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.