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SILK ROAD

THE SILK ROAD WAS A TRADE ROUTE USED BY CARAVANS TO TRADE SILK SINCE THE 1ST CENTURY. NOW IN THE 21ST CENTURY, WE DECIDED, FATHER AND SON, TO FOLLOW THIS ROUTE ONCE MORE!

Brief description of our trip.

The silk road was a trade route used by caravans to trade silk since the 1st century.
Now in the 21st century, we decided, father and son, to follow the same route once more!
We do not have a camel or a compass. Be we do have backpacks and a GPS. Together we will travel through the magnificent fairy chimney in Cappadoce and cross the world’s largest lake, the Caspian sea. Zigzag in between the silence of the endless deserts and the overwhelming mountains of the Stans. Explore China through the splendid Xinjiang and Gansu provinces making a possible side track through the inner Mongolia. Finally we will reach our final destination Xi’an, facing a thousand of terracotta soldiers. Our journey will consist in using public transportation, excluding the plane. Each equipped with a 10 kg bag pack, this 3 months long trip, will begin in what was once the most glorious city of oriental Europe : Constantinople, Istanbul!

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Aktau, Kazakhstan – Kungrad, Uzbekistan

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We are now in 3rd/4th class social mix. The only difference is that 3rdclass get to choose their seats and the 4th take the remaining seats.

Border pass formalities were smooth and easy with the immigration and customs officers joking to us naming all the French celebrities. Zidane always comes first.

The landscape is dry, barren till the horizon with a few horses and wild camels. These are sometimes domestic animals.  There is no tarred road to Uzbekistan and all the goods trucks and cars ride on sand tracks with a long dust trail behind. Paris-Texas film scenes and landscapes.

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The real action starts at the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border at Karakalpakstan. All the vendors jump on board the train and start selling their wares. I have only seen that before on a bus between Douala and Yaoundé in Cameroon. The vendors are young, and old children, women, men  shouting and advertising their products. You can be fed – Pilmieni, Samsa, Shashlik. You can drink, coke, water, tea, beer. You can smoke – cigarettes. You can wash yourself after – Kleenex, soap, razor blades and toothpaste. You can get dressed and/or dress your kin – girls’ dresses, t-shirts, trousers, shawls. You can go home loaded with gifts – toys, napkins, DVD, loudspeakers, perfumes or play the music yourself – Musical instruments. You can call/write home – mobile phones and sim cards, pens and notebooks. And if you don’t have local currency, the black market exchange comes to you; 50 US$ gets you a book thick of 1000 som notes (biggest note = 0,25 US$) . It is an uninterrupted flow of vendors up and down the corridor.

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Baku-Seki

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On the way to Seki. I am amazed by the wealth of culture present in this part of the world. The Azeris love life and culture. They will spend hours at the table feasting with their guests. Each toast is a poetic tribute to life, to their values (family, beauty and emotions). Mugham, their traditional music, has exceptional qualities. Their modern versions have jazz tones and even “fusionned” with jazz at the Montreux Festival. Each traditional song is immediately embraced by the whole restaurant singing passionately their love for their country’s landscape or just some happy/sad love story. Till now they have poetry national competitions (des joutes oratories) widely followed and discussed by the whole population. Poets become national heroes and are remembered till now. The theatres and opera house have a full spring-summer programme from ballet to Don Quixote, Aida and Carmen.

 

Wine is another wonderful surprise. I would know whether we should qualify their wine as coming from the New World since it was an exceptional Shiraz, given that Shiraz the Iranian city is just a few km away. Yet another example of a very moderate form of Islamic practice. A discreet and respectful way of following one’s religion.

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Baku , Azerbaijan

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Arrival without any problem to Baku round 11H00. We are so amazed and surprised by the quality of the City centre and the quality of its renovation programme. Our hotel is in the Old City. It is really becoming a world city. A interesting and surprising mix of old ladas and latest BMWs, soviet style apartment blocks revamped and gentryfied, the 19th century Hausmanian architecture in several boulevards give it a cosmopolitan air with some middle eastern flavor. Just as much as the teahouses, expats pubs, the young dressed in the latest fashion strolling in the pedestrian avenues.

 

The Azeri architects seem to compete in hospitality. The 8-course meal (Lunch/Dinner) finished at 19H30. There some kind of uneasiness to sit in this revolving restaurant at the 27th storey high tower eating caviar and overlooking some slum neighbourhoods at our feet. The chief architect Abbas shared his dry sense of humour and amazing Azeri Cabernet Sauvignon to ooze the discomfort.

Seki – Baku, Azerbaijan

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Seki is a lovely little town near the Caucasus. The landscape is impressive especially in spring. Thick forests at the foot of snowy mountains. The village remains timeless till now. Pre-christianity temples of the Caucasian Albania. In the days of the Silk Road, caravans from Tbilisi and Baku use to converge here before going through the Caucasian mountains round the Caspian Sea through the Dagestan and Astrakhan. No wonder a small silk production still remains in the town. One of the five caravanserais still operates as a hotel. The small 1762 Xan Sarayi palace is a little jewel under the shade of its two 500 years platane. The most amazing elements are the coloured glass sebeke (a kind of moucharabieh).

Baku

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The Old City is the oriental counterpart of this European city with the fortress walls, the mosque domes, the hammam, the Sirvanshakh palace and the caravan seray. All the winding roads delicately paved and all the old buildings almost completely renovated. Our hotel is one of those in the old town.

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Tbilisi-Baku

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Tbilisi-Baku train. We are in “First Class” Slepny Vagon, soviet style in its most glorious time. Platform 4 and compartment 5-6 were waiting for us. Two beds/couches with flowery sheets matching the brown Scottish tartan blankets complete with a pair of pillows, a large (used?) one with cotton pillow case with the I Vaqon Deposu logo and a second more modern one without pillow case. Clean bed sheets are supplied once the train is on the way. Central Asian undefined carpet on the in between corridor. Sliding door with heavy duty lock to ensure our privacy. Net shelf for each for our minor accessories. Private bedside lamp with general ceiling fluorescent light. Fixed window with embroided gold lace curtain to frame the view.. Individual hangers for the comfort of our clothes. We have taken photos for our interior designer friends for new inspirations.

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Yerevan-Tbilisi

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Sacha Baladian organized a taxi – Mercedes – to drive us to Tbilisi and stopping thru’ the Debet canyon areas. We have a good driver, proper music. It’s a pity, it’s raining again. Kim had prepared a CD last night for our trip. Unfortunately there is no CD driver in this car.
Lunch in Pamak in a container restaurant by the river. Khoravats (Armenian barbecue) with salad and cheese deliciously prepared by an old lady.  Two stops only at Odzin and Haghpat monasteries, the 2nd one being Unesco World Heritage. Both of them ravaged and sacked the Tamerlane. Terrible guy! Can’t wait to see his birth place in Samarkand. Reaching Tbilisi early at 17H00.

Tbilisi – Yerevan

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Given the diplomatic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, we could not mention to one that we are visiting the other country. We are now writing on our trip since Armenia, through Azerbaijan and then Kazakhstan.

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Perseverance pays. The Azerbaijan embassy finally gave us the visa after the 4th visit and 120 Euros.

 

It is too late to travel by a marshrutka. The last one leaves Tbilisi – Ortachala station at noon. So we settled for a taxi, negotiated by Devid at 200 Lari. We should be there by 18H00 ie 5 hours later. The travel is in an old Mercedes with the pictures of 3 orthodox saints protecting our loud journey. Loud as the Georgian music and the hot weather. It seems we jumped suddenly into summer.

 

Border crossing: Georgian side with French passport to avoid showing the Azeri visa. Armenian side with the Mauritian passport. The passport officers were lost and even my world map could not help them to decide if we were from Madagascar or Mauritania. Nevertheless, they let us in without too much trouble and with a smile.

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Yerevan

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I am struck by how European Erevan and its people are with cafés, fashion, operas, and churches. Contrasting with a persistent old attitude remains. A sort of sadness contrasting with their love for life, music, arts and cognac. A strong will to fight for the identity and a kind of acceptance of their condition as if it will always remain unimproved.

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Tbilisi: Supra, Tamada and toasts

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The supra is quite something with music, songs and dancing. It is a place where no one is inhibited. This is not a Georgian quality. By the end of the evening all tables of the restaurant act like one single party and drink, toast and sing together. The Georgian national anthem would come in without notice and uniting all of them standing up and singing almost in tears, joined in an absolute patriotic urge. And the party will continue stronger after. It is not easy to drink so much but avoid getting drunk. Food is there to accompany the drinks and not the other way round. And one should never steal wine ie drink outside a toast.

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Signaghi-Kakheti

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Trip to Kakheti region at Signaghi, small village in the North. Splendid village looking at the Caucasian mountains with snow peaks rising to nearly 4000m and the Alazania River and valley at our feet. Sad to know the Chechnya lies on the other side of the mountain (Russia).Wine growing region, breathtaking beauty from the little village completely renovated.

Lunch started late afternoon there and ended at 18H30 with great Georgian red wine.

Cappadocia: Goreme

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Excursion with a full load of Koreans. Obviously we were all considered as Koreans. The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia are totally unreal, like carved by giants. We finally booked the Goreme – Trabzon trip for tomorrow evening which means that tomorrow will be an easy day with late morning sleep. The bed is quite a treat by itself. One has to choose which muscle is to be supported by which mattress spring.  Once this is achieved, a good sleep lies ahead. Tonight we are out for a special dinner with Anatolian delicacies

Trabzon

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Longeant la Mer Noire, nous avançons vers l’est et au fur et à mesure nous constatons plusieurs choses. Nous nous éloignons des touristes et rentrons réellement à l’intérieur du pays. Peu de gens parlent autre chose que le turc. Même à Göreme, les seuls qui partaient plus loin étaient les quelques rares vrais voyageurs. En même temps, la population rencontrée est d’une gentillesse extrême. Il nous découvre avec une curiosité toute enfantine. A Göreme, les paysans regardaient passer les cars de touristes comme nous nous regardions les vaches et les moutons. Un contraste des deux mondes. Loin d’Istanbul nous pouvons sentir le contraste des attitudes avec une élite urbaine occidentalisée d’une part et un monde paysan plus conventionnel.  La plupart des femmes ici ont la tête couverte naturellement et sans intention ostentatoire.

Mais partout jusqu’aujourd’hui, l’image de Mustafa Kemal reste absolument présente. Il jouit d’un prestige et d’un respect incontestable et inégalable par aucun politicien depuis 1938. Chaque bureau, chaque école n’ont qu’une photo de lui jusqu’à maintenant. Aujourd’hui est la fête de l’Indépendance, le peuple exprime à la fois son identité nationaliste très fortement et aussi une reconnaissance éternelle à Ataturk.