Gulag Trail - the Road of BonesExplore Siberia’s wild side on this fascinating journey across Russia’s stunning trans-Baikal.
Its boring when travellers reminisce about how it used to be. Well now that I have seen the best and worst of how it used to be at magical Inle Lake I know what they are talking about. By all means lets have democracy in Myanmar but can we please also have some of the sanctions back too. I can be specific about the sanctions that I’d like to see imposed on the travel industry of which I am a small cog in a very big wheel. First up I’d like to see groups of more that 20 persons banned. Myanmar just isn’t a suitable place for mass tourism. The season is short and the infrastructure required for mass tourism is damaging the environment and overtaxing the country’s ability to manage it. I’m keen to see group size limited so that everyone who comes to the Golden Land of Myanmar will get a good experience while the nation gets a better outcome. Secondly I’d like to see sanctions imposed against multi-national hotel corporates who invest in inappropriate and grandiose property developments in places where there is no proper arrangement to provide potable water or waste-water treatment. Thirdly I’d like to see the big Euro mass tourism wholesalers sanctioned for cynically treating Myanmar as just another S E Asia curiosity at the expense of the peoples’ culture and their ethnic heritage.
Boo Hoo you may be thinking. The authorities in Myanmar should get their own act together, do proper planning and set some well considered policies into place. Sorry to say it, but that kind of thinking is a decade away from implementation. Right now its a case of show me your money and tell me how much of it may end up in my bank account. Poor old serene Inle Lake has become the honeypot in the Myanmar tourism larder and the old guard are taking it to the bank in a big and not very environmentally sensitive way. My case in point is the ghastly visual ‘clash’ between the traditional designs of Inle’s ‘floating’ hotels and the contemporary European modernist styles that are popping up on the hills and shore line of the Lake. In addition Euro package tour groups of 60+ lurch around the craft village circuit as if on a ride in an amusement park wondering just what it was we came all this way to see and why didn’t they tell me that this place is only accessible by longtail boat. I’m convinced that only bad things can come of this conflict between industry pressure and the social and natural environment at Inle.
Happily our small band of travellers have been soaking up the Inle experience and enjoying every minute of it. Mind you we have a bit of an inside running on the crowd of first timers in that we know the place well and we know how to avoid the worst of the madding crowd. It was nice to return after a couple of years absense but it was a surprise to find eight aircraft on the apron at Heho airport and it was a not so pleasant surprise to find the once restful little town of Naung Shwe , kicking off point for the longtail boats to lnle, creaking under the weight of over development. Down the lake at the lovely Serenity Resort ‘floating’ hotel the lagoon and lotus pads were quivering under the onslaught of nail guns and concrete mixers churning away on the new Novotel that is going up right next door. Sacrebleur! That the lovely Serenity should have its serene bubble burst by such a moderist nonsense is too much for my sensitivities. I say off with their heads. As it happens our ecologically appropriate small group of travellers will soon be leaving the still lovely Inle for the head hunting hills of Nagaland. Perhaps we can encourage some of those boys to revert to their bad old ways and sign up on the Novotel project....read less
Mr Soe Moe, our gentleman minder during our travels in his quirky but hospitable country, has kindly interpreted our birthdates and days by the Buddhist calendar. This has to be done on a one to one basis least sensitive personal information should slip into unintended ears. Its the sort of information that enables one to find their ‘corner’ at a pagoda so that homage can be paid to the guardian of the corner. Seems that I’m a Sunday corner kind of person watched over by the Garuda. I’m not sure if this is a good symbol but on our evening perambulation at the Shwedagon Pagoda the Sunday corner was sparsely attended while I was loitering. When I enquired if this was the right spot for my kind of person an elderly gentleman took me aside and explained that Garuda likes to fight with serpents. I was obviously in the right spot.
On the subject of said mythological beast I noted that Garuda is also the symbol of Indonesian Airlines. That too seemed auspicious given that the next destination on our travels in Myanmar required a flight north to Bagan where there are a great many pagodas and presumably lots of Sunday corners for me to loiter at. As it happens Myanmar seems to have taken to airlines with a passion that would be unheard of anywhere else. At last count 8 domestic carriers were said to ply the fly ways of the Golden Land. To someone like me who lives in a land of price gouging airlines and laughable competition this all seemed as mythical as the Garuda. But one should never judge a bird by the colour of its tail feathers and there truely are 8 different tail feathers flying the friendly skies of Myanmar.
We have been travelling with KBZ Air. I’m sure that in Burmese this stands for ABC. We were in steady hands tho, the company slogo is ‘fly beyond your expectations’. We could equally have had a ‘Royal experience’ with Yadnarpon Air or ‘arrived safely’ with Yangon Airways. The other options all featured subtle messages about arriving safely so I suppose if your expectation included that then KBZ was probably a good choice. The journey up country from Yangon was smooth and clear. Our whole ATR 75 load of foreigners was delivered safely and our expectations were met. But Bagan is one of those rare places in S.E. Asia that will exceed your expectations every time. Here the tamarind fields are littered with red brick pagodas and stupas of every shape and size. Over the course of 350 years the Bagan Kings and their descendants industriously built +/-10,000 stupas and pagodas on an area bout the size of a smallish city. It is a truly surprising place in a land that holds many surprises for travellers like ourselves.
Things began to go badly for the Bagan kingdom when Kublai Khan took an interest in the source of the ‘jade for silk’ trade from which his rivals in the Dali kingdom of Yunnan were doing so well. The story goes that he sent young Marco Polo down to have a chat with the Baganians. It turned out that negotiating a way into the trade was a lost cause. Better just to march down there with the Mongol horde and make them an offer that they couldnt refuse. After the Mongol invasion of 1287 Bagan never fully recovered but history treated the artifacts kindly and several thousand have survived intact. Today regiments of modern day invaders are having their expectations exceeded and being ‘deliver safety’ by the ATR load. Tomorrow early for us its going to be off by KBZ to Inle lake as the sun rises behind the pagodas.
In spite of all the variables travellers seem to have one thing in common. No one likes to see hard earned holiday savings wasted on rip offs and profiteering. Everyone likes to see value for money and I’m as much into saving pennies as the next person. I used to prowl the currency exchange booths looking for the ‘best’ rate and often did it in the company of others keen to save a cent here or a small % there. I initially thought that this was good fun but now I realise that it was pointless. There are just too many folk out there in tourist land poised to gouge us for every cent saved at the currency exchange and more. Besides my efforts to save a bit on exchange were just too small to warrant the effort and there is a sobering truth behind all this. The moment you set foot in some else’s economy your hard earned cash becomes a target for some unscrupulous rat bag. I’m not suggesting that this is ‘par for the course’ it isnt. Every travel destination worthy of the name has plenty of good value places to eat and drink, shop and browse. Just don’t expect to find them in the places where lots of travellers congregate and ocialise.
Overpricing is just one of the more visible things that get my goat. It’s easy to spot but not so easy to avoid. You know the story about short seasons and high overheads. I say cut your cloth to suit. If you can’t make an honest buck without loading the price then be prepared to go hungry. Pity is that I’m the one who caves in , eventually , but that doesnt mean that I have to like getting fleeced. I reckon that people who price gouge travellers fall into four categories –
1. Commission Spivs 2. Blatent Profiteers 3. Enterprising Gougers 4. Honest Opportunists I reserve my greatest disdain for the ‘Spivs’ who knowingly and deliberately rip off unsuspecting travellers. These folk hang about at bus stations, airports, nightspots and tourist markets looking for ‘marks’ to shoehorn into purchases they otherwise wouldn’t make and couldn’t afford anyway. Into this category go the ‘English speaking conversationalists’ the ‘curators of blind woman’s art collectives’ the ‘charity for the rehabilitation of war wounded’, and the battalion of seemingly kind and well intentioned people who just happen to be passing and couldn’t help but notice that you looked lost, bewildered, in need of a friend and so on. These folk prey on the good nature of travellers in a foreign place so they deserve to be in the sludge at the bottom of the barrel.
Blatant Profiteers are one level above the nasty mass of Commission Spivs. They provide poor service and mediocre food because they can. This is often because there is no competition to keep them honest. Once upon a yesteryear ‘blatant profiteers’ used to be thinly disguised as state owned enterprises. I don’t dare to suggest that this is still the case but I have to say that healthy competition is the one thing that profiteers have nightmares about.
Enterprising Gougers are everywhere where travellers gather to sleep, eat, drink and party. I’m excluding shopping because it’s almost impossible for anyone to get a monopoly on the things that travellers might buy. Anyone who expects a premium on a basic product or service without adding any value to it is a gouger. These are the folk who plead short seasons and high overheads but are quick to shut up shop and go off on extended holiday when the cash flow starts to falter.
I have most sympathy with Honest Opportunists. These folk struggle to make a living in the shadow of the gougers. You can spot them trading from premises rented from landlords who have already bailed for the season. I don’t begrudge an extra % on coffee or food at a welcoming village or wayside cafe, still trading when all others have closed and fled. These folk are in business for the thick and thin ends of the season and I prefer to spend my money with them.
In the end it all comes down to what travellers are prepared to tolerate. A friend suggested that travellers had the power, either go with the flow or go without. The ‘contact’ to buy and sell principal doesnt hold much appeal when you know that profiteers are out to gouge you and choice is limited or non existant. I’m going with the little guy holed up in the corner cafe where the service is genuine and the intent is honourable, even if the price carries a wee premium....read less
In Yangon (Rangoon) its high fives all around since the National Democratic League won a landslide election last week. Its time for THE big change said our travelling companion and guide Mr Soe Moe who had decided not to wash the ink from the finger with which he cast his first ever vote in a fully democratic election. The ink was staying on until the future of the newly elected Government was fully cast. Many voters feel the same edgy uncertainty. Everyone remembers what happened to the NDL last time it won a landslide election in the ‘Golden Land’ of Myanmar and everyone that we have so far spoken to dreads a repeat of that awful disappointment. Its all delightfully refreshing if not also a bit humbling to be abroad in a land where democracy may be about to take flight.
We are enjoying this rarefied post election atmosphere at the start of a trip that eventually will take our small group of travellers ‘up country’ to Mandalay and west across the border to Imphal in India’s Manipur State. The journey is going to include ‘must see’ destinations in Myanmar and some places that are well off the beaten track in the wilds of the Nagaland frontier with India. We are keen to get out of Yangon beyond the tropics of the lowlying delta but there are interesting things to see in this old colonial era town. It would be fair to say that Yangon hasn’t aged well under the thumb of successive military rulers. The once grand municipal buildings and well tended tenement blocks are decaying like a face full of bad teeth after decades of mistreatment and lack of maintenance. Now all of the municipal and goverment buildings constructed during the colonial era are empty and shuttered. They have been abandoned by Government ministries for the newly constructed Capital of capital of myanmar Naypyidaw about 400km up country. The camp followers have gone too, press ganged by the thousands into dormitory lodgings in the Capital while their families stay behind in Yangon. The foreign diplomatic missions to Myanmar are also staying down in Yangon. Initially this was an easy choice because the Military Junta refused to allow them to relocate to Naypyidaw. This would have suited the Australians particularly well since they have the prime spot on the strand right next to the swanky Strand Hotel. I reckon that they aren’t going up to the new Capital any time soon.
Our short stay in Yangon included an evening visit to the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda. We went to perambulate around the great golden stupa with locals and other travellers out to taste the religious energy of this great monument. It was a timely reminder that although Myanmar may advocate religious harmony there is a deep vein of radical Buddhist nationalism at play within the new political landscape. No one knows how all this new found political freedom is going to pan out and the big question is whether the Military will deliver on its promise to abide by the popular choice. Well that would be a fine thing if it happens but we won’t be here to see it. Tomorrow we are off up country to Bagan where upwards of 10,000 pagodas are sprinkled amongst the Tamarind fields of the Bagan Archaeological Site....read less
In central Asia there is no shortage of ‘Mazars’ erected in honour of important people. On our travels we have visited many. Some intentionally and others we discovered with the assistance of our excellent local guides. At all of these places, bar one, we found local people making pilgrimage or paying homage. The exception is the gleaming Carrera marble tomb of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s great visionary, literary genius and father of the Turkmen nation. On the day that we stopped by not one other soul was in sight. In fact the whole dazzlingly white precinct of gardens, highways and pedestrian byways was totally deserted. Yep its true. Here in Legoland Turkmenistan is proof positive that Paul McCartney was right when he penned “Money can’t buy me love“.
Our band of sleepy travellers has had a very early morning flight from Ashgabat to Dashoguz in Turkmenistans far north east. Our bleary eyed departure and comfort along the way was courtesy of a very spiffy, efficient and modern but not ostentatious airport and a very efficient and modern state airline. Top marks Turkmenistan! We are here to visit the great historic capital of the Khorazem empire, Konye Urgench which is 100km to the north of Dashoguz. Konye Urgench was the lynch pin of trade, religious study and intellectual endeavour on the northern most branch of the Silk Road in ancient times. It suffered badly at the hands of successive invaders and is now a ruin. As a consequence Turkmen have a very jaundiced view of Arabs, Mongols and Uzbeks. Most especially the latter since the Mongol-Uzbek Timur or Tamerlane as he is known in the west came calling four times before totally destroying the city and ploughing the ground with salt. He was a tyrant typical of his time but now is an Uzbek national hero.
When the USSR went belly up the Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republics were left to fend for themselves. It must have been a prime opportunity for the Turkish tribes of central Asia to settle a few long held grievances. Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Turkmen may have a common language root but they aren’t chums and they have a long history of beating up on each other.
Defining new national borders was going to be the first real test of kinship and it didn’t go well for the Uzbeks who relied on the negotiating skills of cotton farmer Yuldash Okhunbabaev, former 1st Secretary of the Uzbek SSR and a man who failed to see why the new state of Uzbekistan would want a corridor to the Caspian sea. The Uzbeks had the Aral sea as well as the Amu Darya river that fed it. No need for a lido on the Caspian as well.
Sorry to say that the Aral sea is no more and the mighty Amu Darya river will die the death of a thousand cuts if Mr Okhunabanaev’s relatives continue to siphon off its water to ‘flood irrigate’ tens of thousands of hectares of cotton. If you live in the middle of a desert it doesn’t pay to take water for granted. That lesson was learned at ancient Konye Urgench and at more than 500 other cities of antiquity that relied on the fickle course of the Amu Darya. In these parts a river can be here today and gone tomorrow.
We had to endure a further bout of form filling with another bunch of border guards amusing themselves at our expense at the Dashoguz border with Uzbekistan. Our destination was the Historic city of Khiva, infamous as the last slave market operating in 20th century Central Asia and site of the opulent Khiva Khanate. Today it is one of the most intact historic cities of central asia with fine examples of buildings typical of Silk Road cities of the 16th century. There is much to see in Khiva but we had our sights fixed 3 hrs north on Nukus the capital of the Uzbek Autonomous Republic of Karalpakia. The road to Nukus will ultimately take you across the desert and around the Caspian sea to Volgograd in Russia. This is about the most remote spot in central asia and it is the most unlikely venue for what must be one of the greatest collections of Russian avant-guarde paintings in the world.
Igor Savitski the Russian painter, archaeologist and collector first visited Karakpakia in 1950 on an archaeological and ethnographic expedition. Initially he concentrated on collecting the applied arts of the Karalpakia region but he also took the opportunity to track down and collect the works of Russian painters whose work was banned by the soviet authorities. Incuded were the works of Klimet Red’ko, Lyubova Popova and Robert Falk, artists who were recognised in western europe but banned in Soviet Russia. With great courage in the face of soviet opposition he managed to collect thousands of works by known and unknown artists. These and 20,000 other works are now housed in the stunning Art Museum of Karalpakia in Nukus. Savitski’s collections are the icing on our cake and the last stop on our tour. We have travelled far and been humbled by the hospitality that we received. Mazaristan was initially just an idea without much substance. It may still be a fanciful notion but personally I think that somewhere out there along the ancient trade routes and caravan serais of Armenia, Iran and central Asia there is such a place waiting for travellers to discover it.
This is the final blog in the Mazaristan series.