For now sits expectation in the air

Is this the right way to panic-buy? I'm not very used to shopping for emergencies.

After weeks of false alarms, panic-buying and twitter hysteria, it looks as though central Bangkok will in fact be flooded this weekend. Observing the media reaction, one could well be forgiven for assuming that this means that residents should be fleeing a towering tsunami bearing down on the city, laden with a cargo of venomous snakes, poisonous chemicals and escaped crocodiles; in reality, as Bangkok-based journalist and blogger Richard Barrow (who has been doing sterling work on twitter sorting out facts from hysteria) points out, calling the ankle-deep tidal surges currently assaulting parts of the centre of the capital a flood is an insult to those parts of Thailand (including many Bangkok suburbs) where people have lost houses, lives and incomes under two or three metres of water.

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The British summer never disappoints

Leave Ethiopia in the middle of a downpour, arrive in London in the middle of a downpour. One of the most frequent questions I got in Ethiopia was “Is it your rainy season now too?”, to which I usually assented, and today’s weather makes me feel happily justified.

Cheers, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s parting gifts to me were a double whammy of typhoid and typhus, which on the one hand makes me feel interestingly Victorian, but on the other, more practical hand, made the overnight flight home an experience I would not particularly want to repeat. Plus, while antibiotics are a wonderful thing, it’s my birthday tomorrow and no alcohol or dairy is going to put a damper on proceedings. Still, I suppose it’s preferable to intestinal perforation or metastatic abscesses (I do not know what either of these things are, but the Wikipedia article manages to make them sound unpleasant nonetheless) and I do not want to be so interestingly Victorian that I actually expire.

I have to say I am really appreciating finally being able to lie down. Armrests on airport seating really should be banned.

Avalanche fun times

What is it about this country that inevitably leads to me doing slightly silly things in pursuit of scenery? It’s not as if it’s hard to find the stuff here.

The pass was higher than I’d ever been in my life. The south side had been snow free, but the north was covered with overhanging snow bluffs, softened by the sun and the previous night’s rain. A sentence I’d read once in a book about an avalanche disaster on K2 or some other such baleful mountain leapt to the front of my mind and lodged itself happily there, replaying again and again: “Strangely, the party had chosen to cross the snow field during mid-afternoon, the most dangerous time for avalanches”. It was 2pm. Every ten minutes or so, a vast load of snow and rock rumbled off the neighbouring mountainsides, easily one of the most menacing sounds that there is. I probably wouldn‘t have been so concerned if our guide hadn’t also been so very obviously Not Happy. “Too much snow, too dangerous”. With a rope or an ice axe the bluff would’ve posed no problems, but mountaineering equipment was just one other thing that we had not thought especially hard about. Of course, most people don’t perish in avalanches. It’s just that, well, some do.

The idea had been to do some gentle trekking in the hills around Karakol, in the east of the country. We had been informed by the head of the local trekking agency that there was a beautiful azure gem of a lake called Ala-Kol just two day’s hike away, and we could breeze up there, admire the Alpine scenery and breeze back down again. The pass crossing might be a little tricky because of the altitude he conceded (Oh ha ha, I thought bitterly, struggling to put one foot in front of the other at 4000 m), but there would be no snow, and we would be laughing our way down to the hot springs on the other side. Things we were not entirely aware of when we launched ourselves merrily into this enterprise: a) June still counts as spring in Kyrgyzstan, not summer and this had been the wettest and coldest June for a while and b) due to the unrest, we were the first group of tourists going up the pass this season. For a brief comparison, this is Ala-Kol as it usually looks in late June:

Positively Caribbean.

This is how it looked when we were there:

A little less enticing.

The similarities are, you must concede, striking.

We eventually scrambled down some snow-free boulders, which were vertical and unsteady in a way that lent new and intensely personal meaning to the phrase “rocks fall, everybody dies” and bolted across the snow as fast as we physically could, which was not very as it was up to our thighs, as one of the snow bluffs above us collapsed, sending a stream of snow and rubble past us slightly closer than I would’ve preferred. One slightly unexpected river crossing later (who knew that unstable ice sheets can harbour glacial streams underneath? Well, most people I suppose. I’m reasonably sure I’ve never uttered such high-pitched noises in my life) and we were down in a green, flower-filled valley, contemplating the uniquely ex-Soviet attitude towards health and safety. Actual mountain climbers do stuff like that all the time and at much higher, its just that they tend to have stuff like experience and equipment and some idea of what they’re getting into. Evidently in Kyrgyzstan not much of this is important.

Still, the guy wasn’t lying about the hot springs, and if there’s one thing Kyrgyzstan is dead good for is hot springs. The thing to do with these is apparently to build a sanatorium on top and then depending on temperature either bathe in or drink the water, which of course cures everything, and everywhere you come across these decaying concrete complexes where cosmonauts used to convalesce and heads of state to meet and write constitutions and carve up new republics, and now they crumble gently but you can still get a two hour massage for five dollars. Fortunately the ones we stayed at that night were a bit too far away from anywhere for much of that, but there were still small concrete huts and huge baths smelling strongly of sulphur of which I got one of my own, because men and women sharing the same pool even while wearing bathing suits leads to the kind of moral degeneracy that even very smelly water can’t cure. In the evening we talked politics, because now what else is there to talk about, and toasted to our survival and peace in the country with a bottle of vodka which had heroically survived being thrown over a cliff during our descent. It felt a little silly that here we were, wandering around scaring ourselves by having inept and mildly dangerous fun in the mountains, when everyone I speak to has a relative or friend in Osh that they’re worried about, but then people are cancelling their holidays here in droves, and tourism is a major source of income in the rural areas, almost all of which are still safe, so we’re probably not doing any actual harm.

Back in Bishkek now, keeping an eye on things and working out what to do next. Things are calmer now but tense, with everyone anticipating further trouble in the run-up to the constitutional referendum on June 27th. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Bad timing

Words and phrases in Russian that I now know and wish I didn’t: civil war, ethnic conflict, murder, rape, genocide. The appalling violence between ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz that exploded in the south of Kyrgyzstan last week is the only thing that anyone here is talking about (warning: both articles contain graphic descriptions of violence, and I found the latter in particular very difficult to read).

From here’s it’s pretty difficult to tell exactly who or what lies behind the eruption of violence: the interim government (and many locals I’ve spoken to) are quick to blame provocateurs in the pay of former president Bakiyev, ousted in April (and it certainly seems that a lot of the violence was organised in advance) and it also appears that the security forces may have been complicit in the attacks. No one here in the northeast seems to harbour any particularly strong ant-Uzbek sentiments or blame the Uzbeks for the attacks, but then there are hardly any Uzbeks in this part of the country. I rather suspect that opinions are very different further south.

I’m in Karakol, in the northeast of the country, which so far has remained peaceful and thankfully looks like it will remain so. Most of Kyrgyzstan’s international borders are closed at the moment, so I’m here for at least the next couple of weeks (which actually suits me down to the ground, as rural Kyrgyzstan is as wild and beautiful and hospitable as ever) but keeping a close eye on developments (given the tight visa regimes in all the surrounding countries, short of flying back home there is rather a shortage of quick and easy escape routes even if the borders do reopen, so that should prove interesting). Watching this play out is miserable: this country is easily one of my favourite places in the world, and just a few months ago seemed to have so much going for it; although now the threat of civil war seems to have receded a little, to see things disintegrate like this is just heartbreaking.

In which I am briefly an international superspy

I am writing this from Delhi, which is not at all where I was expecting to be a few hours ago. I must say that India is rather a startling place to have thrust upon one unexpectedly.

It is the week leading up to No Ruz, the Iranian new year, and I had been rather hoping to spend this week peacefully jumping over bonfires (it’s a thing), admiring Achaemenid ruins and having earnest young men recite Persian poetry at me (an occupational hazard all over Iran, but utterly delightful). I, sadly, had reckoned without the efforts of the Iranian security service.

This photograph is full of heavily-disguised Iranian dissidents.

These diligent gentlemen hauled me off the bus from the border, assuring me that they merely wished to ask me a few questions; the generalised hysteria which greeted my suggestion that they might show me some ID (“This police station is our ID!”) suggested that they were not necessarily the concerned members of the tourist police that they claimed to be. Over the course of numerous lengthy interviews over the following few weeks, it became apparent that they were highly suspicious of my motives of entering the country, and had in fact been waiting for me ever since I applied for my visa in Tashkent. My gender, marital status, failure to utilise a travel agency and “impolite way of sitting” all told against me. I was quite obviously an MI6 agent.

Let this be a lesson that all may profit from: NEVER bring a computer or a camera into a country policed by paranoiacs with an active imagination. It’s amazing what can be concocted from the most innocuous sources. Half-finished end-of-term reports on my English students became evidence that I was recruiting Uzbekistan’s most talented linguists as secret agents. A document that I had been proofreading at UNAIDS indicated that I had been setting up high level meetings with members of the government. Photos of a party in Tashkent were clear proof that I had been fraternising with expat Iranians (never mind that said photos contained no Iranians whatsoever). I apparently spoke too many languages (that sound you hear is hysterical laughter from anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of my tortuous French or Russian. Actually, it was probably the Russian that swung it. It is an inherently suspicious language.) to be an innocent traveller. In the face of such brain-straining deductive logic and fiendishly penetrating questioning along the lines of “If you’re so interested in travel, why didn’t you study tourism?” , I found myself quite unequal to the task of proving myself a mere tourist (“you don’t LOOK like a tourist…”), and thus received instructions yesterday morning to leave Iran within 24 hours, or face “certain incarceration”, and while I like to think I am always open to new experiences, finding out exactly what the inside of an Iranian jail loks like ranks pretty low on my list of priorities. I took the next flight out of Iran.

Thus, I find myself in Delhi with no hotel, no plan, no clue; just a raging sense of unfairness (funny how we think life should be fair, when it never is). Later I will write properly about the incredible times I had in this wonderful country (well, the parts outside the police stations), which is so ill served by an illiberal and repressive government at odds with so many of its people.  Iran is an easy country to fall in love with, and I feel like I have been cheated out of an affair that could have lasted and lasted. I probably won’t be able to visit Iran again, at least while the current state of affairs continues, and what angers me most is that my experience, which I was so sure would prove the opposite, has instead just born out the warnings of my friends who told me I shouldn’t risk the trip. I will never regret visiting Iran, but I wish it could’ve ended any other way.

Well, there’s no point wallowing in self pity at this stage. I have a subcontinent to deal with.