Category Archives: On the Mobile

The Rhubarb Emporium

A late afternoon glass of prosecco by the Rialto – surely the perfect way to celebrate reaching the final destination for our favourite vegetable?

It’s warm, humid and entirely saturated with tourists, but I’ve had an inane grin on my face ever since arriving on the train from San Benedetto yesterday afternoon.

It’s funny how people regard you suspiciously if you’re alone and smiling.

Does he know something I don’t know? Is he smirking at ME?

Truth is, you can’t help but smile involuntarily when in Venice. Add in one gorgeous day, and it’s no wonder you’re grinning. Of course, if you’ve travelled nearly 20,000 kilometres to get here, an insane grin is all but compulsory.

Just opposite where I’m sitting on the Grand Canal is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the key trading centre leased by the Venetians to foreign merchants around 800 years ago – around the time Marco Polo did us all a favour and brought the rheum to Europe.

So, if you were a pouch of dried rhubarb (you lost your leaves long, long ago – sorry, but it did take months to cross them deserts) this is where your Turkish owner would be flogging you whilst extolling your virtues as a purgative extraordinaire. Here amongst the spices, porcelain, pelts, silks and other bizarre pharmacopia, you would be sold for ridiculous sums to those well-heeled gents looking to keep the four ‘Essential Humours’ in balance.

You’ve come a long way. You’ve braved the barbarians on the Central Asian steppes, survived the interminable camel rides, scaled the formidable Tian Shan and avoided questionable Georgian mineral water.

For you, O Pouch of Rhubarb, this is as far as you come.

You’ll continue your travels in due course, but New England will have to wait a good few centuries before other species of the rhubarb clan wander across the Atlantic to grace their puddings.

Who would ever have thought that the roots of a bizarre-looking vegetable would ever have made it from the desolate, poverty-stricken hillsides just the wrong side of the Great Wall of China to arguably the most beautiful city in the world at the mouth of the Adriatic?

I’m mildly suprised I made it myself.

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Lahician Mountains

All the tourist brochures on Azerbaijan – yes, they do exist – speak of a staggering variety of landscapes all crammed into a small nation hemmed in between the Caspian and Caucasus. Nine of eleven possible varieties, they boasted. Intriguing, non?

Heading west from the capital, I was somewhat disappointed to learn that I’d need to negotiate four hours of the hitherto unmentioned ‘Featureless Desert’ varietal before any of the good stuff kicked in.

Thankfully, before locating my mashrutka in the bowels of Baku Central avtovagzal (a semi-converted Ford Transit), I had already spent a riveting hour ferrying my backpack around the Baku metro system, politely questioning the municipal government’s decision not to display a single map, and instead to change a few names of the key stations in case any visitor might think they were actually getting somewhere. Genius.

The new-found oil riches of Baku have been unable to hide the fact that the desert is encroaching on the wannabe Mediterranean paradise at an alarming rate. Within moments of leaving the city limits, the manicured gardens give way to endless expanses of dust, sand and desert, with an ugly caravan of freight trucks and overloaded Ladas heading west. Mashrutkas speed between them all like flies. The glity and glamour of Monte Carlo-on-Caspian had vanished.

With the unfortunate exception of a crazed Caucasian bear on display at the ancient town of Samaxi, there was little to report as the desert morphed into the foothills of the black mountains that loomed to the north. Half a snooze later and we were cruising through rolling, verdant countryside, with plane trees lining both sides of the road. Ignore the makeshift mosques and headscarved old women selling hazelnuts at the side of the road, and we had inadvertently wandered into a French watercolour.

My destination was the village of Lahic, a community of Persian-speaking coppersmiths who had inhabited the Girdiman valley for a good thousand years. Their ancestors had brought their handicraft skills from the bazaars of Baghdad and Esfahan, and Lahic copper wares used to fetch a high price along the Central Asian trade routes, being bartered, no doubt, for such exotic goods as ground rhubarb leaf.

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By the Seaside

Ah, how nice it is to see the sea again. After two months schlepping across mountains, deserts and braving barely habitable backpacker hostels, I’m now sitting in a boulevard cafe munching tea and jam in the sunshine by the Caspian. Fantastic.

Baku, a city that inhabits the peripheries of the map of Europe, feels bewilderingly Mediterranean – the turrets of the Icari Seher (old town, for those of you not up on your Azeri) back onto grand turn of the century oil baron townhouses, and brand new Mercedes race up and down the wide boulevards blaring suspect Turkish techno. Numerous old men with humourous white moustaches sit gossiping in doorways, drinking endless cups of tea out of pear-shaped glasses, and charming carpet sellers seek to tempt you in to their lairs with warm mugs of fizzy coke-like drinks.

A truly revolutionary place. Baku has raced to the head of my Top Five of Favourite Cities Bordering Inland Seas with its incessant sunshine, endless tolerance for bad Russian, and, most of all, its groovy new cuisine which is a godsend after the kebab purgatory of Central Asia. Who knew you could do so much with a walnut? Since when was sour cream an acceptable base for soup? Seriously – a whole meal without barbequed meat? Even the menus radiate friendliness:

“My dear, during tea drinking you can interestingly spend time playing free of charge in a backgammon, dominoes or chess.”

I bumped into Rachid, a half-hearted carpet salesman as I wandered along the city walls in the morning sunshine. He was about as interested in selling me a carpet as I was in buying one – so instead we got onto far more interesting topics of conversation, including, among other gems, just how undrinkable Azeri wines were.

Rachid had just returned from Turkey, where he had spent seven years catering for Russian tourists in the eastern part of the country.

“Azeri is like Turkish, but more fun”, he explained, “and none of the Turks can speak Russian”. Sadly, however, immigration got their clammy paws on him and kicked him out.

“He looked like a sad puppy when he came back to Baku”, his friend Emil added, as the men stood in the sun smoking Davidoff thins. “But all the girls wanted to hear about his adventures – he was the real playboy!”.

Rachid gave a sheepish grin and led me back inside the shop to show me another Iranian rug.

An hour or so later, we were still there testing the boundaries of his English, sipping yet more tea and poring over his collection of curios from the last 100 years.

Why doesn’t EasyJet fly to Baku? This place is an absolute delight.

русский alert

Now, according to various widgets I have found online, Almaty is approximately one-third of the way back to London from Beijing. One third. Already. This is somewhat strange, since it feels as if I’ve only just begun.

But now comes the interesting part. Until now, there have been few issues communicating, except for a few Uighur or Kazakh farmers I’ve stumbled across over the past week. Even for those people whose Chinese hasn’t been great (and it’s a MASSIVE ego boost when you realise your Chinese is better than that of a real bona fide Chinese) you’re still able to fall back on it as a linguistic crutch when Lonely Planet Central Asia Phrasebook is all getting a bit much.

From later this morning when I cross to border at Khorgas, my Chinese will be useless. People, I will have lost my superpowers.

Then, it’ll be a story of hopping between two phrasebooks – Central Asian and Russian. Currently, my Russian inventory is fairly limited, but it should cover most topics of conversation:

* Spaciba (cultural niceties)
* Sputnik (science & technology)
* Smirnoff (entertainment)
* Maria Sharapova (sports)
* Perestroika (politics)
* Dostoyevski (literature)
* Reven (Rhubarb – objectives)

I might have a quick flick through before arriving in Almaty in case I’ve missed anything useful.

And there’s more…

Forget what i was saying about rain yesterday – i stumbled shivering out of my yurt this morning to discover an inch of snow on the ground.

Fairly non-existent chance of anymore walking today, so I’ve just said my goodbyes to everyone and am now waiting for a lift down the mountains and into Yining, which will be my last stop before crossing over into Kazakhstan.

Then i’ll reach for the sunscreen.

Packing Fail

When i first began researching the fabled rhubarb road from China to the West, I acquired this immovable picture that the route would largely involve hopping between oases in the desert, and switching between camel to clapped-out Soviet bus in the heat of the day.

I’d heard countless tales of the temperatures regularly encountered in the great deserts of Turkmenistan and Iran, and more than one Southern European friend commented that I was of slightly questionable sanity if i wished to cross his country by local bus in late July.

So, I packed accordingly. Lots of cotton short-sleeved shirts, breathable materials and shorts, with the odd pair of trousers slung in the backpack should my bare legs not get too warm a reception amongst the local population.

I reluctantly stuffed a Decathlon fleece in the bottom of the bag in case of unpredictable weather, which i largely intended to use as a pillow when i needed a whiff more comfort than the Chinese style bricks at the end of the bed could provide.

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Onwards to the Kazakhs

Once more the delights of budget backpacking were showcased by an evening of minimal sleep. Not only were the kebabs cruelly plotting their revenge in my stomach all night, but i was treated to the live soundtrack of an amorous performance from the restaurant owners upstairs. Enough to put you off your lamb gristle dumplings at breakfast really.

I did, however, manage to find something quasi-edible next to the mosque by the bus station whilst waiting for my departure further west. Obviously it was made of lamb, and bread, and washed down with copious amounts of tea.

“Don’t worry, it’s a good bus – it will get you there no problem”, the hostel girl informed me enigmatically when i told her i was heading for Xining.

In theory, at least, it was indeed a very pleasant vehicle. My ticket declared that it was in fact a “new A *****” bus – yet i suspect it had been given the rating back in 1976 when it first trundled along the bumpy Xinjiang roads.

Quite aside from the usual traits of long distance bus travel (total lack of A/C, faint smell of sick) I was delighted to be awarded with the kind of seat with a life of its own.

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Instant noodles and a strong smell of feet

I write courtesy of my exhausted nokia somewhere between Jiuquan and
Lanzhou, trundling through the desert.

It’s been a while since I made my way onto a Chinese hard sleeper:
there’s no complaining about comfort, but my cabin mates are a fairly
motley crew. Extraordinarily loud mobile phone conversations and
unfortunate evacuations from the 3 year old below me aside, it’s
actually a pretty pleasant trip.

I am, of course, delighted to have found rhubarb in its own home town
(more on this later), pleased to have an abundance of local huang he
beer, but overall just quietly pleased to finally be on the road after
all the planning.