In which I have a Byronic moment

Former dictator was a big fan of building bunkers. Everywhere.

Following my usual habit of taking to the hills in case of temperatures above 25 C for long persids of time, come August and sick and tired of temperatures which resemble the outer reaches of the Sahara, I retreated for a long weekend to Albania.

Sometimes, the only thing to do is leave town

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Do not eat the crocodile

Just because you can't see the crocodiles, doesn't mean they're not there.

Flood warning of the week: “If you see a crocodile, do not eat it”. This approach would not immediately cross my mind should I encounter a crocodile, but it’s good to be forewarned. Apparently, what you are supposed to do is call the Ministry of Fisheries. Civil servants in Thailand obviously live more exciting lives their British counterparts (although quite possibly if crocodiles started showing up in the Thames, DEFRA would show hitherto unknown levels of intrepidity). Anyway, the flood waters are going down almost everywhere in Bangkok. I took this at Mo Chit BTS this morning: last week the water was nearly three feet deep here, while it can’t be more than eight inches now. I was briefly tempted to go paddling, but the water was kind of green, and leptospirosis reputedly isn’t fun.

Huh, Thai civil servants really do live on the edge. This article about the government snake-catcher and his work during the floods is pretty awesome.

Baku to Almaty #2: train across the steppes

“In Europe and America people in a train travel in a train fully aware that it belongs either to a state or company and that their ticket grants them only temporary occupation and certain restricted rights. In Russia people just take them over. ” – Laurence van der Post, Journey into Russia

The problem with Kazakhstan is that it is a sodding big country. It is approximately the size of Western Europe, except with a population of only about fifteen million and not an awful lot going on apart from a lot of steppe. Aktau on the Caspian is, according to my Beacon of Progress map, at least 1000 km from the nearest town of interest, and my own particular interest lay with the Kyrgyz consulate in Almaty, over 2000km away on the other side of the country (3000 km travelling distance. The placement of transport links here is somewhat eccentric.). Since internal flights are not exactly cheap and buses non-existent, I was obliged to grit my teeth for the four-day-three-night marathon train journey.

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Baku to Almaty #1: the Caspian ferry

Crossing the Caspian in an academic. Surprisingly comfortable.

Waiting for the Kazakhstan ferry proved a depressingly Beckettian state of affairs. My companion in this endeavour was Juergen, a German backpacker who’d missed the previous ferry by twenty minutes, having waited a week for it beforehand and was thus understandably losing his sense of humour slightly. After a week, the only news that we had received was from a rather wild-eyed Filippino tourist who’d just taken the ferry from Turkmenistan and whose English wasn’t great, but the phrase (accompanied by a lot of emphatic gesticulating) “it’s hell” came across pretty clearly; we had just begun to reluctantly investigate flying, when I got a phone call from the tourist office. “The ferry is leaving in an hour. I think maybe you should go now!”. Right.

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Of mountains and metro systems

At the moment it is pouring with rain here almost constantly, and everyone keeps saying to me “Oh, it must feel just like home for you!” and I have to restrain myself from beating them over the head with precipitation charts for the UK, because we have had more rain over the past two weeks than London gets in a year, and no matter how bad it gets at home, I rarely actually have to paddle to work. Having said that, the sun has just this minute come out and it appears to be attempting a reasonable approximation of warmth. I am heading out to the hills for a second round of hiking tomorrow, so fingers crossed the weather holds.

Sadly these tend to vanish the instant they flower and end up in the markets. Oh well, at least we found one.

The mountains outside Tashkent really are beautiful – not as vast or evocative as the Tien Shan and Pamir ranges in nearby Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but to someone like me coming from such a terminally flat land as England, they are entirely satisfactory for my needs in that they are agreeably pointy and have snow on top, as everyone knows all proper mountains should. The foothills where we were hiking were green and gorgeous, and full of things which were about to turn into wild tulips (although apparently you have precious little chance of actually seeing said tulips, as locals harvest them as soon as they bloom and sell them in the towns). Still, there was a nice line in blossoming fruit trees, scenic donkeys and pretty (if somewhat brown) waterfalls, and our group (which was quite an odd bunch – the hiking club was set up by German diplomats, so the party contained two ambassadors, and of the rest only I and a few Austrian tourists had no connection to any embassy) was gregarious and not too speedy, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow. With any luck we might be able to find ourselves at least one tulip.

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