Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Headlong Into the Sunset

When last you heard from your favorite overland travellers, we had collapsed in a Baku hostel after a marathon trip across the Caspian Sea. Lest you fear we are marooned yet again in unlikely circumstances, let us assure you that it all ended happily ever after. Eventually.

The delay crossing the Caspian, along with the trouble we had acquiring Uzbek visas, put us far behind schedule for reaching Turkey, where we had hoped to spend at least ten days before starting home. We had also been itching to spend some time in Baku, the famous Azeri oil-boom town which Tom Reiss describes thus in his wonderful book The Orientalist:

The walled caravan outpost soon became the center of the burgeoning global oil industry–supplying more than half the world's crude–and the result was a fabulous nineteenth-century city built on the profits: extravagant mansions, mosques, casinos, and theaters from the period when the city was home to the Rothschilds, the Nobels, and dozens of local Muslim "oil barons."[…] Moorish palaces still sit next to Gothic manses, and Byzantine cupolas next to bejeweled rococo pavilions. The locals styled themselves cultured Europeans and "modern Muslims," right up to the point when the Bolsheviks decided they were decadent bourgeois and swooped in to crush them.

Sadly, we had only a day-long glimpse of these wonders before we had to hop on a train for Tbilisi, capitol of the troubled Georgian republic. The train station we pulled into was the dirtiest and most ramshackle of our entire trip, a dubious distinction but by no means an easy accomplishment. The station was lost in the city's sprawling outskirts, the muddy and broken streets crammed with an endless series of ramshackle kiosks offering cheap Russian goods.

A short distance away, however, we found Tbilisi's newly thriving core, where boutiques and trendy cafes competed for space with cathedrals along charming cobblestone streets. It seemed clear to us that in Georgia, as in so many other places we visited this year, prosperity and access to the global economy were largely limited to an elite handful ensconced in the center of the capitol. We were fascinated by what little we managed to see of Georgia and longed to stick around, but for the first time in our journey we were on a schedule, with a plane to catch on the far side of Turkey. Before nightfall we had boarded a bus whose tout claimed we could reach Istanbul in a mere 24 hours.

Astonishingly, after an achy night and day spent in a pell-mell dash across Anatolia’s verdant countryside, the next evening we did in fact reach Istanbul, the final stop of the Eurasian Invasion. We were hoping that Istanbul, the ultimate gateway between East and West, would be the perfect place to pick up the threads of our own culture amid the rich tapestry of Asia. We were not disappointed.

The Blue Mosque

In the city's incomparable mosques, we found familiar Christian angelic icons soaring alongside the best of Islamic art and architecture. On the streets, flavors and fashions from across three continents mixed with an often reckless abandon. As Turkey continues to struggle to define itself as either Western or Eastern, Islamic or Secular, European or Asian, Istanbul continues in its ancient role as a cultural lodestone, attracting a dizzying deluge of ideas and influences. Yet, at its heart, the city seemed remarkably grounded in its own unique and enduring culture. We wound down our year-long journey in Istanbul's bazaars and back allies, sipping coal-black coffee and savoring baklava, and fell in love with the place.

Inside Aya Sofya, a Christian basilica for almost a millenium before it was converted to a mosque in the 15th C

One of Istanbul's countless markets, full of shopping possibilities for locals and tourists alike...

...though definitely geared more for tourists in some cases.

Currency traders

A boy on the day of his circumcision, dancing in the Blue Mosque

Finally, we found ourselves enjoying the last sunset of our odessey from the deck of a ferry in the middle of the Bosphorus, literally floating between Asia and Europe. In the morning, we would fly to Ireland to meet our families and celebrate the successful end of an unforgettable adventure. After a year of strange beds, stranger food, exotic diseases and tongue-twisting languages, we looked forward to the comforts of the familiar and the stationary. At the same time, though, there was no denying that we were pretty well bummed out it was over. Every day for the last year, we'd woken up together to a world of nearly total freedom and unlimited potential for discovery. We'd been free to choose any direction to roam, any new place to explore. We'd been presented with an endless series of mysteries to solve, people to befriend, astonishing sights to behold. Every day had given us the chance to discover a new world in miniature, linked in often unexpected ways to the worlds we'd discovered yesterday and months before.

As we return home we're looking forward to new challenges and a more settled life in New Haven, Connecticut. All the same, we'll be keeping our packs by the door.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Faces of Central Asia

Dan-la Village, Turkmenistan

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Uzbek man in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Dan-la village, Turkmenistan

Veteran of "The Great Patriotic War," Bishkek, Kyrgystan

Tajik woman, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Dan-la village, Turkmenistan

Dan-la village, Turkmenistan

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Kyrgyz border, Uzbekistan

Khiva, Uzbekistan

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Trial By Ferry

Being the tale of Susannah and Mike's many tribulations, failures and eventual success in crossing the Caspian Sea, a twelve hour journey by ship from Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan to Baku, Azerbaijan.

Day 1: Arrive in Turkmenbashi at 7pm after a 10 hour drive across the desert from Ashgabat. Checked conditions at the port; clear weather with ships stacked up and ready to depart and no waiting line for passage. Guide advises us to retire and depart for Baku first thing in the morning.

Day 2: Buy provisions at market minutes after it opens at 8am; advised by guide to purchase enough food for possible delays at sea. Find delicious smoked sturgeon for dinner tonight, in case our ship does not have a restaurant. Arrive at port to discover no ships present, except a departing vessel on horizon. Ship arrives at 3pm, but will not take passengers as it is carrying fuel. As of midnight, no further ships sighted. We settle in for the night: Susannah curls up on a steel bench, Mike in the trunk of guide's SUV in the parking lot.

Day 3: Dawn. No ships sighted. We wash using water leaking from a rusty pipe behind the port building. Bathrooms lack running water, conditions unspeakable. Susannah befriends large Azeri family camped in the corner of the waiting room.

Noon. No ships sighted, wind picking up. We watch movies dubbed in Russian on guide's tiny portable TV. Mike plays marathon series of chess games against a team of seven Turkmen.

Evening. No ships. Winds at gale force. Turkmen flag in tatters on the pole. Golden bust of Turkmenbashi looks on, unfazed.

Over 100 people now wait for passage, with space for 11 available on each ship. Young men begin gambling for better places in line. Rumors of ships out to sea, waiting for good weather to dock. In an effort to save our dwindling food for the passage, we eat at highly suspect, dingy port cafe. Guide goes to hotel, prepares to leave in in am with fresh clients. Mike settles in on bench, Susannah curls up on top of our packs.

Day 4: 4am. Mike wakes up on bech with stomach pains. Susannah hurredly dispenses medication. Vomiting begins 20 minutes later. Susannah and Mike huddle behind a wall near railroad tracks so Mike can vomit in privacy. Wind continues to howl as sky lightens.

Morning: Guide arrives with local man, Max, whom he assures us can do whatever deal is necessary to get us on the first ship out. Guide leaves for Ashgabat. Mike continues to vomit behind a shed next to a dog skeleton, can't stop thinking about Cormac McCarthy novels. In mid-morning, Max takes Susannah to market to purchase more food. After vomiting subsides, Mike collapses on bench, exhausted. Max departs without explanation, leaving his 18-year old daughter with Susannah (who does not speak Russian). Weather clears, and a ship arrives, to everyone's great joy.

Chaos ensues in the booking office, as dozens desperately scramble for tickets. Girl assigned to help us does nothing, despite Susannah's pleas. Awakened by Susannah, Mike sprints to ticket office, discovers ticket agent called his name for ten minutes but finally sold all tickets to others. Susannah somehow refrains from throttling the girl. After banishing girl, Mike negotiates in Russian with port officials. Wheels are greased. Second ship arrives hours later, Mike secures tickets.

11 passengers clear Turkmen customs and immigration, taking five hours. We board rusty Soviet-era freighter through loading ramp along with Turkish trucks, Soviet-era rail cars, Susannah's adopted Azeri family and an erudite French journalist traveling undercover as an historian.

Once aboard, we secure a small cabin with broken toilet for $200, over twice the expected price. Jubilant, we watch the port and golden Turkmenbashi bust recede into the distance as the sun goes down. Weeping with joy, we squeeze into the cabin's tiny bunk.

Day 5: Incognito French journalist wakes us to the news that Baku has been sighted off the bow. We share the best of our food with him for breakfast, planning to leave the rest behind. Mike returns the increasingly fragrant sturgeon to the sea. At 9:30am, crew drops anchor a mile offshore.

The First Mate, who has befriended Mike, informs him we will be ashore in no time at all: only five hours! 5 hours later, Mike asks about docking again, and mate confidently replies "five hours!" Mike detects ominous pattern. Since we are all out of local currency, French journalist begins trading cigarettes for food in the ship's bar. Mike discusses politics, education, history and Angeline Jolie on the bridge with Captain, crew.

At 8pm, we weigh anchor. Captain leaps into action on our behalf, shepherds us down the gangway, through customs and into a cheap taxi. We arrive at hotel by 10pm, have dinner at 10:30, and collapse into bed at 11:00.

There is no water now between us and Istanbul, and for that, we are glad.