A Turkish Bath? I'd rather get my hair cut

I was toying with the idea of going to a Turkish bath. It was a 'Must Do' according to all the advertising boards outside the travel agents lining the streets. It was just that something about the idea of lying on a slab being pummeled by a big bloke did  not attract me, maybe if it were a lady working on me I might have changed my mind, but that would be far too unseemly for Turkey's fairly conservative morals.

Ephesus. The largest Roman city in Asia

Ephesus was the largest city in Roman Asia, and second only to Rome in size with a population at its peak of over 400,000 people. It had all the amenities of a major city, parliament, theatre, library, public baths, housing,  many temples and a flourishing sea port. A number of calamities caused its decline and eventual abandonment, starting with being attacked by Goths, a huge earthquake causing many buildings to collapse, another sacking this time by Arab forces, and finally the silting up of its harbour, which economically ruined the city.

Whirling with the Dervishes.Cappadocia

In a restored Silk Road Caravanserai near Urgup, the Sufi religious ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes is performed weekly. It is a separate order within the Sunni faith of Islam and although once practised throughout the middle east, it is now limited to small groups in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Indonesia.

Going Underground. Derinkuyu City

Discovered by chance in 1963 when a homeowner, renovating his cellar, broke through an earth wall and discovered a passageway, Derinkuyu is a huge subterranean city in the Cappadocia region.The region has many of these cities which were built in the seventh century and used to hide from marauding armies, particularly the Romans who had a tendency to raid the Anatolia region to procure slaves.

Lamb instead of Pigeon. Hiking in Cappadocia

Slow cooked lamb kebabs
I was lost. And now I could go no further. The path I was following had suddenly stopped at a huge fissure, with a thirty metre sheer drop and no obvious means to cross it. There was no way to climb down, and if I did get down there I might not be able to get back up again. There was nothing for it, I would have to return back and retrace the steps of my two hour journey to this point. As I was reluctantly making up my mind to return, a man in a faded cap with a small herd of goats appeared behind me. He looked at me with slight interest, probably as few tourists wandered into this valley, and then walked up to me.

I want to be a Troglodyte. The Cave houses of Cappadocia

View from an abandoned Cave house looking towards Pink Valley
Volcanic eruptions two million years ago caused the region of Cappadocia to be covered by thick ash, which became soft rock (or in geological terms,Tuff). Erosion over time left only the harder remnants of the Tuff, which has been shaped by the elements into amazing formations; towers, chimneys, mushrooms, and rocks that appear to have been sculpted by Henry Moore. The soft rock also enabled the inhabitants to carve out their cave homes in these towers, and to go underground at times of danger.

Top 10 things to do in Istanbul

The Basillica Cistern
Istanbul is a city that has managed to preserve its history well, despite being a pivotal battle ground between the Roman and Ottoman empires, being fought over, ransacked, and changing hands several times. With a population today of 19 million, only slightly less than that of the whole of Australia, it is a frenetic place that rewards wandering around on foot, or by ferry to avoid the constant traffic jams. Invest in a Istanbul Card to allow easy and cheap travel on ferries, trams, buses and trains, and then go exploring.

Ayaz Qala. The Desert Forts of Khorezm

Ayaz Qala II. Dominating the surrounding desert
The forts rise majestically out of the Kyzyl Kum desert. All were built on the edges of the ancient kingdom of Khorezm, whose capital was Gurganj (which is now in modern day Turkmenistan). They were constructed to protect Khorezm from attack by foreign armies and Uzbek nomads. Their remoteness, on the very edge of Karakalpakstan, and the aridity of the desert, has helped preserve their mud and clay walls. I visited Ayaz Qala, a set of three forts about three hours from Khiva, and five hours from Nukus.

Walking on the Aral Sea

This is the Aral Sea. The photo above was taken from Moynak  harbour wall, where you can now see the local fishing fleet stranded. It was a fishing village once home to over 10,000 people, their boats and a canning factory. The drying up happened here so quickly that many owners were unable to move their boats in time. It is now a place of immense sadness and dereliction. The drying up of the vast Aral sea has destroyed the local economy.

Moynak. The death of a Fishing Village

This is the statue of a fisherman that stood proudly outside the Moynak fish canning factory in Karakalpakstan on the Aral Sea. The canning factory was one of the most profitable in the Soviet Union, producing fish and caviar that was served at the tables of the Kremlin.

Where the Hell is Karakalpakstan?

Leaving Turkmenistan was a lot easier than arriving in it. Sort of. My guide was panicking as the borders were closed between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, some sort of tiff as far as I could understand. Having been in Central Asia for two weeks I was less concerned, these crazy things tend to sort themselves out, all you need is patience.

The ancient city of Gurganj

On the northern edge of the Kara Kum desert are the remains of the important Silk Road trading post of Gurganj. It was the capital of Khorezm, a small country surrounded by the Persians and Uzbeks. It was a place of great beauty, with palaces, gardens and the mighty Oxus river providing both transport and irrigation. Its beauty was no protection from invasion.

The Gate to Hell. Darvaza.

We left Ashgabat around lunchtime in a convoy of three 4WD cars, packed with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, and, of course, many bottles of Vodka. We were heading to the site of a Soviet mining accident in 1971 when Russian geologists were drilling for oil. They found gas instead, and the drilling rig collapsed into a crater. The gas was expected to burn out within days, yet 40 years later it is still burning brightly.

Takeaway food, Turkmenistan Style

About 20 km’s outside of Ashgabat is the Tolkucha Sunday market. This is the largest open air market in Central Asia.  It sprawls across the edge of the desert, and here you can buy and sell anything. The big days are still the weekends, particularly Sundays, when buyers and sellers pour in from all over Turkmenistan and Iran.

6500 Tourists a year

That is how many tourist visas were issued in 2012 for Turkmenistan. Tourism is not viewed as important by the government, and with the vast sums being earned in oil and gas, this view will probably not change.

Peak hour in Ashgabat

Despite the attractions of virtually free petrol*, the roads in the centre of Ashgabat are deserted much of the time. Huge marble clad buildings surround the roads, Turkmenistan is the number one importer of Italian marble in the world, it even has a Guinness book of records entry for this, but not enough people live and work here to make use of the generous multi lane highways.

Merv. The largest city in the world

In the twelfth century Merv had over a million inhabitants and was considered to be the largest city on earth for some years. It spread over hundreds of acres, on the borders of modern day Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. It was a glittering city, with travellers in awe of its many ornate buildings and its size. Today, although much has been destroyed by both invaders and time, there are still significant remains to be explored.

Welcome to Turkmenistan

Leaving Uzbekistan involved a one hour taxi to the border zone, a place of emptiness with only a barbed wire fence interrupting the view to the horizon of sand and dried vegetation. I then had to queue for two hours in dirty, boiling hot border post, with broken fans not moving the fetid air. The majority of people seemed to be traders, with their bags stuffed full of Uzbek goods, mostly clothes and food. I am fairly patient, but the heat and the boredom of standing in a long line was exhausting.

Khiva. Algebra and Guinness

Khiva, like Bukhara, was a powerful city state on built on an old oasis between the Kyzl Kum and Kara Kum deserts. It grew to become a major trading post on the Silk Road, building up a specialty in slave trading. Khiva continued to grow and  developed a small empire, including much of modern day Turkmenistan, before it was overcome by Russian forces in 1873. With the formation of the Soviet Union it was included rather strangely in Uzbekistan, despite its people being mainly Turkmen in origin, and its history intertwined with that of Turkmenistan.

Bukhara. Feasting at the end of Ramadan

I met a lovely family in Bukhara, who adopted me for my stay. Rustham and his large extended family lived in a narrow street near the Kalon minaret. A typical Bukhara house with a huge yard containing a day bed at one side, which acted variously as an eating table, a play table for the kids, and a bed at night to look up at the stars from.

Bukhara. An ancient city dominated by a Minaret.

I was up at 5:30 AM, a time unheard of normally for me, but this was Bukhara, in the middle of the Khyzl Kum desert, with temperatures passing 45C by midday, so I had to overcome my natural aversion to getting out of bed.

On the beach with the Hoodoo Gurus

Seeing the Hoodoo Gurus at the Bristol Locarno was one of my first ever gigs. No checking of ID’s ensured I could sneak into the 18+ venue on a school night and hang off the balcony listening to an aural barrage of guitar, bass and drums. I had no idea how loud a gig could be. 

A Night at the Football. Samarkand.


Seeing as the Brazil World Cup tournament has just kicked off, I thought it was timely to post this Football influenced blog. I am not a huge fan of the game regarding it as more of an opportunity for 90 minutes of philosophical reflection, in between fleeting moments of excitement on the pitch.

Another journey by train. Samarkand to Bukhara

I have always enjoyed traveling by train. It probably dates back to my childhood. We did not have much money when I was growing up, and yet almost every weekend my father took myself and my brother on a train trip to see every corner, every museum, every historical building, and every bloody railway station in the UK. It was a great education which left me with an abiding love of history, and travel.

Top 10 things to do in Yogjakarta

Yogjakarta (also commonly referred to as Jogjakarta) is my favourite Indonesian city. Despite a population of over 500,000 people it still feels like a small town. It has a wonderful historical centre, the Kraton, around which are located some great restaurants, cheap relaxing hotels with pools (mandatory for the afternoon heat), and unlike most Indonesian cities, it is easy to walk around. Not that you get much chance to do so with the Becak (trickshaw) and Ojek (motorbike) riders enticing you to take a ride and let them do the work.

Surviving the Wet Season in Java, Indonesia.

Travelling in the wet season in Java (from November to March) is not recommended by most guide books. Roads do get flooded, and travel plans may be have to be altered. However like the children excitedly, albeit somewhat dangerously, playing on the flooded road pictured above, it can be enjoyable and a great time to travel. And with weather patterns changing globally, you never know what to expect whatever season you travel in!

Sunrise at the Bromo Caldera. Gunung Bromo, Java.

The caldera at Mt Bromo in Java is a vulcanologists paradise. Four active volcanoes are located close together in a beautiful and easy to access location. A short journey by public transport from Probolinggo, or via bike from Malang (see this blog), and you are in Cemora Lawang, perched on the very edge of the caldera crater.

Riding onto the Ash Plains of the Bromo Caldera. Java

I needed to get to the volcanic caldera at Bromo, in the far east of Java. There were plenty of tours, but I had talked to others who had been cheated, abandoned at out of the way hotels far from Bromo, and generally suffered in cramped conditions on arranged mini buses out of both Jakarta and Jogjakarta. The closest city to Bromo, Probolinggo, has a particularly nasty reputation as the place to be ripped off in, and I wanted to avoid it. So I set up my own, more manic, trip to the caldera.

Temples, Chillies and Chips Inside a Crater. Dieng Plateau, Java

The Dieng Plateau is about 150 km from Yogajakarta in central Java. Being 2093 metres above sea level it is a unique part of Java, where everyone wears jackets and woolly hats, and chillies become an even more important part of the diet than at sea level.

Beware: Merapi. Java.

Back in Yogyakarta there was one volcano I had not visited yet, Mt Merapi, or Fire Mountain in Javanese, the most active volcano in Indonesia. Merapi just keeps on erupting. On my third night in Yogyakarta I was thrown around in my bed at 3 AM as an earthquake caused by the volcano shook the city. Ash and pumice was thrown from the cone at the same time.

Vote A or B for my new Turkemenistan guidebook cover about to launch

I need to choose a book cover, which should it be? A or B. As you may or may not know, I have a travel guide being published in the near future on the rather extraordinary country of Turkmenistan. It will be a mixture of a guidebook/ travelogue, which will be entertaining to the armchair traveller, or inspire a new wave of intrepid tourists to visit the country (if they can navigate the complex visa requirements!).

Borobudur. Reaching Nirvana before the tour groups arrive. Java.

Borobudur is one of the most visited sites in Java. Justifiably so, as the 9th century Buddhist temple is a beautiful and inspiring site to visit. It had been on my bucket list for years, and after having my fill of volcanoes, it was time get my history fix.

The Island you cannot leave. Karimunjawa, Java

The Karimunjawa islands are hard to get to, and very hard to leave. Not just because they are beautiful, sparsely occupied and teeming with sea life, but because the Java sea often puts paid to ferries being able to visit, particularly in the rainy season. I was lucky in getting out to the islands, with a very calm and sunny sailing from the north coast port of Jepara, but I had to return early, on a very choppy voyage, with warnings of bad weather and likely ferry cancellations likely to strand me there for up to a week. The locals told me that two weeks of isolation were not that unusual!

Volcano Chasing. Getting close to Mt Kelud, Java.

The volcano Mt Kelud had exploded a week earlier. Flights across Indonesia and Northern Australia were disrupted, 76,000 people were evacuated, Yogyakarta and Malang had been blanketed in ash, and the temples in Borobudur were closed (and due to risk of acid rain from the ash remained closed for a further two weeks). One small volcano in Java did all this? I wanted to see it.

The Sulphur Miners of the Kawah Ijen volcano, Java

Climbing into the Kawah Ijen volcano, as described in this blog, was an unforgettable chance to get smothered in sulphur gases, see the unusual 'Blue Lava', and be constantly forced off the tiny, rocky and dangerous path by miners carrying huge bamboo baskets of sulphur, that they had just mined while dodging the poisonous gases at the bottom of the volcano. It is incredibly hard work in one of the most severe and dangerous environments on earth. To quote Booker T Washington, who visited a similar volcanic mine in Sicily in the nineteenth century "I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulphur mine is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.".

Sulphur and Blue Lava, climbing into Kawah Ijen Volcano. Java

It has been 24 hours since I climbed up, and then into Kawah Ijen, and despite much washing of clothes and body I can still catch the faint smell of sulphur. The volcano is in far east Java, active and overdue an eruption, with the last major one being in 1936. What brings the more adventurous traveller here is the unique 'Blue lava' at the base of the crater, and the Sulphur miners who work in some of the hardest, and most dangerous, conditions in the world.

Cigarettes and Submarines. What to see in Surabaya

Surabaya, the largest city in East Java (with a population of 2.5 Million) is a stop off point on the way to and from Bali. It is worth hanging around for day or two to explore. Here are my top things to do in Surabaya.

A Volcano erupts in an urban area. Sidoarjo, Indonesia

40,000 people lived and worked happily in 14 villages on the edge of Sidoarjo in Java, Indonesia. Surrounded by rice paddies and close to the sea it was a fairly quiet place away from the major city nearby of Surabaya. Until May 2006, when PT Lapindo, a major oil and gas explorer (who included Santos, a large Australian company, as a shareholder) got permission to perform an exploratory drill nearby.

Scooting through Singapore. Travelling on the cheap.

Singapore has recently been named the most expensive city in Asia, overtaking Tokyo, and I was flying there and stopping over in transit for 12 hours on my way to explore the volcanoes of Java. I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible. Here is how I did it.

Non bread Samarkand style

I visited the Sarmarkand market early morning and caught one of the Non bread barrow boys delivering the freshly baked bread to a stall. They use what looks like a converted pram, to speed the fresh bread from tandoor oven to customer.

Saying Yes to Soviet Westerns, Cellos and Vodka. A night out in Samarkand.

Before I left Australia I had decided to say ‘Yes’ to any offer or invitation that came my way, as Danny Wallace did in the fun read ‘Yes Man’. The idea was to see what adventures this may lead me too, to get out of my hotel room, and to get out of my comfort zone. The only condition was that it had to be legal and not involve over inflated price gouging by older Russian ladies with so much make-up on they would resemble ‘the Joker’ if they cried (one step forward ladies of the night at the Hotel Uzbekistan bar in Tashkent).

Police on my back. Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Within one hour of my arrival in Tashkent I had been stopped in the street three times, my bag searched twice, and my pockets emptied out once by curt, unfriendly police. I was left in no doubt who was in control, although I was getting somewhat annoyed, but hey, this is Uzbekistan.

Genghis Khan was here. Broken bones and pottery. Afrosiab, Uzbekistan

One of the best sites in Samarkand is away from the main tourist trail of Minarets, Madrasah and tombs, the remains of Afrosiab. This was the original city that pre-dates modern Samarkand. Described as ‘the most beautiful city in the world’ by a contemporary, it was a major trading station on the Silk road. Once occupied by Alexander the Great, it was destroyed by the violent Mongol invasion force in March 1220, with over 100,000 inhabitants being put to the sword.

‘The noblest public square in the world’. In Samarkand

Updating this blog on a Cyrillic keyboard, Russian win xp, and with a partially working space bar has given my brain a nice workout. Arriving in Samarkand is really going back in time, not just with no Wi-Fi and waiting 2 mins for a page to load, but to be in the city of the beautiful Registan.

Becoming A TV Personality for five minutes. Beer and Shashlik in Samarkand.

On the final leg of my journey to Uzbekistan  (a journey that took me almost 24 hours from Sydney) I was approached by a large South African man. He wanted my autograph, and have his picture taken with me. I was a famous TV cook and he loved my show. I did like the attention, and thought about pretending to be a personality, but had to admit that sadly I was not famous and did not have my own TV show.

Beer and Bread on the Silk Road. Central Asia

Farflungplaces is off to Central Asia. My last trip to Uzbekistan was in 2010,  and this is one of my favourite photos taken as I wandered amongst the stalls of the Chorzu Bazzar in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Not a Womble in sight. The Bungle Bungle Ranges. Kimberley. Australia

Heading back to Kunanurra from Halls Creek, I stopped at Turkey Creek (also known as Warmun). Great for refueling, getting a snack or even sleeping in a cabin at the Roadhouse. It is also where you can drive in the Bungle Bungle range in the Purnulu National park. Just saying 'The Bungle Bungles' out loud is fun, natural alliteration, and throws up fond childhood memories for me of rotund furry Wombles picking up litter and sashaying across Wimbledon common.

Just like a horror movie. Breaking down at Wolfe Creek Crater, WA. Australia.

The road to the crater was shocking. It had been flattened by a bulldozer but the recent rains meant it was like driving over corrugated cardboard, with lots of little channels formed from the rain water. The whole car would vibrate terribly at slow speeds, which meant I had to drive at a fast 80 Km an hour, reducing the vibrations considerably. The Tanami track is one of the great 4WD journeys in Australia, going down from the Kimberley to Alice Springs, but it is seldom used. I only passed one car in the journey down to the turn off to the crater, but you do have to pay attention the whole time, as going out of control and flipping the car over is a real possibility. Sadly it is the road on which Eugene Shoemaker died on the way to Wolfe Creek.

A Meteorite strike in the Tanami Desert. Wolfe Creek Crater, WA. Australia

I heard about Wolfe Creek Crater on a holiday in Perth. I visited the exceptionally interesting Western Australian Museum and saw amongst the bits of crashed Skylab, gold nuggets and dinosaurs,  a display about the first expedition to Wolfe Creek crater in 1949, where a meteorite had crashed into the northern Tanami desert 300,000 years ago. It is the biggest and most recognisable crater in Australia, and was only discovered in an aerial survey in 1947. It is rarely visited as it is, well, remote. On the edge of the Kimberly region, almost as far away from a major city as you can get in Australia. Definitely fitting into my requirements for a Far Flung Place.

Yothu Yindi, Dugout Canoes and a Dingo. A Beach Walk in East Arnhem Land

I needed a long walk. The beach walk from Nhulunbuy to Yirrkala is about 12 km. Some of it requires clambering up small rocky cliffs, but mostly it is on the fine white sand. I popped into the Police station first, just to tell them where I was going in case I got into difficulties and did not make it back on time. They were totally nonplussed as to why anyone would want to do such a walk when there was a perfectly serviceable road connecting the towns, but they duly noted my details in their log book and reminded me to confirm when I returned. The officer on the desk shouted out to me as I left to "tell them if there is anything worth seeing".