Andy Hockley on 6 December, 2007

Some months ago, I read “Murder in Samarkand” which is former British Ambassador Craig Murray’s account of his time in Uzbekistan, his fights against the appalling human rights of the country, and as the book progresses of his fights with the British government who were desperate to get rid of him as he was upsetting Washington’s cozy relationship with the Uzbek regime. I was gripped by the first half (or two thirds ) of the book which melds travelogue, expose of the appalling Karimov regime, and insights into the internal workings of the foreign and commonwealth office, but found myself less enthused by the last third which was mostly about the efforts to get him fired by the Blair government, and was not so much my cup of tea (not that I disbelieved it, obviously Blair and Straw et al are as corrupt and useless as any government Britain has ever had). But on my return from Tashkent, I’ve re-read it with the benefit of a deal more context (I actually wanted to take it with me and read it there, but I feared it would be found at customs and cause difficulties), and now find the whole book riveting (though not what one would call enjoyable, as the content is so distressing).

I think the reason for my initial reaction was that I felt the Karimov regime with its torture, murder, rape and general brutality was much more deserving of attention than what amounted to internal FCO machinations to sack someone they didn’t like. But now, I feel both stories are worth telling and I’m glad he does. Murray is pretty blunt and honest about his own failings as well as everything else, and while at times he doesn’t come across as an especially likeable bloke, he doesn’t try to hide any of that and his book is much more powerful as a result. The weight of the evidence presented in the book and on his website, certainly makes it clear that the UK government acted appallingly and pathetically, while the documentation of some of the hideous crimes of the Uzbekistan government is really important. Anyway, I recommend anyone read it who wants to get a sense of what Uzbekistan is all about, what kind of system it labours under, and what the wider geopolitical implications of the “war on terror” are.

Apparently, the relationship between Karimov and the US has cooled somewhat since the book, mostly it seems because the US dared to make vague criticisms of the government after they massacred hundreds of people during a protest in Andijan. These days, outside interests seem to be mainly Turkish and Russian, though I was supposed to be going there in April and my visa was denied – clearance “coincidentally” only coming through in a week when the EU (at the instigation of Germany, who seem to love Karimov) had relaxed some of its post Andijan sanctions.

Anyway, buy the book. If for no other reason than Murray deserves some form of income after the way he has been fucked over by his employer, the British government.

Posted in politics, travel | Leave a Comment »

Uzbekistan

Posted by Andy Hockley on 26 November, 2007

(The reason my promised comeback got put on hold for a few more days…)

I’ve just got back from Uzbekistan*, which is not a sentence I expect to be able to type very often. I spent most of my time there inside a large Turkish owned hotel, in which I lived, worked, and ate, which means that I can’t really make that many observations about the country, though I did manage to get out to Samarkand for a day at the end of the trip.

(*When I say “back”, I’m currently writing this in Vienna airport between legs of a gruelling Tashkent-Moscow-Vienna-Bucharest flight plan.)

Uzbekistan, as you may be aware, is run by a particularly brutal dictator, noted, among other things, for his penchant for boiling people alive. I’m not sure he actually personally does that, or whether he delegates it, but it certainly seems to be a feature of the regime. It’s difficult being in such a place, because I always want to ask people how they feel about the government but realise that it’s perfectly possible that someone will be listening in somehow, and obviously I don’t want to put anyone in an awkward position. The few conversations along those lines I did have made it pretty clear that the upcoming presidential elections, which Karimov (the dictator) will win by a landslide, will not be in the least bit reflective of public opinion.

The BBC website is strangely inaccessible from Uzbekistan, but most others are available, including the Guardian, and, really bizarrely, www.craigmurray.org.uk – though maybe that’s still online there because it recently had to change its host server thanks to threats of legal actions from Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek oligarch who has, shall we say, a murky past, and is now a major shareholder in Arsenal football club. If you haven’t followed the whole blogosphere vs Usmanov case, you can get an overview here, and a much more detailed account here.

The Uzbek Som (the currency) isn’t worth a great deal – coming in at 1300 to the US dollar (and bear in mind that the US dollar these days isn’t really worth the paper it’s printed on). That wouldn’t be much of an issue, but the problem lies in the fact hat the largest banknote is 1000 Som. So if you change, say, $50, you get this massive brick of cash wrapped in an elastic band. I’m told that until a couple of years ago the biggest bill was a 200 Som. A fellow consultant told me that two years ago she’d come to Tashkent for the first time and she and a mid-sized group of people (10-12) had been taken to a restaurant by their host, who had brought with him a box of photocopy paper, and surprisingly didn’t leave it in the car but brought it into the restaurant. It turned out, of course, that it didn’t contain photocopy paper at all, but was instead full of cash so that he could pay the bill.

Other observations in brief:

Uzbek is the only language in “the Stans” which is written in Roman script. They made the decision to switch from Cyrillic in the mid-nineties. Still, most things are written in both Uzbek and Russian anyway, so you can still get your fill of the enjoyable game of code-breaking Cyrillic script. It is a Turkic language, and sounds really really similar to Turkish.

I’m told that many of the men are working abroad (in Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey) most of the time, so when you go to a restaurant for lunch, for example, it’s notable how nearly all the customers are women.

They’re a very friendly and hospitable people, who would do anything to make you feel welcome. It’s also a really traditional society in many ways (though not really related to its nominal Islamic nature – the vast majority identify as Muslim, but do not practice the religion). People get married young and the family is still very strong.

It has a fair degree of ethnic mix – there are not only Uzbeks and inevitably Russians, but Tajiks, Turkmens, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Koreans, and I think in the south some Afghans. The Ferghana valley I the east of the country is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the border is quite possibly the most ridiculous one you’ll ever see, with enclaves all over the place. A legacy of the Soviets attempting to make sure of whatever it was they needed to make sure of. It was here, in the town of Andijan, where there was an uprising a few years ago that was brutally suppressed, Tiananmem style.

The hotel I was staying in was mostly populated with Koreans on business. One evening we were sitting in the lobby having a drink with some of our participants, some of whom had led pretty sheltered lives, when in walked…well lets call it a delegation of young female professionals. There were two youngish Korean guys there who were obviously the fixers, and after a large amount of to-ing and fro-ing, the young ladies disappeared into the lifts. A few minutes later, in walked another group, and the same procedure was followed. It was all very interesting from a kind of voyeuristic/journalistic standpoint. Shortly afterwards when I went up to my room, there was one woman still out there in the corridor, knocking at a door, presumably hoping to wake her assignment up. One of the things they had to hand over was a copy of their passport to the hotel – which presumably means this whole palaver is not only sanctioned by the hotel, but also by the state (since that is no doubt why the hotel makes this stipulation).

The contrast between arrival and departure at Tashkent international airport couldn’t be greater. On arrival, the bus picked us up from the plane and drove us to the terminal at which point some passengers sprinted to the passport control. I soon realised why this was – because the “queue” to go through there was a massive melee of hellish proportions. Getting there first was definitely the way to go. For me, it made no difference as I needed to get my visa before I could even think about joining the passport scrum. So I, and 4 Qatari blokes had to hang around for over half an hour before some bloke actually bothered to come along and open up the visa desk. While I waited I chatted to my visa companions who turned out to be the FIFA appointed officials for the upcoming Uzbekistan v South Korea Olympic qualification football match. Eventually we got our visas, and joined the tail end of the passport queue . Once through there (which was a mere 20 or so minutes because most of our plane had already made it), we picked up our bags and joined the next set of elbows for the customs. My Qatari companions showed admirable restraint in not telling people who they were, in the hope that this would get them through faster – in their shoes I’d definitely have attempted to get some VIP treatment. The whole process eventually took two hours – and apparently this was a good day.

Departing from Tashkent (at least on business class) is another matter entirely. There is actually a separate part of the airport for business class passengers, so you do your paperwork with no queue, pass your bags through the machines with nobody else present and eventually end up in a special departure lounge. When the flight is called, you actually get on a separate bus from the economy plebs and are taken to the front steps of the plane, while the others have to go up the back. It’s very odd. Mind you, I’m told to get out in the economy section you have to arrive 4 hours before your plane leaves. In short, the advice has to be – if you’re flying out of Tashkent upgrade your ticket.

God, I’ve gone on a long time, and haven’t even talked about Samarqand. That one will have to wait.

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Chocolates?

Posted by Andy Hockley on 25 November, 2007

(Winner of this year’s “Obscure-to-incomprehensible blog post title” award)

Malta is (to me) the most obscure country in Europe. Even places like Andorra or Belarus, Liechtenstein or Iceland, seem somewhat higher up in my consciousness than Malta. I didn’t even really know where it was (and I pride myself on my atlassic knowledge – if one can have atlassic knowledge, and not just encyclopaedic knowledge of atlases). I knew it was in the Mediterranean, that it was an island, and that it had some long standing links with Britain. Beyond that there really wasn’t much.

But it’s a pretty interesting place, with a very odd history. A country which for much of its existence was run by knights, which is a bit quixotic, I suppose. At one point in Malta’s history, Napoleon stopped off, ostensibly en route to somewhere else, and said he really needed a glass of water. The chivalrous knights, of course, invited him in, and he proceeded to annex them. Which, I have to say, is not the way I was brought up. Someone offers you their hospitality, and you don’t just take over their house and tell them to get lost.

Valletta, the capital, is an old city, which is a UNESCO thingamajig. It has an odd motto/branding slogan which is “A city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. In the old days the word “gentlemen” meant “posh blokes” but these days it seems that it means “blokes who go to strip clubs”. I presume the gentlemen bit in the slogan refers to the knights rather than sex tourists. There is an even older capital than Valletta, though, which we visited on our brief tour – that is M’dina (which was pretty funky, though not particularly cold).

It is a small island, and it appears to be almost entirely built up. Certainly in the eastern end of the island in which we spent most of our time, it is basically impossible to ascertain where one “town” ends and another begins. It’s sort of an ancient European Singapore or Hong Kong, though the crumbling nature of some of the buildings and the ancient buses actually put one in mind of Havana at times. The national food appears to be rabbit, which is understandable since there is no real room to breed anything larger.

The language is fascinating – it’s like Arabic with the occasional Italian word (and English and French) thrown in. A typical sentence runs something like “Wahad ithnein allahu akhbar bonsoir habibi al quds grazie” (y’know, it sounds something like that anyway). The only Semitic language to be written in Roman script, I’m told. On the minus side, though, the island appears to be infested with right wing English pensioners, who apparently spend the whole winter there as it is cheaper to stay in a hotel with full board in Malta than to stay in the UK and heat your house. The other bonus, as far as they are concerned, is that Malta doesn’t have many immigrants in it (and I’m basing this on three separate overheard conversations, which is not exactly a huge sample size, but still pretty repugnant). The newspaper kiosks are filled with copies of the Mail and Express, which gives you an idea of the target market.

I’d do my usual “name 5 famous” routine, but I have to admit I’m struggling myself. There’s Michael Mifsud who plays up front for Coventry, and Tony Drago the mid-ranked snooker player, and after that, I can’t really think of any. Edward de Bono, apparently is one. That’s about it (as far as I know).

So there we are then, Malta in a nutshell. Or perhaps in a crispy chocolate coating. I had a good time, though my time was very limited and most of it was filled with the light honeycomb centre of work and stuff.

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Another oenophile terrorist thwarted

Posted by Andy Hockley on 1 November, 2007

Something odd happened to me yesterday. Well, I say odd, but I am using the word highly euphemistically for “really really fucking annoying”.

I was flying home from Malta (of which brief impressions will follow), and having not had a moment to do any shopping while there, I bought a couple of gifts at the airport (which also had the added benefit of using up my remaining Maltese coinage). A couple of books for Paula, a toy for Bogi, and a nice bottle of Maltese wine for me and Erika to enjoy. I then boarded my plane to Frankfurt (yes, the route from Malta to Bucharest was via Frankfurt, which is a bit off course to be honest, but since I once flew from Bucharest to Kiev via Amsterdam, it didn’t feel that excessive).

In Frankfurt, I had a couple of hours to kill, and so wandered round the bit of the terminal that I was confined to for a while before sitting down to enjoy a delicious weissbier. I thought about seeing if I could find something more to do in an area of the airport outside Terminal 1B, but realised that I wouldn’t be able to come back through the security line with a bottle of wine in my bag, given the current War on Liquids (TM). So, having consumed my tasty cloudy beverage I headed down to the gate for Bucharest. This is where things started to go wrong. Although I was in the same bit of the airport in which I had arrived (what I took to be the internal EU terminal) there, just for gate 56, was a security check. I knew there would be trouble. Each person I spoke too looked sadly at me as I explained that I had bought the wine in Malta airport and hadn’t been anywhere outside any security zone since, but it was clear I was fighting a losing battle. I was eventually bumped up to the head honcho on duty who patiently explained again that I couldn’t keep the wine. I, in turn, patiently explained for the 5th time that I had bought the wine in the airport and that I was (after all) travelling within the EU, but he wouldn’t be budged. Even when I managed to locate the receipt which stated clearly the time, date, and location where the wine had been bought it was still not possible. I asked him why it was that there was a security check at this particular gate, and how one could possibly buy wine in the aiprort and not have it brutally stolen from one by officious jobsworth anti-terrorism consultants. He was unable to answer either question. In the end, resigned to losing my wine, I told him to please take it home and drink it since somebody at least would get the benefit from it. He told me that too was against the rules, and it would have to be thrown away. What a ridiculous mad fucking waste. It wasn’t especially expensive, but it’s just the principle of the thing. The really upsetting thing was that I had even considered this anti-liquidist policy when I purchased it but reasoned that it couldn’t possibly be a problem.

Anyway, I am left with two questions:

1. Why, in the EU bit of Frankfurt airport, is the only gate which has a security gate that which is being used for a flight to Bucharest? Romania is, after all, just as much an EU country as Germany, and ought not to be discriminated against. It is clear that they always put the Bucharest flight through this system, since my gate had been told to me when I’d checked in – in Malta about 7 hours before the Frankfurt – Bucharest flight took off – and nothing had been changed. I am, to say the least, suspicious of the reasons.
2. Why, despite all the evidence that seems to be out there suggesting that constructing a bomb on a plane using liquids mixed together in the bogs is utterly impossible, is there still this stupid War on Liquids? Is it (a) because the powers that be want to make sure we go through life living in fear, looking nervously over our shoulders at people swigging from a bottle of water or carrying some shower gel?; or (b) because the people who own the retail outlets in airport terminals who are raking in the cash from the sales of overpriced water and other beverages are onto a nice little earner and have successfully lobbied for this rule not to be rescinded? I can see no other possibility bar these two.

“Odd” indeed.

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