30 May 2013
28 May 2013
When you build a network you need to clearly document it, showing the different layers within it. One of the bits we all are probably fairly lax about documenting is the physical cable runs, although in an office this is probably taken care of by the facilities people. For WAN links there is a SEP field past the demarcation point, unless you're a SP.
What does this have to do with travel, I hear at least none of you ask....
Driving between Khiva and Bukhara and the local telco has got a brilliant way of marking where the optical cable is as it passes through the desert - they use reeds. The same reeds as are used elsewhere on help prevent dune erosion, just on a smaller scale.
Such a ridiculously simple idea.
26 May 2013
... Trying to get a meal from a restaurant which is very obviously a building site was probably not our best idea.
Believing them when we were assured they had everything on the menu was, perhaps, silly.
The chicken and rice which some of the other guys ordered having to become chicken and chips because they didn't have any rice should have been a clue that my mushroom rice was also off the menu. The same menu which has everything available. This was confirmed when instead of asking if I'd like to order something else the waiter delivered nothing.
The 10% service charge was the biggest and hardest laugh I've had in really a very long time. Tears of laughter.
An excellent night.
I experienced my first earthquake this morning - only a small one, but an actual earthquake. It felt like something was gently shaking the whole room.
By the time I realised what waste going on and had left my bedroom it hadn't stopped. I then found that Ryan & Vicky hadn't felt it (ie no idea how, it was very obvious) and the hotel staff had all ran out of the building.
24 May 2013
We got there at nearly sunset and spent about 90 minutes there, watching the crater and the fires within. As we lost the sunlight it became a major light source - it was a shame that there was a bright moon as I'd like to see it in the pitch dark.
After a 12 hour drive from Turkmenbashi we finally arrived in Ashgabat. Amusingly the hotel for the night was a hotel which also had the British Embassy within the building. No, I don't know why either - it made for amusement over breakfast as you could play spot the spook; sorry, spot the diplomat. It did explain the UN Hilux in the car park.
Given that I still can't get the pictures off my phone, go do an image search for Ashgabat and you'll see what I mean. The place is just odd.
The roads were mostly empty too - for all the large housing blocks our guide showed us (again, white marble) and said good things about (highly subsidised living being the main thing, to which I'm adding a very large pinch of salt) there was no traffic. In just under 2 hours of driving around the city we saw a few dozen cars on the road - given that the government gives everyone with a car 7000 litres of petrol a years, I'd expect to see more. That or see full car parks in the offices, which were empty.
He in travelling independently through parts of them world which go outside of their way to make it harder for independent travellers, if not impossible, so it surprised me that I met anyone doing it.
The final check of my passport and ticket came with the same information being entered in to a computer and my picture taken (as per entry) - one stamp later and I'm officially out of the country.
Interestingly, and amusingly, the guys at the last check point had a guiager counter - not your everyday item at most borders I've crossed, or at least not visibly so.
Eventually the loading process starts - to my simple mind this should be a simple thing: there is a fixed amount of space for train carriages and the carriages are all identical - simply shunt on the required amount in to the relevant places (there are 4 tracks - you need to load them up in pairs so as to balance the weight) and done. How wrong am I. If nothing else the lower level of train tracks (yes, 2 floors of trains on a boat) take a lot of effort to fill, or so it would appear.
After days of hurryupandwait that I, we, going from our beds at 0230 to being in Customs and Immigration by 0245 came as a surprise. Of course, we then spent a few hours there - but it took me a few hours to get through the Immigration queue in the USA last November.
16 May 2013
We've had a call from the woman who sells the tickets at the port - there is a crossing for us tonight, but not for Daisy. Her and Jan will follow us at some point (soon).
As for now - some frantic sorting of bags for us all, a quick trip to the truck to get a few bits and, hopefully, a trip to the supermarket so that we've actually got food.
Then comes what I expect will be a world-class hurryupandwait.
I noticed it in Tblisil, but I didn't really see it; it is much more evident in Baku, especially given the other shops, the other brands, which are here....
Neither Tblisil or Baku have a Starbucks. Yes Baku has some of the other major Western (global) food brands (McDonald's (1), KFC (1, with another opening soon), etc), but neither place (neither country?) has a Starbucks. This is a good thing.
Here's hoping Turkmenistan (and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) are the same.
Turns out Monmouth doesn't have a local supplier either, but that is less of a surprise.
The lack of regular schedule for the boats across the Caspian to Turkmenistan was always going to make things interesting - turns out that issues at the Turkmenistan port, about which we can find no information, makes for an even more interesting time.
As I type this Olly & Jan are off trying to find options, which includes leaving the truck behind for a while and flying or sailing to Turkmenistan as foot passengers - Olly has to get there to meet the new people and the rest of us have visa time limits.
This was always one of the more interesting bits of the trip. :)
15 May 2013
I've just started reading Rivers of London and the opening page has this little gem...
"... Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the 'London once-over' - a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-samaritism in London is considered an extreme sport - like base-jumping or crocodile-wrestling."
You need to change.
I know this isn't the best of opening lines, but we might as well get it in to the open. You need to change.
This isn't a case of "it's not you, it's me" - it really is you. Although it is (was) also me. An example...
Yesterday we discovered that we needed some passport pictures when we arrive in Turkmenistan - no digital photography for them at the border. Simple - we've found the local shopping centre and we'll just go there. Alas, no - none to be found.
So we wander the streets and can't find anywhere which does them, so Chris pops in to an electronics shop in the hope that they do them (small chance) or that there someone in there who knows where to get its done and, crucially, speaks English - or at least can understand our attempts to use sign language if the spoken word doesn't work out.
Now, London, pay attention to this bit...
Less than 1 minute later Chris comes back out of the shop with one of the guys who works there and he starts explaining to us where the nearest place is, as they don't do them. About half way through the explanation he realises it really isn't the easiest place to find and so, and London you really need to pay attention here, he walks us the 10 min walk to the place and then translates for us. He leaves work and takes a group of total strangers, tourists, to where they need to be and then helps them. Helps me. And then he offers to pay, if we didn't have enough cash.
Can you imagine this happening in London? No, I can't either.
You see London, you need to change. And it's not you, or me - it's us.
Days 18, 19, 20, 21 and at least 22. 12-15 May 2013.
At least day 22....
Greetings from Baku, where we are currently awaiting a boat across the Caspian, taking us to Turkmenistan. There isn't a scheduled service, so we'll go when the boat goes and that isn't today - which we'd hoped it would be.
It has been really good to have a few days in one place after 3 weeks of permanently being on the move; a few days to slow down a little, take in what Baku has, do the mundane things like laundry & banking and generally not have to think about what is happening. It has also provided for some much needed solo time, which after a few weeks of being around the same people all the time is needed.
Baku itself is an interesting place - there is very serious money here due to the oil & gas (all the high-end shops are here, very expensive cars, London prices at least, etc) and yet once you go a few streets backup from the excessively manicured central area you hit the normal Baku and it feels a lot different - it isn't manicured, the scaffolding isn't hidden in the normal are as it is in the centre; the pavements need work, unlike the central area; the shops go from the likes of Dior & Tiffany's to the local equivalent of Spar (7-11 for you Americans :)) & small local businesses. All in about 3 blocks. Not a lot different from walking 3 (ish) blocks from the likes of Knightsbridge, now I think about it.
14 May 2013
Being massively behind on writing anything about Georgia I'm going to start again on Azerbaijan and will try and finish writing about Georgia at some point - maybe on the ship across the Caspian.
Days 16 & 17 - 10 & 11 May 2013
The border crossing for Georgia in to Azerbaijan was surprisingly simple; given the headaches I had getting the visa sorted I was surprised at how easy it was to get across - 30 minutes end-to-end to leave Georgia and enter Azerbaijan. Well, that is what it was for the passengers, the truck always takes longer - another 2 hours by the time all the paperwork was sorted. That was 2 hours of sitting on the tarmac in the sun, as there is nothing once you cross. Next time I'll take a book. And my sunglasses. And sunscreen.
One thing became very obvious once we'd crossed the border and started heading for Sheki (our stop for the night) - the Lada car is still really common (popular?) here. Yes there were quite a few in Georgia, but Azerbaijan is The place to be if you're a fan of Ladas. I'm wonder if I can get one of the 4x4 ones with right hand drive for home. Perfect for London! ;-)
A Lada which looks like it's a contender for the Azerbaijany edition of Pimp My Ride is well worth seeing.
Sheki itself is a small town which isn't massively interesting - there is Khan's Palace and that it mostly just for the "huh, so they really knew how to do woodwork back then" factor - no nails or glue in the building, just joins. We'll, none apart from the replacement floor which has been put down - someone decided nailing that down would be a good idea. *sigh*
Given our inability to speak any of the local language getting dinner was entertaining for all involved (us, the guy who ran the place, his other customers) - I've still no idea what we ordered and if it has any relationship to what we ate; tasty either way.
Breakfast on day 17 was the source of much amusement - having left the hotel at 7am we have bush "camped" breakfast on route to Baku. Given that there was no where really suitable, we ended up having breakfast in a bite of scrubland next to a major road - anyone for breakfast on the hard shoulder of the M1? It's effectively what we did.
The entertainment comes from the confused looks on the drivers at 9 people having a picnic on the side of the road.
The rest of the days driving towards Baku was dull, with the exception of finding a tree growing in the middle of the road. Not something that had fallen on to the road, not something which had fell off a lorry, but actually growing up through to road. A main road.
The day was mostly about driving - the whole route through this Caucuses is because we can't go through Iran at the moment, which most, if not all, on the truck would have preferred. Alas global politics is what it is - a shame, as from what I've heard Iran is a really nice place, not that Georgia and Azerbaijan aren't, and that your average Iranian is a very friendly and welcoming person - as are the people of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The pushing with the driving was to get to Baku as quickly as we could, as there isn't a scheduled boat service from Baku to Turkmenistan; the boat goes when the boat goes and Olly & Jan needed to start getting it sorted.
There was time to stop in Gobustan to see the Petroglyphs and mud volcanoes, both of whish were well worth seeing.
Our bed for the night was a random field about 60Km from Baku. Just us and a heard of sheep which stopped by for a visit.
13 May 2013
That moment when you're in a random locals bar in Azerbaijan and the in-house singer starts singing a song in Russian and the 4 non Russians at your table all go "I know this song". That.
I've no idea how we all know the song or what it is, but we all knew it.
12 May 2013
(I never wrote anything about Georgia. This is the as is draft of what I started to write.)
Days 7-10, 1-4 May
Day 7 started with with the first of the border crossings, Turkey to Georgia. We all got through very quickly (under 30 minutes), but then had to wait another 1.5 ish hours for the truck to get through - Daisy draws attention, so everyone wants a look (mostly just so they can get a better look). That and there's always paperwork. Endless bloody paperwork.
As we crossed the border we found our local guide, Zaza. Or more accurately - he found us; we stand out.
Zaza was with us from border to border and made everything so much easier - having someone who knows the lie of the land, the language, the customs and how (and where) to get things done made our time in country far more about experiencing what was there as a lot of the local logistics had already been taken care of. If nothing else thanks to him Tony & I were able to sort out our visas for Azerbaijan quickly and easily.
Thinking back on the land crossings I did in Africa (the European ones don't count) and none of them were like the Turkey/Georgia border - a real sea of humanity, with endless people watching. The car with a fridge hanging out the back of it, masses of people with their luggage waiting for their coach to get through Customs, taxis and cars everywhere - all dropping off and collecting people, money changers all offering exactly the same rate, small shops which seemed to mostly just sell alcohol, and for some reason - a casino. Great for people watching.
There were also beggars, which reminded me (rightly or wrongly) of the "professional" child beggars in London. One, a girl aged about 5, latched on to Olly's leg and did the full works to try and get money from him - after we managed to almost literally pry her from him she went another way and I saw her a few minutes later trying it again with a different group of tourists - it worked that time. Her ability to turn on/off a range of emotions to try and get what she wants (needs?) at that age is surprising.
She had what I took to be an older sister (about 10-11) and what I'd guess was her mother, who had a babe in arms too, both of which were begging. I saw them later in Batumi around the hotel, which for better or worse makes me think of the London "professional" beggars. (note to self: find a better way of describing a "professional" beggar.)
The border cross also gave us the first taste of Georgian food - a cheesy bread, something which would turn up every day. It also turned up later that day over dinner, which was a sampling of traditional Georgian food - the food we'd eat almost exclusively for the whole time in Georgia (the exception being camping, where we had some much needed vegetarian food - the Georgians really like pork).
We ate (far too much) very food for our entire time in Georgia.
The morning of Day 8 (2 May) was spent sorting the visa for Azerbaijan (see other blog post) and then wandering the streets of Batumi. The few hours of walking around radically changed my view of the town.
The evening before Kim, Rachel and I had gone for a quick walk, which ended up along the sea front, which showed Batumi as a modern town with hints of Soviet, something reinforced by the walk to/from dinner (a place called The Ship) - a modern, well sculpted, park and fairly prosperous looking streets.
I took and blogged a few pictures with my phone, but as one of the pictures didn't upload properly I deleted the post and added that to my "sort it later" list. I still haven't got around to reuploading them and probably won't until I can extract pictures from my camera, within which is a better sample of the town.
From the entrance to the hotel you could see a market, but only once we'd explored it (one small street) and the surrounds (many streets) did we (me, Tony and Brian) get a better (more accurate?) feel of the place.
The market itself was something Brian described as "Africa meets Stalin" and I can see what he means - small stalls selling a small amount of produce, it felt like they were scratching a living. To add to this, the market was next to a new shopping centre & gym. The surrounding buildings had a distinctly soviet feel to them, where the further away from the sea front we went the more soviet the buildings looked & felt.
The surrounding shops were all very local, typically specialist, shops, the housing was soviet style low-rise blocks, laundry hanging everywhere.
The night should have been spent at a homestay and technically was - it is just that they've invested the money made from providing homestays and invested it in their home (a great thing) and made it a small hotel - not exactly a homestay, although obviously there are no complaints about people doing whatever they can to improve their lives - it is what we all strive for in our own ways.
Day 9. 3 May 2013.
This is being written on Day 16, even if it is posted later....
The day started with what was to become a staple of Georgia, a visit to a monastery.
In my 8 days in Georgia I have probably visited more churches and monasteries than I have in the previous 8+ years - it is interesting to look around them, especially as I was in a Russian Orthodox country during their Easter (no chocolate bunnies to be be seen anywhere), especially given that their faith is engrained in to the everyday.
10 May 2013
4 May 2013
2 May 2013
Day 6. 30 April 2013.
Waking up in there middle of nowhere is a wonderful thing - all the same simple things whish make settings up the camp good are there again in the morning - a focus on striking camp, breakfast and then hitting the road. As nice at have WiFi access it at the campsite tonight is (it allows me to keep in contact with your lot), having no contact with the outside and being focused on the moment is good too - I need to find a balance between these two, where I think it's a little too sided towards contact at the moment. We'll see.
There only planned activity for the day was a visit to the Sumela Monastery, a now disused ancient christian monastery half way up a cliff. No, really, this thing is build into a cliff, about 800 metres up. I'd shown you the pictures I've taken, but they are still stuck on them camera - a quick image search will show you what I mean.
Given how big it is and where it is, my first thought (after: wow!) was: how the hell did they build that?! Humans do some amazing (and also stupid and downright nasty) things in the name of God.
Rachel had a good point - gives that the place is built where there was a miraculous appearance or Mary in the rocks (order so the storyline goes) - what were the people who've discovered it doing up their in the first place?! It isn't what you'd call accessible.
The place itself is another place I'm glad I've visited - it's an insight in to a world in just don't know; the world of a people who build a monastery in a place which just can't have been easy to build in, make it fully functional by building an acquaduct (because building the monastery just wasn't hard enough), have then carved out a "priest room" and decorated with fresco painted scenes from the bible. Being atheist (although one with another increasing soft spot for Buddhism) I won't haven got from my place what someone who has actually read the bible could, but well worth the visit regardless.
One of the side bonuses to the visit is that we had a gentle 40 min walk up the hill to get to the monastery, providing a nicely relief for the otherwise far too static time only the truck - yes the truck is moving long distances, but there in limited ability for us to do real exercise; this is a major change in my life as compared to the previous 6 months. It's nice to be able to stretch my legs properly.
The bonus "activity" of the day was the drive, or at least the views whilst driving - he says with a feeling that I'm turning in to a stuck record. Having spent a week or so in the Swiss and Austrian Alps a few years ago there scenery was very familiar - mountains, twisty passes which take you up & over, small little groups of houses, rivers through the valleys and all with a touch on snow still on the peaks. The major difference - mosques. All the little "Swiss" towns and villages had a mosque; other than that you could have been in Europe.
I am now the proud owner of a visa for Azerbaijan.
What was going to take the wrong side of a week in London took 2 hours in Batumi and I think if pushed could have been done in about 20 minutes - there was a big book of them on the desk in the office and you could easily do all the paperwork for a visa, including writing the visa out (yes folks, my visa is hand written) within 20 minutes; probably 10.
I suspect it took as long as 2 hours as there guy sortie it out at the Consulate was more interested in Facebook - his computer screen had it showing and as we left his office he went back to looking at it.
The only other visas to sort is the Mongolian one, but that can't be done in London as it would expire before I got there; one for Beijing, but that is expected.