As we stepped carefully across the rotted timber planks of the bridge separating Suopo village from the south side of the Dàdù River the strain and hardship of the past few months began to disassemble. There’d been few opportunities lately to feel as free and unburdened as this: no visas; no language barriers; no early starts; no borders; no rucksacks; no interference – not today.
Prayer flags, nimble and translucent as bat’s wings, threatened to take off in the wind. Gazing at them I was reminded of the weeks we’d spent, four years ago, walking between the villages of the Nubra and Indus valleys in Ladakh, and rejoiced at the persistence of communities, the world over, who live and work in harmony with nature. Continue reading
When you’re travelling some days turn out scrambled and others sunny-side up. Our day in Almaty was going the way of the former: scrambled. The apples, we were told, were no longer on the trees, and the co-ordinates we’d been given for the wild apple forests were more than a day’s walk away, beyond the reach of Almaty’s public buses and the elasticity of our rapidly shrinking budget.
In the Sayran Bus Station we picked up a weak wifi signal, slapped out the laptop, and stared in befuddlement at a Google Satellite image. N43.22.11’, E77.40.36’ was a nameless collection of bunched green ridges, gullies and veins of rock. With a little over 24 hours remaining on our Kazakhstan visas, finding Malus sieversii would be like looking for a needle in a haystack with the added diversion of a ticking time bomb resounding in our ears. Admitting it hurt like a shot in the foot. “Sorry guys it’s off the cards”.
Our timing in Kazakhstan had been off from the start. By the time we entered the country on the 14th of October half of our 30-day Kazakhstan visas had already elapsed. It was our fault really, a foolish burst of optimism that had made us think we could dance our way around Russian visa red tape in Tbilisi in under three weeks. The two unscheduled weeks in Astana waiting for our China visas was the final undoing. We’d gone about it all wrong, and as a result, we’d be entering China sans the precious Malus sieversii seeds. Continue reading
View of Astana from steps of Khan Shatyry
Acquiring a Chinese visa has become a tale of two cities: Tbilisi (Georgia) and Astana (Kazakhstan).
Hapless bunglers that we are, we had hoped, indeed expected, that the wide world of borders would stay open to us even after we left Europe. As it turns out, Georgia is the last ‘easy’ country for holders of a British or Australia passport to enter. Since crossing the land border between Turkey and Georgia at Sarpi, border-hopping has become increasingly difficult, time-consuming and costly.
A word of advice to the brave-hearted: it is possible to travel by land from Georgia toRussia, Russia to Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan into western China. The route that we took (we’re not as far as China yet) is as follows: Tbilisi to Kazbegi (mashutka), Kazbegi to Vladikavkaz (private vehicle), Vladikavkaz to Mineralnie Wodi (train), Mineralnie Wodi to Volgograd (train), Volgograd to Aksaraiskaia (train), Aksaraiskia to Atyrau (train) and Atyrau to Astana (train). HOWEVER, if you haven’t already acquired visas for these countries in your home country, then count on it taking some time and a reasonable amount of expense.
The farmhouse, Momavlis Mitsa
Saturday morning in Argokhi. There is work to be done: water butts to fill; pigs to feed; floors to sweep; tea to brew – but there’s no hurry. I sit on the steps cracking hazelnuts, listening to the sounds passing up and down the lane on the opposite side of the above-head-high metal fence. I hear ducks squawking, the lazy turning of cartwheels, neighbours fussing, the crank of the timber grape press, and the occasional sound of apples falling from the tree. It’s mid-autumn. Every warm day between now and Christmas is worth its weight in gold.
Working on Momavlis Mitsa (Future Earth) farm in Argokhi has ameliorated the discomfort of waiting for visas in Tbilisi. Instead of sitting like ghosts in some disembodying hostel, milking the wifi and kicking stones down Marjainishvili on the way to the Metro, we’re working outdoors, using our lungs and hands to lift things, fix things, bake things, grow things.
Creating new raised beds
Richie and Sam adding rotted compost to the soil
In the garden we’re asked to do things we’d never do at home, in our own garden: pull weeds, hoe earth, turn soil, plant monocultures and raise new beds without mulching them. I bite my lip as Inken, the 18-year-old longterm German volunteer, instructs me on how to break the ‘crust’ that has formed on the surface of the soil due to successive phases of watering and sunshine. We work the hoe forward while simultaneously walking backwards down the aisles. I wonder if I’m disturbing the roots of the small plants, and why there are no bugs or worms in the soil.
Not to touch the earth,
Not to see the sun.
Nothing left to do but
Run, run, run.
– ‘Not to Touch the Earth’, Jim Morrison –
The dispersing of students after the PDC brought us to the steady conclusion that it was high time to make tracks. With our new recruit, Sam, we packed bags and gathered our strength. Let’s go! “To the East, to meet the Czar…”
The train tracks ate up the miles. Shades of KLF Chillout Album as ambient sounds, lights and the sporadic music of doors opening and closing rippled through the carriage. Lying prone on the grimy floor of the 2nd class carriage. Smudgy faces through compartment windows, cigarette smoke from the toilet. Night tasting like ash and Sal, or was it Dean Moriarty, whispering in my ear… “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
With inertia overcome the road became our only goal. East, ever east.
Train-bus-train-bus-bus. In 31 hours we unravelled the 1,200km from Malin to Istanbul. 2 borders in 12 hours.
4am Istanbul. Nothing to do. Dark. A mist of rain. Find bearings. Coffee. Wait for the train station to open. Train tracks under construction. Change of plan. A bus. Otogar. Ankara. Peak hour traffic. Miss our stop. Run. Sweat, sweat… the Dogŭ Express. Made it! “Let this be a lesson to us,” Richie warns, “you always need longer than you think!”
Our third night since leaving Malin, our first bed: 4-berth carriage aboard the Dogŭ Express. Clean sheets and a pillow. Luxury!
Transylvania is sweltering! Indian summers are all well and good when Jim Morrison is elegising, but in reality they wear a girl down. It’s borderline 40 degrees and not a drop of rain in sight. I was hoping the ‘murky forests’ you spoke of would be fruiting with wild mushrooms, but it’s not so. Perhaps in a few weeks or a month? Rain is predicted for tomorrow but I remain skeptical. I’m hoping for a cracking Queensland-fashion thunder storm to break the heat and rip its belly out. The leaves on the trees are talking about autumn, but nobody’s listening.
A solid 3 months since rain. The corn crop has withered in the fields and farmers have harvested hay only once, not twice, as they normally do. The hayricks are still standing. They lend the countryside a rustic sculptural elegance. Did you ever read The Worm Forgives the Plough? Don’t suppose there’s much cause for building hayricks in your line of work? But if there were, this would be the first place to look for advice. The apples here are small and tangy, there’s more than you can eat, but where’s the cider?
We passed the Carpathians on the train on wednesday. Splendid. Continue reading
We arrived in Plovdiv’s Yug Bus Station feeling grateful for having escaped the intensity of Istanbul and the foot-swelling all-night bus journey.
Bulgaria – our seventh country in as many months!
As we sat in the bus station chewing greasy breakfast pastry we speculated about the many permutations of fried bread we’ve eaten during our 7 months on the road, and wondered what was ahead in the way of fat and flour.
Thankfully, in Bulgaria, there’s no reason to live off grease, cheese and coffee. Gripped by a late-season glut of tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, grapes, peaches, plums, apples and pears, Bulgaria’s towns and villages were awash with colourful market stalls. To impoverished tastebuds acclimatised to the bland horrors of English supermarket food there was no doubt that this was some of the best food we’d ever eaten. Who knew tomatoes could be this good?
In a region of central Bulgaria known variously as the Valley of the Thracian Kings and the Valley of Roses we were delighted to find that not one household had neglected to fill their backyard with a variety of fruit trees and heirloom vegetables. Walking the streets of Kran was a moveable feast, hands darting between railings and over fences to snatch mouthfuls of red currants, black grapes and marble-sized cherry plums.
“Incredible edible” exclaimed Richie, marvelling at the absence of ‘ornamentals’. Not a single municipal council-planted acer, plane tree or horse chestnut was in sight. Instead, sour cherries, walnuts, plums and sweet chestnuts lined the village streets, flaunting their exceptional ornamental value while at the same time, dropping fruits and nuts into the palms of passersby. Not wanting to be outdone, even the pavements yielded a crop; enough fat succulent purslane to furnish many a late-summer salad. Continue reading