Wakhan Corridor, Tajikistan 7-23-14

July 24, 2014

Ever since we began planning our adventure along the Silk Road, the Wakhan Corridor had been an intermediate goal. It was part of the route that Marco Polo took on his journey across Central Asia in the 13th century. The Corridor itself was created during the Great Game era (1800′s) by the Russian and British who decided their empires should not have a joint border in order to avoid conflicts, so they created this buffer zone, an artificial finger sticking towards China. They gave it to Afghanistan that is quite unfortunate, as the local population is far removed from Kabul and gets little support or attention.

While we expected the mostly unpaved route through the Wakhan Corridor could be difficult, we were shocked at the roads we had to drive from the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, to Khorog, the center of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, which required a special permit. Once the pavement ended in the Panj Valley of the Wakhan Corridor outside Langar, the last village of the agricultural area, we switched to low range and 4×4 to negotiate the difficult sections more easily. But in fact, to our surprise, much of the road was quite passable although very bumpy and extremely dusty. Traffic was light. Small Chinese micro vans and burros seem to be the modes of transportation in the valley. 4×4 SUV’s in the higher, uninhabited altitudes worked better. Herds of cattle, goats and sheep occasionally crossed in front of us.

The attraction of this route along the Afghan border was always the beautiful mountains, some of the highest in the world. As we followed the Panj River and the later the Pamir, always along the Afghan border, the mountain range to our left has often been referred to as the “Roof of the World”. On the southern border of the Wakhan Corridor, the Hindu Kush Mountains could be seen in Pakistan.

We had hoped to meet some of the natives who live in the Pamir Mountains, herding their goats and sheep. To our surprise, most of our interaction was in small villages in the valley where potatoes, wheat and other grains were grown. The area is particularly famous for their apricots of which there are some 160 varieties throughout Central Asia. It was the perfect season for these delicacies. Children were selling buckets of apricots along the road and were waving at us to stop. They were hard to resist at 10 or 20 cents a pound, picked ripe right off the tree. Children, men and women waved as we passed. We sometimes stopped to give the children balloons or stickers from our sponsors.

Our camps were often near a village and occasionally, people would invite us for chai (tea) which we usually declined, knowing that times are tough and they often serve more than tea. People were very busy working in their fields and gardens. For us, it was also the reality that while everyone has a cell phone (or so it seems) and many have satellite dishes, none of them have running water and sanitation conditions are very third world.

We had hope to see a few of the endangered Marco Polo Bighorn Sheep but all we saw were marmots in the higher altitudes scurrying around and the occasional shrine with Ibex and Marco Polo sheep horns.

Some of our camps were above 13,000 ft. and we were able to enjoy hot water and even a nice shower thanks to the new high altitude compensation kit installed on our Espar D5 Hydronic coolant heater.

As we left the valley and climbed into the Southern Alichur Range towards Khorgach Pass, the scenery was shockingly beautiful with its lack of vegetation. Even at this elevation, a few flowers grew. Where sparkling creeks cascaded down from snow clad peaks, grass and small shrubs were growing but the perfusion of wild flowers we had seen in other high altitude areas like the California Sierras or the Swiss Alps, were missing.

On one occasion we were able to assist a couple with a dead fuel pump. They had been sitting on the side of the road for two hours with no vehicle passing and temperatures were down to 5 °C / 41 °F and evening was approaching quickly. Gary had the wire and connectors needed to jury-rig their fuel pump and after an hour, they were gratefully on their way. They presented us with a fresh loaf of Nan (flat bread) and some curiously tasting mothball size yoghurt/salt balls.

While there is much more to be said about this amazing section of the famous Silk Road, we hope the pictures below will give you an impression of our experience.

Despite the rumors of border conflicts, we encountered no problems of any kind and even the Afghanis across the river sometimes waved back to us.

 

 

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Georgia 6 – Food, 6-2014

July 18, 2014

Years ago when we traveled in Mexico we used to laugh at people coming south with their motorhomes, cupboards full canned food, on the assumption that people in Mexico didn’t have any. Now, as we travel through some of the most remote countries in the world, some may wonder how do we survive? What do these people eat? You may see some interesting answers in the photos below as we traveled through the country of Georgia. There may be twenty ladies selling tomatoes, onions, beets, peppers, cabbage,—all and more than you can imagine. The question is, who has the best? What does the cheese taste like? Can we taste? Of course!! Is it “moo”, (cow) or “baa”, (goat)? Is that meat pig “oink-oink”, or moo? Seriously, the biggest problem of finding food in these countries is limiting our selection to what we can use in the next few days, because little roadside stands are often selling the same as we drive along.

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Khorog, Pamir, Tajikistan – July 15, 2014

July 15, 2014

Yes, our blogs are way behind again. We will get them caught up someday, but at the moment we are so busy keeping ourselves and the truck alive and experiencing this amazing part of the World that we have traveled so far to see. We made our way across Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and finally to the country of Tajikistan. Internet connections are frustratingly difficult. We are in Khorog, Tajikistan and today, we’ll be starting to drive the famous Wakhan Corridor along the Afghan border where Marco Polo traveled along the Silk Road.

Tajikistan 0017

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Georgia 5, 6-2014

July 4, 2014

 We had been looking forward to Georgian wines since we had our last sip of Italian Nero d’Avila. To our disappointment, most of the stores in Georgia stocked plenty of beer, vodka and juices, but rarely more than a few wines. Much of the table wine we found in the country was either homemade or produced by wineries and sold in 5-liter plastic containers. It was invariably on the sweet side. This was not Napa Valley, where there is a winery every couple of miles advertizing their wine-tasting rooms, tours and pick-nick facilities. If these exist at all in the Kakheti wine country valley, they are set up for tour buses, not individuals.

At length, we did find two wineries that were very interesting. The Numisi winery in Velistsikhe was located on a dirt side road with no signs outside of any kind. It had an interesting museum of antique wine making equipment. The old winery itself still had the huge amphorae called qvervri buried in the ground where wine was traditionally aged. For $10 each they offered a tour of the museum and a generous sample of their red, rosé and white wines, plus a dangerous chacha (grappa style) distilled from the seeds and stems, all accompanied by fresh cheese and bread. We learned that they are apparently known for their Saperavi wine made from an indigenous red grape. The owner, Nunu, a delightful lady herself, gave us the tour and let us peek into the cellar where 10–year old cognac was aging in barrels. Quite content that we had discovered Georgian wine, we camped right in front of the winery that night.

The second winery we discovered with the help of the informative Tourist Information Office in Telavi was the Twins Old Cellar Winery. Obviously set up for tour buses, we would have never found it on our own. They had a fabulous museum and exhibits of how their traditional wines were made. Even then, their best dry red they called “The Black One” because of its incredibly dark color, was sold in beautiful ceramic 1-liter bottles, ($25) or a 5-liter plastic jugs, ($35), an unfortunate choice since this type of wine deteriorates quickly once exposed to air.

We were fortunate to see the next generation of giant amphorae being prepared and buried in the ground for the unique aging process. Once the special clay amphorae (urns) are fired and aged, they are treated with a lime type cement on the outside and then again heated with fire on the inside. A coat of liquid bees’ wax permanently seals the surface. Buried in the ground, the year’s vintage is sealed and stored for at least one year. These amphorae are cleaned and re-used for generations.

We were told that Russia has banned the importation of Georgian wines, mostly sweet, and wineries are now adapting more modern vinting processes to produce the dry wines preferred by the European and US markets.

Driving through the Kakheti Valley, we could have been in the Napa, Sonoma or any other valley in California, but clearly, the way to explore the wines of Georgia is with a private guide or by tour bus.

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Georgia 4 – Our Hearts Beat the Same, 6-2014

July 1, 2014

If you pick up a handful of dirt in Los Angeles or a handful in Istanbul, it’s the same stuff. Part of what makes travel fascinating for us is the people and their lives in the unique countries they live in. But there is something else interesting about these individuals, whether adults or children, regardless of religion or politics. Let me tell you a quick story:

It was 1995 and we were sitting in the living room of a Russian friend in the suburbs of Moscow. Marc Podolsky had been on the Russian Camel Trophy team, an international rally that I covered for U.S. magazines. We were talking about our plans to drive across Siberia and the former Soviet Union alone, ocean-to-ocean. There were fears of fuel and food shortages, impassible roads, bandits, and mafia. In the midst of this conversation about unknown problems and dangers, suddenly Marc’s father-in-law looked at me and put his hand on his wrist. “Feel your pulse”, he said. Marc translated. I did. He then moved his hand to his neck. “Feel your pulse.” he said again, so I did. Then he moved his hand to his heart, and as his eyes met mine he said, “Our hearts beat the same.” What a powerful statement!

Monika and I looked at each other and knew instantly that we could travel across Russia alone and be safe.

What you will notice about the people below from the country of Georgia is that their hearts beat the same as yours and ours.

We will be creating a series of each country we have traveled through, titled: Our Hearts Beat the Same. Watch for it and you will surely sense what we feel as we explore the Silk Road.

 

 

 

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Georgia 3, 6-2014

June 28, 2014

Certainly one of the more pleasant things about driving into Georgia was that it is a Christian nation. We were no longer woken up before sunrise by amplified loudspeakers throughout town calling us to prayer. In fact, driving by villages there were often one or more church steeples, and as we noted before, the dress of mostly young women was as modern as any non-Muslim country.

We learned that Nino, later Sainte Nino, at the age of 14, experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary telling her that her destiny was to convert the Iverians to Christianity. Coming to Iveria, (eastern Georgia) in the 320s, Nino won a royal convert when her prayers saved Queen Nana from a serious illness. Then, King Mirana was struck blind while hunting, only for his sight to be miraculously restored after he prayed to the Christian God. Mirana made Christianity Iveria’s official religion in about 327. It was the second nation to become Christian after Armenia.

We stopped to visit a couple of religious sites among them Mtskheta and Bodbe. Being Sunday in Mtskheta, wedding ceremonies in the main church were happening simultaneously and continuously, giving us an interesting experience of a Georgian orthodox wedding.

Crawling up a 14% grade to the Ikalto monastery we found a comfortable flat parking area overlooking the upper Kakheti valley. Visiting the church and its grounds it appeared that wine production had been important from a very early time.

We took advantage of a sunny day and did a full maintenance service on The Turtle V including changing the Amsoil dual by-pass oil filters.

On our way into the wine country, we visited the quaint town of Sighnaghi overlooking the lower Kakheti Valley. Wandering through the shady plaza and the cobbled streets, several women of all ages were selling homemade hand-knitted and felted items. Monika bought a pair of socks from an old lady but no one could convince her to buy a wooly sheepskin hat that had a very distinct smell of the animal it came from. Gary was equally unconvinced he needed a felt hat. Another lady pointed to a trail leading along the old city fortifications. It almost gave us a feeling for the Great Wall of China but that is still many miles ahead.

 

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Corinth Canal, Greece 2-2014

June 21, 2014

Leaving the Peloponnese and heading to Piraeus, the Athens harbor, we had to cross the famous Corinth Canal that connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Aegean Sea. Cut through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, it effectively makes the peninsula of the Peloponnese an island.

Several rulers in antiquity dreamed of digging a water passage through the Isthmus. The tyrant Periander was the first to propose such an undertaking in the 7th century BC. (Can you imagine having to cut this canal with hand tools?) Abandoning the project, he constructed a simpler and less costly overland portage road, named the Diolkos, (stone carriageway), along which ships could be towed from one side of the Isthmus to the other. Remnants apparently still exist near the modern canal.

The idea of the Corinth Canal was revived after Greece gained formal independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, and especially after the openings of the Suez and Panama Canals, though it was not until 1882 in the presence of King George I of Greece that construction started. Despite several bankruptcies of companies and unstable walls in this seismic area, it was finally completed in 1893, eleven years later. There were still many more problems to contend with including eroding walls and World War II damage. (Read up on Wikipedia, it’s quite interesting.)

Though the waterway saves a 700 kilometer, (430 miles), journey around the Peloponnese, it is too narrow for modern ocean freighters. Ships can only pass through one at a time on a one-way system. Larger ships have to be towed by tugs. Today it may be used more by sightseeing tours, but 11,000 ships travel through the waterway every year.

Statistics:

Excavated at sea level thus not requiring any locks.

Length: 6,346 meters/20,820 feet

Depth: 8 meters/26 feet

Width on top: 24.6 meters/81 feet

Width on bottom: 21.3 meters/70 feet

Height of walls: 90 meters/300 feet.

The rock walls rise at a near-vertical 80-degree angle.

Bridges: railway line, a road and a freeway bridge at the height of about 45 meters/148 feet and a surprise, see below.

We followed Monika’s sister’s tip and headed for one of the submersible bridges that apparently were installed at sea level at each end of the canal in 1988. How clever! Soon after we arrived, the lights started blinking and to our amazement, the bridge really began to sink and then disappeared. Three big commercial ships passed us at safe distances from each other. Crewmen were on deck. We all waved and took photos of each other. At other times of the year, the two outdoor restaurants would be full with curious onlookers, all sipping cold Frappé, a popular frothy coffee drink.

Later, we did walk over the high road bridge, snapping photographs of more ships heading our way from the Aegean Sea. One seemed so wide, it almost touched the vertical walls.

Passing over the historic Corinth canal we drove to the Piraeus harbor from where we would ship over to the island of Crete.

 

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Mycenae, Peloponnese, Greece, 2-2014

June 18, 2014

Going way back to Greek history classes in high school, Monika has a vivid memory of the Lion Gate at Mycenae, so naturally this was a must-see stop. In the second millennium BC, Mycenae was one of the major centers of Greek civilization, a military stronghold that dominated much of southern Greece. According to legend and mythology, Mycenae was founded by Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë, daughter of Acrisios, king of Argos.

We found a comfortable campsite in today’s Mycenae at Atreus Camping, (atreus@otenet.gr), and though not officially open, we were allowed to plug in and use their Wi-Fi Internet. We needed electricity to keep our batteries and computers charged. With the inclement weather, our solar panels were not putting out 100%. A small grocery store was nearby so we were set for a week of catching up on overdue blogs and emails once again.

There is a long history of Mycenae starting in Neolithic times, but going back to Homer’s Odyssey, the King of Mycenae was Agamemnon, married to Clytemnestra. His brother Menelaus, King of Sparta, was married to her beautiful sister Helen, (the infamous Helen of Troy). Helen ran off, (abducted?), with Paris of Troy. (Pay attention now. There will be a short quiz at the end.)

The legend gets quite juicy, right out of the Dallas TV series. Three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite quarreled over which of the three was the fairest. The judge, Paris, the handsome son of the Trojan king Priam, decided in favor of Aphrodite, and as a reward, was promised the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, who inconveniently happened to be the wife of king Menelaos of Sparta. Understandably pissed off by her abduction, Menelaos gathered 1,186 ships and over 100,000 men from 22 different states and principalities, under the command of Agamemnon, who you may recall was king of Mycenae, and set off to get his wife back. That was the start of the siege of Troy on today’s Turkish coast, a 10-year war as described in Homer’s Iliad. Returning home, there was no ticker parade. Agamemnon himself was brutally murdered in his bathtub by his wife and her lover! Bummer huh? Never trust a woman.

We did spend a day touring the museum, rambling around the famous Mycenae citadel ruins and the impressive huge domed tombs, but we did not find that infamous bathtub of Agamemnon!

Controversial German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, believed in the historical truth of Homer’s books and interpreted the site accordingly. He excavated the area extensively, sometimes without permission. Upon discovering an ancient Tholos or “beehive” grave with a royal skeleton who’s skull was covered with a golden mask, he declared: ”I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”. It turned out to be a royal from a different time period.

And yes, the Lion Gate was even more impressive than the black and white picture in Monika’s history book.

 

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Georgia 2, 6-2014

June 15, 2014

A day in our peaceful river camp gave us time to reflect on this new country. Thoma, the gentleman who had presented us with wine, cheese and bread the evening before, adamantly insisted we go and visit his mother in her house above the river the next morning, even though he would be out of town. Her nephew Giorgi spotted us walking up and invited us in for Chai. We knew from our experience in Russia, that Chai, “tea”, is usually not just a cup of tea.

We were delighted to meet Thoma’s mother and she immediately set about cutting up vegetables as she continued to make homemade bread. Her last version was very special. She mixed handfuls of homemade cheese into the dough before baking it in her little electric oven.

Meanwhile Giorgi entertained us with his homemade semi-sweet Georgian white wine, not our favorite, but who can refuse. We had great conversations. Mostly Giorgi was talking, waving his hands even more than Monika does and Mom explained what he was saying, chuckling all along, but we understood only little. We could just laugh and agree.

The experience gave us an interesting perspective of how many people live in this ex-Soviet country who are not zooming around in their luxury BMW’s and Mercedes Benz’s. Their beds were a single metal frame and a thin mattress. A wood burning stove was their primary source of cooking and heat in the winter. They did have a television that was on continuously with political announcements and news. An open hat & coat rack and a little closet/cupboard shared a wall with their kitchen cabinet in this one room home. The kitchen sink consisted of two buckets of water but there was no running water in the house.

The shower in the adjacent storage room, (The water supply probably came from a tank on the roof.), consisted of a pipe connected to a rusty wood-fired hot water heater that we were not sure worked any better than the aging washing machine. More laundry may have been done by hand. We didn’t dare to ask about the toilet but we figured it was just the common squat outhouse. They were proud to show us the pump that drew water from the well and ran out of a spigot in the yard.

Despite these third world living conditions they were extraordinarily hospitable. Thoma’s mother prepared a care package of a warm loaf of bread, a bag of walnuts and some fresh eggs (and this after her son had brought us a loaf of bread, a big hunk of cheese and a bottle of wine the evening before), and the cousin insisted we take a two liter plastic bottle of wine with us back to the truck. It would have been impolite to refuse any of this.

Monika somehow had a feeling that this may happen so she brought some little gifts of safety pins, (which are always welcome), and soaps in a zip lock bag. She showed Mom how to use the zip lock and stuck in a few Laris (Georgian currency). Mom smiled gracefully, quickly closed the bag and tucked it away before Giorgi stepped back into the house.

Back in the camper, we inspected the loaf of commercial bread that we had purchased in the previous town. It was beautiful but we realized it was cheap, tasteless white bread. It was so bad, Monika quickly cut it into pieces and fed it to the local chickens and a pig, no doubt a “delicacy” for them. Nothing gets wasted.

Before leaving the next morning, we visited the old monastery the village is famous for. Monks were busy reciting their prayers. Monika wore the customary head covering and a wrap around skirt while she lit a candle.

Across the street from the monastery there was actually a recycle bin, a trashcan and an outhouse for the tourists who arrive to see the monastery. The outhouse consisted only of a squat hole that unfortunately some people missed and the water spigot was broken off.

Heading down the highway, it was interesting to see the old Soviet style houses that would be typical in this part of Georgia. Many fences were made of ex-landing platforms similar to the aluminum ones we carry on the back of the truck.

We couldn’t resist stopping at one of the roadside stands that sold a unique sweet bread. Worth a try for 1 Lari, ($.50), The “shingles” advertising their specialty bread were actually made out of clay.

The bad news is that we are still having trouble reading the pretty Georgian signs and despite the famous Georgian wine, grocery stores stocked mostly juices and beer, probably because most families make their own wine. The good news is that this is no longer a Moslem country so pork and sausages are readily available in meat markets.

 

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Georgia 1, 6-2014

June 10, 2014

Time warp!! The faster we go the more we get behind with our blogs, so we thought we’d bring you all up-to-date, since we are now getting deeper into places where anything can happen and often does. We will still be adding some of our experiences from Greece and Turkey as we go along.

Georgia!! New country. New language. New alphabet. New customs. Crossing the border from Turkey was a breeze, no visas required, but we had been warned that Georgian drivers made those in Istanbul seem tame. It is really hard to describe them. Crazy, idiotic, suicidal and moronic are terms that fall short. In addition, a large percentage of the vehicles (20- 30%) are high-powered luxury BMWs, Range Rovers, Mercedes, Audis and Peugeots that seem to be practicing for the Daytona 500. Many are right hand drive, making us wonder if they were stolen in Japan or Great Britain and sold on the black market.

To complicate matters, whether drivers are in beat-up Lada Nivas, delivery vans, BMWs or semi 18-wheelers, most drivers seem to be suffering from acute “rectalclaxonitis”. “Rectal” coming from that part of their body where their brains are located and “Claxon” from the Mexican word for horn. Any time there is a slight tightening of the anal sphincter, the horn sounds.

The roads vary from sorta OK to narrow two-lane pocked with potholes and a “suicide lane” in the middle. To be realistic, the painted lines are just for design and have no relation to direction of traffic. There is always a “passing lane” in the middle regardless of road width or oncoming traffic. Approaching vehicles flash their lights to tell you that yes, they see you, and yes, they know there is no room to pass, and yes, they are going to pass anyway.

When humps, bumps and potholes aren’t enough to keep our speed to a max 40-mph, unmarked 5” speed bumps can suddenly appear for no apparent reason and must be crossed at 2-mph in our truck to avoid breaking something or getting air. Since no one obeys any possible speed limit, the bumps are somewhat effective. They reminded us of crossing Brazil where the speed bumps are twice as high. If they tried that here, the BMWs would bottom out.

Should we mention parking? Joke! On a 4-lane road, the lane on the right is not a lane. If that fills up, you just triple-park wherever you please. Parking on both sides of a narrow side street quickly turns it into a zero clearance alley unless you’re driving mini car. Sidewalks are perfect parking areas as long as you can get half your vehicle off the road, and even that’s not too important.

The drivers and traffic in the capital city of Tbilisi were nearly humorous. Interchanges were something like a scary ride at an amusement part that had somehow gone wrong. We ended up hiring a taxi to find the Chinese Embassy. After a miserable two days and two nights parked half on the sidewalk of a side street near the Chinese Embassy and UN Headquarters, we were informed that that they do not issue visas to foreigners unless they are living or working in Georgia. Plan B ??

We escaped the madding traffic of Tbilisi with only a couple U-turns and more grey hairs and found a pleasant camp in a meadow by a river. We had no sooner unpacked our chairs and fired up the BBQ that a man named Thoma living above in the village arrived with wine, cheese and bread. Maybe this was the hospitality Georgians are known for?

We are adjusting, and getting used to reading paper maps. Despite having two of the most sophisticated GPS units available, the Navigattor and the Garmin, neither of them have detailed information on Georgia and road signs are interesting to read.

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