I had never given bathplaces much consideration until my first visit to Rome, when I discovered historical bathplaces on a grand scale.  Since then, I have learned a lot about bathplaces and visited all manner of bath places.  Public, sacred, mythical, extant and archaeological remains of bathplaces have been viewed and studied, but generally not bathed in.

One thing is constant.  The mythical bathplaces are in drop dead beautiful surroundings.  Does this raise a tiny suspicion that tourists will be more attracted to a historical bathplace if it is in beautiful surroundings.  Alternatively, maybe historical and mythical figures only inhabited beautiful locations.

Rome gives us numerous bathplaces.  The baths of Caracella were apparently the second largest bathing complex.  There were cold, warm and hot baths, steam rooms and a large outdoor pool.  These are clearly bathplaces for the masses, and accommodated about 1600 bathers at a time. Mosaics, marble and sculptures decorated the baths.

Cyprus claims fame to two bathplaces, of the mythical type.  Aphrodite’s bathplace is near Polis.  The views on the way to the bathplace were far more enticing than the actual bathplace, which looked like a stagnant pond.  A great deal of imagination was required to envisage anyone bathing in the pond in the hope of attracting Adonis.  The trees around the the pond included a very nice eucaplyptus and I could imagine Adonis lurking among the trees.

Adonis’s bathplace is near Paphos, close to Kili village.  His bathplace also includes waterfalls, and swimming is possible.   Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms in the pool – a better place to die than Aphrodite’s stagnant pond.  Well that is one version of his death.  I prefer the death by wild boar attack version.  Aphrodite, when running to help him, was pricked on the foot by a thorn.  Her divine blood dyed all the white roses red.  Imagine life without red roses.

Cleopatra had a bathplace at Siwa, in Egypt.  From my sumptuous couch, sipping my tea and eating dates I thought that Cleopatra probably lounged in the same place and enjoyed the same view.  She probably had wine, not tea and would not have heard, as I did, the sounds of a hard fought game of table tennis.  The pool was a murky shade of green, and not at all enticing.  I was disappointed to discover that there is no evidence of Cleopatra visiting Siwa, let alone bathing in the pool.

Lawrence of Arabia’s bathplace in the Wadi Rum, Jordan is approached through a cleft in towering cliffs, not far from the seven pillars of wisdom.  As the opening in the rocks narrrows, ancient petroglyphs can be seen, etched into the cliff walls.  Petroglyphs in the Wadi Rum evidence 12,000 years of human occupation, dating back to Thamudic times.  Lawrences bathplace pales into insignificance.  I didn’t quite reach the bathplace.  I slipped into a deep mud puddle from the rocky ledge I was navigating.  I could see several larger mud puddles beyond, which were too wide for me to jump over, so I opted for further petroglyph viewings.  I wonder if Lawrence appreciated the ancient rock art on the cliffs approaching his bath place.

The Queen of Sheba’s bath place in Ethiopia is possibly in the same realm as her palace near Lalibela – a myth.  The bathplace looked more like a lake, held back by a dam.  The archaeological site which was her palace has been found to contain building material dating from a few hundred years after she was around.

Possibly the most confronting sacred bath place is the Ganges, at Varanasi.  Setting out just before dawn in a very decrepit rowboat to view the sunrise and observe the faithful bathing in the Ganges was an experience I shall never forget.  Not because I found it sacred, but because the whole scene resembled a version of Dante’s Inferno.  The burning ghats looked liked the seventh level of hell.  The ghats were crowded.  The Ganges looked threateneing (to me).  The sun rising over the Ganges changed my perspecive.  The people bathing looked joyful and happy.  Is this what faith does for you?  Joy and happiness in a most polluted environment.

Hinemoa’s bathplace is a natural hot spring at Hinemoa Point, on Mokoia Island in lake Rotorua, New Zealand.  Hinemoa swam out to Mokia Island at night to meet her forbidden lover, Tutanekai, and recovered from the swim by soaking in a hot pool on Mokoai Island.

Contemplating these various bathplaces brings me consider G’mas place in history.  Where is her bathplace?  Okoririe hot pools in New Zealand is that place.  Not that these hotpools have been designated as such, but Gma is working on it.



Caucasus Part 2 – Joy in Georgia.

Caucasus Part 2 – Joy in Georgia.

Crossing the road border into Georgia from Azerbaijan was my first experience of walking through a border.  We got off the bus in Azerbaijan, joined the queue at the border post to have passports and baggage examined.  We then walked across a bridge and along a road, bordered by a fast flowing river, to the Georgian border post.

Another queue, another passport check, and we walked into Georgia.

What could be more appropriate, and what could set the scene better for the joy of Georgia than a visit to a historic wine house.

P1080325 This wine house contained a wine press, said to be 2 centuries old, earthern crocks in which wine would have been fermented and traditional wine making equipment.  An old still in the wine house is still used for making chacha – a Georgian version of grappa.

A sip, or maybe more, of chacha followed by wine tasting left me unable to actually remember what the chacha actually tasted like.  It was strong.  Floating would be a polite way to describe my next few hours.

I floated through magnificent scenery.  Snow capped mountains to the right, fertile plains, sheep and goats wandering about.  Pomegranites in flower, copious mulberry trees.  Watermelons, cucumber and beans were being planted.  A large number of horses were being herded by a man on a horse and a young boy running.  Beehives scattered about.

The next day we were driving through oak and linden forests on our way to Sighnaghi.  There are a lot of churches in Georgia.  I think we visited half a dozen or more of them that day.  All very beautiful, and some with interesting art and history.  The first church of the day, at the convent of the Khakhuli Theotokos, New Shuamata, it felt as if we were entering a little paradise.  The convent was set in a field of wildflowers, bordered by tall trees.  The church was tiny, with the remains of old frescoes on the walls.

I am very keen on St George and his dragon slaying activities. I have enjoyed viewing a large and varied number of St George depictions, killing all manner of dragons, and occasionally Diocletian, in numerous countries.  I was delighted to find a depiction of St George and the dragon, with god’s hand descending from the top corner, in this church.

A candle was lit for Jonathen in this serene and beautiful place.  Under the influence of such serenity, I purchased a couple of icons.  These eventually ended up on Sal’s market stall, at which she sells all manner of things to raise money for Jigsaw the moon bear.  Sal sounded a little doubtful about their saleability, but she kindly took them off my hands.

Another St George was found at the Ikalto Monastery complex in the church of the Transfiguration, killing a multicoloured dragon.  Among the ruins of the old chapel further evidence of historical wine making was visible. Rows of old pottery wine jars were lying against the old stone walls, and the remains of an old wine press could be found in the old winery.

Onward to the next establishment – The Alaverdi cathedral.  The cathedral had a St George, killing yet another dragon on the tympaneum.  The bishop’s throne was magnificent.  It had lion arms, and a big bird on the footplate.  Wine was also produced here, as evidenced by the old pottery wine jars lying about.

We went to Lily’s place for lunch.  Since we were tourists, we had to sing for our supper.  That is, we had to view Lily’s carpets before eating.  Lunch was magnificent.  Dumplings, cheese pie, eggplant with walnut paste, eggplant with mayonnaise, tomatoes which tasted like tomatoes, vodka and honey and home made wine.  I suspected I may be floating permanently in Georgia.

After lunch we passed through more magnificent scenery. Braided rivers flowing down from the Caucasus, walnut farms, vineyards (well of course) farms with crops of corn and beans, and shepherds watching their flocks – generally from a horizontal position under a tree.

Just as the effects of Lily’s vodka and home made wine was wearing off, we arrived at the Tsinandali Estate, a historical winery and an old wine cellar containing wine dating back to Napolean’s time.  A wine tasting followed by a float around a European style garden, and a Persian style house, fortified me for the drive to Signagi.

The landscape passing by was lovely enough to stave off any eyelid closing, even for the most avid wine taster.  We drove through very fertile plains, a lot of little villages where the gardens contained beautiful roses, and then a rather hilly area with a narrow winding road containing a lot of nasty narrow hairpin bends. Sighnaghi is entered on a narrow road through an arch in the old city wall.  Watching large vehicles negotiate this entry later in the day I thought it a miracle that the archway had not been involuntarily enlarged.

A night in the picturesque town of Sighnaghi included more wine tasting, walks around cobblestone streets, lined with houses whose wooden balconies, some richly decorated with lacelike wooden ornamentation, hung out over the street.  Pigs were snorting and grunting in courtyards, and a laneway opened onto a view across the plains to the snow capped mountains.  Carpets were inspected at the local factory, and the obligatory carpet weaver was wheeled in to sit at a loom to illustrate traditional carpet weaving.  Of course the carpets are all made by hand, dyed with natural dyes and made with traditional Georgian patterns!

An excellent St George killing Diocletion featured in the church in the Bodbe Nunnery complex near Sighnaghi.  Another delight was a depiction of the last judgment – I find last judgments endlessly fascinating.  I am intrigued by the different visions of heaven and hell over the centuries.  None of them have pleasant hells, but some are more gruesome than others.  The visions of heaven are not particularly encouraging either. Sitting about looking sweet and maybe flapping ones wings for exercise for eternity doesn’t seem enticing either.

Tbilisi provided the opportunity to discover more churches and several museums.  The State museum was the most interesting.  It contained an archaeological room, full of gold recovered from graves over about 4 centuries.  It is interesting to view the changes in jewellery design and use over the centuries.

The old city is a great place to explore, have a coffee and people watch, rounded off by a visit to a mosque, the sulphur bath houses and a synagogue.  The sculptures in the streets in Tbilisi varied between the usual memorials to blokes, sometimes on poles and one on a horse to modern, some of artistic merit and others not, but all interesting.  My all time favourite was one of the most joyful depictions of women having fun I have ever seen – dancing peasant women.

Despite my best endeavours, I only discovered two St Georges.  A glittering gilded version of St George on top of a pole, and a painting above a church door. There may well have been further wine tastings.

The Jvari Monastery of Mtskheta (the ancient capital of Georgia), on the road to Kutaisi had a very rude monk guarding the door.  The view which overlooked Mtskheta and the confluence of two rivers made up for the less than welcoming attitude of Mr Grumpy monk.  Another grumpy monk was sprawled on the steps of Svetitskhoveli cathedral in Mtskheta, taking photos with an ipad, and talking on his phone, ignoring all “pilgrims”.

Stalin was born in Gori.  I did not find Gori joyful.  I would have happily sat and read a book rather than visiting the Stalin museum, his birthplace and his private railway carriage.  I became grumpy.  I did not go into the railway carriage.  I stalked around the museum, all exhibits seemingly glorifying Stalin.  On enquiring whether there was anything to see that did not glorify him, I was directed to the basement, where a couple of rooms had been set up, showing a jail cell, an interrogation area and posters on the walls describing vast numbers of people killed.

The Uplistsikhe cave town resored my joy, though it too had its horror spots.  The places where humans and animals were sacrificed, a one person jail, being a narrow deep hole in a rock, where a prisoner had to stand all the time.   Exiting the cave town through a long tunnel which bought us to the river, we were now entering Jason and the Argonaughts country.

Driving to Kutaisi we passed through chestnut and hazelnut forests, wooded hills and sparkling rivers in deep gorges.  Pottery workshops and markets were abundant, the potters attracted by the clay soils. We visited the house of a pottery maker, and watched him make a wine jug and a bean pot.  A glass of homemade wine was provided. The potter acquires the clay from the hill behind his house.  He had a woodfired kiln, and his garden contained fruit trees, vegetables, and a pig sty with two baby piglets. Roadside snacks of sweet bread, still warm from the oven, and cheese pie cooked on a bbq were consumed.

Kutaisi and its surroundings have plenty of churches and monasteries, all of which were duly examined.  The Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati, a monastery complex on a wooded hillside contained an 1130’s mosaic of the virgin and child and archangels Michael and Gabriel.  The big wooden front door to the complex had what appeared to be a rather large dog door cut into it.  Apparently the reason for the dog door is to allow people in and to stop cows.

The agricultural markets offered a vast array of fresh food.  Every herb I knew, and plenty that I didn’t, different types of potato, and all the varieties of fruit, nuts, beans and vegetables imaginable.

We were staying in a guest house on top of a hill, with lovely views across the town for some, and a lovely view of the verandah of the house next door for me, which seemed to contain a large lady, dressed in black, asleep on a couch – well I prefer to think she was asleep, and not dead, but she didn’t move for hours.

Jason and the Argonaughts were commermorated by a fun fountain, containing bright sparkling gilded horses, and golden fleece.

As the guesthouse did not serve alcohol, I went down into the town with Sal to hunt and gather wine, this being Georgia after all.  While in town we had one of those lovely unexpected unplanned experiences – a puppet theatre about to start a rehearsal.  We were invited to watch the rehearsal.  The puppets were delightful, and although we couldn’t understand a word being said, we could follow the story.  A fox kidnapped a chicken.  The chicken’s rabbit friends put on a disguise and visited the foxes house, lulling the fox by singing to him.  Fox is then pushed into a bag, and chicken rescued.  The music was good, and the fox had the best tail ever, big red and bushy.

The fox and the rabbit

The next day we were leaving for Armenia, via Tbilisi, the third country to explore in the Caucasus.

So ended the visit to Georgia, such a happy bountiful destination.

Jigsaw the Moon Bear.

Jigsaw the Moon Bear.

I am an aunty to a moon bear called Jigsaw.  Jigsaw is a very attentive nephew.  He writes me letters, sends emails and postcards, and keeps me up to date with all the milestones in his life.  He sends me the latest gossip about his bear buddies and he loves getting presents.

Not many people have a moon bear for a nephew, so I consider myself very lucky, especially as I only have one, there is a shortage of nephews in my life.  So how did I become an Aunty to a moon bear?

Some years ago when I was travelling in the Caucasus, I met Sal, a fellow traveller.  We were strolling, along a street in Yerevan, Armenia.  I think we were on our way to a brandy tasting – at 9am because we were bumped from our more civilized time of late afternoon because Hilary Clinton was visiting, and our time was required for her.  The brandy (cognac if we were in France) was excellent, and very palatable even at 9am.  I digress.

The conversation turned to moon bears, as it does when walking around Yerevan.  I had never heard of the barbaric practice of keeping moon bears in small cages and extracting their bile, for “medicinal” purposes. Lets just say that there are many other herbal and synthetic remedies available these days which don’t require the torture of bears.

By the time we got to the brandy, I was so appalled to hear that bears are kept in small cages all their lives.  There are various methods of extracting their bile.  All methods are cruel and inhumane.  One method though, which still gives me nightmares is where a wide metal belt is strapped onto the bear and a catheter fixed permanently in place.  I possibly had more brandy than was advisable for that time in the morning.

It turned out that some years previously Sal had raised the funds necessary to rescue a moon bear from this horrendous existence.  The bear she rescued was Jigsaw.  She now raises funds to ensure that Jigsaw is a “no cost bear”.  Why Jigsaw?  Well every year Sal creates a jigsaw puzzle from an image of jigsaw.  Donations are pooled until they reach the set amount to turn over one piece of the puzzle.  To see more about Sal’s tireless efforts to ensure that Jigsaw is a no cost bear visit

Jigsaw relaxing in a hammock with a snack.

So began my love affair with Jigsaw, and my journey towards visiting Jigsaw at the Tam Dao sanctuary near Hanoi in Vietnam, which is run by Animals Asia – and this is a whole different story.  Visit to see how and why this sanctuary, and a sanctuary in China became a reality, due to the vision of Jill Robinson.

Three years after I met Sal, she organized a trip to Vietnam, the highlight of which was to meet Jigsaw and his bear buddies at Tam Dao.

I arrived at Tam Dao on the morning of our first visit feeling very happy to meet Jigsaw, but not without a little anxiety about how I would feel about bears in a sanctuary (and the bears not being able to sh.t in the woods), as one of the Animals Asia T shirts suggested was ideal. Obviously though, the sanctuary would have to be so much better for the bears than a cage on a bile farm.  Crossing this river to enter the sanctuary, my anxiety abated. The bears had beautiful surroundings.


Catching sight of the first bears playing in their enclosure was a very moving experience.  It was a far cry from living in a cage.  Rollicking about, climbing on platforms, jostling each other for a share of the leaves that one of them had obtained from a tree in the enclosure, wrestling, playing with their toys – they were joyful and a joy to watch.

Onwards to meet Jigsaw.

We were going to help hide food in the outdoor enclosure where Jigsaw lives, while the bears were in their dens.  First we had to stuff kongs with food.

Sal had organized for us to acquire a supply of large kongs.  Kongs are an animal toy in which food items can be hidden.  They are used at Tam Dao as one method of hiding food around the sanctuary for bears to hunt out.  Since they are made for dogs, the bears manage to destroy them relatively easily, so a constant supply are needed.

Left: Kongs ready to be filled with food. Right: Sal at work.

As we entered the enclosure, I sincerely hoped that the latches on the bear’s dens were all secure.  Even though the bears look very cuddly and cute, I fear they would not consider me cuddly and cute – more likely a person shaped kong stuffed with bear food.

Hiding food around the enclosure was fun, albeit with one eye on the den doors.  Carrots in the holes of the various structure, apples on top of poles, kongs and other food all out of sight, requiring the bears to forage.

Some bears raced out of their dens to start the food hunt immediately.  Others took their time.  They appeared to have a plan.  Some went to the far reaches of the enclosure, and worked their way in, while others started near the dens and worked their way out.  I could not pick out Jigsaw – he had to be pointed out.  He was a bear with a plan to work his way out slowly.  He found a kong near his den, and was happy with that for a while.

Out and racing – other than Jigsaw who happily found a kong near her den.

Bears were pulling carrots out of their hiding places, very delicately.  They were foraging around rocks and climbing on platforms to reach hidden food.  They were all bears on a mission.

After the initial activity, some bears continued foraging, others went off to play, swim and relax.  They have pools, hammocks, swings, trees to climb – in fact everything a bear could desire.  One bear took his kong into the pool and lay on his back, still trying to hook food out.  Jigsaw played with a sack.

Tam Dao also has a hospital and a quarantine area.  Animals Asia had just received some newly rescued bears, and we were able to visit them in the quarantine section.  Not for the faint hearted.  The distress of the bears was palpable.  Not only do they have physical injuries, but their mental health suffers.  Some bears were rocking, some striding up and down, up and down.  All had injuries.  One bear seemed to be beyond help.  Little Kay looked as if she had lost the will to live. She had no hair, she was injured, was just lying in her enclosure.  The heat was bothering her, so she was provided with fans, and was hosed down when she became too distressed.

I was very happy to hear that Little Kay recovered.

I like to think that as we left, Jigsaw was waving to his Aunties, and blowing kisses to Sal, requesting that we come to visit again soon.

Wine, lots of wine was required to restore my equilubrium that night.

The Caucasus – Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.

The Caucasus – Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.

Part 1: Azerbaijan

I arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan during the Eurovision song contest in May, 2012.  Hotels had been very hastily constructed to accommodate the anticipated influx of visitors.  I was the first guest to arrive at one of these newly built hotels, at around midnight.

The staff were resplendent in their new uniforms.  The foyer was full of flowers.  The manager greeted me and escorted me to reception.  After checking in, the manager informed me that as the first guest, he would be honoured if I would join him for a drink in the bar.  It seemed rude to refuse, even though by then all I wanted to do after 24 hours travelling was to go to bed.  I accompanied him to the bar, and I was very pleased that I did, as his conversation proved to be interesting.

He gave me some facts about Baku, and recommended things to do and see.  He told me that Azerbaijan was a secular State, and the prevailing religion was Shia Muslim.  He said that the muslims were not strict, and women were not required to cover themselves.

He then launched into his version of  twentyfirst century history and politics.   He had been educated in Moscow, and said that the Soviets had done a lot of good things in Azerbaijan, which should not be discounted.  His dates of Russian invasions, massacres and withdrawal seemed to be roughly what I knew.  He did gloss over the massacres a little, and finished his story with the comment that he thought Stalin had been very good for Azerbaijan, and it was a pity there was not a Stalin around at present.  He couldn’t tell me in what way Stalin had benefitted Azerbaijan, nor could he tell me why it would be a good thing to have a Stalin around now.    He did add that it was good to be independent though. Time to finish my drink and retire for the night.

Whenever I encounter a new sea or ocean I have a need to swim or paddle in it.  To fulfil that need the next morning I walked along the shore of the Caspian.  Swimming was not an option, so I had to make do with paddling.

The architecture of Baku is varied.  There is a medieval Islamic old city, surrounded by rather grand 19th and early 20th century buildings, financed by an oil boom.  Wealthy Azeris and early oil barons built splendid homes.  The soviets also erected some fine buildings.  All around are modern skyscrapers, financed by another oil boom.

Below: Around the Old City.

Some of the 19th-20th Century Buildings.

The Flame Towers, 3 skyscrapers which are curved, and also triangular, were the most interesting modern skyscrapers.  The towers light up after dark, and feature the colours of the Azerbaijan flag alternated with the colour of fire, the latter to resemble flickering flames – for oil and for the Zoroastrian’s who worshipped fire, and who have been in Azerbaijan for around 2000 years.

The Baku Ateshgah, a fire temple, still has one small fire in the courtyard.  Old images of this temple show flames coming from all the towers.  It seems that the drilling for oil and gas has diminished the supply to the temple.  The sight of this temple in the dark, with flames leaping into the sky would have been a wondrous sight.


I spent a day in Gobustan, not far from Baku, driving through the so called badlands – acres of oil drills, with views of drilling platforms on the Caspian Sea.  On the one hand, it was dreary and industrial, with nodding donkey pumps all around, and huge forests of large derricks, both on and offshore, and large refineries.  On the other it was mesmerising watching the donkey pumps nodding – up and down, up and down – and never pausing. 

On arriving in the area where we were going to visit the mud volcanoes and a boiling mud lake, I was a little taken aback when I viewed the 4WD vehicles which were to take us through the desert.  The vehicles were in fact ancient Ladas, left over from Soviet days.  Not a 4WD among them. None had seatbelts, and all were in varying states of disrepair.  The drivers though were a very cheerful bunch, obviously relishing the thought of scaring us to death – which they did extremely well.  There were no real tracks,  lots of potholes,  and mostly we slipped and slid through the sand, being thrown from one side of the car to the other.  One rather large slide had the vehicle I was travelling in spinning around to face the way we had come.  I have a new respect for ancient rusted out old Ladas.

The mud volcanoes were quite bizarre.  The conical mounds were of varying sizes, though none were large.  They were gurgling, oozing, spitting and sometimes erupting with thick grey mud, which formed a path down the size of the volcano.  The mud itself was cold. The lake had mud bubbling up and glopping and plopping, like the mud pools in Rotorua, New Zealand.

A rock in the middle of the road nearby is carved with what is said to be the most easterly known Roman graffiti, carved by a Roman Legionnaire from about 1st century AD. 

We also visited petroglyphs, which I have written about in a previous post. On the way back to Baku, we were startled to see flames leaping out of small hills near the road.  A never extinguished gas fire at Yanar Dag, or the Fire Mountains on the Absheron Peninsular is a most spectacular sight.  It is as if there is a wall of fire marching along the hillsides.  The flames were relatively benign when I visited, but the flames can apparently blaze out 3 metres or so up into the air.  

p1080118p1080117 There was still more to explore in Baku.  The Maiden Tower beckoned.  No one seems to know when the tower was constructed, what its purpose was and its function.  It is situated on the south eastern corner of the old city, and there are theories that there was a tunnel from the Shirvanshah Palace to the tower, but for what purpose no one knows.

After viewing the tower, I discovered a pathway, lined on both sides by decorated models of the tower.  Apparently this happens each year for the Maiden Tower Art Festival.  The display was most impressive.


I thought about the hotel manager and his admiration for Stalin when I walked up Martyrs’ Lane in Baku.  He clearly differentiated the actions of Stalin and those of the Soviet Army in 1990. A memorial has been erected at the end of the Lane, with an eternal flame for the victims of Soviet supression in 1990, commemorating some 15,000 people killed by the Soviet Army during Black January, and later to those killed in Nagorno-Karabakh war. The Lane is surrounded by photographs and memorial plaques.   There is a Mosque near the Martyrs’ Lane – the Mosque of the Martyrs built in the early 1990’s with Turkish financial assistance.  There is also a Turkish memorial to the Ottoman soldiers killed during WW1 in Azerbaijan.  Like all memorials to those killed in battles which I have visited, Martyrs Lane sent a chill up my spine, and a dark anger at the governments responsible for wars almost overwhelmed me.  

On my final night in Baku, against my better judment, I agreed to go to dinner in a converted Caravanserai to hear some local music.  I wanted to hear local music, but I didn’t want to experience a mediocre tourist meal and listen to music “for the tourists”.    I was assured that this place was renowned for excellent food, and that the musicians were passionate about their music.

The converted Caravanserai looked splendid, although it did not look like a place a local person would frequent.  The other diners all appeared to be tourists. The meal was mediocre, and included overcooked and mushy capsicums, stuffed with savoury rice. Not sure what happened to the savoury part. The rice was bland and sticky and tasted like plain boiled rice.  The wine though was excellent, so I happily drank wine, ate little and waited for the music.

The 3 musicians arrived, looking as though they would rather be anywhere other than this venue, playing for a bunch of tourists.  They made no eye contact with anyone.  They banged and thumped their instrument containers, shuffled chairs and began one of the most joyless performances I have heard.  They didn’t even pretend to be enjoying themselves.  They did not bring the music alive at all.  They did not acknowledge the applause (heaven knows why anyone applauded that performance),  packed up their instruments, and stalked out looking as miserable as when they arrived.   It was in some sense so awful that it was funny.  

There is a lot to see on the drive from Baku to Sheki.  Monuments, roadside markets, varying landscapes from semi desert to mountains with rivers in between, wildflowers in abundance, vineyards and fruit trees, beehives and interesting refreshment options.

The first stop was to visit the mausoleum – mosque of Sheikh Diri Baba in the village of Maraza.  The building was erected in the 15th century.  Its architectural style is Shirvan.  I heard lots of stories about Sheikh Diri Baba, but my favourite was the legend that a sacred person was buried there, who remained imperishable.  Bring out the body I say.  The building is built into a cliff, and appears to be hanging from some angles.

On the outskirts of Shamakhi, one of the oldest towns in Azerbaijan is Yeddi Gumbez – Hill of Seven Tombs.  Only 3 of the octagonal tombs remain extant.  These are the tombs of the Shirvanshahs, and date from the 18th century to early 19th century.  Inside some of the tombs are the most beautiful tomb markers, intricately carved and a work of art themselves.  Trust the rulers to choose possibly the most beautiful spot for their tombs, with views of the countryside and hills all around.

 The roadside markets were generally situated on a spot with glorious views of mountains and rivers.  Some were in areas with wildflowers all around.  The produce was varied.  Fresh fruit and vegetables, walnuts, cheese, eggs, preserves, honey and spices.  There was also fruit leather.  Great coloured circles hanging on lines strung up around the market.  They were chewy and fruity and tasted as though they were actually made with real fruit, rather than fruit flavouring.

 Our lunch venue was in a clearing, with tall trees all around.  The sign by the roadside consisted of a smoking samover, with a menu alongside.  A few plastic chairs and tables, with sun umbrellas shading some of them looked quite festive.  The people living here are all refugees, living in dreadful looking dwellings, but nowhere near as dreadful as numerous refugee camps I have seen.  I am not sure where these refugees came from – no one could tell me. The roadside sign with the photo above would probably  provide a clue, if I could read the language. An old lady gathered up sticks to light a fire under the bread oven. We watched the bread being made, and cooked.  The aroma of fresh bread mixed with smoke and damp forest wafted through the clearing. We sat on plastic chairs among the trees, eating fresh warm bread and drinking tea from a samover with fruit leather for desert.  

 Approaching Sheki we drove through hazelnut orchards, and could see mighty snow capped mountains to the north. Arriving in Sheki, I was delighted to be staying in a converted Caravanserei. The entrance was like a a large space, dimly lit, with a high vaulted brick ceiling.  There was ample room in the passageway to accommodate a large number of traders and their animals if any should appear, although there was no accommodation for the animals.

The Khan’s palace was the summer residence of the Sheki Khans, and was built in the mid 18th century.  The exterior and interiors of this building are richly decorated. A large stained glass window made from multicoloured glass mosaics, with smaller windows made of pieces of coloured glass were themselves stunning.  The walls of each of the rooms are covered in paintings.  There are flowers, birds,  lions, deer, dragons, gardens and friezes depicting various wars and much more.  The carpets, which were in the same patterns as the ceilings, are apparently in the Hermitage, in St Petersburg.

Climbing up to the Albanian Church in Kish Village, near Sheki we wound our way up the winding cobblestone streets of the village, with views out over pretty countryside to the snow topped Caucasus.  The area was excavated during 2000-2002, and remains of bodies were found within the church walls.  These remains are on display, and other remains which were buried underground can be seen below the ground, through transparent covers.  There are a wide range of dates to choose from to date the church, but it is said that the church walls where the bodies were found date back to the 5th century.  It is a pretty little church, and worth a visit, although I prefer not to see the remains of long dead people.

The next day we left Azerbaijan, crossing the land border into Georgia.  A quite different experience.



Ethiopia – Simien Mountains

Ethiopia – Simien Mountains

I love mountains.  I grew up in a mountainous country.  I now live in a country which although it has mountains, they are not what I consider mountains.  Mere hills.  Not unimpressive, but not mountains.

My visit to Ethiopia had to include a few days in the mountains.

The Simien Mountains are in northern Ethiopia.  My friends and I and our guide set out from Gondar, in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia to drive to the Simien Mountains.  The drive to the eco-lodge where we were staying was about 3 hours. To say that the scenery between Gondar and our lodge was spectacular is an understatement.  Little villages with lots of men sitting around, children leading laden donkeys and women with babies slung on their backs gave way to plateau’s with fairly lush looking paddocks, then outcrops of rocks, pinnacles and wildflowers. We visited the park headquarters at Debark to arrange for Scouts, who are armed park rangers, to accompany us, and to pay the entry fees.

The eco lodge had lovely views over fields and rolling hills, but nothing prepared me for the view that awaited when I walked over the road.  I was standing on the edge of a ridge, with a sheer drop down into a valley, far far below.  Further up the ridge, the drop into the valley was 1500m.

p1030909The Simien mountains National Park is a world heritage site.

The Simien mountains are home to hundreds of gelada monkeys.  We set out early on the first morning to see the monkeys, and to walk along some of the trekking paths.  The monkeys were very active in the morning.  They were playing, chasing each other, checking each other out for parisites and generally were having a lot of fun.

After a magical hour or so observing the monkeys grooming and being groomed ready for their new day, we set out on a trek along the escarpment. We were accompanied by a guide, and 2 scouts. My friends were a lot fitter than me. One of the scouts very quickly realised that I was the weakest link so he hovered in my vicinity, offering to carry my water bottle, or help me up steep rocky parts of the track.  I didn’t actually need any help, but I appreciated his offers.

Our walk was short – about 4 hours.  The track led us along the edge of the escarpment at times, then in among trees, and through grasslands and heathlands.  Walking along the ridge I watched the lammergeyers swooping and sailing and then rising above the escarpment on the thermals, wishing that I too could swoop, circle and glide over the edge, and then soar back up above the ridge.

We saw and heard a lot of birds, and were joined for lunch by a couple of thick billed raven, who glared at us from the safety of their tree.

Thick billed raven.

There were wildflowers along all parts of the track – apparently the national park is a biodiversity hotspot, and contains around 1200 species of plants.

We caught sight of a Menelik bushbuck, and were thrilled to come across a klipspringer, which is a small antelope.  The animal was very still, so we had the opportunity to observe it for quite some time, and to photograph it.


We had this entire track to ourselves, not seeing another person along the way.  Each corner we turned provided yet another spectacular view, until we reached the end of our walk at the Geech Abyss, where the Jinbar River plunges over a cliff into the valley below.

We then drove a little south, away from edge of the escarpment, to another part of the mountains, where families were making hay, while their horses stood around grazing, and watching the activity.  When we stopped to look at different, but equally spectacular scenery, a little boy approached, with hand woven hats, which he was trying to sell.

Driving back to the lodge in the late afternoon, we came across troops of gelada monkeys, now grazing on the grasslands and heathlands away from the escarpment.  They were moving about slowly, pulling out tufts of grass, and stopping to eat. It was very quiet, and all that could be heard was the munching of several hundred monkeys.  It was a strangely serene sight, and so different to the troops of manic monkeys we had observed in the morning.

There was so much more to do and see in the Simien mountains than we had time to spend there.  Lalibela, Aksum and Southern Ethiopia beckoned, so we had to move on.


Churches and Caravanserais on Silk Roads

Churches and Caravanserais  on Silk Roads
Continuing Silk Road Explorations

 My recent travels have not specifically been along the route of a silk road, as my earlier travel in China was.  Rather, I have been on parts of routes said to have been taken by Marco Polo.

Describing the various trade routes as “The Silk Roads” is is a comparatively modern development. In around 1877, a German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen called the routes used by traders the Silk Roads, although a great deal more than silk was traded along these routes.

Travelling in Eastern Turkey provided many opportunities to explore places where traders, travellers and adventurers had been before. Possibly even Marco Polo had visited some of these places.

Approaching Kars, it became apparent we were travelling along a road which silk does not travel today. Along both sides of the road for miles stood army tanks, guns all pointing one way – towards Armenia, although Armenia would not be in range. I would have preferred camels. Head down, no photographs.

I did not find much to inspire me in Kars. Obviously influenced by Orhan Pamuk’s novel, “Snow”, I had expected a somewhat miserable place. It wasn’t particularly miserable, and did offer the Armenian Church, a 15th century Ottoman bridge and citadel and an interesting old hamam.

The purpose of my visit to Kars was to explore Ani, a ruined Armenian city, 43km east of Kars, on the Armenian border.

Ani, now in eastern Turkey, was Armenia’s capital city from 961 to 1045AD, although the first settlement on the site dates back to the 3000’s BC. The city was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1319.

Ani was known as the city of 1001 churches. The site contains the ruins of dozens of churches, which are considered to be among the masterpieces of of Armenian Medieval architecture.

Ani was also known as the city of 40 gates. As I approached the site, the remains of the city wall loomed above me. Apparently more than 1km of the wall remains.

On entering the site, through one of the gates, I was met with a landscape of a windswept plain, dotted with the ruins of what was once a great city. The extant ruins were overwhelmingly places of worship.

Most of the places of worship were of christian churches. There was however the remains of what was thought to be a zoroastrian fire temple. Ani cathedral became the Fethiye mosque in 1064, and returned to christian worship in 1124. The mosque of Minuchihir was probably named after the ruler of Ani in around 1072. The minaret predates the mosque itself.

Ani was once on various trade routes. Did Marco Polo visit? There is a path leading down to the Akhurian river (the border between Armenia and Turkey) described as the silk road. The path leads to an ancient bridge, sometimes referred to as the Marco Polo bridge. There is no evidence that Polo himself was at Ani, but the city was situated on several trade routes, all of which could have been part of the silk road network. A walk along the path, thinking about the great caravans of the past, fulfilled another dream, adding a further part of the silk roads to my experiences.

The presence of Armenian watchtowers and border guards just across the river was a reminder that borders are a moveable feast. Where I was standing was formerly part of Armenia.

I was reminded of this fact again on approaching Mt Ararat, now in Turkey. Marco Polo described a very high mountain, shaped like a cube, in Greater Armenia, and said it was the mountain on which Noah’s Ark is said to have rested. Polo said the mountain was called the Mountain of Noah’s Ark.

Mt Ararat, with its snow covered top glistening in the sun, invited a far closer inspection. We drove past the best viewing spot. Apparently the young men of Dogubeyazit, the nearby town, tended to take a dim view of tourists and were inclined to arm themselves with large sticks with which they beat the sides of any vehicles which stopped there.

No such threat occurred in Armenia, and on a visit to Yerevan we could view the mountain from wherever we wished.

Mt Ararat from near Dogubeyazit, Turkey.

Doğubeyazıt is close to the border with Iran, and is situated on the main road between Turkey and Iran.

Groups of the PKK live in the mountains in between Turkey and Iran. The market in Dogubeyazit is a centre of drug trafficking. Ataturk’s reforms apparently never reached this area, with men still having more than one wife. Women are known to fall out of windows to their death, apparently while cleaning the windows. Well, that’s what I was told by a female archaeologist from Istanbul, who had been on a dig in the vicinity. She also told me that because of her age – late 20’s, she would only be considered as a second or third wife in this area. An offer had been made to her father when she was working near Dogubeyazit – a man who wanted a third wife would consider her, despite her age.

With this information in hand, I was interested to experience the town first hand. Women did not rain down on my head – no window cleaning that day perhaps. Groups of young boys were very unpleasant. Older men were openly hostile. I didn’t feel particularly threatened, but it was a less than pleasant experience. No venturing out after dark for me.

I did not see any caravanserais in Eastern Turkey.

I visited numerous caravanserais in Iran and the Caucasus. I scrambled around semi ruined caravanserais, I ate and slept in converted caravanserai and was mesmerised by the variety and intricacy of ornate brickwork in others.

Caravanserais were a roadside inn, and were built a day’s camel trek apart. They look a bit like forts, with thick walls, drum tower like structures on the corners of some and could withstand a siege for several days. Merchants and their animals could eat and sleep in a caravanserai, and the merchants could safely trade.

Marco Polo would certainly have stayed in these establishments, but I can find no evidence that he mentioned them.

The caravanserai Ribat-I Sharif is on the old Merv-Nishapur desert trade route. It was constructed during the Seljuk period and contains a remarkable variety of brickwork and plaster motifs. It also contains 2 mihrabs, still intact.

Marco Polo is said to have found Isfahan in Iran a very large and beautiful city. I thought it among the most beautiful cities I have visited. The beauty of the mosques with their exquisite tiling made me weep. The bridges over the non flowing (when I visited) Zayandeh River are of varying designs, each one of interest. The carpets and the miniature paintings are among the loveliest I have seen, and totally irresistible. Carpets and miniature art accompanied me home.

I stayed in a converted caravanserai in Isfahan, the Abassi Hotel. What a lovely building that is, and its courtyard gardens and fountains are of great beauty. However, single travellers beware. Even though you have paid a hefty single supplement, you may still get a dog of a room. Mine overlooked a car park. I took my bag back to reception, and advised them that a view of the carpark was not acceptable. “Oh, but you can see part of a fountain from the balcony.” After a fairly robust discussion, I got a room with a view over the beautiful courtyard.

Marco Polo described what was obviously Baku in Azerbaijan, when he described oil gushing, while not edible, was good for making fires and as a salve for men and camels affected with an itch or a scab. Polo also observed that men come from a long distance to collect this oil. Nothing much has changed in this regard as Baku, on the Caspian sea still has oil, and men still come from a long distance to collect it.

The prehistoric petroglyphs at Gobustan, about 40 miles from Baku, would obviously have been there when Marco Polo visited, but he would not have seen them as either they were exposed by an earthquake during the 20th century, or they were discovered in the 1930’s by quarry workers. I, on the other hand, saw them. The carvings are on rocky boulders, arising out of the flat plain, and they depict ancient peoples, animals, hunting scenes and boats. I thought one of the boats resembled an Egyptian solar boat, but apparently the boats have been interpreted as being Norwegian reed boats.

A converted caravanserai was my home for 2 nights in Sheki, in north western Azerbaijan. It had a most impressive entrance, and for a short person, a quite challenging stone staircase up to my room. I had to sit on a step, and then pull my legs up to that step, and then drag myself up to the next step. Such steep stairs would provide a good defence, provided the attackers were short people.

Converted Caravanserai, Sheki, Azerbaijan.

Marco Polo described Tbilisi (Tiflis) in Georgia as a fine city of great size and as a place where silk was woven. It is a fine city. I do not know if silk is still woven there, but it is a most joyous place, and I hope Polo found it as happy and bursting with life as I did. I also hope he sampled as much of the wonderful Georgian wine as I did.

The Metekhi church, in this form would not have been seen by Marco Polo, but there would have been a church on this spot.

Dancing Peasants Sculpture, Tbilisi.

This modern sculpture encapsulates the joyous experience I had in Tbilisi and Georgia overall.

Whether or not there was a Marco Polo, and whether he ever travelled beyond Constantinople doesn’t matter because his story has inspired so many adventures for others. The large number of travel companies who arrange tours of Silk Roads, and the numerous hotels and restaurants bearing Marco Polo’s name attest to an enduring interest in the ancient trade routes, and Marco Polo’s travels – whether or not some of those travels are a myth.

Buddhist Art, Ruined Cities, and Theft on the Silk Road

Buddhist Art, Ruined Cities, and Theft on the Silk Road

Continuing  the journey which commenced with Mosques Pagoda’s and Art – Silk Road Journeys.

The road from Urumqi to Turpan passes through a varied landscape with views of the Tianshan mountains and stony desert during the first couple of hours and then through the Tianshan mountain pass.  The mountains rose on either side of the pass, a small stream was visible, its banks hosting the only vegetation to be seen.  Once through the pass, it was desert all the way to Turpan.

Tianshan Mountains.
Tianshan pass.

Turpan was startlingly green. The area is irrigated from an underground water system, called karez.  The underground tunnels bring water from the mountains and because they are underground, there is little evaporation. The tunnels were built around 2000 years ago. Fruit and vegetables are produced in abundance. The melon fields produced some of the sweetest melons I have tasted.  There were cotton crops, and an area called Grape Valley produced grapes in massive quantities.  Grape drying houses were made of mud brick, with latticed walls.  The area around the “sultana” houses smelt of port.  There were piles of sultanas on the dusty roadside for sale.  There was no wine in 1992, when I visited, although when Marco Polo visited Karakhoja, which became Gaochang, he observed that the land produces grain and excellent wine.   Lucky Marco Polo – I had to drink tea.

Grape Valley in Turpan.

During there 5th to 14th centuries, caves were being dug by buddhist monks at Bezeklik, near Turpan.  The caves are known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, which is something of an exaggeration, since there are less than 100 caves.

Thousand Buddha Caves, Bezeklik

The artwork in these caves has been vandalised, and the less vandalised panels were cut from the walls of the caves and stolen by Albert von Le Coq, a German Archaeologist, between 1902 and 1914.  Manuscripts were also stolen.  

One of the caves I visited had a huge chunk cut out of a wall.  This was pointed out with a great flourish, to illustrate the vandalism of the Devils on the Silk Road.  The stolen art works were taken to Berlin and were destroyed by the bombing during World War II.

The earlier vandalism was carried out by Muslims, who scratched out the eyes, and often the mouths of the Buddhas – so called religious vandalism. 

I was presented with a huge bowl of bones for dinner that evening.  Large bones in a clearish liquid.  Bones for a large dog came to mind. I decided that it was perhaps soup.  The liquid had no flavour, so if it was soup, it was less than enticing. Another large bowl appeared full of a noodle.  One continuous noodle.  The noodle was luke warm and was very greasy, and all but impossible to eat with chopsticks.  I contemplated sucking a mouthful up, and biting off the end, but as it was a shared meal, I thought better of it.  

Breakfast next morning consisted of peanuts, pickled beans, fried lumps of dough, dumplings and cake.  No sign of congee for the pickles and peanuts. The fried dough was quite satisfactory, covered with pickled beans and peanuts.  

 Thus fortified, I set out to explore the ancient ruined cities of Jiahoe and Gaochang.  First stop was Jiahoe.

Ancient City of Jiahoe.

 Jiahoe dates back some 2,300 years. The city was abandoned at the end of the 14th century, after being destroyed following a Mongol invasion, led by Genghis Khan.  We had the place to ourselves.  No other tourists.  No vendors harassing us to buy worthless trinkets. No evidence of anything modern.  Bliss. 

Jiahoe all to myself.

We didn’t have the Ancient City of Gaochang to ourselves.  There were about 6 other tourists and some local people there.  The site is large, with donkey carts to transport people around.  Gaochang dates from around 2BC, and it existed until destroyed by Mongol invasions – not long before Marco Polo was supposedly in the area.  The flaming mountains provided a spectacular backdrop. 

Ancient City of Gaochang
Gaochang – not all to myself.

The Astana-Karakhoja tombs were the local cemetery for Karakhoja.  From items found on the site, it appears the tombs were established in 273AD and abandoned in 788AD. In the early 1900’s Albert Von le Coq, followed by Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born, British archaeologist carried out excavations at the tombs. Russian and Japanese archaeologists were also excavating  They were beaten to it by earlier tomb robbers, but they still managed to steal a large number of relics. 

When I visited, there were 3 preserved bodies on display, and a mural.  I had never seen a preserved body.  I was fascinated to see long hair and fingernails.  The very arid dry climate accounts for the remarkable preservation.

Country near Astana/Karakhoja tombs.
Emin Minaret, near Turpan –  commenced in 1777. Said to have been designed in a pre-Safavid Iranian style.  

I was catching the 9.40pm train to Dunhuang.  The train was the Urumqi to Shanghai service, which stopped for 10 minutes at Turpan.  I have never seen so many people at a railway station.  There was hardly an inch of space on the platform – and it was a very long platform.  People were sleeping, vendors with little carts were selling food, people were boiling up water on little burners to make tea.  The train arrived on time. As our sleeper carriage was at the rear of the train, instead of being in the middle where we were told to wait, we had to move very quickly down the platform, through the teeming multitudes to make it. 

I had barely dragged myself and my case onto the train, when it began to move. I still had to find my compartment, but at least I was on board.

I love trains, and this train trip did not disappoint – although it was a little startling at times.  Just settling down to sleep, when 2 random men turned up, and hopped into the bottom bunks.  They had disappeared by the time I woke up.

The breakfast experience was interesting.  Our sleeper carriage was supposed to be next to the dining carriage, in the middle of the train.  It wasn’t.  The train was to stop at a station for five minutes at breakfast time, and we were advised to get off, and run up the platform to the dining carriage.  With thoughts of being stranded we knew not where, we certainly ran, dodging people disembarking and embarking, and numerous food vendors, selling their wares to people in the carriages.  

Chinese breakfast was still being served and the “restaurant” staff wouldn’t let us have the Chinese breakfast.  We need not have run along the platform I thought – a stroll through the train would have provided perfect timing for the “tourist” breakfast. 

Tourist breakfast for 4 of us, plus 2 British tourists and 4 Japanese tourists consisted of 1 fried egg, a slice of frozen bread, jam and a glass of sweet milk.  The Chinese breakfast would have been preferable. 

Walking back to our carriage through the train after breakfast provided a vision of hell, and the reason for running up the platform to the dining carriage.  The people in the hard seat carriages far outnumbered the seats available. Children were sleeping on the floor.  The noise was deafening and discarded food and other rubbish threatened to bury the sleeping children.  Add to that the chaos of people trying to get off the train, and people getting on, we would probably have been annihilated. 

The train was stopping for 5 minutes only at Liuyuan (the station for  Dunhuang).  How were we going to work out, in 5 minutes, what the name on the station was, fight our way through the people boarding and get our ourselves and our suitcases off the train in time.   I was advised that the train would arrive at 9.30am, so we should get off then.  What if the train was late, or early?  It wouldn’t be we were told.

The train pulled in to a station at 9.30 am, and we got off, hoping our advice was correct.  We had barely alighted before the train departed.  There appeared to be the population of a small city on the platform, and it took several minutes for the crowd to disperse.  We were the only people left on the platform.  The name of the station was unreadable in 1992. I went off to find someone (anyone) in an attempt to confirm that we were at Liuyuan, and discovered our guides inside the station, waiting for us.  Logical really, as it was the 9.30am train, so obviously we wouldn’t be concerned, would we.  Furthermore, they pointed out, if they had gone onto the platform they would have been among the thousands of other people, and we may have missed them and gone on to Dunhuang on our own.  I gave in gracefully, and didn’t point out that it would have been impossible for us to obtain any transport as they had our permits to travel to Dunhuang. 

During the 2 hour drive to Dunhuang desert gave way to crops of  cotton and sweet corn.  The cotton was being harvested. Huge cartloads of harvested cotton were lined up at the gates of a cotton mill, waiting for the mill to open. Camels were loitering along the roadside, disdainfully ignoring  all who passed.

Cotton growing near Dunhuang, with White Horse Pagoda in background.

The highlight of Dunhuang was a visit to the Magao caves, near Dunhuang.  The caves had been built and decorated by by Buddhist monks for over a thousand years from the mid 4th century. In 1907, Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born British Archaeologist, by bribing Abbott Wang, the custodian, “stole” thousands of manuscripts, buddhist silk paintings and the worlds oldest printed document, the Diamond Sutra, dating from 863CE. Mercury, the god of merchants, travellers and thieves, must have been looking after Stein and his ilk along the Silk Roads. 

Magao Caves, Dunhuang

 The Magao site contains around 500 caves of which  I entered about a dozen.  What I saw was like nothing I had ever seen before, and it had a profound effect on my understanding of art and religion.  The stories being told were similar to the stories, myths and legends shown in the art of the christian and orthodox world. Buddha with disciples, attendant bodhisattvas and heavenly kings, Buddhas with hands in meditation postures, early style bodhisattvas, Buddhas resisting temptation, and so much more.  

I did not see any manuscripts, paintings on silk, or any embroideries in Dunhuang. I have since seen examples in the British Museum, the V & A and the British Library.

Marco Polo stayed for a year in Su-chau (as Dunhuang was known), but no mention was made by him of  the caves.  He did however see the Mingsha sand dunes – he referred to them as the rumbling sands due to the noise made when the wind sweeps over them.    Did he ascend the sand dunes by camel, as many people did when I visited.  Alternatively, he may have walked up, as I did, and slid down.  Polo did observe that rhubarb and ginger grew in great profusion in the adjacent mountains, and that one Venetian goat would buy 40 pounds of fresh ginger of excellent quality.  

 On the drive from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan, I experienced some very realistic mirages – a forest, a city, lakes and rivers shimmering in the distance.  Little wonder early travellers perished following a mirage looking for non- existent water.    

The western terminus of the Great Wall is near Jiayuguan.  Beyond this people were banished to the areas I had just travelled through.  Other than being an important link in the old silk road, and the view of the terminus of the great wall, there is little in Jiayuguan of interest.  Polo said of another city “this city offers nothing specially remarkable we shall pass on” which reflects my thoughts on Jiayuguan.

Looking toward the terminus of the Great Wall from Jiayuguan Fort.

Getting out of Jiayuguan proved to be a challenge.  Arriving at the airport for a 9.50am departure, we find the plane has been delayed maybe 2 hours, maybe 3.  Reason – a bit of the plane broke at Lanzhou.  A very sad and decrepit looking plane finally arrived at around 2.30pm.  Its wings appeared to be drooping – down at mouth drooping.  The plane would take us, but not our luggage, which would go by train to Xian, even though we were not going to Xian from Jiayuguan.  After much discussion, measuring and weighing, it was decided our 6 suitcases could go on the plane. By then I was thinking that maybe me and my suitcase should go by train, but was dissuaded on discovering only hard seats were available.

The plane which took people but not their luggage.

The drive to Lanzhou from the airport is 75km.  We drove through lovely misty looking hills, hill after hill fading into oblivion.  

“Original” silk road near Lanzhou.

After driving through an industrial area containing petro chemical plants, the most polluted place I had ever experienced, we emerged into acres and acres of peach orchards. Marco Polo apparently travelled through a river crossing point at Lanzhou during his travels with his father.  He took a more northern route on his second journey.  Lanzhou is not mentioned  in his travels.  Lanzhou is situated on the banks of the Yellow River, a rather brown river when I was there.  The markets in Lanzhou provided my first experience of live produce other than cattle type markets – that is fish in buckets, snakes writhing in baskets, birds in cages and other small animals, which were distressing to observe.  The guide very cheerily announced that people liked to have fresh food, and as they did not have refrigeration, they needed to buy their food “live”. 

 Marco Polo was impressed by Xian (Singan-fu) – which he called a great and splendid city.  He mentioned fruitful gardens and fields, and mulberries.  I did not see fruitful gardens and fields or mulberries, but I did see the terracotta army – serried ranks of warriors and horses emerging from their trenches.  Marco Polo did not.  They were all still safely buried under their mounds when he visited.  It is fortuitous for China that the warriors had not been discovered when Aurel Stein and his ilk were exploring the silk road.

The Big White Horse Pagoda in Xian was originally built in 652AD, so Polo would have seen it, but he makes no mention of it.  I could barely see other than a looming shape through the pollution until I got very close.  I climbed up to the top, but could see very little.

Big White Horse Pagoda, Xian.

The old city wall in Xian is most impressive. Marco Polo described it as a stout and lofty wall about 5 miles in circuit, crowned with battlements and strongly built.  Unfortunately the pollution was so bad, I could hardly see a block beyond the wall, so there seemed little point in hopping on one of the golf carts for a circumnavigation of the wall.

On top of the Old City Wall Xian.

 Banpo, near Xian, contains a neolithic village of the Yangshao culture, discovered in 1953.  The settlement was established between 5000BC to 4000BC.  It felt more like a museum rather than an archaeological site in 1992.  The parts I saw had obviously reconstructed dwellings illustrating different forms of dwellings, some underground with just a roof to 2 room constructions    above ground.  The reconstruction, while useful to show schoolchildren what life looked like in neolithic times, did not inspire me. 

At Banpo Village

An evening at the theatre in Xian provided a most entertaining spectacle.  We appeared to be the only non Chinese in the audience, so hoped that the performance would not be the usual pretend cultural experience for  tourists.  The show was a recreation of Tang Dynasty song and dance. The programme included a fan dance, in civilian form.  The dancing was graceful, resembling ballet.  A mask dance was also performed.  The costumes the dancers wore in both dances were bright and colourful, and appeared to be silk.  Sitting beside the toilets, with the attendant aroma, did not diminish the experience.  The behaviour of the audience indicated that it was a show for tourists – Chinese tourists.  They were videoing, photographing, walking round to get the best angles for their photographs, and chatting among themselves.

My silk road adventure concluded in Xian.  Marco Polo went to Xanadu (Shang-tu).  I did not.  Xanadu is now an archaeological site but Marco Polo was full of admiration for the city, saying “in this city Kublai Khan built a huge palace of marble and other ornamental stones.” He also described gardens and a second palace made of bamboo.  Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge inspired me long before I set out on my Silk Road Journeys. Who would not be inspired by  “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:…”.  Whether or not Coleridge wrote this while in an opium induced state doesn’t matter.  What matters is that his words inspire – “For he on honey dew hath fed And drunk the milk of Paradise” nailed it.  I am going to Xanadu.