Monthly Archives: July 2015

27Jul/15

Where the open road began: The ancient homeland of the original nomads

Summer was arriving in Kashmir’s Sindh Valley. The ice was retreating up the towering mountains and the fragrant heather was lending the hillsides a cloak of purple. Far below, the river ran wide with melted snow. As the seasons move, so the time comes for annual migrations.

The call of cuckoos carried a melancholy air of farewell, a sound I’d usually associate with autumn in the English countryside. The darting swallows seemed to be taking a final look at their winter home, as they prepared for their astonishing journey to the insect-rich wilderness of Siberia.

The path we were following along the steep slope was only a foot-span wide, marked out by the passage of sheep and cattle. Our destination was a collection of rough stone-built huts, the summer abode of the original Gypsies, who when I visited with a local guide were still on the road, herding their sheep up from their winter pastures.

Today this is a small population, the remnant of a people who started travelling towards the setting sun, and never stopped. Here however, in this remote outpost of Northern India, the Gypsies continue with their ancient twice-yearly migration between lowland and upland.

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Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

There has always been confusion about the origins of the Gypsies, reflected in the various names they have been given over the years. Gypsy is a shorted form of “Egyptian”, based on a colourful theory that they were descended from the Biblical innkeeper of ‘Little Egypt’ who turned away Mary and Joseph. For this reason, it was suggested, they had embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness — hence “Roma”.

Perhaps more accurate is their name in Central Europe — Sinti, which almost certainly is derived from “Sindh”. This theory is backed up by many aspects of Romani culture, particularly the language, which is closely related to Sanskrit. Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

Their “summer residences” had none of the luxuries that such a description would usually suggest — no verandas, fountains or rose gardens. Just tiny earth-floored hovels (ironically, this word is possibly related to the Hindi word “haveli” — which means private mansion) with a small hearth and a door. However, they do come with million-dollar views, and herb gardens that stretch from horizon to horizon.

IMG_2493-1-350x261Quite how old they are would be impossible to guess. But they did carry that sense of antiquity that you can almost taste in very old buildings. I like to think they dated from before the great migration.

The houses are built into the slopes, meaning that the packed earth roof seems to be just an extension of the hillside, a natural ledge on the incline. Approaching from above, it would be easy not to realise you were standing on top of somebody’s home.

image-1-300x300Even though they were all standing empty, it seemed somehow disrespectful to poke around too much, so after taking a few pictures, we headed down the slope to the waiting car.

About half way back to Srinigar — I was staying in a houseboat on the city’s Dal Lake — a turn in the road revealed a field full of tents. These were the neutral-coloured practical sort favoured by refugee agencies and the like. But this wasn’t any sort of humanitarian crisis, just the travelling kit of the returning Gypsies.

From the fleeting view I had, the camp was a cheerful place. Brightly dressed children darted around the tents like swallows on the wing, and women smiled and laughed as they stirred steaming cauldrons of food. Even the large flock of sheep that trimmed the grass around the site seemed content with their lot in life.

My guide seemed to pick up on my train of thought. “They are very happy now,” he said. “Only ten more days walking and they will be home again for the summer.”

26Jul/15

Living in the Last of the Soviet Union – a month in Transnistria

The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is a lovely place. It really is. What? You’ve never heard of it? It’s a small strip of land between Moldova (heard of that one?) and Ukraine.transnistria

Some people call it “a cold war relic”, others describe it as “the last remnant of the Soviet Union”. There are even those who like to say it’s “the only place in Europe that didn’t get the memo about the Berlin wall coming down.”

I first visited Transnistria — as it’s most often known — in 2010, when my travel company, Young Pioneer Tours, started to expand out of North Korea into some of the lesser-visited corners of the former Soviet empire. It was just one of the stops on an epic overland journey from Beijing, China, to Tirana, Albania.

Once you’ve survived the Trans Siberian across the vast Russian expanse, there are dozens of ways to get through Eastern Europe by train. But after hearing words like “relic” and “remnant” and “memo-missing”, I knew what route I had to take.

1So that November, I brought the first ever tourist group into the country. And, by Stalin’s moustache, wasn’t it an adventure? Strange flags, statues of Lenin, vodka for a dollar, and more hammers and sickles than you could shake a stick at. And if all that wasn’t enough, a cop pulled a gun on us. (But, like they say, he was more afraid of us than we were of him… and anyhow, it’s a long story, best said another day.)

So here I am now, five years later, writing this — and my love affair with this strange little place gets stronger every day.

So what is Transnistria? If you want to know the details, get on Google — but read multiple sources, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

But if you want my pocket-sized, abridged guide, here you go: Transnistria is a breakaway state populated mostly Russians and Ukrainians who fought a brief civil war against Moldova because they didn’t want to be part of their post-Soviet nation (Moldavians essentially are Romanians). It is a sliver of land on the far bank of the Dniester river (hence “Trans-Dniester”). The capital city is Tiraspol.

It is a largely unrecognised state. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh have diplomatic missions, but these little-known places are also described as “Soviet remnants”. Apparently, they all “missed the memo”. In all these countries, there is a substantial passport-holding Russian population, and so the Kremlin tends to keep a paternal eye on their welfare.

Until 2012 Transnistria was run by President Smirnov, who despite often being accused of being a dictator, left peacefully after being democratically voted out of office. They miss him now.

So fast forward to the summer of 2015. I’m trying to chill out at my mum’s house in London, where despite the free accommodation I’m haemorrhaging money. If you like smoking, drinking and all the fine things of life, England just doesn’t work.

So, with a month until my next travel job, it dawned on me — Tiraspol in July!

There are exactly eight “expats” living in Tiraspol. Seven of them are professional footballers, who are paid ridiculous sums by the local oligarchs for their FC Sheriff Tiraspol vanity project. The eighth man is my mate, Tim.Gareth and Tim

Quite why he arrived here eight years ago to found a hostel, not even he can say. But he opened a new frontier in tourism, and it’s no surprise that he is now known as Tiraspol Tim. We became friends and business partners when I first visited, so when I called him from my mum’s house, he had all the answers. “No worries, I can sort an apartment, just $200 a month.” Perfect. He casually added that it would be typical “Soviet Style”. Sounds great, I thought.

As Transnistria doesn’t officially exist, it doesn’t have an airport. And because Moldova — the country it fought to be freed of — is the least visited country in Europe, getting here ain’t easy. I opted for Ryanair to Bucharest.

From here you can jump on the old Soviet train network to Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. This train goes once daily in both directions. It takes up to 16 hours, and is usually empty enough to mean you get your own room.

There used to be a great hostel in Chisinau run by a British guy, but sadly it closed a few years ago. The ones that are left are great if you love bedbugs, and hot water.

But it ain’t a problem, Chisinau is cheap. Hostels are less than ten bucks, and a double room in a classic old Soviet-style hotel won’t set you back much. If you want to splash out, go for the Hotel Cosmos, near the train station, for 25 Euros. It’s got all the “missed-the-memo” ambience you’d hope for, along with a splendidly cheap bar crowded with unusually friendly and beautiful women. Not the best place in the world, but fine for one night….

So three days later, I got a taxi to take me to the bus station. He was a young lad who had no issue with me smoking in the car. He seemed pretty cool, so I asked what he would charge me to drive me the two hours to Tiraspol.

“Twenty-five Euro”. Ok, I said. Let’s go. It was my first time crossing the border in a car, but the border was a doddle, and before I knew it I was with Tim at Tiraspol’s iconic 7 Frydays bar.

Time rolled by, and soon it was past 10pm. No so long ago, that meant ‘no more booze’. Well, technically. What it actually meant was knocking on a certain window in a certain alleyway… Soviet Values 1, Capitalist Decadence 1.

soviet style roomMy apartment was exactly as was promised — Soviet Style. Everything, and I mean everything (apart from the wireless router) dated from before the wall came down.

For the first few days, my pocketful of change did me proud. By God, it’s cheap here. But then, as it does, my cash ran out.

In a world with Visa, MasterCard, Amex and the rest (I even have UnionPay, the Chinese version), this isn’t usually much of a problem. But in this country that doesn’t officially exist, it is. Trans-Dniester has its own currency, the Transnistrian Rouble, a currency that is pegged to the dollar at a fixed exchange rate. It’s a currency that can’t be used anywhere outside the country, and it’s the only currency any place will take within the country. You simply can’t use cards anywhere. Apparently, there are a few cashpoints that dispense Russian Roubles (that then have to be exchanged), but they’re hard to find. I called Tim to ask him what I was to do, he gave a suggestion, and I went out to give it a try.

I headed to the Sheriff supermarket (we will talk about these guys later) armed with my bank card and my passport, queued about for half an hour, handed my card and passport to a lady, who took another half an hour filling in forms and signing scraps of paper. It was a very long 30 minutes, but I eventually had a pile of local Roubles. and like magic after a mere hours of waiting had my cash.

cashFlush with cash, I decided to do a little shopping in the Sheriff Supermarket. Remember that word Sheriff? Well Sheriff is THE company in Transnistria, and they own everything, car shops, gas stations, every supermarket and much more besides. They are what in the old times would be considered the state monolith, except they are private, and owned by ex-President’s son Smirnov Jnr, who — by sheer fluke, no doubt — created his business empire at the same time his daddy was president. To give him credit though, he also created a kick-ass football team — Sheriff FC — that win the league every year and have a great stadium.

Tiraspol Tim had told me that he would be busy for a few days as he had a group of Norwegians visiting for three days, and he would be showing them around. The next day I happened to bump into them and they told me that when they entered the country, the border guards had kept them for three hours thinking they were spies.

I found out the next day that the local KGB had been to check on them again, so they had decided to leave early. I found this a shame, not just for Tim, and the Norwegians, but most importantly it was a massive kick in the balls to the local tourist industry. Tim advised me to lie low for a few days, so I complied, chilling in my house using the surprisingly fast internet and catching up on work.

Following the lying low period, I decided to venture about by myself to check out my neighbourhood. This was actually extremely pleasant. It’s often a forgotten point about Soviet places, but they always have lovely parks and open spaces to liven up the often dull architecture.

As we rolled into my second week, I was starting to fall into my little routine — working throughout the day, doing a supermarket run at night, co, and then repeating the next day.

beerOn that point I will briefly discuss cost of living. It’s insane. Food costs next to nothing. Vodka is $1 a litre, beer about $1.10 for 2 litres and cigarettes are less than 35 cents. Tim explained that wages here average around $200 dollars a month. He also said that on occasion he had arranged Russian classes for foreigners for $10 an hour, only for the teachers not to show up. This is down to the old red curse — there’s very little to buy, what there is to buy is so cheap there’s no real yearning to work or earn more money. Positive, or negative? I guess it depends on your take on things.

After my self-inflicted exile, Tim insisted that we went to ‘the beach’. There are two beaches connected to the Dniester river, both with a sludgy muddy sand littered with Soviet era fairgrounds, swimming pools and cool little food and drink kiosks. Without wanting to come across as dirty old man (I’m still only 34, after all), the women of Tiraspol and Transnistria are frankly out of this world. They dress to the nines just to go to the supermarket, so a trip to the beach tends to be quite a treat, with the latest thong fashion being a definite nod to western decadence. Sadly for the ladies, they don’t get the same visual treat, as the gent’s beachwear of choice is usually tight budgie smugglers teamed with mighty bellies.

After the beach, we went for dinner and beers. Including transport I had spent $8 all day. And that was for two people, who were often surrounded by beautiful women. Not a bad result, all considered.

hostelI won’t dwell to much on my last few weeks in the country, as they just followed my familiar little routine, enlivened by trips to bars to hang out with Tim’s tourists and chilling out at the beach.

When I eventually did leave (vodka delayed my departure) I decided to take the bus. When I last did this four years ago, I had to pay a lot in bribes to get out, but this year I did things differently. I’d registered with the police and was given a special piece of paper. What was written on it, I don’t know, but it got me though the border without a word being spoken. And that was that, I no longer lived in Trans-Dniester.

To summarise, living in Transnistria was a lot more fun than I expected. I also found that it was even more Soviet than it appears. There are a lot of positive aspects to the country, which the government of the PMR can be proud of, such as the cost of living and decent public transport. But on the other hand there are the corrupt police registering your every movement and the local KGB hounding tourists out of the country. While the country get called the “last relic of the cold war” a more apt description would be that Transnistria looks like what the USSR would have done had Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika worked and the Union been saved. In that respect that it reminds me a lot of China. Mao, Lenin, or any number of Communist heroes might be looking at you from everywhere, democracy might be of secondary importance, but the actual political system is Wild-West capitalism where anything goes. Just don’t slag off the president, or his son.

24Jul/15

10 Bars To Visit Before You Die

No one lives forever…

(So here are 10 places to party in the meantime)

 

Having recently read an article about the “top 25 places to party before you die”, I was disappointed to see no mention of any of the places my travel firm, Young Pioneer Tours, likes to visit. Yes, we all know that developed countries like the US, and UK have some great bars — but what if your travel tastes lead you off the beaten track? Can you drink in Islamic states? Is there a party scene in North Korea? Can you be drunk in a land that doesn’t exist? Yes, yes and yes — and here’s how:

10. The DMZ Bar, Yangshuo, People’s Republic of China.
9. The Alba Hotel, Caracas, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
8. The Armenian Club, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran.
7. The Cave Bar, Trinidad, Republic of Cuba.
6. The Titanic Hotel, Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
5. Ward Number 6 (Palata no 6), Kiev, Ukraine.
4. The Angeles Beach Club (ABC), Pampanga, Republic of the Philippines.
3. The Dining Car, Trans-Mongolian Railway, Russian Federation.
2. The Train Station Bar, Tiraspol, Transnistria (Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica — PMR).
1. The Diplomatic Club, Pyongyang, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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The DMZ BarOK, in the interests of full disclosure, I own this bar, so I admit I’m a tad biased. But let’s look at the facts — Yangshuo is the coolest place in China, and The DMZ Bar is the best bar in Yangshuo. It’s also the only North Korean themed bar on the planet, where you can sip ice-cold imported beer dressed in communist suits, surrounded by unique pictures of the DPRK, enjoying a great atmosphere that feels more like a local pub than anywhere else in China. It’s the place of legends, so pop in and say hello next time you’re in China.
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22Jul/15

Cuban Elections, April 2015

ballot-paper19 April is election day in Cuba. The election is an ‘eleccion parcial’ – an election of delegates to the local assemblies (Municipal Assemblies of Popular Power).

The electoral process starts several weeks before, when local meetings are held to seek nominations for each constituency, which covers an area of roughly 10 blocks. There must be at least two candidates in each, and the winning candidate must have over 50% of the votes, or else a run-off election is run a month later. In this election there are 27379 candidates standing in 12589 constituencies across Cuba, and about 8 million people eligible to vote.

PionerosIt is considered a civic duty of every Cuban citizen aged 16 or over to vote, and turnout is high – around 95%. While each ballot is secret, the list of who has (and has not) cast their ballot is not, and it is normal for people who have not voted by the afternoon to get a knock on their door reminding them to turn out.

The integrity of each ballot box is ensured by the Pioneers – a youth organisation something like the Communist version of the Boy Scouts – on the basis that children should be incorruptible. Each ballot box is confirmed as empty before being sealed in the presence of at least two Pioneers. They then stand guard over the ballot box, giving a smart salute to each voter as he deposits his ballot paper. At least that’s the theory – when the cameras aren’t looking, it’s more likely to find a bored-looking child playing in a corner of the room.

campaign-materialElections at this level are a surprisingly non-political affair. Each candidate may or may not be a member of a political party, but both candidates and parties are banned from campaigning. Each candidate posts a single A4 sheet giving their educational and professional background but no statement of political policies or aims is given. The reasoning behind this is that it avoids the corruption perceived in big-money electioneering in other countries.

These local assemblies have responsibility for areas such as rubbish collection and repairing holes in roads. It is hard to please people in these rather unglamorous areas of public administration, especially given the very limited resources available.

Critics of the Cuban government say that the candidate selection process makes any electoral dissent all but impossible. However, in this election for the first time ever, there are candidates standing who are publicly active in the Cuban opposition.

21Jul/15

Rolling Through the Years: Love and Peace on the Russian Railways

Anyone who has ever travelled through Russia by train will have found themselves as regular, if reluctant, users of the rolling restaurant cars.

There really is nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do, so no matter how bad the food, or awful the service, one is somehow compelled to return night after night.

Perhaps it’s this absolute reliance on the places that leads to a strange flowering of respect, even love, for the people who run them. Or maybe it’s more like a form of Stockholm syndrome, or something to do with the cheapness of the vodka on offer.

It’s hard to know how the people behind the counters find themselves rattling back and forth through Siberia for a living — but they certainly never come via catering college or any charm school.

But somehow, when you finally step off the train, there’s a twinge of sadness. Somehow the filthy thumb that always smeared the soup over the lip of your bowl will take on a glow of nostalgia. You’ll smile fondly at the memory of their irrational outbursts of anger. Shake your head wistfully as you recall their constant attempts to overcharge you.

When I travelled between Moscow and Harbin, China, in 2013, I wrote about my dining car hosts just at the very moment I was beginning to fall under their strange spell:

The filthiest couple in the world have somehow found themselves in charge of the restaurant car in train number 20 of the Trans Manchurian express.

I don’t know their names, I wouldn’t dare ask, but I’ve come to think of them Mr and Mrs Grimski.

Most sleeping carriage attendants have little to occupy their time on these long journeys — apart from terrorising the passengers — so turn their hand to the most meticulous cleaning and polishing. Before each stop they lay cotton runners along the corridors to prevent dirty feet soiling the passageway carpet. The samovars are always gleaming and any daytime nap is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a vacuum cleaner, the head thrusting back and forth through the compartment door.

But Mr and Mrs Grimski have been in this game for too long to worry about such details. The toilet on their carriage, for reasons best not discussed, has been out of order for several months, so it can safely be locked and forgotten. The carpet has long since achieved a durable shine; now lacquered down with layers of dirt and grease it repels all further contamination. Everything else takes care of itself. The curtains hang stiffly in the windows, just as though they’d been recently starched, customers tend to wipe clean their own little corner of the plastic table covers, and the leather-effect seats are just the right shade of reddish brown to hide any stain.

With the housekeeping taken care of in such a way, it’s a rare day that anybody troubles the kitchen. I’d imagine that, being so unused, it remains perfectly clean under a smooth layer of protective dust.

The couple themselves were probably a handsome pair on their wedding day. A shadow of beauty can still be detected on her round face and a faint light still glows behind her tired eyes. He hasn’t lost his lazy swagger, nor the bootleg aviator sunglasses that so impressed her when they first met all those years ago.

But they’re still in love, so who needs To wash? They don’t notice that their hands are permanently blackened with coal dust, or the mysterious greyness that migrates from their hair, down their necks and onto their collars.

Their clothes — well, what of them? They’re government property — and while their bosses may change with predictable regularity, new uniforms turn up in their own good time.

But I like Mr and Mrs Grimski. For a married couple of so many years their conversation together is easy, fluent and good-natured.

What’s more, because of their management policies, the restaurant car is a haven of absolute peace and quiet, and they usually let me smoke with my evening beer.