Holidays and Travel: Malayasia 2001

Following the post on Singapore, this is about a trip to Kuala Lumpur that we took near the end of our stay. Malaysia is something of a stretch as a title, as we only stayed in the capital. However, we did travel by train all the way along the peninsular from Singapore, and saw something of the countryside on the way. It was possible to book an overnight sleeper for the seven hour journey, but we chose to travel during the day, to be able to watch the scenery. If only we had known…

We took a taxi from the hotel to the station and bought first-class tickets, to ensure a reserved seat. By European standards, the ticket prices were very reasonable, although the facilities on board would only be considered basic over here. We had already reserved our two nights in a luxury room at the Novotel Hotel, in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. This had come in at the incredibly low price of £40 per night, per room. Everyone else in the train carriage was Japanese. They were mostly very elderly men, and we later discovered that they were going to the north of the country, to visit places where they had served during the war. It felt strange to be in the company of men who might well have been those who had imprisoned my own uncle all those years before. Contrary to what I expected, they were far from polite or respectful. They were incredibly noisy, and were spitting and coughing constantly.

The train left on time, and we crossed the rail bridge over the strait into Malaysia. Immediately, the outlook changed completely. Alongside the tracks, shabby-looking houses could be seen, with ragged children milling around waving at us as we passed by. In a very short time, it was apparent that we were no longer in Singapore, and had entered a significantly poorer country. To get away from the annoying Japanese passengers, Julie and I wandered up to the space between the carriages, and watched the world go by from an open window. We soon discovered that there was going to be very little to see. The whole area had been given over to plantations of palm-oil trees. The endless rows of these stumpy trees stretched as far as the eye could see. In fact, we saw nothing else for the rest of that long journey, save for the devastating impact of this cultivation of palm trees that had eradicated any other crop, and left the countryside devoid of anything worth looking at.

As a result, we were pleased when the train finally arrived at Kuala Lumpur and we could find something else to look at, and get away from our fellow passengers. Departing the station for the taxi rank, the city felt hectic and overcrowded, and was even more humid than Singapore. Taxi drivers jostled for our business, grabbing at our bags. When we finally got into a taxi, the driver set off as if his life depended on getting us to our hotel at breakneck speed, despite the streets being clogged with late afternoon traffic. After the short journey, the fare was so small, I was sure that he had got it wrong. It wasn’t much more than a bus fare in London. I paid with a decent tip, and he seemed very happy indeed. The Novotel was much the same as it would have been in any city in the world. Somewhat featureless, and devoid of any local colour or charm. It was ideally located though, and when we were shown to our room, we were impressed indeed. It was more like a small suite, and had the biggest bed I have ever slept in, as well as good views across the city from the high floor. I couldn’t believe how lucky we had been to get such quality at a low price.

As evening was approaching and as we were very tired after an early start, we had a look around the hotel. It had a swimming pool, a small gym, and a large restaurant. We decided to eat there that night, which wasn’t the best idea. The food was ‘International’ and we could have eaten the like of it anywhere. The restaurant was also incredibly brightly-lit, and felt like a works canteen. At least the room was great, and we had a very good sleep before setting out to explore the city the next morning.

Because we only had a two-night stay, we had to cram in the sights of the city that day. It was hot and still bustling, with the need to take shelter from the occasional heavy rain showers too. Not unlike Singapore, commerce dominated the central area, and interesting markets crammed with tiny shopfronts inside sold everything imaginable. Next to these, lavish malls offered an air-conditioned break from the oppressive heat, and the busy thoroughfares. We were heading for the Petronas Towers, the unmissable landmark of that city. These imposing twin towers of glass and steel are connected by a walkway that serves as a public viewing gallery. And I wanted to get up there and see it. They are still the tallest twin towers, but at that time they were also the tallest buildings in the world. My single disappointment was discovering that the viewing platform was only on the 41st floor of the 88 story building. You have to buy a ticket for a ten-minute stay. The tickets are timed, and you have to come back at the allotted time to get the incredibly fast lift up to the ‘Skybridge’. We whiled away an hour by visiting a nearby museum, before returning to catch our lift.

It was certainly worth it. The views were spectacular, and even the short time allowed still meant that I was able to get lots of photos. I have read that since we visited, the queues can be a lot longer, and many travellers report excessive delays and frustrations. However, we arrived early and were happy enough to wait for one hour before ascending. After looking around the area, we went back into the shopping district to browse the ridiculously expensive designer shops, and cool off in the air-conditioning. In the lobby of one very stylish mall, we saw that they were advertising a ‘Spanish Evening’ that night. Flamenco dancers from Seville were performing, and there was unlimited tapas, as well as all wines included. It was very cheap by our standards, so we reserved a table.

After looking around the many stalls selling fake designer products, we returned to the hotel to get ready for our evening out. Strange as it may seem to be anticipating a Spanish meal in the capital of Malaysia, we were actually looking forward to enjoying a change from the oriental food. We also both love Flamenco music and dancing, and we were curious to see how this would all be staged, in the foyer of a shopping mall. The answer was that it was all done very well indeed. The area was low-lit, the food and wines first-class, and the music and dancing were of the highest order. The only unsettling thing about that night was that we were the only Europeans there, (other than the waiters and performers) and as we tapped and clapped happily to the excellent performances, the other predominantly Chinese diners sat stone-faced and still. Nonetheless it was a great night. The best tapas we had ever eaten, and the best Flamenco we had ever seen. And in Malaysia!

We wandered out into the warm night, going back to the stalls and street vendors selling the fake designer goods. We managed to pick up some very convincing-looking handbags as holiday gifts, as well as a fake Rolex watch for a couple of pounds. The only downside was that this was the end of our all-too short stay in the city, as we were returning to Singapore by train the next morning. We had seen little of the culture of the country, and nothing of life outside of that busy city.
Given the chance, I would happily return.



Holidays and Travel: Singapore, 2001

I have written before about a visit to China. I was able to stay with an English friend who was working in Beijing at the time. That same friend changed jobs a year later, and moved to Singapore. The chance to catch up with him again and to see the country of Singapore was too good to miss, so I arranged to go and see him in the September of 2001, this time taking Julie along too. We would be able to stay in his luxury apartment for the first week, but the arrival of family members meant that we would have to make our own arrangements for the latter part of our stay. At least we would have him and his wife and son to show us around for a few days, to get our bearings, and get used to the place.

After a long flight, involving a change in Dubai, we arrived tired but exited, late in the evening. The first thing we noticed as we left the terminal, was the oppressive heat and humidity. It was like walking around wrapped in a damp electric blanket that was still switched on. He collected us from the airport, and showed us some of the sights as we drove to the desirable residential district of Bukit Timah Road, where they lived. First impressions were of a very clean and modern city, well laid out, and pleasing to the eye. Arriving at their smart apartment, we said our hellos to his wife and son, had something to eat, and clicked on the air conditioning in the room where we were to sleep.

Sitting on the balcony later, enjoying a drink and getting used to the almost constant 33-degree heat, it was apparent just how lush and exotic this place seemed. A far cry from the congested streets around our home in Camden Town. It felt every bit as if it was going to be worth the long journey to get there, and the expensive flights. My knowledge of Singapore was based mostly on stories from WW2, and National Service. My father had visited there during his army service in 1940, and my uncle had been stationed there for almost two years after the war. He had told me to make sure to see the Tiger Balm Gardens, and Raffles Hotel. But it had been more than fifty years since he had seen the place, and it had changed a great deal in the meantime.

We were soon out and about, and exploring. Despite the unfamiliar ever-present heat, we made good use of the easy-to-find and reasonably-priced taxis. One thing that was immediately apparent was that the traveller feels very safe in that country. Taxi drivers were smart and respectful, and never tried to rip us off. Walking around the centre felt completely safe, day or night, and English was widely spoken of course. Some people are critical of the government in that country, for their harsh laws and punishments. I won’t comment on that here, as this a travel post, but this may well be reflected in the feeling of ease, as you wander about.

Singapore is a city of shops. Huge modern malls, countless gadget, phone, and electrical retailers. Luxury goods, expensive jewellery, and familiar fashion names line the busy streets of the centre. Away from these main streets, distinct areas are obvious. There is an Indian district, a Chinese area, and the Old Colonial part of town. All of these have their own ethnic style, offering craft shops, restaurants, and local goods too. Some criticise this, for having a contrived, almost Disneyland feel. I understand what they mean, but it never bothered us in the least. Alongside the Singapore River, places like Clarke Quay offer restaurants of all types, including some that are floating, and many with outstanding views of the city skyline.

We took a day trip to Sentosa Island, and were glad we did. This can be accessed via a bridge, but we decided to take the cable car across, and enjoy the views from up high. A taxi took us to the cable-car station, and we got our tickets. We had never been in such a high cable-car before, and were suitably excited. The cars were very small, and only four passengers were crammed into ours. Halfway across, the ships navigating below looked like toys from our viewpoint, and I was clicking away with my camera feverishly. Moving to get a side view, I inadvertently hit the emergency button by my knee, and everything stopped. At first, I was unaware of what I had done, and we were all concerned, imagining our car would plummet into the sea far below. Then a voice came over a speaker inside, asking what the emergency was, and I blushed as I realised my error. Once they were sure that everything was fine, we set off again, and I sat shamefaced in my corner, being careful where I placed my knees!

Sentosa Island has a butterfly park, a dolphin park, and many other attractions, some of which only opened long after our visit. We did go to the dolphin lagoon, where visitors can interact with the famous pink dolphins in shallow water. There are various hotels and theme parks too, but we were looking for peace and quiet along the secluded beaches. At the southern tip of the island, we found a beach bar that was near a sign stating ‘The southernmost tip of Asia’. We sat and enjoyed a Singapore Sling cocktail, watching the sun set over this idyllic place. The trip back was by taxi from the bridge. We had to wait awhile until an enterprising taxi driver ventured across, to see if anyone was waiting.

Another outing was to the famous Singapore Zoo. On the way in from the airport, my friend had pointed out some enormous concrete storm drains. We thought that they looked ugly, but he assured us that they were necessary. That day at the zoo, we discovered why. The zoo is one of the nicest I have ever visited, with lush gardens, and sympathetic housing for the numerous animals exhibited. At the zoo, Julie managed to achieve two of her long-held wishes. She had her photo taken with a mother and baby orangutan, and rode on an elephant, sitting behind the mahout. Both of these somewhat dubious commercial enterprises help raise money for the zoo, and the animals concerned were treated with great respect. Walking in the gardens, we noticed a few raindrops begin to fall. Seconds later, it was if a ton of water had fallen on us, and we were both completely soaked to the skin. We ran into a nearby cafe to escape the deluge, which lasted only a couple of minutes. Soon after, we noticed the water had all but gone, and our clothes soon dried in the heat. Our first experience of the sort of monsoon shower we soon got used to.

A trip to the famous Raffles Hotel was a must for me. Both my father and my uncle often spoke of this colonial oasis away from the heat of the city, with its cooling gardens, and world-famous bars. So we got a taxi there one afternoon, determined to have one of the famous Singapore Sling cocktails in the place where the drink originated. It is still a very grand (and expensive) hotel, modernised to a five-star standard, but retaining the classic look of its colonial past. It also still enforces the 1930s dress code, so as I was wearing shorts, I wasn’t allowed inside to see the bars. We had to be content with enjoying our drink in the outdoor courtyard, but it was still a great experience. We also visited the Tiger Balm gardens, another place talked about by my father, and others who had served in the armed forces. In Singapore, these are now known as Haw Par Villa, and when we visited were a shadow of their former glory. The statues and dioramas showing historical Chinese events were shabby and badly-kept, and the cages that once held zoo animals were empty and rusty. Despite this, I did enjoy the nostalgia of walking in the footsteps of my male relatives.

Other memories of the trip include eating some fantastic food, the best Thai and Chinese food I have ever eaten. We were also taken to one of the beaches in the city by my friends. Rows of food vendors operate along the beach, using oil drums as outdoor barbecues. We ate delicious chicken satay cooked a few inches away, as we sat enjoying the sea views. After eight days, we had to decide what to do. My friends in-laws were coming to stay at his flat, so Julie and I had to move on. We decided to book into the Grand Copthorne Hotel overlooking the Singapore River, and got a very favourable rate online. We also arranged to visit Malaya, with a two-day trip to Kulala Lumpur.

But that is another post in this series.

Film fraud

Back on the subject of film and cinema, something I have been thinking a lot about recently. This is mainly because I watch a lot less films than I used to, and nowhere near as many as I would like to.

As I do not currently subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, or any such service, and I do not even have my TV connected to the Internet, I don’t keep up with the trends as fast as my fellow bloggers. I have thought seriously about watching films on my PC, but discounted this as being too uncomfortable; stuck on an office chair in a small room, sitting in front of a monitor for two hours.

Besides, it wouldn’t be fair on my wife Julie to connect the only TV to the Internet and watch films, as many of the things I would want to watch are not what she would enjoy. Going to the cinema in rural Norfolk is too much of a mission to consider. Our local cinema in Dereham only shows very mainstream and family films, so I would have to make a 40 mile round trip to Norwich, involving car parks and buses, to see the sort of films I like.

So I continue to buy films on DVD now and again, adding to the stack of unwatched films still in their wrappers on the shelf behind me. I can comfortably only watch them when I am alone, so during the day. What with blogging, dog-walking, and necessary household tasks, fitting in a two-hour film-watching period to the daily routine is just not practical at the moment.

I am left with the realisation that I am an avid film fan who hardly ever watches a film. I am a contradiction in terms, pontificating on a subject that I have little right to bang on about. I have to reserve my opinions to films I have seen on TV, generally two to three years after everyone else has seen them, and written about them. Failing that, I review the odd DVD that I get time to watch, or write reams of nostalgia pieces about the films I watched years ago.

Let’s face it, I’m something of a fraud, at least where modern films are concerned.

I think an apology is due. Sorry about that.

Guest Post : Not Terror Related

This is a guest post that I received from Ed Westen, in America. I keep urging him to write a general blog, in addition to his excellent ideas about how to change the monetary system.

Not Terror Related

I got to thinking about what to put in a blog. If I were doing one, this would be today’s entry:

I have noticed a trend in murder reporting. Reporters and anchors affix the words “not terror related” to some tragic events. Listening closely, it is as if they are saying, “This man/woman/child was not killed by terrorists so it is OK.” What they seem to miss is if a member of a gang committed the atrocity, it is terror related. Terror is the whole basis of gang membership. What they seem to miss if it is a domestic murder, more than likely it is an abusive spouse. Abusive spouses are terrorists to their family. Indeed, even road rage murders are terrorist events.

Yes, there are groups that advocate terror as a way to advance their ideology or cause. Historically such groups advocating terrorism such as the IRA and Israeli Revolutionaries just to name a couple, have been active. Generally, groups we have experienced in history limited targets (victims) geographically to a country. The only difference between our historical experiences and the current ones is that the current ones seem to call for striking out at everyone that isn’t fully committed to their cause. In other words, the whole world.

Yes, we have struggled to deal with terrorists historically and today. I would suggest that if we view terrorists as a criminal conspiracy and set up a police force with which to deal with their criminal conspiracies, we might have a chance of dealing them a fatal blow. Such a police force would need units in every country in the world. Such a force would need an extensive online presence. Such a police force would need access to military assets on a demand basis. A police force would have a lower daily profile than do military strikes with personnel or with drones, although the latter would be utilized when pockets of terrorists warrant. So, there is some similarity to the present use of force. However, a police force would be more flexible in finding and dealing with the terrorists’ outreach on the internet. Such a force could remove some of the recruitment power of extensive strikes that murder civilians (the correct term is collateral damage. The correct term in this case, will be our downfall). Such a force will involve infiltration of the terrorist groups by operatives. Similar to undercover operations made popular by television in programs such as “I Led Three Lives,” “The Mod Squad,” and “Donny Brasco,” such infiltrations will be key to eventually minimizing the group’s leadership and outreach.

While we still have the mob and we still have vestiges of most criminal groups, police functions have served us well. Yes, we have a long way to go with gang eradication; however, policing is a more flexible method of attacking such criminal conspiracies than is a military force.
So, for being OK, no murder is.

Ed Westen. 2016.

Musical nostalgia

When I was still very young, my Dad was a popular singer in pubs and bars around South London. Often accompanied by his brother-in-law, he would entertain crowds consisting mostly of family and friends, belting out the big ballads of the day and favourites from the wartime years too. My parents also played music a lot at home, favouring the big voices, torch singers, and sentimental ballads. Despite my age, I also liked these songs, and heard them so many times that I knew the lyrics off by heart. Some of them pop into my head even now, and I thought I would share a few with you.

Younger readers please note. It is unlikely your parents were even born at this time, let alone you.

Not many people these days would know who Kay Starr is. She is still alive, now aged 94, but has not been recording for a very long time. In 1952, the year I was born, this American chanteuse had a huge hit with this song. My parents were still playing it some years later, and continued to do so right up into the 1970s. I still love it too.

Mario Lanza was an opera singer who also made the transition to acting in films. He enjoyed a career in music and film for a relatively short time though, as he died in 1959 aged only 38. During WW2, he entertained troops with his singing, and after the war embarked on a very successful career as an operatic tenor, very much the American version of Pavarotti at the time. He also starred in eight musical films, and achieved great critical acclaim. He was one of my Mum’s favourite singers, and she particularly liked this song, which sold over a million copies in 1950. So, this one’s for her.
I still get upset listening to it, as I can picture her enjoying it so much.

Some years later, my Dad started to rave about a new American female vocalist. He brought home her debut album, and played it over and over. Timi Yuro was from Chicago. Her unusual style attracted a lot of attention, not least from Elvis Presley, who became an avid fan. Despite her popularity, she became disillusioned with the business very quickly, and gave up recording in 1969. She is probably best known for one song, the 1961 smash hit, ‘Hurt’. It was a very big favourite of my Dad’s back then, and still sounds powerful today. Timi died of throat cancer, in 2004.

Before there was Elvis, and long before The Beatles, there was Johnnie Ray. Hard to believe now when you see photos from the time, but this young singer was a huge pop sensation and heartthrob, surrounded by the same fan hysteria that we later became so familiar with in the late 1960s. Despite being deaf and wearing hearing aids, Ray had a distinctive style, and rapidly rose to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic. His personal life was suitably tragic. Although he was gay, and had been prosecuted for soliciting men, he was also married to a woman for a short time, and tackled problems with alcohol abuse throughout his life. In 1960, he caught tuberculosis, and his health never really recovered after that. Nonetheless, he continued to perform, giving his last concert in 1989, before his death from liver disease the following year. This was his biggest hit, from 1951. Believe me, it was massive, and it still gives me a tingle.

There you have four very memorable songs from my youth. Each one of them were huge hits, from the biggest stars of the day. If they seem a bit dated now, all I can say is, “You had to be there”.

More from the archives.

I was encouraged by the response to my recent post linking to old ones from the beetleypete archives. I did take on board that some thought it best to leave the past where it belongs, but newer readers and followers did seem to get something from it, so here I go again.

Three years ago, I published one of my personal favourites on this blog. It attracted a lot of comments and quite a few views, but many of those following since 2013 will never have seen it. Imagine you could journey back in a time machine, where would you choose to go? Please add your thoughts in the comments, after reading the ‘rules’.

Another nostalgia piece that I have linked to before. It sums up my disappointment at the lack of real progress, compared to what we were told would happen all those years ago. Did you ever expect to be holidaying on the Moon? I know I did.

When I started this blog, it was never intended to be much more than an episodic diary about my life here in Norfolk. Then I started to branch out, including music as a category. To illustrate my own varied tastes in music, I published this playlist, back in 2013. I imagined that I was making up a CD of many of my favourites. What would your choices be?

In October 2012, not long after I started out, I decided to add some photos to the blog. Like many others new to blogging, I had no idea how to actually do that, so sat down thinking it would be very straightforward. I was wrong. I spent hours attempting to drag and drop them onto a post, with no success. I sent out an appeal via wordpress forums, asking for someone to post me an idiot’s guide to adding them. I had no idea that photos had to be added to the media library first, before they could then be inserted into a post. When the penny finally dropped, I felt suitably stupid, and just added two pictures. One is of a dead pheasant, still attached to the front of a car. The other is one of Ollie enjoying a cool-off in the sea. In terms of hours of effort compared to return, it isn’t much, I grant you.

There you have it. Four more old posts from my overstuffed archives that a few of you have already seen. For the newer readers and followers, I hope that you discover something different to enjoy.

Holidays and Travel: Soviet Central Asia 1987

Please note that since this trip, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, travel between these now independent countries is not as straightforward as it was for us back then. I have decided to post this as one article of 2,500 words, and it is therefore a long read. If you decide to stick with it, you have my thanks.

Over ten years after my first trip to the USSR, I was planning another more ambitious holiday to that country. Then separated from my wife and not quite divorced, I was living with a much younger girl, a nurse I had met through work. She had similar left-wing sympathies, and had wanted to visit that country for some time. The fact that I had been twice before, and desired to go to different parts was not an issue, and she was happy to accompany me. Because of work commitments, we had to choose a pre-arranged holiday from one of the established tour companies, and it would include all meals, a guide, and visits to any and all places of interest. There would also be a fair bit of free time. The brochure gave a warning that some parts of the trip would involve walking on rough terrain, being in high altitudes, and sharing compartments on a train. I was only 35 years old at the time, and my girlfriend just 23, so we were both excited at the prospect of something different.

The tour was grandly-titled by the company, ‘In The Footsteps Of Marco Polo.’ In a trip lasting less than three weeks, we were gong to cover a lot of ground. As well as Russia, we would be travelling to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Some of the delights in prospect included Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent; places steeped in history, and very different from anywhere either of us had ever been. It would involve many internal flights, and an overnight trip on a sleeper-train. We settled on an early September departure, when it would still be warm there, but hopefully not uncomfortably hot.

The first leg involved a flight from London to Moscow, where we met up with the guide who would accompany us, and the rest of our tour party. The good news was that the group was very small, only twelve, including the guide. We had no time to explore the Soviet capital though, as we had to leave early the next day, to fly to Alma Ata. At the time, this city was the capital of Kazakhstan. It is no longer the capital, and has been renamed Almaty. The long internal flight was dull, but we consoled ourselves with being some of the few that had ever visited this remote country in modern times. On arrival, we were taken by coach to our hotel. It was some distance outside the city, on a hillside location, overlooking orchards and farmland. It was surprisingly modern, and the rooms were comfortable, but there was little to do there, and any trip or excursions would have to be taken in the company of the guide, and the rest of our group.

The itinerary was as expected. We visited the huge Central State Museum, which had only been completed a few years earlier. It housed impressive collections, in numerous halls. These included woven carpets and fabrics, clothing worn by Khans and Sultans over the centuries, and valuable gold artifacts. There were also some everyday objects, including a full-size Yurt, a skin tent used by the Kazakhs when they were nomadic. As with all the museums or displays at that time in the Soviet Union, all descriptions were in Russian, so the guide had arranged for an English-speaking local guide to accompany our group, and she gave us the history and detail about each object. She was very friendly, and looked distinctively Kazakh, as did most of the locals of course. We were also taken to see the famous Cathedral Of The Ascension, one of the tallest all-wooden buildings in the world. At the time, it was not being used for religious services, and as a meeting of some kind was going on inside when we arrived, we were unable to go in there, which was something of an anti-climax. However, the exterior is very impressive.

After a couple of days, it was time to move on, and we headed off to the airport for the flight to our next destination, Samarkand. This was a city of legend. Associated with exotic spices and trade goods, and one of the most important cities of the ancient world. It is also home to one of the most captivating architectural beauties on this planet, The Registan. On the way from the airport to our hotel, it was noticeably warmer there, and the sights and sounds were very different indeed. Some people looked similar to Afghans, and even carried ancient rifles. The whole feel of the city was of a Muslim country, and despite many obvious Russians walking around in western dress, it was apparent that not much had changed in centuries. Our hotel was a fairly modern building, and the accommodation was satisfactory, though basic. The best thing about it, was that it was just across the road from the amazing Registan complex, and we had an uninterrupted view from our balcony.

We got out to see it as soon as possible, courtesy of a guided tour and free time as well. At night it is illuminated, and the colours are simply magical. We also wandered around the old town, with its Arabic feel, and distinctive tea houses where you lounge on wooden beds which are covered in colourful cushions. Our tea-drinking companions were mostly fierce-looking local men in turbans, but they paid us no mind, probably assuming that we were Russians. We relaxed and took in the atmosphere, sipping the sweet mint tea, and finding it hard to believe that we were actually in this famous city. The next day after breakfast, I was taken very ill. Stomach cramps and diarrhoea the like of which I had never experienced, as well as feeling cold, and looking pale. I discovered that two other members of our party were very sick too, and a doctor had been called to the hotel for them. One eventually had to be admitted to hospital, and did not rejoin the tour.

This illness meant that I lost most of the next two days, and missed some excursions. I could not be more than a few feet from a toilet, and I was as weak as a kitten too. This despite taking the various medicines brought from the UK, and also making sure that we only used bottled water for drinking, and even for brushing our teeth. As I lay in my sick bed, I discovered the possible cause of this illness. The cleaning lady came in, to service the room. I got out of bed and sat on a chair as she made the beds. She spoke no English, so we nodded politely to each other. Later on, she removed a filthy-looking rag from a bucket, and ran it under the tap in the bathroom. She then proceeded to wash the floor of the room with this rag, down on her hands and knees. After that, she rinsed out the rag in the sink, and started to clean the toilet and bath with it. I tried to stop her, pointing at the cloth, and shaking my head. But she was shouting something in Uzbek, and carried on regardless. Her final act of ‘cleaning’, was to use the soiled rag she had cleaned the toilet with to polish the glasses in the bathroom. The same glasses we had been using to contain mineral water to brush our teeth!

I contacted the tour guide, and told her about this. I made a formal complaint, that she took up with the hotel. I was very ill, and one of the party had nearly died. Was it any wonder, given the hotel’s cleaning regime? The hotel manager told me that if I didn’t want our room cleaned, then that was OK with him. I learned a valuable lesson about what is considered to be hygienic in different parts of the world. Luckily, by the time we were due to depart, I was feeling much better. Just as well, as we faced a long train journey, overnight to Tajikistan.

We were told that we had to share a compartment for the train journey. They suggested we choose our own companions from the group, as each sleeping area had four places. We were approached by the oldest couple in the party, a retired professor and his wife, experts in ancient languages, and very interesting company. They suggested that we might share, as they were not capable of getting into the top bunks. With this arranged, we headed off to the station. We would get the train in the late afternoon and travel overnight, arriving in Dushanbe the next morning. The length of the journey was caused by having to travel some distance in the opposite direction, before turning east again due to the terrain, we were told. This was an exciting prospect, and a part of the trip I was really looking forward to. The compartment was quite small, just enough space for four adults. But it was a corridor train, and we could wander around as we liked. Our luggage had been stored elsewhere, and as we had come to expect, would magically reappear in our next hotel room.

The sights and sounds of that train journey are never to be forgotten. Long delays waiting for other trains to pass, occasional stops in distant stations with names we did not recognise, vendors crowding the platforms to try to sell all and sundry to those of us on the train. One memorable stop was next to a train going in the other direction. It was crammed with young Russian soldiers. Our guide told us that they were probably returning from the war in Afghanistan, as Dushanbe is less than eight hours from Kabul. I can still see the blank stares on the faces of those young men. Sleep was hard to come by that night, and we chatted until late, when our older companions needed to rest. I was up very early, disturbed by the professor’s snoring. I headed off to use the bathroom at the end of the corridor, and was delighted to find a tea vendor had set up close by. He smiled at me and said, “Chai?”
I took the glass of tea that he had poured from the samovar, and placed in a metal holder. It was strong and refreshing, already sweetened. I offered him some money, and raised my hand, showing three fingers. He got the point, and filled three more glasses. The cost for all four was ridiculously cheap, and my companions were delighted to be woken up with a delicious glass of tea. The vendor had reminded me to return the glasses later, by an amusing mime action of someone bringing back empty glasses.

My girlfriend and I went along to the other end of the carriage to have a cigarette. The view from the window at that time of day was just magical. Dusty sand dunes spread as far as we could see, rocks and distant mountains all glowing orange in the morning light. We were soon arriving, and our guide appeared, to make sure we were ready to leave the train. Then there we were, Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, a country bordered by Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and many Soviet republics at the time. This is a comparatively modern city, and was only developed in the twentieth century. However, we were there for a specific reason, to travel into the mountainous region close to the border with China, and explore the rugged scenery. This would involve a very long trip by coach to the national park close to Murghab, on the other side of the country. After an overnight stop, we would reverse the journey, before leaving for our next place of interest. This was the most arduous part of the trip, and some older members of the party sensibly decided not to bother. Almost twelve hours travelling in a hot and dusty small coach, in temperatures close to 40 degrees. Despite some amazing scenery, we were pleased when we got to the hotel and had the chance to wash and change before dinner. After that, we happily collapsed into bed.
The next day, we drove into the mountains. Waking across rope bridges, we could see China in the far distance. It was perhaps the most rugged and inhospitable-looking terrain I had ever encountered. Although I was pleased to have had the experience, the long journey back was tiresome and dull, mostly spent in the dark.

The following morning we left by air for the relatively short trip to Bukhara, back in Uzbekistan. It was a very small aircraft, and our group and guide were the only passengers.

Bukhara, like Samarkand, was an important trade centre on the old Silk Road, and retains some very impressive ancient buildings and architecture. It is a UNESCO heritage site, and designated a ‘city museum.’ It is easy to see why. In the old town, it feels like you are walking through history, as if nothing has changed for thousands of years. Mosques, Minarets, and fortress walls surround you. It is like being in an ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasy. We had a short guided tour, and wandered around freely too. It is hardly known as a tourist destination here, but one I would recommend. The hotel was once again basic, but comfortable. And this time, I was careful to avoid using the glasses supplied in the bathroom! We enjoyed a couple of days in that city, before we had to move on.

Our next destination was reached by yet another short internal flight, to the city of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. This is a large city, with a population of some 2.5 million. Despite its destruction by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, it remained another important stop on the Silk Road, and developed accordingly. Tashkent has suffered many earthquakes throughout history, and in 1966, the majority of the buildings were destroyed in the city’s worst recorded 5.1 quake. Rebuilt by the then Soviet government, much of the place has a modern feel, and technology has been used to attempt to make the new buildings ‘earthquake-proof’. This did seem to be a little pointless as a tourist destination though. We were shown around some museums by various guides, and given free time in a dull park, in 40 degree heat. Other than the interesting bazaar in the centre, there was little of interest, to be honest. We all agreed that our time there was just to fill-in the trip until we took the flight back to Moscow.

As I have covered Moscow and Leningrad previously, I will not describe our short time in those cities.

With the exception of the rather irritating stop in Tashkent, and the arduous journey across Tajikistan to the mountains. This was a memorable holiday, full of the sights and sounds of the ancient places we visited, and some breathtaking scenery too. If you ever get the chance to visit Samarkand and Bukhara, then jump at it. You will not be disappointed. Here are some links, in the absence of my own non-digital photos.