Tournament of Shadows….. Kazakhstan

People have asked me what there is to see and do in Kazakhstan.  This proves a difficult question to answer, because there is no singular answer.  Perhaps because it’s the 9th largest country in the world, or perhaps because of rapid development in select pockets of the country; but Kazakhstan is diverse.  Very diverse.

Astana.  The capital since 1997 provides a skyline of lavish architectural oddities. This includes the world largest tent and a glass pyramid partially set below ground. The expansion and creative building construction in the city continues.  As the host of Expo 2017 the government invested $5 billion and controversially built what has been dubbed “the Death Star” in which to hold the event.

Crossing the seemingly never-ending steppe by train to the former capital, Almaty, took me 20 hours.  On arrival the mountainous backdrop creates a picturesque setting, though a layer of smog and the soviet era concrete block buildings nestling at the base are less ambient. Almaty is a decidedly more cosmopolitan and livable city with coffee shops, parks and a level of tourism.  It also interestingly boasts the world’s shortest metro system, with just nine stops.

As you’d expect with such a large country and population of 18 million it is mainly devoid of life, with vast open spaces.  This is a country on the infamous Silk Road, invaded during the reign of Ghengis Khan with many towns razed by his army. Resulting in a number of abandoned settlements eerily scattered in the Kazakh desert.  The wilderness also boasts snow topped mountain ranges, canyons and National Parks of great beauty.

Worth a visit?  Yes, but familiarise yourself with the 42 letter Kazakh alphabet or better still, learn Russian!

*for those interested parties (you know who you are!) the worlds largest tent is 150m tall and contains a shopping centre, a man-made beach and a roller coaster 

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Sulawesi island of traditions…

One of the key draw factors for this Indonesian island could be said to be bordering on the macabre.  Unique funeral ceremonies here are a celebration of life and a preparation for the afterlife.  And I got to observe one take place in Toraja, the Central Highlands.

When a relative passes away, they are embalmed and kept within the famiy home for anything up to ten years.  This is to both plan the funeral and save money for the ceremony itself.  During this interim period a place continues to be set for the deceased at meal times, and they remain very much part of proceedings.

Funeral procession

Funeral procession

Funeral preparations include the building of an elaborate temporary bamboo structure to house all attendees, designing an itinerary for the three day event and buying sacrificial animals.  Note that here in Sulawesi where you can get a good meal and large beer for approx. $7 they spend significant sums apparently up to *$80k to buy a single buffalo for imminent departure into the next life (hence the requirement to save) .  Price is dependent on the quality of specimen, where factors such as colour, eye colour, tail length and of course horn shape are key.

The funeral parade itself was a cacophony of noise and colour.  There was a unique chanting and dance routine from the character leading the parade, and a melancholy tune from a solo wind instrument mixed with the confusion of braying animals.  Family wearing traditional dress, incorporating beads and ritual weaponry, rubbed shoulders with local villagers in black clothing and Vietnamese cone shaped hats.  The gist of the parade was for attendees in small groups to deliver offerings and pay respect to the deceased, this continued loop of activity only paused for lunch – stewed buffalo and rice.

It was an interesting experience, and not one for animal lovers.  I had expected more celebration and joy, but there was definitely a sombre note in the air for the day.

So here’s a scattering of other facts about this island, which is firmly nestled amongst the World’s largest archipelago:

  • 62% of Sulawesi’s mammals are endemic to the island – that’s a huge percentage.  This includes tarsiers and a most unusual looking wild pig called a babirusa.  Glad I didn’t see a babirusa it looks quite formidable.
  • More funeral information.  Continued tradition includes the burial of the deceased in graves dug out of rock


    faces.  For those richer families who sacrifice at least 24 buffalos they have the privilege of marking the grave with a tau-tau (wooden effigy) on a balcony along with other similar effigies.  The effect is rather eerie.

  • Sulawesi is the World’s 11th largest island.  It looks deceivingly small on a map, but believe me once you get there it most certainly is a sizeable destination.

* This sounds like a vast amount but it’s what I was advised by a local.

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Two more sleeps till Sulawesi….

…. so that’s two more sleeps till swimming in a lake full of jellyfish.  Just because I can!jellyfish

Sometimes life is full of wow moments, surely this will be another one of them – fingers crossed!


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Yay! New trip in planning phase….

…. this time it’s Sulawesi, Indonesia.  The shape of this island destination is said to resemble the petals of an orchid, which all sounds very whimsical and romantic.

Though for the more hardened traveller there is the prospect of a nocturnal adventure looking for tarsiers, and uncovering the history of head hunter tribes.  Definitely more my cup of tea.  Although I draw the line at trying the local delicacy of stewed forest rat!

A bit scary looking!

A bit scary looking!

51 sleeps to go…..


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Uploaded all my favourite photos…

It's the silk road

It’s the silk road

…. to peruse the photographs from my latest adventures (The Stans and Iran) simply use this link to my flickr account.  Enjoy!!



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Turkmenistan, least touristy of the Stan’s…

… and I think I know why!!  This country is tough even for the hardy traveller, into which category I firmly place myself.  The difficulty in getting a visa and then enduring the immigration experience, places you in good stead for what is to come.



Lone travellers are rare, and women even more so, as most visitors are on organised tours.  This makes finding an English speaker tricky, including in hotels.  In my three days there, I found just one person who I could converse with.  So lots of gesticulating and smiling occurred.  Everyone was friendly and wanted to have a conversation, people just kept repeating the same thing again and again, as if I’d suddenly become fluent in Turkmen in their presence.

Interesting things about this relatively unknown former Soviet state:

  • The forlorn beautiful UNESCO world heritage sight of Konye Urgench, has several ancient buildings all leaning perilously due to earthquake damage.  I was convinced the 59m tower was going to topple at any time.
  • Prestige and opulence are the order of the day in the cities, particularly the capital Ashgabat.  Huge sweeping avenues are lined with large sparkling white buildings, but where are the people?  Only officials and gardeners were present in the newest area of the city.

    Former President

    Former President

  • The previous president seems to have been a character – filling the cities with gold statutes of himself, renaming the months with names of his family, and banning television reporters from wearing make-up because he said he found it difficult to distinguish males from females.

I visited Turkmenistan en route from Uzbekistan to Iran, with the view of just spending three days there.  I think this is a country worthy of more attention, but the transport limitations, difficulty communicating and most importantly the government restrictions make Turkmenistan a challenge.

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Uzbekistan, home to the scintillating Silk Road…

Fave building!

Fave building!

… and so much more.  Genghis Khan did a reasonable amount of damage to this fair land, as have numerous serious earthquakes over the ages.  However several amazing historic structures remain – huge domed mosques, medrassas in brilliant hues of blue, and ornate grand entrance portals.  In each town these seemed to generally be grouped together surrounding a central courtyard for the ultimate wow factor.

To fight the fierce heats of summer and cold harsh winters the older towns are all walled, with mud houses accessible through low doors off the numerous twisting turning alleys.  Bazaars here are typical to the region, brick structures with arched roofs crammed full of stalls selling all kinds of paraphernalia.  This is where all the action happens.  People congregate to shop, chat and get out of the cold biting wind – I know as I happily joined them.

Now whilst Uzbekistan has a fairly quiet backpacker trail, a certain amount of tenacity is still required to surpass the language barrier.  There is an expectation that as a tourist you speak Russian, which was a rather optimistic view in my case!

So what else did I experience in this interesting far flung destination?  Well….

  • Taxi?  What taxi?  Just flag down a car driving past and if it’s going your way it’s a win all round.
  • I thought that the imaginings of Roald Dahl’s character *Veronica Beauregarde and her chewing gum habits were one of pure fantasy.  But oh no, not here.  I saw chewing gum stored behind ears and on fingernails for re-chewing later, all a bit yukky!

    Simply stunning architecture!

    Simply stunning architecture!

  • Finance was interesting, I changed $200 into the local currency of Som.  My new currency was so vast it came in a carrier bag containing 600 physical notes!  Only recently has a note for a larger amount been introduced, however these are still rare.  Hence the requirement for carrying your funds in a backpack as opposed to a wallet.
  • A previous post mentioned the tradition of not turning bread upside down.  I had dinner with two locals, and one actually reached over to the others plate and turned his bread the correct way around.  I was flabbergasted, but it seemed quite usual behaviour here.

*Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s third golden ticket winner and claimed to be the world record holder for chewing gum.

Categories: adventure, Asia, culture, people | 2 Comments

Just days to go till the Stans…

… and still my passport is missing in transit.  Hoping beyond hope it will arrive in time!!

This trip could be described as one of my more challenging adventures yet.  Slightly off the beaten track, but well and truly on the Silk Road is my

Sheep head in a can!!

Sheep head in a can!!

first destination – Uzbekistan.  Labelled the regions’ “cradle of culture” it’s full of history and intrigue; whilst boasting towns with amazing 5th Century BC architecture.  All of which excitingly awaits my discovery.

However I am feeling very unprepared, and not for the first time.  Ever since arriving in Ethiopia without any accommodation organised you’d have thought I’d learnt my lesson!!  Errr no, not exactly.  On the plus side I have two of my three visas in my passport ready to go – hooray!  Although as mentioned earlier I don’t actually have my passport as yet which is rather concerning.

Worthy of a mention following my research are these facts:

  • Bread is sacred, do not turn it upside down.
  • Sheep head, mainly the brains, eyeballs and right cheek are a delicacy.  Did someone say Indiana Jones?
  • The worlds largest hand-woven rug is on my route, unsure exactly how big it is.  But seems like a bold claim and I am expecting it to be huge.

My timing is all wrong for these events however

  • Turkmenistan’s “A drop of water is a grain of gold day” which sounds like an interesting day, and is amazing name for a public holiday.
  • Kupkari, a traditional game similar to polo but using a goat’s carcass minus the head.  Nowadays I believe it’s part of a festival, but would definitely be an eye-opener for the uninitiated.

 I am unsure as to the ease and speed of internet access whilst I’m away, but nevertheless stay tuned to find out how this adventure goes!

Categories: adventure, Asia, culture | 2 Comments

One month to go….

… until I head off on what can only be described as one of my more challenging adventures yet.  Slightly off the beaten track, but well and truly on the Silk Road is my first destination – Uzbekistan.  Labelled the regions’ “cradle of culture” it’s full of history and intrigue; whilst boasting towns with amazing 5th Century BC architecture.  All of which excitingly awaits my discovery.

Don't mind if I do... Shiraz

Don’t mind if I do… Shiraz

However I am feeling very unprepared, and not for the first time.  Ever since arriving in Ethiopia without any accommodation organised you’d have thought I’d learnt my lesson!!  Errr no, not exactly.  On the plus side I have two of my three visas in my passport ready to go – hooray!  And I’ve invested in a couple of long tops and scarves in order to adhere to Iranian culture and customs.

I’ll be visiting the ancient city of Shiraz, but as an alcohol free zone they’ll be no wine tasting for me…



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Off the beaten track….

and even more so than usual.  I have four months before my next trip but am currently researching the nuances of obtaining Central Asian visas.  To be honest this ranks up there with completing a Rubik’s cube!!

In no particular order, and with the added complication of travelling solo, for my visas I need the following:

Complexity personified

Complexity personified

  • Passport photographs taken wearing a traditional headscarf or hijab on.  So sadly my recent pictures won’t suffice.
  • Letters of invitations from the necessary countries.
  • A money order, didn’t even know what this was and had to google it!
  • Comprehensive hard-core travel insurance.
  • Proof of visas to the other places I’ll be visiting, so I have to get the visas in a specific order…

Note whilst researching this blog I found that the quickest time recorded to solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded (yes, blindfolded) is 23.80 seconds, which includes time to examine the cube prior to being blindfolded.  So maybe this visa malarkey isn’t so complex after all 🙂 

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