A trip to the North Korea of Central Asia: Turkmenistan

Knowing nothing of the country sandwiched between Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, I turned to the Lonely Planet guidebook on Central Asia to find the section on Turkmenistan and was be greeted by the phrase ‘often labelled the North Korea of Central Asia’. Needless to say, I was immediately intrigued by this statement.

(rferl.org)

Never having visited North Korea, however, I was only basing my anticipations of this new country on what I already knew about the East Asian counterpart: communist, totalitarian state, military-rule, famine, dictatorial leadership, weapons of mass destruction, being labelled the ‘Axis of Evil’ (George Bush) – pretty much, a ‘don’t go there’ image. Oh, and I guess I also learned about Kim Jong-Il from Team America. As you may have noticed, not much of what I already knew about the country had been positive, if any, so for Turkmenistan to be labelled as its equivalent I was really looking forward to the visit.

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Me versus the Glacier

photo by stephenxfile (Flcikr)

photo by stephenxfile (Flickr)

After the raucous pub crawls of Queenstown, the wooden-housed village of Franz Josef is deathly quiet, and both the pubs close at 10pm. The only sight there is to see is the Fish and Chip shack. Oh yeah, and the massive behemoth of a glacier looming behind the town. That was what I was there to see, up close and personal on a glacier walk that I had planned even before getting on the plane.

After an enforced early night, I layered up to face the cold. 10 of us crossed a dried up river to get to the glacier itself; the rocky, slate-coloured river bed sparkled in the sunlight. It was like an alien world, moon rocks surrounded by jungle plant. From a distance the Franz Joseph Glacier was everything I’d imagined, like a great white tongue flopping through grey rock.  As our traditionally laid back and quirky New Zealand guide instructed, we strapped crampons to our walking shoes and began the hike.

Dust and grime coated the snow at the bottom of the glacier and as we got closer I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment that it didn’t look anything like the blue shiny images I’d seen on the internet. Climbing crudely hacked staircases of muddy ice, I started de-layering as the sun shone overhead. I tried to suck the sweat back into my pores while making wheezy small-talk with a very attractive Scottish guy. He didn’t have a problem with the ascent of approximately 65 billion steps. A petite girl in proper glacier climbing gear in front of me stopped to check if I was ok as I paused for breath. I wished the ice would swallow me up.

Heaving myself through a corridor of packed ice, I emerged over a frozen crest.  The magnificent view of the Space-like volcanic valley below was lost on me as I wheezed like a sweaty pug. The petite girl shielded the sun from her eyes, surveying her surroundings like a model for the outdoor adventure club, barely even panting.

The guide pointed out a glowing blue ice-cave at the top of the climb. That was it; the sleek, Arctic-looking world I pictured when I booked the walk. The guide said it was a tight squeeze and he couldn’t fit through it.
“Who wants to go through?” he asked anyway and five of us put our hands up. I hadn’t come all this way to miss out on an ice-cave. Besides, the entrance didn’t look that small.

The petite girl lead the way into a world of slippery deep blue and we had to trudge through single file. The walls started to get closer closing in around my shoulders. I was right in the middle of the group so there was no way to turn back and I had to concentrate on my breathing so as not to burst into hysterical panic. From where I was there didn’t seem to be a beginning or end to the cave, just an endless mass of blue. The walls got closer again and even the petite girl in front of me struggled to get through a tight gap, contorting her body like a gymnast. I, however, am not a gymnast. My shoulders jammed against the ice. I squirmed around like an eel in a fishing-net, unable to go back or move forwards. The ice dug in to my side and I panicked.
“Just pull me through!” I shouted to the petite girl.

She tugged at my arm and I swear my shoulder nearly popped out of the socket, but I still didn’t end up safely on the other side of the hole. Instead I found myself lying along the cave floor, buttocks wedged firmly between two freezing walls of ice. I wanted to bury my head in the crushed ice floor to drown out the gasps of strangers around me.

“Are you ok? Can I help at all?” the Scottish guy behind me asked, faced solely with my immovable rear end. Pushing my buttocks free would certainly be a social faux pas. Voices in all different accents united to shout contradictory instructions about where I should put my legs and I had to remind everyone that I was not a gymnast.

I lay down for a bit, trying to ignore the shouts from my hiking buddies. Perhaps the heat from my buttocks would have eventually freed me, but God knows how long it takes to melt a glacier.

“Alight,” I sighed “just push me.”
The Scottish guy gave my rear end a good hard shove and I was out of the hole, red-faced and unable to look him in the eye for the rest of the hike. I could hear the oohs and aahs of everyone else enjoying the captivating New Zealand scenery from the top of the glacier, but I kept my eyes firmly on the ground, politely declining any other ice-cave adventures, even the widest ones.

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Wild Camping – The Tourist’s Nightmare Part 2

The next part of our journey involved a coach trip from Gothenburg down to Malmö in the South, which was eventful in itself. As we reached the motorway roads, the coach scraped past a lorry and almost collided with it, resulting in an argument between both drivers and a policeman at the side of a road. The lush greenery of Sweden’s countryside passing by, bathed in the sunlight, made the journey worthwhile though, as did the sea views and the sightings of small towns like Halmstad and Helsingborg on our way down south.

Malmö’s centre swept us off our feet with its Amsterdam-esque buildings and small, specialist cheese shops and boutiques. Down one of these streets we discovered a camping shop, where we finally managed to purchase a suitable canister to fit our stove.

Meerjungfrau und Zinnsoldat: Auf Andersens Spuren durch Kopenhagen(The “Amsterdam-esque buildings” of Malmö diariesofarainyday.blogspot.com)

Don’t be fooled, though. Malmö is a very quiet city and, although currently undergoing a bit of a facelift, it retains its history as an “industrial town”, and if you’ve ever been to or lived in a place with that label attached to it, you’ll know what to expect. We were dismayed to discover huge, faceless office buildings lining wide, desolate roads leading out towards the seafront. We passed ugly, looming concrete walls encasing a shopping centre which was hugely reminiscent of Monroeville Mall as seen in horror film Dawn of the Dead. It was empty and barren, the only solace being the intermittent WiFi connection. On reaching the beach we were equally disillusioned to find that it was overlooked by endless rows of low-rise blocks of flats, miserable beige boxes that frowned out towards Copenhagen. The pier was peaceful and a great place to sit while drinking copious amounts of wine, however. Before pitching our tent up on the sand dunes in high winds later that night, we comforted ourselves there, reminding ourselves that we had at least found a small redeeming feature in the place.

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Wild Camping – The Tourist’s Worst Nightmare Part 1

If you’re a fan of camping holidays abroad and have never thought about giving it a go in Sweden, consider yourself severely told off. A country teeming with natural beauty, friendly locals and good food, it’s a must for the inquisitive traveller.

But I’m not here to lecture, and you’re forgiven for not immediately choosing Sweden as your ideal holiday destination. Frankly, the very idea had never even occurred to me or my travel partner until a few months ago, but when a conversation with a relative of mine who’d worked and lived in Gothenburg got the cogs turning in my brain, I had a look into it.

Cheap flights from London Stansted to Gothenburg City Airport were soon booked and we were ready to go. Well, “ready” is perhaps too strong a word. Unfortunately for us we still had to renew our passports, buy a tent and source all the necessary paraphernalia required for a camping holiday including a backpack each, which proved difficult to do on a budget. Eventually we succeeded in all of these things, and being the devious, strapped-for-cash student that I am, I decided I would do my utmost to avoid Ryanair’s baggage charges. Faced with two empty backpacks and a plethora of things with which to fill them, I crammed the first pack into the second and treated it as one item of luggage. After two hours of toil and a gross overuse of all the expletives I could muster, the bag was packed. We strapped the sleeping mats to its front and balanced it on some bathroom scales, elated to discover it was just under the maximum weight allowance.

The journey to the airport was, sadly, a tad traumatic. We were staying at my family home in Lincoln prior to the trip, and following a wonderful meal and cocktails at a riverside pub in nearby Newark, we boarded the train to King’s Cross a little worse for wear. Arriving in London at 1am and consequently too late to catch the last tube to Stratford, we were forced to take two night buses, which is a distinctly unpleasant experience at the best of times. Luckily our friend still lived in our old house in Stratford at this point and kindly met us there at 3am with refreshments before we crawled onto a coach to Stansted Airport. The coach was like a furnace and the toilet unusable, and as a result of not having slept yet, our bodies forced us into a state of purgatory in which we were neither still drunk nor yet hung-over, which became unbearable as we were shunted onto the packed Ryanair flight.

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Just a baby: Kakamega Rainforest

Tropical rainforests.

I’ll take a guess and say you just thought of the Amazon rainforests of South America or the Cloud Forests in Ecuador?

These are the big guys of the rainforest world, the ‘carbon sink’ forests, the ‘captured on every documentary going’ forests. These tropical rainforests have been called the ‘world’s largest pharmacy’, with over one quarter of natural medicines discovered within them. Half of all the living animal and plant species on the planet and two-thirds of all flowering plants are found in these forests, and there may be millions of species plants, insects and microorganisms still undiscovered in them.

But not all tropical rainforests lie in the vastness of South America.

The tropics take a major role in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide with climate change being significantly contributed to by the destruction of the rainforests. A simulation was performed in which all rainforests in Africa were removed. The simulation showed an increase in atmospheric temperature by 2.5 to 5 degrees Celsius. One such rainforest in Africa is Kenya’s Kakamega rainforest. A definite baby of the rainforest world, it comes in at just 238 square kms, a little less than half of which currently remains as an indigenous forest. It is Kenya’s only tropical rainforest and is said to be the country’s last remnant of the ancient Guineo-Congolian rainforest that once spanned the continent.

In 2009, dusty and hot from a cramped mtatu (small van) ride, I found myself in Kakamega Forest National Reserve. This Reserve in the north of the forest comes in at just 45 square kms. It’s situated 50km north of Kisumu city and near to the border with Uganda. It has over 360 species of birds, 380 species of plants, 350 species of trees, and 400 species of butterflies. It also houses 7 species of primates including the endangered DeBrazza monkey, the black and white Colobus monkey and the Vervet monkey. It boasts flying squirrels, chameleons, lizards, aardvarks, bush bucks, giant forest hogs, duikers, Dik diks and the Potto (the world’s slowest mammal). The forest also includes some of Africa’s greatest hard and soft woods: Elgon teak, red and white stink woods and several varieties of Croton and Aniageria Altisima.

With 7 kms of trails, there are a team of ranger guides to escort visitors through the forest, though you can take yourself round with a guide book if you’re feeling sure-footed. I went with a guide for a full day’s walk, roughly 5-7 hours, which set me back 2000 Kenyan shillings (Ksh) which is approximately 14 British pounds. Other options, which must all be paid in cash, are: Short walk 0-2 hours – Ksh 500; Long walk 0-3 hours – Ksh 1000; Night walk 2 hours – Ksh 1200; Sunrise/sunset walk – Ksh 1200. I visited in July and was told that this was one of the best times to visit; between April and July, during the rainy season, the flowers are at their most bizarre and colourful.

Photo from Flickr user: Felix Krohn

Photo from Flickr user: Felix Krohn

It was my first rainforest, and in my head, it was up there with the heavy-weight giants of the Amazons. Orchids grew amongst the branches, exotic birdcalls pierced the dense canopy, unfamiliar scents crept from the deep shade, half-camouflaged snakes coiled around nearby trees, and monkeys crashed through the undergrowth; I learnt that a rainforest is never still, never silent. My guide passed by trees and plants and managed to name hundreds of them, imparting his knowledge of their medicinal properties and lifecycles. We passed huge buttress roots and jumped over thick lines of ants trails – if you’re going to visit this rainforest, or any other, wear good walking boots that protect your ankles as no matter how far you step over an ant trail, a safari ant will always try to latch onto any exposed flesh on your heel if you’re a flip-flop/sandal fan.

We spent the day passing between thick rainforest and exposed meadow glades, before clambering up Lirhanda Hill in the thick heat to reach the highest elevation of the forest at 1700m above sea level, where the sheer sweeping scale of the rainforest could be taken in under the midday haze. From here we snuck into the bat caves before retreating back to the shade of the forest. It was a strangely overwhelming day, filled with butterflies the size of my palm and trails leading off into the seemingly endless undergrowth. I could have easily spent a week returning to different trails, at different times, and I’d recommend camping or staying in one of the Reserve’s bandas if you have the time.

Whilst Kakamega Forest is the main tourist destination in the area, another stop-off I’d recommend is the Crying Stone of Ilesi. Located along the highway towards Kisumu, just some 17km from the Reserve, it’s a 40m high rock dome consisting mainly of quarts, alkali, feldspar and mica.  It resembles a human figure with water running down its structure from ‘head to toe’, giving the air of a gowned figure endlessly crying. There’s something as equally overwhelming about this crying rock structure as there is about the tangled trails of Kakamega Rainforest. Suffice to say, I can’t imagine how overwhelmed I’d be if I ever made it to the Cloud Forests…

 

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