Sorry about the lack of blog updates this month – I’ve been hammering the website to make it all fabby and groovy for when the telly show starts in July and people pop in for a visit!
So, where I was I? Oh yeah, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan!! So I was up and at ’em at the crack and to the Tajikistan embassy. Visa in hand, I raced over to the bus station to pick up a shared taxi back to Osh. My taxi driver, Rustlan, was a wonderfully friendly guy and the little old ladies in the back didn’t complain too much that I wanted to stop every ten minutes to take a photo of the INCREDIBLE scenery.
It was a long drive through the mountains to Osh, but the hours seemed to fly by and, once again, I got the feeling that this wouldn’t be the last I’ll see of Kyrgyzstan. This feeling grew when Rustlan the driver offered to have me round for dinner with his wife, his young son and his mum. I can’t overstate this enough: this part of the world is the most hospitable you will ever visit. As well as feeding me some slap-up scran, Rustlan also organised for me to take an overnight taxi through to the border with Tajikistan.
Sounds easy? Ah, but there’s a problem. If you zoom into a map (you can use the Google map to the right if you like) and look at the wacko messed-up gerrymandered borders of the Fergana Valley area, you’ll see there is a small enclave of Uzbekistan called Sohk that’s complete surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. And guess which way the main road to the Tajikistan border goes? Yup…! Right through Sohk!! And do they allow free transit through this tiny spot of bother? Like buggery they do. So if I was to enter Sohk I would lose my second entry on my (incredibly expensive) visa for Uzbekistan… and then I’d have to get a brand new visa to get back into Uzbekistan proper. Madness, they call it Madness.
So I had to slip my taxi driver a few extra Kyrgyz sum to take the dirt track that goes around the enclave. ATTENTION ALL NORTHERN STANS! Listen: I have an idea – why don’t you make it so you have to get one visa for all five of you? Your borders were meant to be regional, not international and up until 1992 you were all one country anyway! Nutters.
By 5am I had made it around that pesky enclave of Sohk and had arrived at the border of Tajikistan. Chances are you know Afghanistan and Pakistan rather well, and Kazakhstan too thanks to a certain Mr. Sagdiyev, maybe you’ve noticed Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan while glancing over an atlas, and maybe once you pulled 10 letters out of a Scrabble bag and they spelt out KYRGYZSTAN by sheer luck, but I’m guessing you know nothing about Tajikistan. Well, don’t feel bad, neither do I. For instance, I knew nothing of the brutal civil war that raged here during the 90s and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. I didn’t know that until 1991 Tajikistan was completely closed to foreigners for over 100 years.
In fact, the amount I don’t know about Tajikistan is only equalled by the amount I don’t know about the history of the world tiddlywinks championships. And, I’m sorry to say that my knowledge was not exactly increased by visiting the place. Okay, so it wasn’t a quick hop-over-the-border-and-back as I did in Zimbabwe or Chad, but still I’m left bereft of anything interesting, amusing or philosophical to say about the place. All I can tell you is that it exists, it has a seat in the UN and it used to be a region of the USSR. It offers some excellent hiking opportunities and, well, er… that’s it. Even the photos in the Central Asia Lonely Planet are just of people walking in the mountains with backpacks on.
I’ll be the first to admit that I raced across Tajikistan. In my mind what was critical was that I got back to Tashkent in Uzbekistan today, picked up my visa for Turkmenistan and then I could be in Iran by Tuesday. So a quick peek at the northern Tajik city of Kungrad was all I really got. But, you know, I have every intention of visiting Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan again, and maybe if the visa situation has become a little more relaxed I might be tempted to get under the skin of the place.
However, after waiting TWO HOURS (thanks a bunch Uzbekistan) to get across the border out of Tajikistan and hurtling back to Tashkent like a man possessed I arrived to find the Turkmenistan embassy closed for the day. Come back on Monday you silly ginger tramp. I need not have rushed – I could have stayed the weekend. Sorry Tajikistan.
But on a plus note, I did manage to pick up my replacement camcorder (naughty Javier, that temperamental wee beastie) and my second passport so I need no longer worry about running out of pages. I also had time to see my friends at the Afghan embassy and sort things out so I could pick up a new visa (they mucked up my first one) on Monday.
Monday, then. Ahh. My second wasted weekend in Tashkent. Well then, let’s get wasted! It cracks me up that these Central Asian states purport to be Islamic – they are about as Muslim as an atheistic Eskimo. When you walk into (one of the many) shops that only sells booze, pork sausages and –ahem- gentleman’s periodicals, it’s hard not to do a double-take. Taliban territory this is not.
I met up with Younne and Cloe – a couple of CouchSurfers from France who, like me, had arranged to stay with Rafael, the king of the Tashkent CSers. Rafa works late so we cooked him dinner (well, to be fair, the Frenchies cooked him dinner, I just watched) and before long we were enjoying beers and DVDs and looking forward to a groovy weekend in my new-found favourite bit of the world.
So, I have fifty countries left to visit, and then I’m done. I can go home, put my feet up, stuff my face with Anzacs and have a nice hot cup of tea.
But like Sam in the last episode of Quantum Leap, I ain’t going home any time soon – in fact, the leaps are going to get harder. Much harder.
The final fifty include some of the most difficult places on Earth to step foot in. I’ve still got to (somehow) get into Turkmenistan (the North Korea of Central Asia), Eritrea (the North Korea of Africa) and North Korea (the North Korea of… oh). Add to that The Seychelles, Maldives, Taiwan and – gulp! – the Pacific Island states, I’ve really got my work cut out.
So, where next? Well after Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, I’ll be heading into Iran. Now the original plan was to go from there to the Gulf States of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman and Yemen – taking a boat from Yemen over to Eritrea and back (easy!) then hitching a ride back on the DAL Madagascar from Oman to The Seychelles (finally!).
There is a cruise ship leaving for The Maldives from India in about three weeks time. It will be the last cruise of the season, and taking a cargo ship to/from the Maldives is going to be *breathes in sharply through teeth* tricky to say the least. Now it’s going to be cutting it finer than a sheet of quarks, but if (this is a big IF) I can get my Turkmenistan visa quicker than usual (it usually takes 10-20 days) I might –might- just be able to make it. I’ll need to pick up visas for Pakistan and India while I’m in Iran and thunder down there.
I’ll worry about the Arabian Peninsular, Eritrea and The Seychelles later.
Madness, I know, but this is The Odyssey. Hi!
Here’s a list of the FINAL FIFTY:
8. United Arab Emirates
15. Sri Lanka
22. North Korea
23. South Korea
36. East Timor
38. Papua New Guinea
39. Marshall Islands
40. Solomon Islands
50. New Zealand
…wish me luck!
So where to next? The plan is on Monday to head off towards Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Three of the hardest countries in the world to visit and visit safely and I’m planning to step in all three in just one day. Impossible? Nah. Just takes a bit of planning, that’s all. So the bulk of today was spent using the treacle-slow free wi-fi in the Blinoff café sussing out my next few moves, checking on the security situations and pulling anything I could off the usual suspects – bulletin boards, thorntree, all that kind of jazz.
Later on I was joined by Rafael’s mate Oybek and his rather fetching ladyfriend Alla, along with Younne and Cloe from last night. After stuffing our faces full of cheap but yummy food, we set off into the night to go to the ‘Can You Imagine?’ night at the VM Bar – a live Uzbek band doing British Rock n’ Roll from the 50s to now. Absolutely awesome. Although they didn’t know Day Tripper. Bah.
There was the ubiquitous over-friendly Russians (what is it with Russians – cold as hell when sober, annoying as hell when drunk!), the Uzbeks were dancing on the tables and the beers were marvellously cheap. Rafael came along after a wedding he’d been attending, (already having had one too many) and the night sort of took its own direction after that. I remember dancing and waking up with a headache. All in all, a pretty neat little Saturday night.
I may have mentioned this before, but for some stupid reason you have to register three days after you arrive in Uzbekistan. The problem is you cannot register that you’re staying with a private citizen without a ton of hassle and paperwork. As a consequence, CouchSurfing is technically illegal.
What most people do is check into a hotel for the night and then doctor the docket that they’re given (as I did last week) so the dates imply you stayed in the hotel longer than you really did. However our sweet French couple, Younne and Cloe neglected to register within their three day period of grace. You see the Uzbek government is a little stuck in it’s ways and thinks that every westerner who would like to visit their country is James Bond come to blow up their secret volcano fortresses.
It’s when you hear about the government bugging hotel rooms that your eyes involuntarily roll upwards. Seriously, Uzbekistan, get a grip – we really couldn’t give a monkey’s what you’re doing – you’re a landlocked country in the middle of nowhere that 9 people out of 10 have never heard of. MI6 AND THE CIA DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU, THEY NEVER HAVE AND THEY NEVER WILL. There, I’ve said it. I love Uzbekistan but in the silliness awards, the government is rubbing shoulders with the brainless mooks that run Africa.
Anyway, Younne and Cloe tottered off to the railway station to ‘check in’ at the hotel there. They asked for a room for the night and explained they had lost their dockets for the past couple of days – damnit, it was only a couple of days, eh? Anyway, the bee-atch at the hotel smiled, took their passports as if to copy down the numbers, explained that she’d be right back and then promptly returned with a police officer in tow.
What a cow. What an utter cow.
Rafa, our CouchSurfing host had to head down to the police station and help them out. Luckily (and happily) Uzbekistan is NOT Africa, and therefore throwing tourists in jail is not a national sport, so after a few hours they were set free; although not before they were told that they faced DEPORTATION for their misdemeanour.
Crikey – at first we thought they’d be flown back home (I shudder to think what I’d have to do if that happens to me!) but then the police said they would give them until Wednesday to get a visa for Kyrgyzstan and then they’ll be escorted to the border. The cop who booked them said that he had personally deported about fifty tourists since the beginning of the year.
Oh look – somebody from a rich country coming to take money from a rich country and spend it in our poor country… let’s deport them! Smart move, guys… you must be really good at chess.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – any conspiracy theory that hinges on politicians of the world having a higher IQ than an eggplant is doomed from the start – if you put all the politicians and bureaucrats in the world in a room, you wouldn’t have enough of a spark to ignite a stick of dynamite from the Black Rock.
Not wanting another run-in with the fuzz, I set out with Rafa to check into a hotel myself – not the railway one (for obvious reasons) but the one near the circus (a monstrous eyesore that looks like a big concrete hamburger). For $7 my stay here was safe. With any luck, I’ll have my Turkmenistan visa tomorrow and then I’ll be outta here.
I really, really like the Uzbek people. If the government here would just chill out a little, many more people would like them too.
GREAT GREAT NEWS!!!! Even though he is only three-quarters of the way through his quest, the good folks at Guinness World Records have just come through with the wonderful news that Graham has already achieved a NEW GUINNESS WORLD RECORD™!!
It’s an incredible feat and an amazing journey, and it’s not over yet!
To celebrate his feat, please please donate to WaterAid…and tell your friends to donate – WaterAid need it. You can do so via any of the WaterAid donation links on this website or by clicking on this link.
Congratulations again to Graham…we salute you, sir.
Today was yet another D-Day in terms of getting visas and getting going. Within minutes of me wiping the sleep from my eyes I arrived at the Turkmenistan embassy to meet no other than Atabek, my friend from last week who had helped me out with the whole getting-my-Stanistan-visas shenanigans. Again, the system for getting the visa required me to put my name down on a list and then wait my turn. While Atabek held my place in the queue I darted over to the Afghan embassy to throw in my second passport for my second Afghan visa (another time-consuming trip to the bank required). Upon my return, it looked like if I got my passport in this morning, I’d have the visa this afternoon. Atabek and I waited for a good three hours, but finally – finally – they opened the gate and let us in.
Now there was something I didn’t quite understand about all this: I was told in no uncertain terms that it took up to three weeks to get my Turkmenistan transit visa, and yet, here I was after just one week after my application went in about to be given this coveted sticker in my passport. I didn’t quite understand why, but hell, I’m not going to start complaining anytime soon.
It was the usual drop off the passport in the morning, pick it up in the afternoon shenanigans and so Atabek and I scooted to get some lunch. While I was stuffing my face with plov or lagman or whatever I asked Atabek what’s with the ultra-fast visa turn around malarkey. Oh that… yeah, I got my family in Turkmenistan to put in a letter of invitation for you.
Just to explain, I had tried to get a Letter of Invitation from the various visa agencies and they all said no, and they all said no for the same reason – Turkmenistan law has it that if you commit a crime in Turkmenistan while you’re there on a transit visa, you AND your ‘sponsor’ go down for it. Not only had Atabek jumped me into the queue last week, he sped up the application process by a fortnight, placing his family in jeopardy should anything go horribly wrong – all this for a guy he barely knows just so he can get on with his utterly bananas quest to visit every country in the world. When I said that the people of Central Asia are the most generous, hospitable and earnest on the planet, I wasn’t kidding!
I owe this guy SO MUCH!
After lunch, I picked up my Afghan visa in passport two and then grabbed my Turkmenistan visa in passport one. Incidentally, they put my visa on the last page of my passport – covering a tiny let’s-waste-an-entire-blank-page-for-no-good-reason code stamp that was put in there when I entered Morocco all those moons ago. I had done my best Donald-Pleasance-in-The-Great-Escape on it and tried to rub it out with a pencil eraser, thus freeing up a (much needed) extra page of my passport. I now only have one page that is still blank.
Atabek and I then made plans for getting my ass out of Dodge. He came with me to the carpool and we sorted me a place in a shared taxi that would be heading out overnight towards the Turkmen border. Then I had the evening to play with. I went out for a bite to eat with my French chums, Younne and Cloe, and had one last mosey around the centre of this city whose architecture leave me nonplussed, but whose citizens blow me away. Later, I managed to say thanks and ta-ra to Rafa before I slunk off into the great beyond.
Back at the carpool, I said my hearty farewells to Atabek, thanking him profusely for all his help. I clambered into the taxi and headed off into the night, south by south west and straight on till morning.
Groggy and grumpy I awoke from my nightborn passage through Uzbekistan. Like Alexander The Great so many years before (and Michael Caine and Sean Connery more recently), I was in Samarkand – the legendary and (arguably) most famous city of Central Asia. Stumbling bleary-eyed out of the taxi I lost my phone and before I knew what the hell was going on I had slept-walked into another taxi and was hurling out of town.
Sacrilege, I know. I’m sorry. I’ll tell you a little story: About eight years ago I was travelling through the Andes with an old flame of mine (she’d hate me saying that, but watchagonnado?) and I got increasingly ratty with what I saw as her lack of interest in the soaring grandeur of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world.
I couldn’t believe somebody would come all this way and then not relish the moment. And here I was, in Gramarkand – a place where history, politics and religion smash together like quarks in a Large Hadron Collider – a place that couldn’t be more – you know, me – and I buzz through it like it’s the suburbs of Milton Keynes.
If I was Tyler Durdan, I’ll so be giving myself a slap around now.
But like the Cylons have a plan, I have an excuse.
It’s not a good one, it’s not even a great one, but an excuse nonetheless. I don’t want to go everywhere… yet. What’s that quote from Die Hard? – “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer”.
Ah, the benefits of a pop-cultured education.
I don’t want there to be no more worlds to conquer. I’ve already been to far too many places for my tender years and I don’t want to ruin the thrill of the new for my future self – I’ve got to leave some stone unturned and Samarkand is going to have to be one of them – hell, it just gives me one more excuse to come back!! And when I do come back I’ll give Samarkand and Khiva a real run for their money. I promise!! But not today.
Today I’ve got Turkmenistan to cross – one of the last great Forbidden Kingdoms of the world, up there with North Korea, Bhutan and Eritrea (still to go, kids!).
I got to the border early enough to make it exceptionally painless. The guys at the border (on both sides) were as jolly as their counterparts on the other side Uzbekistan and I got through with no headaches at all. It goes to show – if you’ve got your paperwork in order, Central Asia is a cinch.
And then I was in Turkmenistan. By the afternoon I had cut through Merv (yes it’s called Merv) on the way to Mary (yes it’s called Mary) and after a rather interesting lunch of Turkmen pie I pressed on to the border with Afghanistan.
I arrived at the tiny little bordertown of Kushka at around 10pm. My friendly taxi driver dropped me off at an unmarked hotel and I tentatively knocked on the door as the taxi sped off into the night. A little old lady answered and explained in her best Turkmen that the hotel was full. I tried to get directions for another hotel, but all she could do was wave her arms in the vague direction from whence I had just come.
Considering her hotel didn’t feel it necessary to put up a sign saying ‘hotel’, I guessed nobody else would bother putting up a sign either and that at this point I was pretty much stuffed. So I drudged off back down the dark deserted road keeping my eye out for anything that even gave the vague impression that I could stay there for the night.
Don’t forget: it’s late, it’s dark, I’m on my own in one of the most isolationist countries in the world, in a town that nobody has ever heard of.
And less than one mile down the road is a sleepy little place called Afghanistan.
Everything was quiet – too damn quiet. There was literally NOBODY around. No cars, no people, no pubs, restaurants, cafes, NOTHING. Not even a street dog barking in the distance. Nada. My buttocks were clenched so tightly it’s a miracle that I could actually walk. As I passed the deserted lock-ups, picking my way over the twisted concrete that blocked the road, a group of three youths swung into view. Now if this was anywhere else, my natural reaction would be to run like a sissy – YES I’VE SEEN HOSTEL.
But if there is one thing I’ve learnt on the road it’s that sometimes you gotta swallow your pride and ask for directions, especially if you have no map, no bearings and utterly no idea where you’re going to sleep.
Luckily one of the lads spoke enough English to understand what I was bleating on about. He said there were no other hotels. Yep, a one horse town alright – and somebody had shot the horse. But then he said it was no worries – I could kip at his. Ah, Central Asians – why can’t the rest of the world be more like you?
So what’s Turkmenistan like? Well I’ll tell you and I’ll be blunt. It’s boring. Possibly the most boring place on the planet – at least Cape Verde has a vibrant crime scene and the odd paedophile to liven things up.
You see this will always be a problem in places in which a bunch of faceless bureaucrats decide what’s good for ya. Top down cities – think of the rampant joylessness of Canberra, Brasilia or Milton Keynes. A place with no nooks and even fewer crannies, a place that people have not built for themselves but has been built for them, the result of which is a characterless vacuum of convenience. Yummy.
Now I know what I’m saying flies in the face of my warm regard for Uzbekistan, Tashkent being about as charming as a flaming bag of poo that’s been left on your doorstep by mischievous scallywags. But that was my point – the people of Uzbekistan won me over despite their country’s charmless architecture and diabolical government.
The only thing Turkmenistan has got going for it is as a curio; like a traffic warden with six fingers. What makes it worth a visit is to clamp eyes on one of the (many) hilarious statues of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka ‘Turkmenbashi’, the first president of independent Turkmenistan (1991-2006); and by all accounts, an UTTER NUTCASE.
Seriously – he renamed the month of April after his mum, demanded that an ice palace be built in Ashgabat, the capital city (even though Ashgabat is pretty much in the middle of a desert) and in 2004 he banned long hair and beards (I would have been stuffed) along with gold teeth (which are incredibly and terrifyingly popular around these parts). He also changed the words of the national anthem so it was all about him, banned news reporters from wearing make up and instituted a bank holiday called Melon Day. NO I’M NOT MAKING THIS STUFF UP.
One good thing he did was make lip syncing at public concerts illegal. Seriously.
But his biggest and most lasting legacy was his fondness for unveiling golden statues of himself. Having seen some up close, I’m happy to report that they look like oversized Kenner toys dipped in gold. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see the big daddy of the golden Turkmenbashis – the one atop the ‘Arch of Neutrality’ in Ashgabat. Arms aloft, it rotates to follow the sun. Or rather, the sun rotates to follow Turkmenbashi.
Part of the reason I’m doing The Odyssey is to prove that the world is a lot more open than people think. If I, an ordinary bod from Liverpool, can step foot into every country in the world overland using just my British passport and a winning smile, then I think we can proudly say that our battered bewildered planet is doing better than we are otherwise led to believe.
But that’s not to say I walk without trepidation. I would be a fool to suggest that visiting every country in the world is not without its risks, and Afghanistan is not a place to be taken lightly. I originally planned to pop into Masar-e-Sherif from Uzbekistan, but in the end, the safest and easiest (allowing for the bananas visa regulation around these parts) route seemed to be to hit Herat (I really wish my spellchecker would stop autocorrecting that to ‘Heart’) from Turkmenistan and then proceed forthwith to Iran. Easy.
So at first light I was already at the Afghan border, a good hour before the damn thing opened. After milling about for what seemed like an eternity, I was the first, and quite possibly only, backpacker over the border that day. At the Afghan side, the guy asked me if I was a tourist. I said yes. He flashed me a cheeky grin. Not a terrorist then?
No. Definitely a tourist.
Good. Then you are most welcome in Afghanistan.
At the chickenwire fence I spotted a poppy growing. I plucked it and slammed it shut in my Afghanistan Lonely Planet. My first souvenir of the day. Once over the border I found myself a shared taxi and waited for it to fill. Within two hours I was in Herat, one of the oldest cities in the world and one that has seen its fair share of trouble over the years, not least from Ghengis Khan, whose troops pretty much murdered everything that breathed (and a few things that didn’t) in his bloody rampage through Central Asia.
Herat wasn’t treated any kinder by Tamerlane, the hero of the Uzbeks (and scourge of everybody else) who also trashed the place and nicked all its treasures, it was kicked around during The Great Game between Britain and Russia in the 19th century and was again trashed by the Soviets when they turned up in the 1970s and proceeded to kick seven shades of crap out of the old fort. But Herat survived the Soviet invasion, it survived the brutal civil war of the 1990s, it survived the Taliban, it survived the 2001 invasion and here it is – still going strong, still doing what it does best – being the crossroads for trade for the whole of the Central Asian region.
I arrived before noon and set off to get a feel for the place. I went into a shop to buy a combat vest and asked the guy if I could leave my backpack for a few hours, save me having to lug it around. Sure, he said, but he did want to check there wasn’t anything untoward in it first. I guess a little paranoia is justifiable in Afghanistan.
I headed off to the Grand Mosque – a fantastic building, just down the road from the old (and now gloriously restored) fort. I chatted to a couple of coalition soldiers on the way. Everyone seemed amazingly relaxed, it was hard to imagine that I was in a country still at war with itself. It made me want to run down the street screaming ‘MY GOD WE’RE IN AFGHANISTAN AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!’ but I guess that wouldn’t have helped matters, or, in fact, been very true. I felt remarkably safe here in Herat, I wasn’t treated any differently to how I was treated in other middle eastern countries and everyone I spoke to seemed happy to see me.
In the Grand Mosque itself I slipped in through the side entrance, removing my shoes and looking about for somebody to ask me what I was doing – nobody did, I was pretty much left up to my own devices as I walked around the central courtyard in my socks, admiring (as I always do) the calligraphy and geometric patterns on the cool stone walls. I walked out of the front gate to the garden at the far end and there after taking this picture of me wearing my ‘Watch Out For Men With Beards’ T-shirt, I got utterly swamped by schoolkids.
The Mosque’s madrassa had just finished for the day. All the kids wanted their picture taken with me and one of the older lads who spoke a little English chatted with me – mostly inquisitive about why I was here. I asked if they get may tourists, and he said some but they wished there were more – he said that Herat was a peaceful peace with no trouble, and I agreed, but I said that not enough people know. He asked me to tell people, so I guess that’s what I’m doing now.
The sad thing is that while Herat might be putting a brave face on the situation, Afghanistan is still a dangerous place. I asked a guy from the UN I met last week at the Afghani embassy in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) if things were getting better. He said no, they weren’t. If anything, they were getting worse.
Years ago, before the Soviet Invasion, Afghanistan was famed for its vineyards, which produced raisins (and presumably wine). They were the stable, lucrative crop for this otherwise impoverished landlocked country. Sadly, those vineyards no longer exist and the only realistic cash crop that the Afghans have these days are poppies. But in the ridiculous world in which we live, the only people who make any kind of money out of these magical flowers of doom are the Taliban.
Now I know what you’re thinking – here goes Graham on one of his little rants about the billion reasons that drugs should be legalised. But I’ll spare you the sermonising – it doesn’t even need to be that groundbreaking a shift in policy to help Afghanistan. We could buy the poppies for medical purposes. We buy poppies off Turkey for legal medical uses, why not Afghanistan? The truth is I haven’t got a clue, but we don’t. So 100% of the poppies farmed here go to supply junkies with their heroin™, the overwhelming majority of them European.
So while farmers cannot sell their produce legally on the open market and while junkies like Pete Doherty continue to buy heroin off the Taliban (they are the only cartel in town) the kids you see in the picture above will never be free of the cycle of violence and aggression that has marred this country for the last thirty-odd years because the Taliban (like the right-wing guerrillas in Colombia) will always have a constant and lucrative source of income. But do you really think a self-serving arse like Pete Doherty gives a toss about the people who are murdered or maimed by the roadside bombs that his heroin™ paid for? No, but neither (it would seem) do the governments of the world. But that’s nothing new.
Later I returned to the shop where I had left my backpack, picking up an awesome souvenir on the way. I stopped at a money changer to swap some US dollars for Afghan Afghanis (yes the money is called Afghanis, which I love – imagine if our currency was called ‘Brits’, or ‘Euros’… oh…) and in his little glass box of money from all over the world, my eye caught sight of an old British pound note, something that I so vaguely remember from my childhood (we replaced them with coins in 1983) that I’m not sure whether I remember them from a dream or reality.
I generally keep some money from every country I visit during the Odyssey Expedition, but it would be a bit weird for me to keep some current British wodge, so this little addition will go down a treat for the framed money montage I’m going to make when I’m done. Bit of a weird souvenir to take from Afghanistan I know, but hell, I had my poppy and I like souvenirs that don’t weigh anything and fit neatly in my wallet.
Back in the shop, Jamal the owner wanted me to talk to his friend Ahmed who was learning English. I chatted with Ahmed about my travels and he seemed very keen and interested, but after a while he asked me what my religion was. The last thing I wanted was to get into a conversation about religion in Afghanistan of all places. I fudged it and talked about peace being my religion. Ahmed then explained that although us westerners bring with us amazing stuff like cars and televisions and mobile phones and DVDs, if we don’t read the Koran, we can never enter heaven.
This would have, in other circumstances, sparked off a discussion of the foundations of morality and whether it is more moral to be able to recite a book or live a good life of treating others how you would like to be treated. But, as if I hadn’t pointed this out enough already, I was in Afghanistan, and so I smiled, nodded, said I’d try to get myself a copy and made my excuses and left.
Over the road was where the shared taxis left for the Iranian border. I got ripped off by the guy who picked me up – he offered to take me for X amount, but then once we were outside of the city he told me I had to pay 4 times X amount. This is not a reflection of Afghanis, but rather a reflection of taxi drivers who I am more than fed up with on this hullaballoo of a journey.
So we argued all the way to the border and then we argued at the border, and then a guy came to help me cross the border and told the taxi driver to stop being a gigantic arse. That said, the driver still pursued me up until the point were got stamped out but his lack of an Iranian visa (I presume) stopped him from chasing me any further.
The Afghan border guards were as friendly as ever, as (surprisingly) were the Iranian guards, who went so far as to make me a cup of tea.
Once over the border it was straight into negotiations for a shared taxi to the city of Mashhad. I had the front seat and we seemed to be making good time. I was praying there was an overnight train to Tehran, as I was planning on picking up an Indian visa quick smart once I arrived.
You see, we had found a cruise ship that was leaving from Cochin in India on the 21st April and (according to my calculations) if I was the luckiest badger that ever lived, I could just make it there by the skin of my teeth – but it would require getting visas for Pakistan and India in double smart quick quick time. It’s the last cruise of the season, so it’s imperative that I hurtle that way as quick as I can. I’ll worry about the Arabian Peninsular later.
Unfortunately for me, a police checkpoint singled me out because I was packing heat. No, not guns, or drugs, or bombs – but camcorder tapes. The same thing I got snaggletoothed for in Congo (which resulted in six days spent in a fetid jail cell) and I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen again, so best foot forward and into full-on bumbling Englishman mode. I laughed and joked at let them run through as many tapes as they liked with a huge goofy do-no-harm grin on my face. The police guy seemed most keen on any footage that involved women of any shape or form, but none of it was as racy as he (or I) hoped.
The whole lets-see-what’s-on-your-tapes shenanigans lasted a good hour and by then my taxi had long disappeared into the setting sun. The police guys were satisfied that my footage was boring enough to not constitute a threat to peace and stability in the region. It cracks me up that police get so upset about a handful of camcorder tapes but blissfully ignore my 2Tb of WD Passport hard drives that hold about 200 hours of saved footage from the road.
It didn’t take long for me to find another shared taxi and a wonderful Afghan guy called Seyed who was travelling to Mashhad with his son made space for me in their cab. Seyed worked in Iran and Afghanistan and spoke very good English. He was a lot more positive about Afghanistan’s future than the guy I spoke to from the UN and he made good on his promise to help me get on the overnight train (it existed! Woo!) to Tehran, going so far as to accompany me to the station and then over the expressway to the ticket office (why it wasn’t in the station is anybody’s guess). He also managed to sweet talk the ticketing guys to let me pay using my dollars (the bureau de changes were closed and the Iranian ATMs do not like the taste of foreign plastic). Thanking Seyed profusely and marvelling at my own good fortune (which included the fact that dinner was included in the price of the ticket – I was starvin’, Marvin) I made my way on board the Tehran express.
I love trains. Best way to travel by a mile. Funny – before I started The Odyssey I used to hate them, well, the British ones anyway. Now I still hate the British ones (unfriendly, overpriced, vomit comets that they are) but from Canada to Cameroon, from India to Iran – they’re just brilliant. After a yummy rice and mystery meat dinner, I pulled down my bunk bed and let the rhythmic swaying of the train rock me to sleep, proud that I had managed to tick two countries off in just one day. Mark my words… there won’t be too many more days like this on the road ahead.
The train pulled into Tehran central at around 9am. I fannied about for a while trying to find somewhere that would change my US dollars before heading off to the Indian embassy.
Some of you might remember a few months ago we ran the story about Mr. Samaddar, the chap from India who holds the current world record for visiting every country in the world. He did it flying, though, so I’m not treading on his toes with my record attempt. Mr. Samaddar got in touch with me not long afterwards and invited me for dinner when I arrive in Dubai were he lives, and asked if I needed any help with visas and stuff. I asked him if there was any way to get an Indian visa double-quick smart while on the road (it usually takes 10 working days). He suggested I talk to the embassy’s consul, so that’s what I attempted to do.
While in the queue attempting to make an appointment to speak with the consul I got chatting with a wonderfully friendly Iranian guy called Arash. I told him about my travels and he offered to show me where I could get some wi-fi action. After I had made my appointment, we headed out on the streets of Tehran – a remarkably cool city with a cracking backdrop of soaring mountains in the distance – reminded me of Santiago in Chile.
Eventually we found an internet café and we made arrangements to meet up later. While online I learnt two things – one was that I was now the OFFICIAL GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER for the most countries visited in one year without flying….
Kudos to Mandy and Lorna from Lonely Planet for sifting through all the evidence on my behalf.
The second thing I learnt was that this cruise from India to Sri Lanka and the Maldives was nothing but a mere apparition. It didn’t actually exist. Panic over, I could get my Indian visa all in good time. But still I headed back to the Indian embassy – no harm in at least trying – if I could pick up the visa on Sunday, it would be worth the wait. Otherwise, I’d press on to Kuwait and do the Arabian peninsular countries that I still had to visit.
But alas, it was a big no-no. The consul was friendly enough, but it was the old no exceptions rule (yes, we all know there are exceptions, but be nice). It looked like I’d be getting the overnight coach down south. I headed out of the embassy and met up with Arash again, who introduced me to his mate Arsi – a big fan of Radiohead and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who isn’t?). Arash then invited me back to his place for a bit of an impromptu party. Awesome!
First we went out for the obligatory kebab, walking back in the rain through the streets of Tehran with us all belting out a rendition of ‘Creep’ at the top of our lungs. We could have been walking back from the Krazy House. When we got back to Arash’s flat he copied all 3,000 of my kick-ass iPod tracks off my hard-drive along with my copy of Secretary, which Arsi was incredibly excited about – he had never seen it thanks to Iran’s draconian censorship laws. Then Arash pulled out the piece de resistance – a bottle of wine that he’d smuggled into the country and was saving for a good excuse.
After Arash invited a couple of his female friends around I marvelled at just how many of the stupid Iranian laws we were currently breaking. But, you know, we’re not children in a 1950s boarding school. Rules against alcohol, having girls round for dinner, covering your hair, all that kind of jazz… I mean, seriously… every chick in Iran (and, I’ve got to say, Persian chicks have GOT IT GOING ON!!) wears the little back hoodie uniform prescribed by the gruesome bearded old virgins who run the show, but they’re damned if they’re going to wear an inch of it more than they have to. As a consequence, the skirts are wonderfully short (jeans and sneakers underneath) and the hoods are worn as far back as they can get away with – what’s the point of going to the hairdressers if nobody can see your damn hair?
I hear you sister!
At first Arash was planning to join me on my trip down to Shiraz, but he changed his mind after the girls turned up (I don’t blame him) and so at 11pm I was bundled into a taxi and sent on my merry way. What top chaps! I’m beginning to really, really like Iran… I wonder what other treats it has in store?