Jerusalem, Jerusalem …

If you have settled views with relation to Jerusalem and want to stick with them, I’d avoid going there. Stick with your prejudices. That may be more satisfying in the longer term. Otherwise …

IMG_1510.jpgA Gentleman with four proteges in hats/kippas in the lobby of the King David Hotel (see somewhere below) with what its Swiss designer believed to be ‘Biblical’ decoration. 

Fifty shekels. Where are you going? Okay yes. 50 shekels. I’m here. You’re here. I’ve got a car. Taxi? Of course. This is a taxi. You want to get to the hotel. I will take you. Why are you waiting? Sure my son is in the front seat but I am taking him to music lessons. Electric piano on the back seat is nothing. That is his. It can sit on him. What is your hotel? Sure I know it. You give me 50 shekels and I will take you.

Fifty shekels (20AUD). Probably should have been more like 15, but he had our cases jammed violently into the boot before I could take more than one deep breath. It’s that On Arrival Thing that you discard after use and try never to think of again. It had happened at Urumqi too, just the same. Whaddayado? He’s here. We’re here. Who wants to fight over 10 bucks? What am I? I’m tired. We’d left Tashkent at 2.30 in the morning and spent a bad short night on the plane. We had to wrestle with the security at Ben Gurion airport. We want to get to the hotel. The light rail terminus is somewhere here, but the bus station looks like a bomb site and I can’t see anything that looks like a light rail terminus. Plus we’ve just done some heavy duty public transport on the bus from Tel Aviv, the number 893 I think, otherwise unspecified, a strangely informal and anarchic experience. Maybe once you’ve been brought up Jewish it is assumed responsibility for public order has been internalized and minimal supervision is required. That’s how the bags went into the bowels of the bus; and that’s how they came out. A version of egalitarianism. Help yourself. But get on with it.

So. He takes us. The meter doesn’t get any exercise. Of course. In the front of the small car his young son does sit arranged around a large electric piano keyboard. He dumps us, congratulating us for our choice of destination on the curb of a main-ish road, frantic with traffic like all Jerusalem’s narrow arteries. Where’s the hotel? Down there.

Yeah, well it wasn’t. We were somewhere near but it took us another 15 minutes to actually find it on the other side of the road from where we’d been directed — our very fine hotel with a perfectly adequate room and a huge terrace just for us, completely charming, sympathetic and helpful gay receptionists and a breakfast of simply unparalleled splendor. Really and truly. (Pictured, about one half of the premium food that was on offer at breakfast.)IMG_3300.JPGGood enough in fact for our fellow guests to take huge platefuls of same off to their rooms to eat later. 

But there. We had arrived in Jerusalem.

* * * * * *IMG_1316.jpgWhen we arrived I thought for whatever reason — maybe that sharp hard light — that it looked a bit like Sydney without the harbour, ripples of low white tower blocks, spread for kilometres over the hills, especially their peaks, glarey in the heat.

The next day on our way to the National Museum we found Toorak, Camberwell and Glen Iris.IMG_1339.jpg


But we also came across signs like this.IMG_1337.jpgFor 15 years Lehi — also known, especially among British newspapers, as the ‘Stern Gang’ after its leader, Avraham Stern — was responsible for an underlying rumble of tit-for-tat direct action including the bombing of various British administrative buildings in Jerusalem and the massacre of several hundred Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin. (Palestine was a British protectorate as a consequence of the carve up of the Middle East after WWI.)

In one of those weird turn-ups infecting this part of the world, after its formation Lehi, an organisation of Jewish freedom fighters, sought alliances with Nazi Germany (and, as it happens, Fascist Italy) believing they were a lesser enemy of Jews than the British. To this end, the Ha’avara Agreement was consummated in 1933.

The deal was to fight alongside the Nazis against the British in return for the transfer of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. After Stern’s death in 1942, the new leadership moved their allegiance for a time to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Both Germany and Russia deported significant numbers of Jews, somewhere between half a million and a million, to Palestine.

Around this time a British High Commissioner said to David Ben Gurion, leader of one of the Jewish militias and first Prime Minister of Israel: ‘If you temper your activity it is likely that we will grant Jews independence in Palestine’, to which Ben Gurion replied: ‘You are mistaken sir. Independence is never granted. It is taken.’

One person’s terrorist is someone else’s freedom fighter: a truism, never more relevant than this very day.

After dining at Nagila, a vegetarian restaurant where we ate very well, we walked home through Fitzroy. (Hmmm you’re sure? Okay. A version …)IMG_1330.jpg

* * * * * *

Control of Jerusalem since the birth of Christ

  • 0 – 390AD               Romans (polytheism, Christian after 313)
  • 390 – 634                 Byzantines (Eastern Orthodox Christianity)
  • 634 – 1099               Muslim Caliphates (Islam)
  • 1099 – 1187             Crusaders (Roman Christianity)
  • 1187 – 1260             Muslim Caliphates (Islam)
  • 1260 – 1291             A battle front between Mongols and Mamluks (?)
  • 1291 – 1517               Mamluks (Islam)
  • 1517 – 1917                Ottomans (Islam)
  • 1917ish – 1948        British (Christian)
  • 1948 – present        State of Israel (Jewish)

Aggregate (approx.): Muslim — 1090 years; Christian — 440 years: Polytheistic — 313 years: Jewish — 70 years

It is not a good idea to conflate political control with religious affiliation, nor to assume that religious affiliation is anything like universal among any group of people. What we’re looking at here is ‘churn’. Churn, and for complex reasons which can as often be metaphysical as bellicose.

* * * * * *

Jerusalem is the Holy City, yet it has always been a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry; the desire and prize of empires, yet of no strategic value; the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes that the city belongs to them alone — the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions. …

 Jerusalem has a way of disappointing and tormenting both conquerors and visitors. Every visitor in all ages arrives with a vision of the authentic Jerusalem and then is bitterly disappointed by what they find, an ever changing city that has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.…

Holiness requires not just spirituality and faith but also legitimacy and tradition. …  and nothing makes a place holier than the competition of another religion.

No other place evokes such a desire for exclusive possession. Yet this jealous zeal is ironic since most of Jerusalem’s shrines, and the stories that go with them, have been borrowed or stolen, belonging formerly to another religion. The city’s past is often imaginary. … Most but not all conquests have been accompanied by the instinct to expunge the taint of other faiths while actually commandeering their traditions, stories and sites.

From Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: The Biography. Montefiore, a distinguished writer and historian is a member of the British Jewish family who could claim to have done more than any other group to establish Israel as a nation state, especially Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) a towering figure in this process and, with his relatives the Rothschilds, in British history more generally.

In more recent times, the Six Day War in 1967 was a marked turning point in Israeli history with a major impact on Jerusalem. In essence Jewish forces destroyed the Egyptian airforce and pursued its ground armies across the Sinai Peninsula to the Red Sea. Some of the land taken during this time has been retained for an expanded Israeli state. (Palestinians refer to this time as an-Naksah ‘The Setback’, and the 1948 partitioning when more than 750,000 Palestinians left Israel as al-Nakbah, ‘the Catastrophe’.)

As part of the Jewish victory spoils in 1967, East Jerusalem was reabsorbed into the city’s municipal boundaries for the first time in 19 years, and Jews returned to the Old City from which they had been expelled by the Arab Legion (among other anomalies, largely populated by Chechen soldiers with British officers) in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

After the 1967 annexation, each religious group was granted administration over its holy sites. For the first time since 1948, Jews could visit the Old City of Jerusalem and pray at the Western (‘Weeping’) Wall, the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray. Jews remained barred from praying on the Temple Mount although they were allowed to visit. Jews also gained access to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron for the first time since the 14th century. Previously they had only been allowed to pray at the entrance.

The success in the 1967 war generated a world-wide wave of enthusiasm for the Homeland among Jews and support arrived in all imaginable forms. We visited one of these. Jerusalem’s Israel Museum is a world class institution with stunning exhibits.

How could a country of 8.5 million (2 million in 1960) which is 70 years old have such a thing? Read the tags. ‘Donated by the Glimcher family, New York’, ‘by Ada and Gerry Morgenstein, Austin Texas’, ‘by the Schleimann Consortium, Chicago’ and so on. You can see, and feel, how the money has poured in, the vast nation-sized sums of money.

It was here we found this, the Tel Dan stele.IMG_1350.jpgDating from around 900 BC, it provides in ancient Aramaic the first reference outside the Bible to the House of David, slightly weirdly highlighted in white on this stele fragment. 

For the sake of interest, it says:

And the King of Israel entered previously into my father’s land. Hadad made me King. And Hadad went in front of me, and I departed from the seven [……]s of my kingdom, and I slew [seventy] kings, who harnessed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen (or: horses). [I killed Jeho]ram son of Ahab King of Israel, and I killed Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram king] of the House of David. And I set their towns into ruins and turned their land into desolation … etc etc. That’s how things rolled in those days.

Nearby, the same age, is this magnificent wall panel, a relief decorated with cuneiform of genies flanking a palm tree suggesting the bestoyal of abundance on the kingdom. It comes from Nimrud, capital for some time of the ancient Assyrian empire and 20km from what is left of Mosul. In 2015 the quite substantial remains of Nimrud were first looted then demolished by bulldozer and explosives by the Taliban. That’s how things roll in these days.IMG_1364 (1).jpgIt was donated by Baron and Baroness de Rothschild, Paris.

IMG_1399.jpgSupport is multi-lateral. On one of the walls of the buildings backing onto the Weeping Wall plaza above me in this photo is a sign saying ‘Colel Chabad, Free Kitchen for the Needy, Sponsored by the Luxenberg Family N.Y.’.

One of the most interesting sources of this support was, and remains, the community of Evangelical Christians in the USA who believe that two of the pre-conditions for the Judgement Day were met by the outcomes of the Six Day War: Israel was restored, and Jerusalem was at last fully governed by Jews. Somewhat perversely, after a complex set of events which can now be anticipated, including St Michael fighting the Anti-Christ on the Temple Mount, the outcome will be the conversion or destruction of the Jews, the Second Coming and the Thousand Year Reign of Christ. [Does this in any way help to explain how Donald Trump might come to be re-elected?]

* * * * * *

Fifty shekels. Where are you going? Okay yes. 50 shekels. I’m here. You’re here. Taxi? This is a taxi. Yeah another one. This time outside the museum. We could have walked but it was very hot.

The nature of the deal is such that we both know it’s a rook, if a very low key one. That’s all on the table sitting up, barking. But that’s part of its attraction. We should be pleased if not honoured to be involved in such a transaction, lying back into it, enjoying the frisson of the interaction. The Law is irrelevant, nothing. It’s between us, one human to another. That’s the only way the deal can be made to mean anything. Is he going to get what he wants? Sure. Are we going to get what we want? Sure. Is it going to cost more than it should (Should? What is ‘should’? Pffft)? Most certainly. But for the difference, to accommodate and explain the difference, he’ll add colour. In addition we are going to get entertainment, advice, philosophy.

How old do you think I am? Don’t know. I was born in 1965. Look at me. Do I look like I am 53 or do I look like I am an old man. Mmmm hard to say. I live in Jerusalem. I live under pressure every day. I am an old man. I have seen many things, but like everyone in Jerusalem I live with a weight on my shoulders which is never removed. The missiles? Rockets? Maybe. But I live with the weight of history, all the weight of history that the rockets are a part of. How about moving? What, am I moving? How can I move? I am a Jew living in Jerusalem.

He was most engaging and, as far as his own circumstances went, had a real perceptive sharpness, the keenest eye. I doubt whether he would have had much interest in the nature of other people’s experiences, but he would have been interesting to talk to for longer.

In his lifetime Israel’s Defence Forces have been involved with: 1964–1967 War over Water (control of the Jordan’s resources), 1967 Six-Day War (the Big One), 1967–1970 War of Attrition (hostilities in the Sinai), 1968 Battle of Karameh (vs the PLO), 1973 Operation Spring of Youth (raid on PLO in Lebanon), 1973 Yom Kippur War (major war with three Arab states fought largely in the Sinai and Golan Heights), 1976 Operation Entebbe (hostage rescue), 1978 Operation Litani (PLO in southern Lebanon), 1982 Lebanon War (same), 1982–2000 South Lebanon conflict (with the Christian militias against the Palestinians in the Lebanese religion-based civil war), 1987–1993 First Intifada (Palestinian uprising), 2000–2005 Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), 2002 Operation Defensive Shield (invasion of Palestinian areas for the purposes of counter-terrorism), 2006 Lebanon War (vs Hezbollah), 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead (Gaza Strip: Palestinian deaths c. 1200; Israeli 13, four from friendly fire), 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense (Gaza counter-terrorism), and 2014 Operation Protective Edge (Gaza counter-terrorism: 2000+ Palestinians killed, 8000 homes razed, 89,000 damaged; 34 known tunnels destroyed, two-thirds of Hamas’ rocket arsenal used or destroyed).

I haven’t included the number of missiles fired by Hamas and Hezbollah at Jerusalem: a lot. This is some weeping sore that Jared Kushner is going to sort out for us. Knowing all that, however, helps to explain the palpable tension which sometimes crept into the experience.

Our driver dropped us at the Jaffa Gate, its walls pock-marked either side with bullet holes from the 1948 war.

The Holy City looked hot, bright and glarey.IMG_1415 (1).jpgThe Jaffa Gate is quite small and, for defensive reasons, L-shaped in plan view. What we are looking at is a massive anachronistically paved area which flows from a large break in the wall. Both are consequences of the wish of German Emperor Wilhelm II to enter Jerusalem in 1889 astride his horse just as the Crusaders did in 1099. Just as an aside, such was the slaughter in 1099 blood is described as being calf deep which I can’t believe if only because of the slope of the site. I am however inclined to believe an account which suggests that six months after the bloody entry by the Christians the city still stank quite literally from the carnage. All inhabitants were killed.

We ran the gauntlet of the touts and plunged into David St visible at the end of this plaza. I have just noticed that in this photo you can also see the Mount of Olives with the tower on top of it in on the horizon. We plunged in looking for some sustenance. We went for a menu without prices — salad, hummus, felafel and granita — in a somewhat derelict shop at the butt end of an alley. It was, you may say, satisfactory.IMG_1381.jpg* * * * * *

In an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ (2000, 176, 86-90), Bar-El and others identify and describe a specific syndrome which can emerge in tourists to Jerusalem with no previous psychiatric history.

A previously mentally balanced person becoming psychotic soon after arriving in Jerusalem is the most widely evident type of this disease. A distinct pattern of behaviours is noted.

  • Anxiety, agitation, nervousness and tension.
  • Declaration of the desire to split away from the group or the family and to tour Jerusalem alone.
  • A need to be clean and pure: obsession with taking baths and showers; compulsive fingernail and toenail cutting.
  • The need to shout psalms or verses from the Bible, or to sing hymns or spirituals loudly.
  • A procession or march to one of Jerusalem’s holy places.
  • Delivery of a sermon in a holy place. The sermon is typically based on a plea to humankind to adopt a more wholesome, moral, simple way of life. Such sermons are typically ill-prepared and disjointed.
  • Paranoid belief that a Jerusalem ‘agency’ is after the individual, causing their symptoms of psychosis through poisoning and medicating.

The authors report 42 examples of such cases studied over a period of 13 years. Critics subsequently have pointed out that Jerusalem has around 3.5 million tourists each year and although several hundred are admitted to mental hospitals, the proportion is no higher than other intensively visited sites.

However when David Ben Gurion returned to Jerusalem in 1948 he did describe the population as ‘20 percent normal, 20 percent privileged, and 60 percent weird’.

* * * * * *

Breakfast this morning hadn’t been quite up to its usual standard, a little bit ragged and we couldn’t get a proper coffee for some reason. Ah, of course … that would be Shabbat. The Sabbath.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work [melakha – מְלָאכָה] therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD …. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. (Exodus 31: 12-17)

It had begun the day before. It was about 2pm and we wanted to go for walk round the Ramparts. Closed. ‘Madam’, the security chaps said, ‘Madam, the word is “closed”. Don’t you know the meaning of the word “closed”?’ And it was closed because of Shabbat which according to the letter of the law begins a few minutes before sunset on Fridays and finishes a few minutes after sunset on Saturday. During that time Orthodox Jews refrain from melakhot, 39 categories of activity. Over the years there must have been some tremendous fun sorting these out. Decades could have been spent on a single sentence, careers made and destroyed by the employment or removal of a single word.

On a less domestic scale this means a lot of things stop (in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv): restaurants close, shops and businesses close, no public transport. This is Jaffa Street, the main street, about 3pm on Shabbat.IMG_1501.jpgJust round that visible kink in the road there was a coffee shop open, non-kosher, probably run by an Arab or a Palestinian. As we sat there I watched a Jewish family with two young children playing with policemen’s horses before a portly middle-aged Orthodox Jew appeared and began chastising them. I couldn’t understand the language of course, but I did understand his tone and the way they slunk off. You’re supposed to be at home.

Between that point and and the 15 minutes required to walk back to our hotel we were accosted three times by young Orthodox chaps policing the streets asking in a somewhat threatening manner where we were from and if we were Jewish.

About 35 percent of the Jews who live in Jerusalem (65 percent of its population) describe themselves as Haredi, or ultra Orthodox. Haredim average 7.6 children per family, are not likely to participate in the workforce, can avoid conscription, and are disinclined to accept secular authority — a challenge therefore to govern. About 19 percent of Jerusalem’s Jews describe themselves as ‘secular’ (cf. 45 percent in Israel as a whole and 64 percent in Tel Aviv).

At 9.45pm we were starving and thought the restaurants must be open again by now. Surely. But no. That would be the chronological religious insurance policy that we might call the Shabbat Spill Over Effect. In the course of going back to check the vegetarian restaurant we liked, we found an Ethiopian restaurant next door which was open.

One interesting thing about this was that there was a lot of noise coming from a back room. I poked my head around to look and on the telly it was Uruguay v. Portugal (2-1, Ronaldo goes home) being watched by a crowd of young Haredim both using electricity and getting stuck into the grog. That’s certainly not work of course.IMG_3400.JPGA second thing was the food. It wasn’t a complete novelty. We’ve been initiated into the delights of this type of African food previously, but there it was in a lane off Jaffa Street, Jerusalem. Mind you, there have been Jews in Ethiopia for at least 15 centuries, so perhaps not a real surprise.

The third was that the only other people in the section of the restaurant where we were sitting was a family, a couple with an 18 year-old girl, from East Bentleigh, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Remarkable enough in itself. They were also Christian Jews — luminously alive (the 18 yo evidently less so) with the fact that they were Christian Jews — and ScoMo-like wanting to testify to the fact. They had brought 80 other Australian Christian Jews to Jerusalem where a world-wide conference of Christian Jews was being held. (Should that be Jewish Christians perhaps? I’m going with what they said.) They were in fact co-organisers of this conference, and the woman of the party was aglow with the experience.

Christian Jews, eh. Why not? Although that’s not everyone’s view. We shared a cab getting back to Ben Gurion airport with a stubby and mature ‘Holocaust Educator’ from Houston Texas who, when we mentioned this, said, ‘What are Christian Jews? You can be Christian. You can be a Jew. Nothing else.’

* * * * * *

About 37,000 people live in the Old City of whom only about 3,000 are Jews. Before 1967, of course, there were none. Jews were banned from living there. Now there are about 6,000 Christians, but more than 70 percent its population is Muslim.

IMG_1429.jpgThe Muslim Quarter is not generally much frequented by tourists. It has wider streets, less clutter generally, several schools. We were there because we’d wanted to avoid the crowds and to go out through Herod’s Gate to the Arab shopping centre outside the Old City, at left, quite a different proposition to the main Jewish shopping centre a kilometre away.IMG_3395.JPGIMG_1430.jpg

The Muslim Quarter, or this part of it anyway, also has a different flavour. Rather than being the backdrop for exotic religious theatre there is a clear sense that people really do live here.

The young chap in the pic above gave me a light but cross punch in the back when I was taking a photo of what I imagine to be his school (at left). To which I say, quite right. Tourists probably should stay where the tourists are rather than invade more private precincts. He was more convivial a little later when we bought a granita from his dad.

It was a bit the same when we got something to eat at Uncle Moustache Resturant,IMG_1431.jpga bit prickly at first and then when he discovered we were Australians he became the soul of polite and generous hospitality. And they were very good meals: kebbe (lined up on the side of his fryer), felafel, salad, bread and the best hummus I’ve ever tasted. Cost? Minimal.

IMG_1489.jpgA little later we were poking round, still in the Muslim part of the Muslim Quarter, and I saw this erm … neck garment in a shop window. It took my fancy. Who would buy such a thing? Under what circumstances? An intending Cleopatra maybe? Our mate here was only too happy to explain. He had sold two recently, one to an American who came in and didn’t even haggle, just slapped his card down on the desk. Sold. Bang. US$1200 just like that. 

He asked me if I liked it. In my most cautious and culturally sensitive fashion I said I thought it was teetering on the edge of being startlingly awful. He said they were his sentiments exactly, and we had bit of a giggle about selling such things.

We had quite a chat, about religion among other things. He didn’t much care for it one way or the other and didn’t feel any compulsion to change his view, a happy atheist, perhaps one of many, swimming along in this religious ocean. He was a lovely guy. In September this year he intends to complete his scuba diving certification near Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef.

Just nearby:

IMG_1493.jpgLook at the mountain peak. Spicy. Fabulous.

* * * * * *

IMG_1406.jpgThis photo contains a number of Jerusalem-y items.

A bit of archeology: King OG’s finger (That’s what it says. ‘High monolithic pillar, abandoned because of cracked rock. End of Second Temple era. Discovered 1871’). A bit of kitsch: a fibre glass Lion of Judah. A bit of nationalism: a flutter of Israeli flags. A bit of climate: random banks of air conditioners (Jerusalem is not in Europe, nor is it European. In so many ways it is in the Middle East.) And a bit of security/ control: that’s the wall of Jerusalem Prison.

* * * * * *

It was hot. We’d seen the things we had on our list and thought we’d like a swim. Clearly you don’t go to Jerusalem just for a swim, in fact there seemed to be an acute shortage of accessible pools. But then there’s no Nobel Prize for swimming is there, and the beaches of Tel Aviv are not so very far away. The 50m Jerusalem Pool was closed in 2014 after a community campaign that lasted for six years and ended in a judgment by the Israeli Supreme Court. It was replaced with a block of luxury units.

While the presence of a YMCA in Jerusalem caused just a moment’s pause, that it had a pool made perfect sense. Our route took us through a delightful park and within shouting distance of Mr Trump’s new Embassy in Gershon Agron St. We went down George Eliot St and George Washington St to get to King David St, a very grand commercial and institutional thoroughfare, and we found the YMCA okay. It looked something like this,YMCA_BUILDING_JERUSALEM_1933_from_East.jpg except that that is 80 years ago, and black and white.

It’s not a model. That is the real building. I tried to take a contemporary picture of the tower but I couldn’t, partly because it is so high but also because there were thick stands of trees in the way.

Here’s Elias Messinas in the ‘Jerusalem Post’ describing it: The historic YMCA building on King David street is a truly inspirational architectural jewel in the city, built in 1933 by American architect Arthur Loomis Harmon of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the architect of the Empire State Building in New York City. The building is a mix of styles, combining ymca.jpgstories from the Bible, the New Testament and the Koran, and local architectural historic styles that characterize the city – Herodian, Byzantine, Mameluke, and Ottoman – in its rich decoration. Interior and exterior. For architects and architecture students it is a great site for inspiration, exploration, and sketching — and so indeed it is.

It also says quite a lot about American architecture of the early/ mid 20th century. Hugely ambitious with a presentiment that if you could draw it, it could be built. The interiors in particular are a statement of this sort.

In 1924, Archibald Harte, General Secretary of the International YMCA, raised one million dollars for the construction of this building. Perhaps representative of a time when the US was at the apogee of its idealistic creativity and wealthy open-handedness, Harte had a startlingly detailed vision for a permanent YMCA building in Jerusalem. For years, he cultivated donors who shared his vision of a ‘Sermon in Stone.’

After seven years of construction, the new Jerusalem YMCA was dedicated in 1933 with Lord Appleby’s words: ‘Here is a spot whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.’ Harte retired to his home on the shores of Galilee which, in due course, he bequeathed to the Jerusalem International YMCA as an international conference facility.

There were a few tricks to get to the pool. We needed to walk through the hotel, the rest of the building, at which you are welcome to stay, although: ‘Some guests commented the rooms were small & dated, and that maintenance could be improved. Some guests also said the bathrooms were small & cleanliness could be improved’. But, hey, you are downtown in Jerusalem in a city landmark. Quit moaning.

Down the stairs round the back and into the entrance, all recently refurbished and very nice. This was going to be a very pleasant swim. Myrna went to pay. 95 shekels each. 40 bucks for a swim! Each! How could that be? You can stay for a whole day; you can use the spa; you can sit around … But we just a want a swim for half an hour. Up and down a bit and we’ll be out. No. Is there like a pro rata thing for a short time? No. But this is the YMCA. Creating opportunities to grow in body, mind and spirit; making a positive difference by providing opportunity to each and every person to be healthy, happy and connected. You know, ‘each and every’, ‘connected!’… We’re even members at North Melbourne. Surely … etc. etc. He got sick of us. Shutters down. Clonk. Well that’s the price. Flat and square. Just so very final. The Hard Man of the Jerusalem YMCA. 95 shekels each. Phoooof.

We sat and thought. We had walked some distance and it was hot and a swim really would be quite nice. Aha. Is there a concession maybe? Old people? By the time we’d had this stroke of genius he’d gone and been replaced by a pleasant young woman. Yes indeed there was a concession. 10 shekels. That sounds more like it. 10 shekels. Even erring on the side of generosity. Let’s go. Two people, that will be 170 shekels. Whaaat? 70 bucks! Oh the concession is 10 shekels, not the price of the ticket. Mmmmmph.

I was starting to really feel like a swim, so I said bloody hell okay let’s do it: two old people concessions paying a fortune please. Here’s her Seniors Card and I’m obviously very old. And she said, ah in five minutes time it’s women only for the next two hours.

This is what we missed. Nice, but, even if the Israeli Squad trains here, its still only a pool.124399094.jpg

We repaired over the road to the King David Hotel for some lunch to salve the wounds from the battering we had given ourselves.

The King David is another Jerusalem landmark. (See the photo beginning this blog.)

1920px-King_David_Hotel_from_garden_side._1934-1939.jpgIn 1929, Palestine Hotels Ltd. purchased 4.5 acres on Jerusalem’s Julian’s Way, today King David Street. There are photos (above, 1931, from the back, now with a terrace and dramatically re-landscaped) which indicate that it was nakedly out on its own. The only other building nearby was the YMCA (after 1933, but actually visible in part to the left in this photo). I might say that like a lot of buildings in Jerusalem, it is built out of limestone threaded with pink, ochre and a strong chrome yellow, providing an exquisite visual effect.

From its earliest days, the King David Hotel has hosted royalty, often in flight from their kingdoms: for example, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, forced to abdicate in 1931, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, driven out by the Italians in 1936, King George II of Greece, who set up his government in exile at the hotel after the Nazi occupation of his country in 1942. They all lived there on a more or less permanent basis. During the British Mandate (1923-48), the southern wing of the hotel was turned into a British administrative and military headquarters.

On July 22, 1946, the southwestern corner of the hotel was bombed, an attack led by Irgun, another Zionist paramilitary group — 91 people died and 45 people were injured. An earlier attempt to attack the hotel had been foiled when the more ‘official’ Jewish forces learned of it, and warned the British authorities.

When the British Mandate expired (? I have no idea of the correct verb; ‘was relinquished’ perhaps?) in 1948, the building became a Jewish stronghold and an important venue for politicking. It also, just as it happened, was right on the armistice line that divided Jerusalem into Israeli and Jordanian territory. So from your room you could reach your arm out more or less into No Man’s Land. In a gesture of confidence, when East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War, the hotel added two floors.

The last ten US Presidents have all stayed there. And Prince Charles. And Madonna. But none of them appeared to be there while we were ordering our smoked salmon and beer for the terrace. Similar price level to over the road but it was food and delicious and the service was exemplary. We were overlooking the hotel’s back garden and its 50m pool which looked extraordinary. Our waiter thought it might be 200-300 shekels for a swim down there. We let it go.

For dinner that night we had sushi and Maccas at the food court of a supermarket/ medical centre built into the heart of a military post in the Israeli countryside. Russia beat Spain on penalties. Next day we were in Montenegro.

* * * * * *

This is where this series of blogs began, the Muslim Street in Xi ‘An. China.IMG_0415.jpg

On our first night in Jerusalem we had eaten our vegetarian meal and needed a bit of a wander round before sleep. A random path took us west towards some noise and suddenly we found ourselves in the Mahane Yehuda markets, even while winding down brimming with noise and vitality. The little bar/ eateries were going full tilt with crowds clustered around TV sets with the soccer on (England v Belgium, 0-1), some people watching, some people not, most engaged in rowdy conversation. Pastries, confectionary, halva, fruit, vegetables, spices, shashlik, two dozen sorts of meat in bread, groceries, pies and other baked goods, but above all drinks and noise.

It was just so like Xi ‘An 6720km away. The hats were different but not by much, only by about 50mm of raised collar.IMG_1332.jpgIt struck me many times on this trip, that regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion or any other barrier, how hard it is to stop people socialising. Among other things commerce crosses all borders and, as that smart American gentleman quoted at the very start wrote, when it stops we’re in trouble. Soldiers become the substitute.

The prospect of making money will take people on all sorts adventures as will simple human curiosity. These things often exist in combination as I am sure they must have in Zhang Qian, the first recorded person to make the long and extraordinarily arduous journey from eastern to central Asia, and back again with a new family, an injection of Sogdian or possibly Uyghur into the Han population. Did anyone object I wonder? Was it a subject of gossip at court, or was his standing so elevated that convention and politesse put a plug into the mouths of the rakers and purveyors of muck?

Romeo and Juliet relies on an archetype of transcendent relationships: amor vincit omnia, romantic attraction conquering by taking no account of, disregarding, the artificiality of social barriers. At every national/ ethnic/ racial intersection on the Roads, and of course elsewhere, there is muddle of inter-relationships, extending far beyond borderlands. It’s everywhere.

And that was as true of the various forms of religion which had been our constant companions, from the impossibly paradoxical attitude to Islam in China — celebrated wildly in Xi ‘An, subject to a vicious crackdown in Urumqi — to the furious muddle of religiosity manifest in parts of Jerusalem. What did Simon Montefiore write? Most but not all conquests have been accompanied by the instinct to expunge the taint of other faiths while actually commandeering their traditions, stories and sites.

Religions ought to be studied in school. Ought to be, … but not as taught by people from ACCESS Ministries’ Christian Religious Education. So much can be learnt from the study of various religions, from the extraordinary insight into human motivation and marketing genius of the Roman Catholic church to the phenomenal talent for narrative embroidery of Japanese Shingon Buddhists. If we want to understand human nature, they provide some of the most accessible entry points.

And we would also find this.

Everywhere too is a history of dominant groups trying to change that muddle of inter-relationships, trying to tidy up and get things in a bit of order. Push them out, pull them in, stick those ones in gaol, kill them over there, shift that annoying border — trying to assert rights of ownership to property through often spurious longevity or history, or even religious edict. This of course is just as human as commerce and curiosity. You could call it the triumph of the irrational, except that that gives rationality a standing that might be hard to justify. 

What is left in our formal histories is the big events and the big names — Darius, Alexander, Baldwin, Chinggis Khan, Temur the Lame, Stalin, Mao — all killers, all generators of cataclysm, all disruptors, the people who asserted their dominance through conquest and separation, the people who buggered things up properly. They must get their run in any history of the Silk Roads, but another and just as real historical story, here and elsewhere, is what happened despite them.

Swapping stories, exchanging items of clothing, going on visits, providing guests with food and shelter, doing deals: that’s more like it. There are thousands of differently coloured tracks contributing to what was never single highway, just a great swarm of activity moving indiscriminately but animated by all the things that make us human. That’s what we had been part of.


Cities of the Silk Roads: Uzbekistan#2

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We got to Samarkand by Very Fast Train. That surprises some people. It needn’t. In some regards Uzbekistan is a very modernised country with an intriguing mix of the very old and the very new.

Temur is buried in Samarkand. He is to be left alone. A team of Russian busybodies exhumed his body on 20 June 1941. curse-of-tamerlane_10.jpgThree days later Hitler invaded Russia. He lies now in this unassuming black coffin (in the centre below) — not even the most ostentatious in the room — in accordance with Islamic practice which discourages lavish display.8234e0372f3e07f129eb162be4e12828.jpegBut in fact there was lavish display. Just look at this.IMG_1087.jpgLochin telling us the story, Tony taking pics, Torquil looking on. Temur’s mausoleum and a very serious encounter with muqarnas ‘created by the geometric subdivision of a vaulting structure into miniature, superimposed pointed-arch substructures, also known as “honeycomb”, or “stalactite” vaults. Made from different materials like stone, brick, wood or stucco, its use in architecture spread over the entire Islamic world’. They are simply amazing.IMG_1084.jpgIMG_1090.jpgAnd once you started looking, they were everywhere. This is the pishtaq, the formal entry, to the mausoleum of Temur.IMG_1078.jpg


The iwan is the recessed area. Look at its roof.

But there are so many things to admire here, starting with the range of colourings in the tiles, the multiplicity of the patterns, their arrangement, the cunning of the use of the calligraphy in the third top layer. The minarets too are covered in a stylised version of Allahu Akbar, ‘God is great’. 

This visit was to begin a flood of encounters with remarkable pieces of architecture.IMG_1172.jpgPeople come to Samarkand to see the Registan (literally ‘sandy place’), the heart of Temurid architecture. This is two-thirds of it.  You can see the bend, rather spooky in the flesh, in the right hand minaret of the Ulugh Beg madrassa, the oldest which significantly influenced the design of the others. Madrassas throughout the USSR were closed in 1925 by order of Stalin and most fell into acute disrepair. You are looking at wonderful and incomplete restorations.

This is the other third.IMG_1103.jpgThere are many reasons for its significance but at least one is the primary decoration of this element of the Registan, the Sher-Dor Madrassa, the ‘lion-bearing school’.IMG_1115.jpgFor fear of idolatry, Islamic decoration is meant to be non-figurative and yet here on one of Islam’s great monuments we have lions (masquerading as tigers), deer and faces set into rising suns. After a week of patterns, flora and calligraphy this comes as a surprise, and a cause for some wonderment.

What was going on? No one can be sure. It’s a madrassa not a mosque; that lets the reins off a bit. It would also make sense to assume that there was some Zoroastrian influence in play, and also that Governor Yalangtush who commissioned the building in 1619 might have wanted some form of facial recognition. Regardless, it makes this building special, a standout in a heavily congested field of architectural delights.

We went back to the Registan two nights later for a light show projected on the face of the middle madrassa accompanied by a very racey soundtrack which you needed headphones to hear.IMG_1169.jpgThe paying customers sat on those seats. The unpaying customers, and there were hundreds and hundreds of them, were just behind me staring through a chain-link fence.IMG_1174.jpgIt was a spectacle. Formidable. We learnt that Love makes the world go round, and that Uzbekistan and Samarkand in particular are pretty much at the centre of the universe as indicated above by Temur hosting not just Ulugh Beg, his grandson, but the Mona Lisa and I think Shakespeare just out of shot on the far left. Remember you are looking at the face of a complex building, a fact which was forgotten a few minutes into the 20 minute show. Made in Germany, it was brilliant, and nothing the security could do to shoo away the freeloaders had any impact.

And then there was this day which just unrolled one remarkable thing after another. My journal is reduced to headings.

IMG_1122.jpgIt began at Shohizinda, ‘the Living King’, so called because it is believed that Mohammed’s cousin Kusam-ibn-Abbas is ‘buried’ here. Inverted commas because popular legend has it that he was beheaded for his faith. But he took his head and climbed into the deep well (named ‘Garden of Paradise’) up the back of the buildings where he’s still living now. There are certainly mausoleums for members of Temur’s extended family, Rumi the scientist and astronomer, as well as other dignitaries and aristocrats. And it just goes on and on. I haven’t got a photo which does it justice as a whole. But I do have this photo of the main element of Kusam-ibn-Abbas’s mausoleum, which I think was also where we listened to an imam sing an extended prayer. Glorious.IMG_1131.jpg

This area is quite close to Old Samarkand, a series of holes in banks of clay, legible to an archeologist no doubt but not so much myself. The Afrasiyab Museum is nearby and it had a collection of stuff to look at. I say, well … educative. Its heart is the remnants of a substantial fresco important for the historical record of which this is but a very small part.Foto13-1920x1080.jpg

And then Ulugh Beg’s observatory. It was 39 degrees and largely shade-free, which limited its impact for me. But what was going on at both Shohizinda and the observatory — everywhere — was this: a mutual admiration society in the fashion stakes. There were these wonderful vibrantly coloured clothes wherever we looked.IMG_1132.jpg

IMG_2935.jpgIt was a Saturday I note, so probably a day out, a day for wearing your finery, and speaking the universal language of lifting a fold of clothing and making noises and gestures of deep approval.

Then — we did everything this day — then we went out of town to a small scale Uzbek version of Sovereign Hill where we saw paper being made and polished by hand,IMG_1145.jpga new building being built,IMG_1147.jpgdances being danced,IMG_1153.jpgand a feast being eaten.

It looked like a wonderful meal, a really fine version of standard fare, but I still wasn’t eating. Underpinning this enterprise is Lochin and his mate, the owner of the establishment, trying to keep old Uzbek culture alive. More power to their arms. Then that night we went to see the light show at the Registan. Then, later: tired, very tired.

What we were looking at out the bus window.

The suburbs (Note the long walls behind which there was often a large garden)

A car boot saleIMG_1185.jpg

The countryside. The further west the more desert-like.IMG_1186.jpg

A farm. This appealed to me because it shows just how committed these people are, in the most precarious of circumstances, to trees.IMG_1193.jpg

Government housing. We saw thousands of these, literally. If you are prepared to wait 18 months one of these could be yours for $US3000. If you don’t want to wait, $US8000. US dollars were quite normal currency, not for small things, but for any bigger purchase.IMG_1241.jpg


There is a perfectly serviceable, well maintained and direct road from Samarkand to Bukhara (in case of puzzlement, ‘Buxoro’ in Uzbek). My heart drifted sideways as we turned south-ish onto something considerably inferior in the road stakes. Where were off to? Mystery Tour.

IMG_1201.jpgAn hour or so later we arrived at Shahrisabz (Shar-ree-sarbz) at some sort of fete, like a tentative service club offering, a collection of minor Sunday surprises. Either children or very small people being married, several dozen in fact

IMG_1197.jpgvery junior boxers laying into each other (one kid would have a turn, biff biff biff, and then the other, biff biff biff),IMG_1202.jpgmartial arts troupes, a smattering of food and craft stalls, a sort of information-y booth where the primary concern was taking selfies with non-Uzbek visitors, and a group of recalcitrant (as far as the Russian cameraman was concerned anyway) Uzbek dancers, singers and musicians. He could not get them to do what he wanted; they just kept launching off into enthusiastic private performances.IMG_1216 (1).jpg

Temur was born near Shahrisabz and built a mighty fortress/palace here, the Ak-Saray (‘white palace’), purportedly with 1000 rooms. Certainly the remains of the pishtaq (in the distance below, and in the first photo of this sequence, 75m high originally. Could that be true?) suggest a mighty building.

An inscription on one of the towers boasts: ‘If you feel like challenging our power, look at our buildings’, reminiscent of Shelley’s Ozymandias: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ But instead of nothing beside remaining, with lone and level sands stretching far away, there is another cause for despair: something intended by the government to be ‘a theme park tourist attraction’. It was built in 2017, a product of bulldozing two ancient ‘mahallas’, housing areas. This destruction caused the area’s delisting from the UN’s World Heritage collection.

IMG_1220.jpgShahrisabz, a fairly nondescript city with a big history and a population of 100,000, extends over a large area, but this strange affair, about 500m long and 200m wide is somewhere near its middle. At one end are the remnant towers of the Palace entrance. At the other is a tomb Temur built for himself. But he is entombed in Samarkand and instead his son’s body lies here. In between there is a weird expanse of concrete paving, lamps, water features, young trees and turf (Shahrisabz = ‘city of green’) surrounded by two- and three-storey apparently empty buildings, some commercial and some intended for housing. It is to be a tourist attraction. It’s hard to see just how.

On reflection what we might have been looking at was a particularly strong example of contemporary Central Asian public space design. See e.g., these pictures from Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan (at left) and Astana, capital of Kazahkstan.images.jpeg5760.jpg




Shahrisabz also has a Polish War memorial. I wondered why. The story. In 1939 when Poland was partitioned by the Nazis and Russians, somewhere between 600,000 and a million Poles were shipped off to Central Asia by the Russians, primarily to Uzbekistan where they were initially put to work on cotton production. They were unsure who to fight for in the War but an army of 60,000 displaced Poles from Central Asia fought for Russia before transferring their allegiance to Britain and becoming the Second Polish Corps of the British Armed Forces. There are 22 Polish War Memorials in Uzbekistan. Another odd footnote: Regiments of (non-Polish Uzbek soldiers were dominant among the Soviet troops which took Berlin ending WW II.

We had an excellent late lunch on the roof of the Cafe Fez with just enough breeze to be comfortable and moved on.

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IMG_1232.jpgWestwards was into more flattened, arid country. We had left the comparatively fecund country around Shahrisabz and its Keshka Darya (‘beautiful/ pleasant river’). It seemed a long drive as such things often do — early start, big deviation (worth it) to Shahrisabz, unknown and fairly featureless country, no landmarks to judge progress, not a great deal of speed over rough roads. The photo below features a natural gas plant scarcely visible in the far distance.IMG_1235.jpgIMG_1248.jpg

It was 38C as usual when we woke next morning for breakfast in our excellent hotel, the precursor to another packed day. Bukhara is described as a ‘city-museum’ with more than 140 historical monuments, and it did feel like that. Not that it was awash with tourists, but it did have a great many tourist facilities — that sort of restaurant, that sort of hotel, that sort of market, those sorts of galleries. I don’t know what the signs on the building at right say in Russian (except ‘cafe’ and ‘restaurant’), but the sign in English says ‘The One BURGER Open 24 hours’.

Samanid_Shrine.jpgWe walked through an amusement park to find ‘one of the most highly esteemed works of Central Asian architecture’, the Samanid mausoleum built between 892 and 943 AD. I remember it mostly for the fact that it is built entirely out of mud, and that all that decoration is the product of cunning placement of bricks of essentially the same shape and size.

But it has other significance. Orthodox Sunni Islam strictly prohibits the construction of mausoleums over burial places, and yet …  The Samanid mausoleum is one of the earliest of the very few departures from that restriction in the history of Sunni Islamic architecture.

IMG_1253.jpgIt is one of the oldest monuments in the Bukhara region. When Chinggis Khan invaded (1220AD, most of its population at the time being Indian/ Pakistani traders and their families!), the shrine had already been buried in mud from flooding, thus saving it from destruction. The site was only rediscovered in 1934 by Soviet archeologist V.A. Shishkin, and required two years for excavation and, I can only presume, a great deal of restoration.

The shrine has been considered sacred by local residents, and pilgrims would pose dilemmas and questions to a mullah who would reply from behind a wall in order to preserve anonymity for petitioners. The shrine was once the centerpiece of a vast cemetery where, among others, the former Emirs of Bukhara were buried.

IMG_1254.jpgAnother short walk got us to this working (‘Friday’) mosque where a very friendly and considerate imam gave us instruction in the meaning and practice of Islam. I thought again how generous Lochin had been with his efforts to introduce us to his religion, and also how likely it was that the Russians, having made every effort to do so, had succeeded in knocking some of the sharper edges off Islam in Central Asia. We were directed to the mihrab, the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, next to which was, as customary, the minbar, the pulpit from which the sermon is given. He also told us about the nature of prayer and showed us how to participate. Some of us did.IMG_3105.jpgAs we left, Myrna held out her hand for him to shake before realising that this was not quite the done thing. He smiled and laughed, took her hand and shook it warmly. 

We moved on to the Ark Fort.IMG_1263.jpgThis was the fortress home of the Emirs of Bukhara, the last of whom was driven out by the Russians in 1920. (As it happens the Russian forces were led by Mikhail Frunze who as hugely retentive readers may remember lent his name to his native town Bishkek from 1926 until independence in 1991.) These walls were extraordinary to see as were the bits and pieces collected to interest visitors up the top. This, I think, is where the people who looked after the stables lived. IMG_1261.jpgI like the colours and the forms in this photo just per se. Maybe the shadow play on the imperfections in the rendering. But there is something else about what we saw here. I think perhaps expressions of grandeur which are intriguing but not very grand, qualified with something more local, individual and ‘imperfect’. Something that is wrestling with an introduced culture without completely understanding it, modifying it according to local precepts producing something which is often desirably unusual. This is an observation about civic architecture and art. Those sorts of ‘mistakes’ don’t interrupt the purity and precision of most of the religious building.

This is the last Emir, Khan Sayyid Alim. He fled (hmm examine photo and insert suitable verb meaning ‘ran away from’) before the Russians came.IMG_1258.jpg 

We’re still walking. We are in the forecourt of several mosques near this wonderful minaret, IMG_1264.jpgand, below, this working madrassa for students aged over 18, four levels of study offering both religious and secular subjects. Not all students join religious orders. The quality of the education received at many major madrassas like this one is believed to be very high.IMG_1265.jpgAnd a required photo apparently.IMG_1268.jpgThere is something very satisfying about these forms and colours in this environment.

We hadn’t even had lunch yet. (Outstanding dumplings and plov, a bit like risotto. We were coming close to exhausting the range of Uzbek cuisine. Again the meal was made more pleasant by being up on a shaded roof in the breeze. )

There was so much more but let us throw ourselves on a pile of rugs. Trample them. Smell them. Rub your hands on them.IMG_1269.jpgI am a sucker for rugs, a complete sucker. Check out the one at the front under the red and orange one. An ancient design with a family of deer wandering round what might be the Tree of Life populated by birds. (We found the identical design on a rug of the same size in Israel’s National Museum. ‘Song of Songs’, Bezalel Workshop 1820.) So striking. So intense. I saw it as soon as we walked in. (I wonder why it had been placed just there … strange.) Silk. Amazing to the touch. Shimmering with light. I look at it every day and am grateful. Cost? Formidable. There were no bargains here. These are real ones.

These rugs were being made by 60 youngish women who tire — after couple of years, no longer; their eyes go — of tieing 400 knots to the inch. As the salespersons are keen to point out, the work involved! Months in even a small rug.IMG_1294.jpg

IMG_1296.jpgAnd how do you sell rugs? 

Simple. Seduction.

Meet Sabira. She knew all the ways to sell rugs and probably anything else that might have taken her fancy. The knots she ties circumscribe first your will and then your wallet. She had honed her skills and her English accent working in London for several years. 

We had dived in fully clothed and made our purchase. Marty and Rikie took a more measured approach and spent a night deciding to go back and have another look. Rikie put a dint in Marty’s bargaining position by calling out across the room, ‘This one Marty. Buy it for me for my birthday’, but we believe it has already been a great success in its new home.

We saw a photo gallery, we saw pottery being made, we saw a miniaturist, and we saw a collection of suzanis (‘by needle’) which attracted a great deal of comment when Myrna posted her photos of a dozen or so on her Facebook page. They exemplify what might be imported from Uzbekistan to influence Russian/Western European artistic influences. No special interest in precise symmetry, although it could occur when desired, skilfully but not industrially made, a real pleasure in modest eccentricity.  They were vibrant and deeply engaging.Kermina_Suzani.jpg

And then on the outskirts of town — sited by hanging a sheep in each of the four quarters round Bukhara and being guided by the one where the sheep rotted most slowly — we came to the Summer Palace now in some decline, another strange amalgam of Russia and Central Asia. Here too is this ‘style’ that I am trying to describe.IMG_1279.jpgThe Grand-ish Hall. Note the muqarnas in the alcoves.IMG_1282.jpgPots full of flowers which will never die. (and Muqarnas)IMG_1283.jpgA sitting room, and these colours are all true — a fury of decorative art.

These are the reasons why you might go to Bukhara.

IMG_1299.jpgFinally, a small mosque built by a businessman to assuage his god. Tiny inside, and infected with a rash of some sort of commerce, what I’m really looking at is the stork nest — part of the building, lovely — and what I’m really doing is standing next to and chatting with a delightful 10 year-old girl who is trying out her English to sell me some beans and nuts. My one regret, from weeks in Central Asia — my sole regret, it had been more than wonderful — is that I didn’t buy any.

The Very Fast Train took us back to Tashkent for a 2.30am flight to Istanbul. We were driven to the airport by a 6 foot 4 Kazakh who spoke perfect English and whose son, by dint of the new Silk Roads, was studying Japanese in America. We got to the deserted airport 3 hours early with only the football for company. Uruguay 3: Russia 0. Not a popular result here, but I was secretly just as pleased. 

And then, a destination the Silk Roads often tried to dodge, somewhere I was looking forward very much to visiting — JERUSALEM …



Cities of the Silk Roads: Uzbekistan #1

The BorderIMG_1004.jpg

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 7.38.29 pm.pngYes that’s Uzbekistan. But look more closely at this section of the border with the Kyrgyz Republic.Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 1.02.08 pm.png

It’s a crazy puzzle. 

Tajikistan, which is mostly the Pamir mountains, makes its claim round a corner to some of the Fergana Valley, manages to include the Kairakum Reservoir and take a skinny bite out of the end of a river valley. But what are those green floaty bits up to?

They are exclaves. You can’t see them all here but there are eight altogether: smallish parcels of land completely surrounded by another country. There is one Tajik and four Uzbek exclaves in Kyrgyzstan, a Tajik exclave in Uzbekistan, and a Kyrgyz exclave in Uzbekistan. Vorukh, where things have turned into shooting match about the route of new road, is another Tajik enclave in Kyrgyzstan. We had to drive right round the Uzbek bulge — all the bulges, large and small — to get to Osh (in Kyrgyzstan but on the border) where we could enter the country. 

Political, demographic and civil engineering are not always complementary.1200px-Central_Asia_Ethnic_en.svg.pngOchre for Uzbeks, red for Tajiks, brown for Kyrgyz. Sort that out. (No one lives where it’s white: mountains or desert.)

Stalin used to shift the borders of the Soviets on a whim, at times to keep them in order or to punish or reward the citizens or more usually his trusties, their bosses. But the breakup of the USSR has left behind a legacy of disputed borders and we were crossing at the site of one of the liveliest disputes.

In 2010 at Osh this became a shooting, burning, killing war between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz who had previously lived reasonably happily cheek by jowl. It doesn’t seem to have been a dispute over territory as it was in 1990 when 80,000 Uzbeks were displaced: just agitation, trouble-making. The effect? More than 2000 buildings destroyed and an uncertain number of lives lost but probably about 50. Errant Tajiks, deposed Kyrgyz leaders, Russian mavericks, even gypsies, were among those blamed along with more obvious targets.

The remnants of these eruptions — shell holes, half destroyed building, bundles of razor wire, serious fences — were all there to see as we crossed the 200m of no man’s land border.

The photo beginning this blog is one of my favourites from the trip, but it is deceptive. Other people in that line-up who had been waiting some hours to cross the border were audibly and visibly cross. When this began to sound like an eruption dozens of military border guards rushed out of their quarters to settle things down. It must be said that it seemed more like an angry game than a declaration of war. But it’s more uneasy than this smile would indicate. Walking that 200m in our tourist bubble was a strange experience.IMG_1001.jpg

* * * * * *

Unknown.jpegUzbekistan (‘ston’ locally where ‘o’ where we might expect ‘a’ is a common Uzbek linguistic formation, ‘Toshkent’ for example) is just getting over 25 years of rule by Islam Karimov (with Putin at left), an Uzbeki who was appointed as leader by the Russians in 1989 for the very purpose of quelling violent ethnic clashes. When the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan reluctantly approved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Karimov became president of the Republic of Uzbekistan where he sat till 16 months ago when he had a stroke and died.

A Soviet loyalist, he was also by nature an isolationist both from other countries and from the vagaries of contemporary life. Being everyone’s stern father doesn’t leave you much room to manoeuvre that way. It is only since the advent of his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who believes in the economic value at least of tourism, that it has become relatively easy to visit the country.

We were grateful for that. There is a great deal to see in Uzbekistan.

Partly because of the remarkably fertile Fergana Valley, the area of the highest concentration of colour in the map above, 300km long and about 80 wide, along IMG_2705.JPGwith the slender strips of fertile green in the arid mountains (see at left for example, out the train window, Adijan to Tashkent), this region has hosted urban civilisations for a long time. Samarkand and Bukhara had been cities for centuries before Alexander the Macedonian conquered them in the 4th century BCE. It was here too that Chinese explorer Zhang Qian sequestered before returning home to make his report on the fertile aspects of Transoxiana, the land between the Amu Darya (in Ancient Greek ‘Oxus’) and Syr Darya, the huge rivers that used to feed the Aral Sea from the Pamirs and the Tian Shan.

When the Islamists conquered Iran this area became an important site for the maintenance of Persian culture. In 1219 Emperor Chinggis (Gengis Khan), founder of the Mongol Empire, invaded what is now western Uzbekistan. Then in 1369, Timur became the effective ruler and made Samarkand the capital of his future empire.

Amir (King, ‘Emir’, Emirates) Temur is also known as Tamburlaine (as in Marlowe’s play) or Tamerlane which is a derivation from Temur iLeng, or ‘Temur the Lame’. Of Mongol ancestry, he began his adult life as a sheep-rustler and bandit, and was injured in a skirmish which left him lame in his right leg and unable to raise his right arm. But our Uzbek guide Lochin wagged his finger at the use of ‘Tamerlane’ as being disrespectful of a great man, the heart and soul of Uzbek history and connected to a great many of the things that we saw and sites we visited.

Here he is at that very strange place Shahrisabz.IMG_1219.jpg‘The Scourge of God’ ended up with an empire that extended from the Mediterranean to India, famously built on blood and bone. Biographer Justin Marozzi suggests he was responsible for the slaughter of millions — ‘buried alive, cemented into walls, massacred on the battlefield, sliced in two at the waist, trampled to death by horses, beheaded, hanged’. The stories go that at Baghdad he had 90,000 of the inhabitants beheaded so that he could build towers with their skulls. At Sivas in Turkey, where he promised no bloodshed in return for surrender, he had 3,000 prisoners buried alive. His apologists pointed out that he had kept to the letter of the law (if not quite its spirit). Perhaps too symmetrical to be believed in entirety, an absence of the eccentric ribs and splotches that hint at truth-telling — but yes. Not entirely spotless.

He was however also responsible for an ambitious building program and a flowering of the arts and science. The evidence is there for that.

Noted astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg was his grandson. Beg (which wasn’t his actual name, ‘Ulugh Beg’ means something like ‘big boss’, ‘chief’) built the first ever madrassa (Islamic centre of learning of which there are now hundreds of thousands world-wide) which later became one element of the Registan of Samarkand.

Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara were vital and important commercial centres for another several hundred years until their influence and buoyancy dissipated via the combined impact of feuding Uzbek Khanates (kingdoms, three of them spread along the Silk Roads from the Kyrgyz border: Kokand, Bukhara and Kiva) and competition from the trade routes established by sea.

Uzbekistan is also famous for being the site of one of the most well defined ecological disasters of modern life. This one.images.jpegThe Aral Sea, 1973-2014. 40 years. Once a huge body of water abundant with life, it is now almost extinct with all sorts of knock-on consequences for those living in the region. Sandstorms for example. Appalling. So bad it is now a tourist ‘attraction’.20100404-aral-sea-muynak-port-unphoto-1400x500captn-1.jpg

What happened? Beginning in the 1960s plantings in the Fergana Valley which had supplied food for hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants for millennia were switched over 20 or so years at Moscow’s behest from food to cotton. This policy converted almost the entire agricultural economy of Uzbekistan to cotton production. It is now an embarrassment to mention the fact that in the national interest each year at harvest families were relocated, factories shut and schools closed to provide a workforce to pick the crop. There are still vestiges of this phenomenon in public decoration. One of Tashkent’s underground stations, I think Bobur, is decorated with wall panels of stylised cotton buds and hordes of pickers. We still saw cotton plantings but they were interspaced with a wide range of other crops. Sandalwood, for example, was quite widely in evidence. Cotton production has gone from 10m. tonnes (its peak, and the largest producer in the world) to 3m. tonnes last year.

Unknown.jpegBut the ecological issue was far more profound than the cultural one. The Aral Sea’s two main tributaries were the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Water from the Amu rarely flows into the Sea any more and from the Syr never. It has been diverted by irrigation plans and methods of the lowest imaginable quality. There is a high level of awareness of this issue but since the breakup of the Union of Soviets no money to do anything about it.

* * * * * *


It took us about an hour to get across the border, a haphazard affair, but seemingly with officials going out of their way to be both pleasant and helpful — to us anyway.

Our first destination was the bank to acquire piles of sum, 5970 to the AUD. We saw one man filling four cardboard cartons with stacks of high denomination notes and heading off with them on a hand truck. It was suggested he was going to buy a car.IMG_1023.jpgI had no plans to buy a car, but it was quite hard to work out how much money to change. This lump of 5000s I thought might last a week but I spent it in three days.

Things had changed. The country had a different feel. This could have been Kyrgyzstan.IMG_1009.jpg

But this probably couldn’t.IMG_1021.jpgJust to the left was a massive market with very large patriotic urgings on its walls. The building to the right and the tops of those on the left are probably government housing.IMG_1018.jpgLess Russian, more Persian. We were coming to some of the most wonderful examples of Muslim architecture and decorative art in the world. This panel above was perhaps 1/20th of the decoration on the ceiling of one of the deep verandas which were often present in older buildings. Almost always decorated richly enough to give you pause and to wonder how it had been done, and how it had been maintained.IMG_1013.jpgThis stone mural was the best feature of Andijan’s museum, a sad dark place with, inter alia, a large collection of representational paintings which were ugly, poorly crafted full of muddy colours and badly presented. We went there while we were waiting for our train to Tashkent. One day it may be full of wonders but it was a slightly punishing experience as we tried to be polite listening to a long dull explanation of each of the exhibits which was then translated. Hard work. I was also hungry and tired. We slid out of range. The hunger issue was resolved by eating in a cafeteria, a meal for which I had high hopesIMG_1024.jpgand which ended up doing me and my exhaust system in for several days. Tasted good though. 

We visited a super market and climbed aboard for the slightly eccentric train trip to Tashkent. ‘Eccentric’ in the sense of its complex changes in direction and speed, slooooooowwww then FAST, but also what we were looking at out the steamed-up windows. There’s a photo above. Arid hills creased with a sliver of green, snowy peaks over to the south — a mixed economy. At least some of those green slivers were mining towns, because unlike KR Uzbekistan has got a number of things in its ground that people want, not least oil and natural gas. There is some money here, possibly plenty, but culturally it still seemed to be struggling for confidence, settling its priorities and getting over Big Daddy. They leave a deep mark those men.


('Stone City', suggestive of indomitability)

Screen Shot 2018-10-19 at 3.04.53 pm.png

Hmmm. Good one. That map tells you absolutely nothing, doesn’t it. Tashkent is in the eastern end of Uzbekistan, one of four regions with, spreading west, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kiva being the other population centres.

2.5 million people, one of the big cities of Central Asia, damaged by an earthquake on 24 April 1966. ‘Massive destruction’ is the term used, with 85 percent of the city’s buildings destroyed including the majority of the old city and its landmark structures. But the brave citizens said no, we will not be daunted. Heroic style. Signified by, we were told, a much loved monument (which I note, says 26 April. I’ll leave it with you.)

The earthquake had several effects. One was to produce a monument to Soviet town planning and architecture. Wide boulevards, massive plantings, grandiose buildings and a staggering amount of white marble.IMG_1069 (1).jpgThis is just a small section of the central ‘park’ area named after Temur who has pride of place in the middle, with our fascinatingly sub-grand hotel in the photo below as a backdrop. The hotel was representative of vast aspirations which had not worn well, but it did have a very interesting and diverse clientele: a genuine gathering of nations. You’d stay there for that reason alone.

At night.IMG_2783 (1).jpgAnd, yes, the whole vast wall of the hotel becomes a screen. (I don’t know what impact this had on people whose rooms were on this side. We looked outwards to the back.) A lot about Tashkent, now, says modern, today, up to date — and also, look how modern, today and up to date we are. Down the street the shops were good and interesting, full of course with China’s produce, shopkeepers were friendly. The eateries at night looked great, packed with people having a good time.IMG_1058.jpg

Our first port of call was to …. how do I express this? one of the original copies of the first Koran. That might be right. It looked like it had been constructed out of some gelatinous substance (deerskin actually) and had BIG WRITING and you couldn’t take photos.

unknown1.jpegLet’s see if I can find one. Bingo.

I believe there are five of these in existence. One here and one (of which there are no photographs) in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, one in the British Museum I think. But it’s all shrouded in thick fog as such things tend to be. With hindsight I can appreciate why Lochin wanted us to see this early in his guidance. From some points of view it is a gigantic experience to have seen this. I hadn’t at the time been sufficiently enculturated.

The building housing this, many other versions of the Koran and other sacred and learned documents was the madrassa Muyi Mubarak, the ‘sacred hair (of Mohammed)’, a strand of which may or may not be included inside. It is in Khast Imam Square which provided our first view of the interior of a mosque, from my earthbound perspective a vision of vacancy, stillness.IMG_1037.jpgOutside it was another story. Islamic decoration. Incomparable. Simply breath-taking. Maths run wild! IMG_1038.jpgIMG_1057.jpg

Tourists don’t usually come to this square, a nondescript affair really. But they do go on the underground, a source of great civic pride: three lines, 40km, 29 stations, c. 180,000 daily rides and glorious decoration. (Melbourne’s underground: 12 km.; Geelong’s: 0)

And even if not so many other people do, they go to the market, Chorsu Market.IMG_1041.jpgIMG_1045.jpgThe market! Ah Lord. I customarily resist markets unless I want to buy something.

We needed coffee. No coffee shops so the horsemeat salesman organised his wife to provide us with two cups which cost us exactly nothing. Mmmm what sort do you think? Turkish? Uzbeki? Russian maybe? No. ‘Labros’, the local brand of instant. There she is getting the hot water out of the urn, and you’ve found our hiding place (where we were able to sit down).

Then to get into the spirit of things we thought we might buy some nuts and dried fruit. Looked good, the samples tasted good and the sparkly-eyed young man on the right was eager to sell us some.IMG_1046.jpgWhen you go, keep an eye out for him. He put modest amounts of things we didn’t especially want into ziplock bags and then, holding our money, suggested the price was 150,000 sum. 25 bucks! We hadn’t bought anything for $25! It’s what happens when you get over-excited about yourself, and forget that foreigners might be soft touches but they aren’t complete morons. The female foreigner instituted direct action, snatched the money out of his hands, returned the produce and no transaction was recorded. Markets. Plloooffff.

It went on. Flea market: hats, scarves, clothes, books, bits of remnant engineering. God it went on. Jacob bought a glass vodka dispenser in the shape of a fish. He may not have been able to do that elsewhere.

Hot, tired, hungry, lunch was at an establishment which was an interesting combination of a KFC and a high class cafeteria prodigiously swollen with staff.

And then the museum. My hunger had been replaced by treacherously loose bowels, and I wasn’t perfectly set up to enjoy civic landmarks. It could have been very good especially the third floor which provided a very sanguine and optimistic picture of Uzbekistan Today (as well as an unreconstructed paean to the late Mr Karimov). I learnt that of the 100 national Parliamentarians, constitutionally 15 must be from the environment movement. Not quite sure how that would work out in practice, but an excellent gesture at least. I learnt there was a good deal of angst about the fate of the Aral Sea. I learnt that there were major chemical and mineral industries in Uzbekistan and that this ‘impoverished’, second-and-a-half world country can sustain a substantial car manufacturing industry (GM Chevrolet, Daewoo, MAN trucks and SAZ buses) whereas Australia can’t.

We got back to our hotel to find members of another Intrepid tour who raved about several art galleries and design museums they had seen and incidentally that there was an opera house with a very full schedule of programs. Well! Let’s go baby! Opera in Tashkent, what a delectable prospect.

Tonight’s program: ‘The Demon’ by Anton Rubinstein, libretto based on a poem by Lermontov, sung in Russian. A deep expression of Russian Orthodox Christianity written by a Russian Jew on stage in a Muslim country. What could be more appropriate?

It is not often performed for reasons which may become apparent by reference to this summary of the libretto.

Demon sees and falls in love with the lovely Tamara who is awaiting her wedding to Prince Sinodal. Tamara is fascinated but frightened. [an old story] The Prince’s caravan, making its way along the Silk Roads for his wedding, is delayed by a landslide. Demon organises Tatar attack during which the Prince is mortally wounded.

Sinodal’s body is delivered to the wedding preparations. Tamara is overcome by grief, but to her horror, keeps hearing the supernatural voice of the Demon. She begs her father to let her enter a convent. Demon intends to enter same convent believing that his love for her has opened his spirit to goodness. [! Yeah sure.] An Angel tries in vain to stop him.

Tamara prays in her convent cell but is constantly troubled by thoughts of the Demon, who appears to her in her dreams. Demon now appears in reality, declares his love for her and begs her to love him in return. Tamara tries to resist her attraction to him but [of course, it’s the Bad Boy yarn] fails. Demon kisses her in triumph. The Angel suddenly appears and shows her the ghost of Prince Sinodal. In horror, Tamara struggles out of the Demon’s arms and falls dead. [And let that be a warning to all you young ….]

The Angel proclaims that Tamara has been redeemed by her suffering [phew], while Demon [hiss] is damned to eternal solitude. The Demon curses his fate. In the final apotheosis Tamara’s soul is carried to Heaven accompanied by angels as sung by a huge chorus of women standing round the arc of the third floor, a sublime finale.

Mmmm … how to interpret this? Should we call in Dr Freud? Or is the question of interpretation utterly superfluous? That might explain why the guy sitting next to me had a conversation on his mobile phone during the second act.

IMG_2777.jpgThe Opera House, half full that night, had recently been refurbished and was lovely. The cast was most capable, except for the chap whose magnificent mane played the Demon and whose family, friends and groupies comprised the front few rows. The chorus was magnificent and Tamara had a powerful and lilting soprano. A wonderful 60,000 sum worth ($A12.00). Tosca was going to be on the night we returned to Tashkent. What a feast that could have been.

We walked back to the hotel with ice creams through a dulcet night to find Croatia mashing Argentina 3-0.

We weren’t in Tashkent long enough. That’s my summation. It looked fabulous but was always just a smidgen out of reach because we were hostage to THE PROGRAM. The one where TP dominates all else. The one where you get monotonous lectures in heavily-accented English about not much. The one where when you get hungry or need a cup of tea you just have to shut up and wait because it’s not the next thing on the list. The one where you just have to assume ‘it will all turn out for the best’.

On reflection I realise that Lochin really wanted to show us his version of the absolute best of his country and it was a collection of very fine choices, and he really did give us a very great deal including a splendid and sensitive insight into the Uzbek practice of Islam. In fact I have written here: ‘so well prepared, knowledgable, quiveringly sensitive,  a perfect host, obviously powerful figure in the tourism community’ (as well as several times National Judo Champion of Uzbekistan), but. BUT. A standard pedagogical problem: you might have a purpose and a brilliant plan and resources, but you’ve got to be responsive to your class. That old ‘zone of proximal development’. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere.

I’d go back tomorrow. I should.

But let us keep MOVING FORWARDS … There is so much still to see!!

Silo Art


In Victoria’s Wimmera and Mallee regions, a silo in a clump of mallee or casuarina, the strange and delightfully untidy trees indigenous to this area, is always the first sign of human habitation. There mightn’t be a town, there mightn’t be a house, but over that horizon there will be a shed, a road and a railway line.

They stopped bagging grain round here in the 1930s and built two types of silos suitable for bulk handling. They were the same except the ‘Williamstown’ had a flat concrete roof and the ‘Geelong’ (you just cannot keep a good town down!) had a peaked iron roof. Both were about 35m high.

These industrial farming days grain is often stored on the farm in portable metal silos. When it is consolidated for transport it is stored in long heaps under giant plastic tarpaulins almost the same colour as the Mallee skies.IMG_1958.jpg

Near where I spent some time growing up there is a marvellous variation: the Murtoa Stick Shed.Murtoa Stick Shed exterior.jpgBy5ve1QCQAA0RpD.jpgBuilt in 1941, it is 300 metres long, 80 metres wide, 20 metres high at the ridge with the roof angle following that of loose grain. Unused now, at its peak (1989-90) it stored, right up to the roof, more than 100,000 tonnes of wheat. It’s called the Stick Shed because the roof is held up by 560 undressed mountain ash poles. What a feat of rustic building. Not to be missed.

IMG_1852 (1).jpgWe passed the Stick Shed on our way to Rupanyup, our first port-of-call, because we were on a tour of Silo Art.

In the brochure and on the website it says:

The Silo Art Trail is Australia’s largest outdoor gallery. The trail stretches over 200 kilometres, linking Brim with neighbouring towns Lascelles, Patchewollock, Rosebery, Rupanyup and Sheep Hills.

Providing an insight into the true spirit of the Wimmera Mallee, the trail recognises and celebrates the region’s people through a series of large-scale mural portraits painted onto grain silos, many of which date back to the 1930s.

The project saw a team of renowned artists from Australia and across the world visit the region, meet the locals and transform each grain silo into an epic work of art; each one telling a unique story about the host town.

The Silo Art Trail was conceived in 2016 after the success of the first silo artwork in Brim. What started as a small community project by the Brim Active Community Group, GrainCorp, Juddy Roller and artist, Guido van Helten resulted in widespread international media attention and an influx of visitors to the region and the idea for a trail was born.Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 7.08.06 pm.png

What does a town with pulse look like? IMG_1853.jpg

They have been bigger and more demographically muscular in the past — before tarred roads, before the car and the truck, before industrial scale farming. When Patchewollock shopped in Patchewollock. IMG_1948.jpgNow instead of Patchewollock shopping in Patche, Patche (if there’s anyone at home) shops in Rainbow, Rainbow in Warrack, Warrack in Horsham, Horsham in Ballarat and Ballarat is already commuting to Melbourne, so … might as well.

The Silo Project was one idea to arrest the effects of the cosmic attraction to The BIGGER. One good idea. There was traffic the day we followed the trail. Tag-alongs of Greyish Nomads have found it.



Number One. There it is. Great.

Rupanyup’s silo art is the work of Russian mural artist, Julia Volchkova, who turned her attention to the town’s youth and their great love of team sport. The work vividly captures the spirit of community and provides an accurate insight into rural youth culture. [nah nah nah. Too much. You’ve let the received vocab run away with you.]

The featured faces are those of Rupanyup residents and local sporting team members, Ebony Baker and Jordan Weidemann. Fresh-faced and dressed in their sports attire (netball and Australian Rules football, respectively), Baker and Weidemann embody a youthful spirit of strength, hope and camaraderie.

Rendered onto a squat pair of conjoined Australian Grain Export steel grain silos, the delicately nuanced monochromatic work is typical of Volchkova’s realist portraiture style.

We were a bit worried about the surface. The original paint is rusting off in patches, but it was like that when she painted them. A little bit Sochi 2014, but so much skill. At least they are not looking down.

Up the road through Minyip to Sheep Hills. From nowhere I remembered that Max Wright came from Sheep Hills. I once saw him kick 11 goals for Warracknabeal against Horsham. I thought he was too shy and good-looking to be much of a footballer. He had a narrow face with a gently aquiline nose under a tidy shock of auburn curls. But year after year Warrack’s success was built on Max Wright’s slender shoulders. He had the gift.

Because there are no longer any sheep at Sheep Hills — they’ve gone south with climate change (there have never been any hills there) – and because of Max, a photo taken out the car window in Warracknabeal’s main street.IMG_1875.jpg

Sheep Hills main street. Look at that sky. Utterly seductive.IMG_1871.jpg


Number Two. Sheep Hills.

Throughout his career, Melbourne-based artist, Adnate has used his work to tell the stories of Indigenous people and their native lands, particularly the stories of Aboriginal Australians. In 2016, Adnate developed a friendship with the Barengi Gadjin Land Council in north-west Victoria and found his inspiration for this mural.

GrainCorp’s Sheep Hills silos were built in 1938. Adnate’s depiction of Wergaia Elder, Uncle Ron Marks, and Wotjobaluk Elder, Aunty Regina Hood, alongside two young children, Savannah Marks and Curtly McDonald celebrates the richness of the area’s Indigenous culture.

The night sky represents elements of local dreaming and the overall image signifies the important exchange of wisdom, knowledge and customs from Elders to the next generation.

Adnate spent four weeks with the community in late 2016 to conceive and complete the mural. He says that he sought to shine a spotlight on the area’s young Indigenous people and highlight the strong ancestral connection that they share with their Elders.


The only attempt at full colour.

We weren’t sure about this one initially. The splashes of colour on the smaller silos either side may be surplus to requirements. However the way the star whorl and the face paint bounce off each other is most convincing. In their reflections the eyes have lovely and telling details. It won us over and if we were in competitive mode this might be equal best.

Off to Warrack for some petrol and to follow the Henty Highway north.IMG_1861.jpgIMG_0818.jpgThere is a view that you can’t or, really, shouldn’t take photos like this. They only hint at the whole feeling of epic spaciousness or for that matter the death cage match between the tidy monoculture, not yet exposed to summer, and the fabulous mess of the indigenous remnants (at left). And also, they say, too much sky. Too bad. 



Number Three. Brim. The Original, and compelling.

IMG_1880.jpgGuido van Helten’s iconic Brim mural was the first silo artwork to appear in Victoria, and soon infused the town’s community with newfound energy and optimism. After gaining widespread local and international attention, Brim’s silo art success shone a spotlight on the Wimmera Mallee region and inspired the establishment of the Silo Art Trail.

Completed in early 2016, with limited financial resources, van Helten’s mural depicts an anonymous, multi-generational quartet of female and male farmers. Rendered across these four 1939-built GrainCorp silos, van Helten’s subjects bear expressions that exemplify the strength and resilience of the local farming community.

By rendering the figures as both central and peripheral, present and absent, the work explores shifting notions of community identity at a time when rural populations face both immense economic pressure and the tangible consequences of climate change.

Using the documentary style of humanist street photography as studies, the translucent aerosol technique conjures a sense of ghostliness. The resulting characters are profoundly connected to their chosen place, infusing the landscape with a comforting, familiar presence.

This is the first one we saw and why we went. The sun was a bit northerly as we arrived. An hour or two later the shadows would have been more kind. Despite an indication of problems with perspective — why have them all looking down and tucked away under hats and sunglasses? — it’s still a very fine piece of work. Better in the flesh.

An idea of the challenge involved.Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 3.01.29 pm.png

IMG_1888.jpgThrough Beulah where my family once lived during a drought of epic proportions. That must have been more than 80 years ago. At left is the church where my father was the minister.

Even though the cafe closed in August, Beulah looked like it was going okay. Not that we saw a single person anywhere. At exactly that time the Southern Mallee Giants (at home in Beulah) were playing the Horsham Demons in the Wimmera Football League’s grand final. That would be the football team of a town of 207 (albeit with a terrific oval and clubrooms, most impressive) playing the football team (actually one of) of a town of 17,900. Horsham won, but only by nine points. An honourable loss. (The boys will come back harder next year, &c &c.)

Through Beulah towards Hopetoun.IMG_2218.JPG

Number Four. Roseberry.


Before commencing work in Rosebery, Melbourne artist, Kaff-eine spent time in the Mallee assisting fellow artist Rone on his Lascelles silo project. During this time, Kaff-eine travelled to neighbouring towns, discovering the natural environment and acquainting herself with local business owners, families, farmers and children – all with the view to developing a concept for these GrainCorp silos which date back to 1939.

Completed in late 2017, Kaff-eine’s artwork depicts themes that she says embody the region’s past, present and future.

The silo on the left captures the grit, tenacity and character of the region’s young female farmers, who regularly face drought, fires and other hardships living and working in the Mallee. In her work shirt, jeans and turned-down cowboy boots, the strong young female sheep farmer symbolises the future.

The silo on the right portrays a quiet moment between dear friends. The contemporary horseman appears in Akubra hat, Bogs boots and oilskin vest – common attire for Mallee farmers. Both man and horse are relaxed and facing downward, indicating their mutual trust, love and genuine connection.


First go. I think maybe next time she will choose a different angle for the photo to work from for the guy on the right. You have no choice but to look up at the mural, from below, but the perspective from which it is rendered looks down, from above. That might be one of the reasons his legs go a bit wonky. It’s also a reminder of just how hard it would be to pull one of these off successfully.

The old Roseberry Presbyterian church has been made into coffee shop and is now set into 20 year-old garden replete with plentiful local bird life. Excellent cup of tea and a Kooka’s Country Cookie or two. Heartily recommended.

On on on, veering north-east to Lascelles.

Number Five. Lascelles.

This one provided a different challenge: finding the best surfaces on the silo with other buildings too close on one ‘wide’ side and the train tracks on the other. So the couple are separately on the north and south walls. (Note football jumper: it was the day after the Pies had won their Prelim.)



In order to capture the true essence of Lascelles, Melbourne-based artist, Rone knew that he had to learn about the town from those who were deeply connected to it. Here, he depicts local farming couple Geoff and Merrilyn Horman, part of a family that has lived and farmed in the area for four generations.

(At left, the gazanias which were growing everywhere.)

Rone says that he wanted the mural to portray his subjects as wise and knowing, nurturing the town’s future with their vast farming experience and longstanding connection to the area.

In mid 2017 Rone worked for two weeks to transform the two 1939-built GrainCorp silos. He went to great lengths to paint in the silo’s existing raw concrete tones to produce a work that would integrate sensitively into its environment. Utilising this muted monochrome palette, he added water to his paint as a blending tool to produce a ghostly, transparent effect – a signature of his distinctive painting style.

All that is true. A wonderful performance.

To get to where we were going we had to turn off at Speed, the location of an ancient Mallee dad joke.IMG_1937.jpgI liked it better when it was more declarative, just: Speed. Please slow down. Hilarious.

Turn west at Speed for Patchewollock and while there are still crops as far as the eye can see we’re getting out into the ‘marginal’ country. What a peculiar and limited term that is. The striking Big Desert is not far ahead west, an extraordinarily diverse and complex set of ecosystems. The photo below is actually nearby at Wyperfeld National Park: spinifex, sheoke, mallee and a hundred different ground species.IMG_1967.jpg




Back in Patche we have more art, corrugated iron Mallee fowls.

An entree for the main course.


Number Six. Patchewollock.


To prepare for his Patchewollock mural, Brisbane artist, Fintan Magee (family from Northern Ireland, and unsurprisingly something of a specialist in political wall art) booked a room at the local pub to immerse himself in the community and get to know its people. When he met local sheep and grain farmer, Nick “Noodle” Hulland, Magee knew he had found his muse.

Why Hulland? According to Magee, the rugged, lanky local exemplified the no-nonsense, hardworking spirit of the region. Perhaps more importantly though, Noodle had just the right height and leanness to neatly fit onto the narrow, 35-metre-high canvas of the twin 1939-built GrainCorp silos.

Completed in late 2016, the artist’s depiction of the famously reserved Hulland portrays an image of the archetypal Aussie farmer – faded blue “flanny” (flannelette shirt) and all. Hulland’s solemn expression, sun-bleached hair and squinting gaze speak to the harshness of the environment and the challenges of life in the Wimmera Mallee.

Commanding face, but what’s he doing with that stick? And things go awry on the right hand side, both arm and shirt. But still an 8.4.

You’d go for the art, but if you add in the drive and a night at the Pot O’ Gold Motel in Rainbow (get it? I did only recently), it’s an absolute 11.IMG_1969.jpg

* * * * * *

On the way home we had an unexpected revelation. If you share our fetish for the Australian country motel you will have come across Kooka’s Country Cookies, very often sign of a good motel and a good manager. Aimable in French says it perfectly.

We were coming back down the Sunraysia Way and at Donald there was a sign saying ‘Home’ of said biscuits. We drove through a parade of derelict buildings and went to visit. The derelict buildings were once the Donald Meatworks (abattoirs) employing 200 people. They closed more than 20 years ago with the consequent loss of 200 jobs, an event which would have a huge impact on a community of this size. The Donald community decided to do something about it.

They bought equipment from a factory closure in Melbourne and installed it in the canteen of the meat works and began baking and selling biscuits. They nearly went broke when (and because) managers from Melbourne came up to take over and started selling off the company’s assets leaving it, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt. But the suppliers (mostly local, all Australian) didn’t call in the debts immediately and allowed the company (with locals in charge again) to pay them off over time. Coles and Woolworths wouldn’t take their product until they packaged it differently (on trays rather than in bags), but when they did this they got over the hump.

Today they are exporting to China and countries in south-east Asia as well as selling throughout Australia. And there’s full-time work directly for 25 Donaldians. Hooray!

IMG_2238.JPGKerry Vogel who described herself as the ”accountant/ sales manager’ told me that story.



Cities of the Silk Roads: Kyrgyz Republic #2

v4ZwQyWHGNOdfxj_pX7gPIWE1R9lOKsw3Tw-mZJCfYg.jpgA defining aspect of the Kyrgyz Republic is its topography. Mountains. Bishkek is on a plain which extends into Kazakhstan and Osh is at the end of the Fergana Valley — but, yes, mountains. High mountains.

82547On the border with China at the far right of this map is Jengish Chokusu, ‘Victory Peak’, 7439m asl. It is very rarely climbed because of weather and access issues and the fact that the most common route involves a 14km trek along the top of the massif of which it is a part, above 7000m all the way. On the Chinese side (pictured at left) it is called Tomur, ‘Iron Peak’ in Uyghur. I think it has only been successfully climbed once from this side.

The big lake in the map above is Issyk Kul, ‘Warm Lake’, one of the largest bodies of inland water in the world. Despite being at an altitude of 1600m and in a zone of ferocious winters, it never freezes. It is, lightly, saline. It is also endorheic. While it has plenty of tributaries (118), it has no apparent outlet and appears to maintain the same level year round. Magic. With its average depth of 280m, it almost certainly feeds an undiscovered underground aquifer, but still. How does it maintain exactly that level? And how do you explain the remnants of two ancient cities which have recently been located on more shallow parts of its floor?

This area has been a crucial landmark on the Silk Roads and was something special for us to see.IMG_0736.jpg


We got to Balykchy at its eastern end. Karakol at its western end, by road 225 km away, is larger and the regional capital.

I want an excuse to put this photo in but I haven’t got one. Thomas, Swiss financier, Tony, Australian engineer and public administrator, and an unknown local who was interested in this collection of travellers.

You can get the train to Balykchy, one of many important Russian contributions to Kyrgyz public infrastructure.

We had already had some other local colour, high order local colour.IMG_0691.jpg


Whip in mouth, he is picking up the headless body of a goat weighing 30-40 kilograms so that he or one of his mates can carry it tucked under one leg (!) down one end of a paddock and throw it onto a circular rock cairn.

I was interested to see that all standard game procedures apply — man-on-man, zone defence, the chop out, pop one over the top of the defence to a spare loose man. Ulak tartish, a very popular Kyrgyz sport and a staple of the Nomadic Games. Highly photogenic, and er hem manly.

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We ate at this village in the Headman’s house. Artem is reaching for the right word for his translation during the q&a session. The Headman is wearing a Kyrgyz hat, which in the country were everywhere in evidence. ‘It is shaped like that to remind us of the mountains.’ The Burana Tower, a major Kyrgyz landmark, is featured in the picture behind them.

Hospitality has a fundamental place in Kyrgyz culture. It is a matter of great shame to seat a guest at an empty table. The food must be waiting. Et voila!

In the foreground are borsok, soft and light doughy things which have been deep fried and are very popular. Three excellent salads with ingredients straight out of the garden, hard-crusted and sturdy white bread, drinking yoghurt, something else — very just from the dairyish — perhaps a dressing to have with the salads, piles of biscuits (including Tim Tam look- and tastealikes), and small mountains of confectionary. The other yellow things are like soft crostoli which might have been dipped in condensed milk. Good, but you don’t need too many of them. A vegetable soup to come and then some sort of meat stew.

Elsewhere you might have the option of shashliks on a metal skewer: like clockwork, two pieces of lamb meat, one piece of lamb fat, two pieces of lamb meat. Plov. Naryn (thinly sliced meat with noodles in bone marrow broth). Or fruit. It was high summer, the height of the growing season and we were given the best of it.


This is just so unrelated but never mind. Near here, and possibly exactly here, was where the Bubonic Plague which killed one-third of the world’s human population is believed to have begun. The Burana Tower is all that is left of the Qarakhanid kingdom which once dominated this area and far more. It suffered a 100 percent wipeout. One theory is that the disease was carried by fleas in marmot furs which were traded along the length of the Silk Roads. The Plague (1340-1400) definitely did begin in Central Asia and travelled in both directions along the Roads.


We spent the night in a homestay on the fringes of Kochkor, among other things a trailhead for outdoor adventurers. Downtown looked like this.

(For those who have played the clip back and forth back and forth desperately trying to catch it, Myrna is discussing her brother’s interest in eccentric cars and motor bikes. Torquil, with similar interests, had found an old Lada. How do you double the value of a Lada? Fill the petrol tank. Boom Tish!)

Song Kul

The drive alone was worth the price of admission.IMG_0751.jpgThe Tokol Valley. 

We had been driving along the Kashgar-Bishkek four-lane highway constructed by the Chinese to make it easy to get stuff from Chong Qing and Chengdu into Central Asia, before we turned off here: if you like, from the best road in the KR to, in a very competitive field, one of the worst. Our initial destination was the 3600m pass at the end of this valley. A farm every kilometre or ten. It’s hard to tell when progress is so slow and such a battle was being waged against corrugations, potholes, mudslides and missing bits.IMG_0763.jpgA template for the farms. Small house and bigger barn, all mud brick, a woman hanging her washing out, sheep, goats, horses. A stream. You might note the open roof cavity. Ubiquitous in this very difficult climate. The ceiling would be made of mud brick or concrete and, however non-intuitive, this would be considered a system of insulation. The unaccustomed start shivering just looking at it.

Up and over the pass. 3600 metres. The cold was well established, but some people were too rugged to notice.IMG_0787.jpgAnd very strangely, just out of nowhere, came this horseman. Literally nowhere. We were a long way from even the sign of human habitation. A horseman. I accused our guide, Artem, of setting this up. ‘You right Keneshbek? What? Yeah well we’re here now. Now. Come on. Have you got the good horse? The good horse! Yeah just ride out, no need to look at us or anything. Just … ok. Great.’IMG_0779.jpgIt was a moment. A great photo as a result of the sheerest good fortune.

Then down, but not very far in terms of altitude, into the Song Kul (‘Last Lake’) basin. It’s the second biggest lake in the map beginning this blog, thick healthy summer pasture surrounded by very high but quite placid mountains.IMG_0803.jpgBelow: our accommodation, and perhaps more interestingly, our dining room and the kitchen as well. There wasn’t anything else.IMG_0832.jpg


Dinner: excellent bread, the absolutely ubiquitous tomato capsicum cucumber and white onion salad, lamb and vegetable soup, fish from the lake, biscuits, lollies, red and white Kyrgyz and Uzbek wine, cognac-infused tea or coffee. Complaints? None.

I went off with the walkers, although some animal lovers went for a ride. IMG_0820.jpgThat is what it looked like from up the hill. The yurts are the white dots by the lake at the horse’s rear. There are some petroglyphs on the rock I’m standing near. Couldn’t really … perhaps you needed to be more expert than me to get hold of their full significance.

IMG_0798.jpgThis is how you put up a yurt. Three of the distinctively Kyrgyz tunduks are visible, one at the top of the frame and two leaning on the covers at left. Erecting a yurt is one of the sports at the Nomadic Games. I think I remember Artem saying that the record is less than 10 minutes.

The journal: ‘I’m in a yurt. It’s 150m to the toilet and it’s raining. There’s a leak dripping right on to the end of my bed and creeping up towards me. Very nippy. Probably about minus 5 with a good wind chill factor. How is this going to go?…’IMG_0833.jpg

IMG_0837.jpg‘Sleeping in a yurt loomed as one of the challenges of the trip. Dormitory accomm, snoring, cold, 150m to the toilet etc etc. But it turned out just fine. It was cold. Formidably. We did have a number of people in the yurt. It was 150m to the toilet. Fresh snow is falling on the hill we climbed yesterday. When I wandered off for a pee it was absolutely silent, and still — no animal noise, dogs had been barking earlier — no wind either. The bedding weighed kilos and the [coal and very effective] stove went out, but it was snug. And I was happy.’

Kyzyl Oi

The snow in the night had rendered the next pass impassable, so it was a long and tedious drive back the way we had come, through Kochkor, five hours over the shocking roads rather than two. That might have been one of the reasons that getting to Kyzyl Oi was such pleasure, but there were others.


We staggered out of the minibuses to be greeted by a herd of children wanting to speak English with us. Unexpected. And being able to do so quite capably. Even more unexpected. Go the teachers of English at Kyzyl Oi.

It was a lot warmer: that was another thing. While a new challenge had emerged — old bitumen road with remnant tarmac like anti-tank traps and craterous pot holes in which goats could hide, razor sharp edges — we had still managed to come down about 2000m to this extremely warm welcome. IMG_0864.jpgThere isn’t much at Kyzyl Oi, just a remote village that wanted tourists, and not just for their money. IMG_2345.jpgThis was where we stayed. Just to the left out of frame an addition was being built to the very well outfitted ablution block (flush toilets and a sewerage system rather than two planks over a big hole). Myrna is with our hostess who brought a desire, an expectation and a capacity for conversation with breakfast. Her elder son was a dentist, another daughter a midwife. The younger daughter helped her with the hospitality. The kid on the right, a very sweet boy, is her youngest.IMG_0869.jpgI got the feeling that this was a town that wanted to be part of the contemporary world outside, where you developed yourself moving on if necessary, you had ambition. It is strange how this communicates itself so obviously. When I lived round there, Nullawil  — a tiny community, a few families really, near Birchip and Wycheproof — was just the same. A clutch of strong, interesting outward-looking people determined to maintain and cultivate those qualities.

As well a river roared past. This is the Kokomeren, major tributary of the Naryn, one of the Kyrgyz Republic’s big rivers. They fish in here. And make catches. How? It’s hurling past at, what, maybe 40km an hour?IMG_0880.jpgThe farmers of Kyzyl Oi take their stock over this bridge on a regular basis. There must be others but it is the only bridge I can remember for 80km. It has taken quite a whack to its concrete pile supports and the girders on this side have collapsed, but I’d hate to be the person trying to rebuild it. Just watching the water power past in a fury was entertainment in itself. We followed it up its gorge for about 60km and not for one second was it less than a noisy torrent until it spread out through the pastures of the Suusamyr basin. But first …


Worth waiting for! What a statue! Superb. A horse on manback rather than a man on horseback. Fantastic aesthetic and structural balance, well chosen and deft modelling. That’s the one in Bishkek outside the Sports Palace and over the road from the Arzu restaurant celebrating Кожомкул, Kojomkul — a real person who was born in 1889 and died in 1955.

IMG_0883.jpgSources agree that he lived in a village (above) in the Suusamyr basin now named Kojomkul after him, that he was kind and concerned about the common good, that he was unchallenged as a wrestler, and that he was big. Definitely big. How big? 230cms tall (7’6″), and weighing 165kg (350lbs). That big. One story has him lifting and carrying on his shoulders (maybe moving?) a stone weighing 750kg.

IMG_2374.JPGJust out of town there is this memorial, a rickety shelter over a mud yurt where a friend of his (or ‘a distinguished figure’, or from one source, his mother) was buried in 1924. He carried this stone weighing 160kg from the flood plain of the river several kilometres away. (I nearly got it. If I’d had proper shoes on …)

And the horse? Well, it is said that in his prime Kojomkul carried a horse on his shoulders 100 metres to commemorate and perhaps prove the legitimacy of the story of At-Bashi (Horse Head), a town not so far from here. In her blog Madeline Stoddart, an American Peace Corps worker in Kyrgyzstan, tells it like this.

A man, having sold his cattle, began returning to the North on horseback. Exhausted after crossing the Tian Shan mountains, he stopped at Jailoo, a summertime pasture, to rest and turned his horse free to graze under the stars. The man woke as the sun rose over the mountains, but the horse refused to return to him. He chased it down from the pasture, finally catching it in a valley. The horse stubbornly refused to let the man ride, so he hoisted the animal up on his shoulders to walk to a sheltered place for the night. Tired and hungry from the chase, the man killed his unfaithful horse and roasted the meat over a great fire. He ate heartily, then packed for his long journey North. At the edge of his camp, he left the horse’s head, calling the place At-Bashi – in Kyrgyz, horse head. The rest of the horse he carried on his back, eating every night until there was only enough meat scraps to boil for soup. This dish is called naryn, a boiled bone soup with finely cut meat, and where he left the bare carcass of his disloyal horse became the city of Naryn.

Under the Soviets Kojomkul became a chairman of his collective farm, while still competing in wrestling tournaments throughout Kyrgyzstan. A story common to all the sources suggests that he was known for distributing his winnings (goats and sheep mainly) amongst members of his community. He also spent a year in gaol for refusing to write letter condemning a chairman of the neighbouring commune. These are stories entirely appropriate to such an excellent statue.

Suusamyr and surrounds

A high plain, 2500m or so above sea level, surrounded by snowy peaks. We found coffee at the Gazprom service station over in the distance, but ate lunch here in a yurt.IMG_0892.jpgThese foals are tethered to the ground so the mares won’t stray and are easy to milk, because this is the starting point of kumis, fermented mare’s milk, for sale at road stalls for 50km along this busy road (Bishkek to Osh as well as bulk tourism on its southern entry). The owner of these horses showed us how he made it, fermented with a piece of yeasty bread, slightly smoked in some underground container and regularly paddled.

I don’t know how popular it is as a drink; maybe it’s the sort of thing you do when you’re on holiday. But it could be culturally important. After all a bishkek is the paddle used to churn the fermenting milk.

We’d come in from a quiet rural track up to the pastures. It got grubby with rubbish discarded from the additional traffic on the big road as well as high and cold. IMG_0895.jpgAlabel Ashuusu Pass where the sign said 3175m above sea level and Marty’s altimeter app said 3173m. I’m sure we could have got him up those last two metres.

It was a longish drive to Toktogul down the hill through collections of resort accommodation, food stops and roadside stalls — their purpose was clear, their nature more mysterious — to a fertile valley and a circumambulation of the rather splendid Lake Toktogul.



That night we stayed in this Soviet era accommodation designed for use by Youth League/ Young Pioneers groups.

Its evident decline was offset by this view, the lake and the swim we had in it.IMG_0905.jpgThe lake is dammed at one end for hydroelectricity production. Some of this is sold to Kazahkstan; some may go to Uzbekistan although it has plenty of energy resources of its own. The hydro plant was showing major signs of wear and limited upkeep, but you could get an idea of what, quite recently, had once been.

Tash Komur

‘Hard Coal’. That’s what the name says. A mining town in the middle of what looked like a paradise of minerals, it spread for some distance along the Naryn River here much modified for industrial purposes. Just out of town was this building.IMG_0950.jpgIt’s not a great photo. It’s from the van where I was holding my teeth apart to stop them from shattering. But for me it was history.

I say this is, was, a Russian administrative headquarters — mining? civil? possibly even military but probably not. It says order and stability, and four storeys says substantial, plenty of work gone on in there. The roof is enclosed. The symmetry and once good order of the windows suggest good quality industrial craftsmanship. The mural, that you can’t see, on its wall wants you to think positive if perhaps unaccustomed thoughts and suggests an identity that you might want to aspire and relate to. It’s not the work of nomadic horsemen or ulak tartish  players. And, unused, an anachronism, it is sliding at some pace into disrepair. The grave sites cement these impressions. (Kyrgyz cemeteries look like complex tiny towns with endless small buildings.)

What have the Romans ever done for us (I mused)? ‘Well there was the aqueduct … sanitation, yes …, irrigation, medicine, public baths … roads.’ ‘They brought peace.’ ‘Brought peace?!! Oh shuttup.’

In this case, just imagining, what was brought might have included, say, a big shoe factory, a car parts manufacturer, a huge food processing plant, industrial style tourism, the mining development, the hydro … some of which at least would have been set up for reasons of decentralisation and to give people ‘new style’ work regardless of where the markets said they should have been located. And when Big Brother (wearing his Motherhood costume) withdraws, what then? Who is to say who benefits from the effects of imperial oversight (and injections of hard cash)? Nothing is simple. 

There are two histories at work here, as elsewhere in the Republic: that of 1924-1991; and everything that came before. They don’t marry easily. But that doesn’t make the country any less interesting.


IMG_0939.jpgWe were on our way to Arkyt, scarcely visible at left from up the top of the hill, another remote-ish homestay at the end of an odd little run of Holidayland — yurts with fiber glass roofs, ‘log’ cabins, unemployed frames of rusty steel with flapping fabric, coffee shops but not as we know them. That sort of thing.

And this was The Worst Road Ever. Ever. The purpose of roads generally is to allow/ enable passage. This road had deliberately chosen to actively oppose any ingress. It had an invisible sign up saying: ‘Ye shall not pass. Irregardless. Anyone who ventures further is just so cactus that, mate, I can’t tell you. Fully gone.’ On this occasion that was us.

We didn’t need to go. At the other end was a lake in the middle of the mountainous ‘Yellow Bowl’ so called for its flora. But you didn’t need to take Kiwis or Swiss there. They’ve got better at home. And we’d seen the like. Quite often. And we’d been driving over shit roads for days now grump grump and our bedroom didn’t have a window grump grump grump grump grump.

At the lake, a further 90-minute drive from the village over a 40km cattle grid interspersed with inexpressible voids, three groups of people drew my attention.

The dancers. Twenty or so middle-aged mostly men but a couple of women dancing to an accordion very capably played I must say. They had eaten but weren’t I think drinking. Nonetheless, to my grumpy mind something indeterminately salacious was happening. I could be way wrong about this, way wrong, but it was a bit like lurching through a door and finding the makings of a swingers’ party. Grump grump grump.

The young men sitting on the ground under a tree. (The girls were taking selfies down by the water.) I went past them several times perhaps an hour apart and they hadn’t moved, doing nothing except smoking and looking like they were mortally offended by even passing company. The word ‘surly’ was coined for just such a situation. But surly with slightly menacing overtones.

The chaps staying in the dacha. Up the top there were a small number of places to stay. We walked past them, and their occupants were layed out on the wooden outdoor furniture dead drunk or close to at two o’clock in the afternoon. Fair enough. Their choice. They weren’t bothering anyone.

But I felt bothered. Like I’d had an encounter with a range of cardinal sins. I hadn’t. Just GRRRumpy. I’ve already said. I do beg your pardon. Sorry.

It was a delicious dinner.

IMG_0937.jpgJust by the way, this is what I mean by an open roof cavity. That building is finished. It will stay like that even when the temperature is minus 20. And they are our roadweary vans.

Either on the way there or on the way back we fell to talking about the Kyrgyz ‘cultural tradition’ of bride-kidnapping. Do, as Kyrgyz lore asserts, ‘all good marriages begin in tears?’ Is it worth talking about except as an interesting relic of times past?

A research study supported by a Kyrgyz non-government organisation recorded 24,000 cases of non-consensual bride-kidnapping in the two years 2015 and 2016. This number is inevitably coloured by the process of categorisation and could be lower. Or it could be higher.

Some other responsible estimations indicate that about one half of all Kyrgyz marriages stem from this practice. The same source suggests that two-thirds of these are non-consensual, often involving violence, cultural shame, and, in the very worst cases, rape. If the kidnapped woman has been kept in the house overnight it will be assumed that ‘the marriage’ has been consummated. The stigma associated with leaving a forced marriage, even before the marriage begins, is so great that many women stay out of fear, shame, or lack of an alternative.

Not all bride kidnapping is violent. ‘Ceremonial’ bride kidnapping is exactly that – a ceremony that commemorates a distinct if somewhat distant part of Kyrgyz culture, but where all parties are expressly involved and consenting. Mock bride theft is also consensual. It can be used to evade expensive dowry payments or parental disapproval. It is also sometimes used to speed up an engagement toward marriage or to hide pre-marital pregnancy.

One of the stories told in our conversation was of a bride in a taxi so distraught that the driver stopped and refused to be involved in the process any longer. The bride quickly straightened up, stopped crying and spoke severely to the driver. ‘Just do your job!’ Might be true, but it is an easy out. 3879975.jpgA screen shot from a Russian comedy, ‘Kidnapping, Caucasian style’ using the topic as a central theme to hang the jokes off. Real images of the process look rather more horrible.

The research referred to above suggests that genuine bride theft is a corruption of a consensual tradition and has been steadily increasing since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some believe that, after the generations of gender equality encouraged by the Soviet system, bride-kidnapping has become a tool to reassert the dominance of masculine identity in the Kyrgyz Republic, a country that has struggled with identity politics since long before the Soviets left in 1991. The judicial system often sides with the men in the very few cases that actually make it into the courts.

There are dozens of other countries where bride-kidnapping is to a greater or lesser degree an embedded practice. But without any fear of insensitive cultural intrusion, it does seem like something that could genuinely be left behind forever. Urgently.


IMG_0960.jpgStill eating? Come on. Everyone’s left.

This might have been at Suzak. We were working our way round the very complex eastern border with Uzbekistan on our way to Osh and the end of the tour. We stopped at this bakery/ restaurant, and this pic appears here to reflect again on the astonishing (and colourful) hospitality that was so often a feature of our time in the KR.

It is the owner’s private garden. There were too many of us for out the front. We would be easier to manage. The food was modest, plentiful and very well cooked. And exactly as requested. We had been driving through the end of the Fergana Valley, this remarkable hub of fecundity, and all along the road were piles of various types of delicious-looking melons. I asked if we could have some. Off someone went to the market and this was the result. Another feast.

IMG_0986.jpgThe rooftops of Osh (from Sulayman Mountain), where we didn’t spend nearly enough time. The thumbnail dip into it suggested a really interesting city with a great deal to entertain a traveller.


We got there late-ish, climbed the Mountain, the only World Heritage site in KR. It has a museum of some importance built into its side to celebrate the 3000th anniversary of Osh, unlike Bishkek an ancient city.

Sulayman Mountain, sometimes called the Stone Tower, reaches strikingly upwards out of the flatlands of the Valley. It is considered the mid-point of the Silk Roads. That was exciting.

It also contains a shrine that supposedly marks the Biblical King and Islamic prophet Solomon’s (Sulayman’s) grave. According to legend, women who ascend to the shrine on top and crawl though an opening across the holy rock will give birth to healthy children. Saw this. Didn’t do it.IMG_0984.jpgShe may have. It could have been a bit lost in translation but these are her five children. The perky chap in the red polo shirt who spoke good English and wanted to engage in conversation is 10. She is 25.

IMG_0982.jpgThe Mountain is surrounded by the graves of those who want to be buried as near as possible to a holy place. The same phenomenon is obvious in Jerusalem and probably anywhere there is a place with some religious significance.

We ate a celebratory final dinner too tired to do justice to such delicious cooking, a genuinely sumptuous meal. Next day we crossed into Uzbekistan or, as they would prefer, Uzbekiston, and THAT WAS AN EXPERIENCE …










Cities of the Silk Roads: Kyrgyz Republic #1


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Bishkek. What could Bishkek be? See if you can stitch some threads together out of what I remember of our arrival.

Stepping out of the plane at Manas International Airport, a modest and friendly affair, what I was struck by most was the density of rural smells: animals, vegetal matter, whatever was being blown about in the trees. It was like inhaling the country (with a small c), and just as invigorating.

A very large very cheerful chap was there to meet us and collect our luggage putting it into a very comfortable transit vehicle with a very good audio system. Playlist: Taylor Swift, Joe Jackson, Lady Gaga, Astor Piazzolla, Eurythmics, Cuban jazz. Could have been supplied to order, but they were his favourites. He spoke perfectly serviceable English and was fun.

We were driving through avenues of trees, with pasture, densely planted crops and occasional clumps of houses either side. Goats, sheep, cattle — the very picture of rural fecundity.

For five or so minutes, I didn’t even notice the mountains, but there they were: the Ala-Too range, a northern extension of the Tian Shan with peaks almost 5000m high.IMG_0662.jpg

oak-park4_sm.jpgBut Bishkek is on the flat. We were driving through long avenues of mature trees: oaks, ash, poplars, cedars, conifers, plane trees. Completely unexpected and heart-lifting. This planting we later found out was begun in 1890 by Alexei Fetisov, a Russian botanist. So some of these trees are as old as the city itself, a matter to which we will return. Not everything on the Silk Roads is 4000 years old.

We were staying at the Rich Hotel on Frunze Street. Bishkek was called ‘Frunze’ from 1926 until 1991 after a notable son of the city, Mikhail Frunze. He was a hero of the Russian Revolution who became a senior member of the Politburo and whose death was probably orchestrated by Stalin, a consequence of being too successful.IMG_0626.jpgThe Rich Hotel: three glowing stars. A wonderful place to stay made so as usual by the staff who were more like interested mates than hotel employees, to me an important distinction. We didn’t come across any servants in Kyrgyzstan. The reception area and the terrace outside was a social hub which drew a small crowd of chatty smokers, and cats. Both groups appeared to be unattached to the hotel except by familiarity.

Our room, our suite actually, consisted of a large entry space which included a bathroom which had a shower with a fibre glass arrangement not unlike an astronaut’s seat. A small dressing (?) room off. Perhaps. You could decide for yourself. Down a short passage past a second smaller and more functional bathroom to get to the bedroom which was huge with the only small window opening on to a wall. Embossed wall paper throughout in a range of patterns. Unmatched furniture, a door lock that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. No room service. Home made art work, home made repairs. A garden that needed some attention with a 10 metre pool. A really good shop that sold proper things (nuts, outstanding biscuits — a Kyrgyz speciality, you didn’t think that did you? no — and first rate yoghurt among them). Simple but copious breakfast. They do your washing. Just lovely the lot of it. Perfect.

We walked downtown. You may remember that we had got up at 3.30 Beijing time, spent several hours being searched and, after quite a while, had arrived in Bishkek a bit spaced out at the identical time the plane had taken off in Urumqi, 7.30am.

From Frunze Street, we turned right at the university for the coffee shops. IMG_0605.jpgMmmm these odd bits of neo-classicism, they were all over the shop. Peer through some trees and there would be another one, not to mention six more statues. It truly is the home of public statuary. Statues, of variable quality, everywhere. I think someone must have theorised this as a fundamental principle of making a town a capital, and then made it happen. As it happens you can learn a great deal about Bishkek from its statues. With guidance, they offer a potted history of the last 100 years.IMG_0613.jpgBelow Marx and Engels, life-size, chatting. V. I. Lenin was reaching out to the masses nearby.IMG_2054.JPGWe couldn’t find the coffee shop which according to my researches was the best and wandered without much aim coming to rest by default in a newish shopping mall, ‘Bishkek Park’ (in Latin letters, everything else in Cyrillic; Russian the lingua franca) which looked like most shopping malls: four floors with a big hole in the middle. The thin crowd suggested Bishkekers hadn’t become completely seduced by the American shopping experience. Verging on ravenous, we found the food court. Four or five pizza shops, a couple of culturally-adapted hamburger shops, a juice bar. We did several circuits saying, that one? Maybe not. How about that one? No. Simultaneously getting hungrier and nuttier. (We’d been up a long time.)

We settled on a cafe that seemed to have an inclusive range of offerings. The waitress rushed out the back to find someone who could speak English. This happened many times. The English-speaker was the capable 40 year-old woman of our dreams and, well … she was just so nice. I had The Businessman’s Lunch: soup, bread, salad. Modest servings, but delicious. I had another one. With coffee and Myrna’s meal that cost A$6.80. I was no longer hungry: just embarrassed.

We tripped over a lot of other things that day. Ala-Too Square which would be better at night full of people with the lights on and the fountains playing:IMG_0608.jpgThe National History Museum, disappointingly closed and under renovation (for more than two years; there is no surfeit of public money in the Kyrgyz Republic):IMG_2048.JPGThe Big Specs, and another one of those bits of neo-classicism:IMG_2008.jpgAttention to the topiary, and something dacha-like through the trees:IMG_2052.JPGThe changing of the guard at the closed Museum. Look carefully for the carefully balanced guns. Great. Yes exotic, but don’t let it colour your thinking. On the pedestal is Manas, the hero of the national epic.IMG_0660.jpgAnd what can be read here?IMG_0620.jpgIt’s an odd image to swamp me so strongly with memories. The sky getting ready to dump the late afternoon rain after a hot day — a mountain thing. The fine aspirations of the architecture a bit scuffed by maintenance problems. Great pavement, reflective of a river bed, chewed up this side by time and mortar that wasn’t mixed carefully enough. I love the reindeer corralled between the bike racks, and the fact that the soil in the beds could be so publicly unemployed. In the background there’s the statue of Кожомкул, my favourite, which I will keep for later.

To the left past him is the interesting way to walk home down Abdumomunov Street with the dance studio in the slightly derelict building with an exterior curved concrete staircase shooting out over the footpath and threatening to collapse at any moment, and the massive new luxury flats under construction. 

Just to the right there is what I thought was a big, somewhat derelict gutter with holes in it. And yes that is right, but these gutters are not derelict. A vegetal lifeline, they are for distributing water as well as collecting it. Bishkek sits in a detailed maze of irrigation. That’s why it’s so green.

images.jpegFurther to the right over the road is the restaurant Arzu (‘desire’, ‘passion’) where we ate twice. Once was the first night, the end of this expansive day. We went with Freya, a tour companion who we had met while getting our passports confiscated in Urumqi.

Flavour? Well, it was Ramadan and after sundown so the crowds had come out, feasting. You didn’t have to eat, you could just consume the scene. Rich people, Bishkek’s upper and middle class, lots of jewellery and glitter, men talking to each other or to their phones, women and children down the other end of the groaning boards. Gangsters? Not really, but you get the idea. Colourful identities. Sculpted facial hair. And most glamorous women observing Ramadan. Some had headscarves, others didn’t. You could make some wobbly inferences about the type of Islam that applies, in Kyrgyz cities at least, from that — mostly Sunni but perhaps cultural rather than formidably religious.

We were tucked out of the way that first night, and we did eat. You can imagine the following as the consequence of a) hunger b) fatigue c) being three of us with different food preferences d) unfamiliarity with the menu, and e) just going for it. A huge basket of assorted bread, one lentil soup, two large salads, a celebration of the tomato (and for five weeks we ate tomatoes as the gods imagine them to be), a serve of plov (Kyrgyz pilaf, a national dish), six huge dumplings (manty, ditto), and the biggest lamb shank you have ever seen (and Kyrgyz sheep can be enormous). All superbly cooked. We didn’t make complete pigs of ourselves, but we did make a hole in it. My journal says: What a feed. 2500 som, today a total of A$48.43.

I also wrote: Courageous, cheery, poor, the very definition of Second World — but just so full of a fluid type of vitality. A vitality that is exposed and accessible, willingly shared. It is a city, back a bit and frequently cobbled together, but no less attractive for that.

I love this photo. (‘What on earth are those people doing?’ OR ‘Come on Dad! You’ve been ages.’)


‘Comfy and stylish’. That could well be Bishkek.

* * * * * *

In 1876 the population of Bishkek was 182.

The Kyrgyz Republic (as it is known in the Kyrgyz Republic and wishes to be known rather than Kyrgyzstan) is not a heavily populated country. It has only two cities which  are bigger than Geelong — Bishkek and Osh, and there is a huge gap between rural and urban life: wealth, food, culture, religious observance and language (Kyrgyz in the country, Russian in the cities). The population as a whole is a bit less than 6 million, 75 percent of whom are Kyrgyz. Uzbeks are the next largest group.

Unlike the settled and urban Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz have always been nomads. Kyrgyz means We are forty, a reference to the forty regional nomadic clans Manas, a legendary hero, is said to have united against the predations of the Uyghurs 1000 years ago. Unknown.png

The 40-ray sun on the flag is also a reference to these tribes. The symbol in the sun’s centre is a tunduk, the distinctive wooden crown and engineering keystone of a Kyrgyz yurt, a nomadic people’s accommodation.

Bishkek seems to have begun life as a Sogdian or Scythian caravansaray (stopover for food, accommodation, stabling) on the Roads, the Chuy River being a good watering point and the flat land a relief after or before the mountains. For a long time the Sogdians who spread themselves across Central Asia but whose home could be said to be in modern Kazhastan were the enablers of the Silk Roads — the brokers, the dealers, the horse traders. The Scythians once had an imperial influence extending from here well into modern Poland — and then disappeared.

14312840168_26b87019c0_b.jpgIn times past very few people travelled the length of the Roads. Caravansarays (at left what’s left of Tash Rabat, which we didn’t see) were often separated by 30 or 40 kilometres, a day’s travel, and you might travel to one or two further on, do your business and then return to where you came from.

The Khanate (‘kingdom’) of Kokand, a city at the eastern end of Uzbekistan, built a fort (‘Pishpek’) here in 1825 which was overrun and razed by Russians in 1860. In 1877 it became a development site for the Russians and was populated by resettled peasant farmers. (Just giving some idea of the reach of the Russian empire, Moscow is 3750 km. away, about the same distance as Perth to Sydney.) Bishkek (‘Frunze’ at the time) became the capital when Kyrgyzstan officially became a Soviet in 1924. Before independence (1991, the very first time it was ever a nation state), the majority of Bishkek’s population was ethnic Russians. That figure is now about 8 percent.IMG_0635.jpg

Waitresses at the very smart Bellagio cafe in Bishkek.

In terms of the country as a whole, ethnic Russians made up more than 30 percent of the Kyrgyzstan’s population in 1959. That proportion has now dropped dramatically, but it would help to explain why in the late ’80s, the time of glasnost and the breakup of the USSR, 88.7% of the voters in a national referendum approved a proposal to retain the Soviet Union as a ‘renewed federation’. They did NOT want to leave the USSR. But Kyrgyzexiteers, as well as the implosion of the Motherland further west, won the day.

Before 1990, 98% of Kyrgyz exports went to other parts of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Union almost destroyed its economy. This situation has improved recently, but money sent home by the 800,000 Kyrgyz migrants working in Russia still represents 40 percent of the Kyrgyz Republic’s GDP. Other income comes from minerals (especially gold) and agricultural products.

In terms of commerce there are two large markets in Bishkek. The Osh market sells perishable and household goods. The massive Dordoy Bazaar is the central agency for the distribution of Chinese goods to Central Asia.

IMG_0674 (1).jpgThe bus stop outside the Dordoy market

IMG_0641 (1).jpgAmong other things, we had a swim in the Dolphin Pool with a squad of 10-14 year old boys surging in an uncontrolled fashion up and down the pool. We needed to rent special flip-flops/ jandals/ thongs to enter and had to wait for some unspecified reason, but with the kids’ mums we were able to watch UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) mayhem on the TV in reception. 

We went to the Osh market and paid only modest attention to the handcrafts and produce of Asia. Yes it was colourful and yes they did have horsemeat salami and kumis (see some distance below), but I didn’t think I was there for that reason. We sat and had a cake and cup of tea in a no-nonsense restaurant on its fringe and looked at the pictures of horses.IMG_0642 (1).jpgBecause in terms of ‘Cities’ of the Silk Roads, when it comes to the Kyrgyz Republic I should be talking about villages and tracks. That’s where we were headed.


Cities of the Silk Roads: China

Where goods don’t cross borders, armies will.

— A theme of the trip, sometimes attributed to 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat, actually Otto Mallery, an American writing in the mid 20th century. Considerations:

A) Even if they need management, tourists are goods as well, complex important goods bringing their money, ideas and interaction with them. Familiarity reduces the likelihood of arbitrary judgment.

B) No one has told Donald Trump. Actually, they have but …


[Fragment of wall image of ambassadors (VII Cent.) in the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan]

The halfway point between east and west, running broadly from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Himalayas, might seem an unpromising position from which to assess the world. This is a region which is now home to states that evoke the exotic and the peripheral, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and the countries of the Caucasus; it is a region associated with regimes that are unstable, violent and threat to international security like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, or ill-versed in the best practices of democracy like Russia and Azerbaijan …

While such countries may seem wild to us, these are no backwaters, no obscure wastelands. In fact the bridge between east and west is the very crossroads of civilisation. Far from being on the fringe of global affairs, these countries lie at its very centre — as they have done since the beginning of history. It was here that Civilisation was born … It was in this bridge that great metropolises were created that were the wonders of the ancient and more recent world, full of sophisticated architecture, engineering, and people.

This region is where the world’s great religions burst into life. It is the cauldron where language groups emerged: Indo-European, Semitic and Sino-Tibetan languages jostling with Altaic, Turkic and Caucasian. This is where great empires rose and fell, and where the after effects of these events were felt thousands of miles away.

These tremors were carried along a network that fans out in many directions, routes along which pilgrims, warriors, nomads and merchants have travelled, goods and produce have been sold and ideas exchanged, adapted and refined.

In the late 19th century, Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the ‘Red’ Baron, coined the term Seidenstraßen for these routes, ‘Silk Roads’, a name that has stuck ever since.


We read Peter Frankopan’s ‘new history of the world’, The Silk Roads — from where the excerpt above comes — and thought we should see for ourselves.

We landed in Xi ‘An, once the eastern terminus of the Silk Roads, went on to Urumqi where we got more than we bargained for, and then joined an Intrepid Tour in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which took us eventually as far west as Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Antioch, Damascus and Istanbul were the major trade hubs for the Roads in the west, but Jerusalem — trading in more complex goods — has never been unimportant. From Uzbekistan we went to Jerusalem.

History. Is all this relevant today?


And just while we’re there: ‘stan’ is an ancient Persian word for ‘place of’, or ‘home of’. So, Kyrgyzstan = place of the Kyrgyz. Etc.

* * * * * *

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There are people who have been to Xi ‘An (‘she-arn’) who have not seen the Terracotta* Warriors, who have not bicycled around the walls of the Old City, who have not climbed up the Bell Tower, nor visited Wild Goose Pagoda, Big or Small. (*I originally wrote ‘Porcelain’. If they had been porcelain I think we would have gone to see them.)

That would be us.

We lay around a bit before venturing off to buy some toothpaste. ‘Down the street’ was a bit further than I had banked on. How many people in Xi ‘An? A big city I know, so perhaps three million? 14 million as it turned out, and growing rapidly. I was a bit short of blood sugar and might have been a bit tired as well, but I suddenly felt the not inconsiderable weight of a big Chinese city and needed to sit down.

We’d been walking past block after block of telecommunications shops, masses of them and not single huge shops but repetitious huge shops: Vivo, Oppo, Huawei, Samsung, Chinese Mobil, Mobitel, Apple, Alcatel, Ericsson, Siemens — not one of each, but six, eight, twelve. QR_code_for_mobile_English_Wikipedia.svg.png

Xi ‘An is the focal point of China’s space program and the city was full of signs of China’s muscular modernity: a hotel concierge providing an Uber (electric) in three minutes instead of a taxi during a rainy peak hour, street stalls with their QR payment codes (like at left) dangling on bits of string. It makes sense when you’re there.

But then just round the corner … swarming …

IMG_0409.jpgThis was why we had come. The Muslim Street. However duded up for tourists — almost exclusively Chinese here tonight — it is one vital element, nominal proof at least, of the history of Middle Eastern contact and influence in China.

IMG_0415.jpgThey’re making and cooking shish kebabs with baby octopi on the next burner — but their hats say ‘not Chinese’. ‘From somewhere else.’ ‘Muslim’. IMG_0418.jpg

IMG_0421.jpgFurther along the street we found women winding spun sugar into Turkish fairy floss, the drinking yoghurt you would get in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbeki bread, endless versions of halva that you could just as easily find in Palestine, a dozen or more bao stalls, boiled lamb chopped into the middle of hard bread and covered with a ladle of spicey broth (which promptly restored me).

And the clincher:IMG_0426.jpgWhat sort of ‘Special Snack’? A halal special snack.

We ate some amazing concoction from this cafe and I went home feeling profoundly satisfied.IMG_0501.jpg

* * * * * *

Xi ‘An, one of the ‘Four Ancient Capitals’ of China, was once called Chang ‘An (‘Eternal Peace’) and was capital for the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties. Its chief museum, the Shaanxi History Museum reflects this historical standing. The museum’s name suggests ‘provincial’. It was anything but. It was at least as good if not better than its counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai.

It is popular to the extent that it can be a challenge to get in. You line up before 9am and are given a free ticket which cuts out at 3000, leaving far more than half the queue ticket-less under their umbrellas in the pouring rain. China. Unless of course you look a bit foreign in which case you get herded into the magic Line 4. We seemed to be the only foreigners and from arrival to inside the door poking round took 11 minutes. Which doesn’t mean you’re on your own. There is plenty of company.

IMG_0454.jpgThis remarkable wine vessel is from the Western Zhou Dynasty period, about 800BC. The headless pottery eagle is from the same period. IMG_0443.jpg









Dugu Xin’s 26-faceted set of seals is about 1500 years old.IMG_0477.jpg

We didn’t see the Terracotta Warriors but we did see their domestic and commercial counterparts, smaller, beautifully made, each unique.IMG_0487.jpgIMG_0484.jpgAnd here we have an orchestra transported on the back of a camel. The Silk Roads were introducing themselves.

You think of Marco Polo as opening the way from Europe to wherever it was he ended up: Xanadu? (Did in fact Kubla(i) Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree?) A version of China anyway. His father and uncle definitely met Kublai Khan (in Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan, one of our destinations). After a most fraternal exchange the Khan tasked the brothers with delivering a letter to the Pope, and returning to his kingdom with 100 Christians acquainted with the Seven Arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy). Marco’s movements are less certain. He claims to have become an advisor to Kublai Khan. He gets some things wrong, but others are uniquely and verifiably correct. We can only conclude that he did get to eastern China.

His Travels or Book of the Marvels of the World was published about 1300AD. However, there had been a lot of traffic over that route before then.

220px-Statue_of_Zhang_Qian.jpgThe museum introduced me to Zhang Qian, a Chinese official and diplomat who served as an imperial envoy to the world outside of China during the Han dynasty. (At left, as rendered in the Shaanxi Museum.) The information in the museum suggests he spent 14 years trying to find ways across the various mountain ranges to the west of China: the Tian Shan (contemporary Kyrgyzstan), the Pamir (Tajikistan) and the Karakorum (Pakistan), each of which has peaks above 7000m. And, in addition, to find his way past the local inhabitants of the region east of Xi’an including the Xiongnu, a coalition of nomadic peoples which included the Hun famous for their ferocity, who had long history of hostility to the Han.

(A footnote: And yes, these are the ‘Hun’ that the British chose to call their German adversaries in WWII. Its source? Speaking in 1900 to German soldiers waiting to sail to China to help lift the siege of Peking in the Boxer Rebellion, Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops to fight ‘like the Huns under their King Attila a thousand years ago’ so that ‘the name of Germany shall become known in China to such affect that no Chinaman will ever again dare so much as to look askance at a German.’)

It seems likely that Zhang Qian was held captive by the Xiongnu for about ten years during which time he married a Xiongnu woman with whom he had child. Remarkably he continued on with his journey getting as far as Bactria (today Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan-ish) where he spent more than a year in the eastern end of the Fergana Valley, one of the most fertile places on earth, and Sogdiana (eastern Kyrgyzstan and Kazahkstan). He was captured again on his way back to China, but eventually got home where he and the products of his journey were feted. (‘The Emperor will know of the Dayuan, Daxia, Anxi, and the others, all great states rich in unusual products whose people cultivate the land and make their living in much the same way as the Chinese. All these states are militarily weak and prize Han goods and wealth.’ A diplomat’s report.) This was in 128 BC, about 1400 years prior to Marco’s travels.

Some evidence suggests that the Romans had diplomats/merchants in Xinjiang (the westernmost province of China) about 150 AD. They were no longer there when we arrived.

* * * * * *

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Xinjiang is the largest province in China as well as furthest west. Urumqi (sort of ‘yi-rim-chee’) with 3.5 million people, the largest city in Central Asia, is its capital.

In its museum this artwork can be found.IMG_0533.jpgIt is an artist’s reconstruction of the head of this mummified body from Lop-Nor, some distance south of Urumqi but still in Xinjiang.IMG_0532.jpgShe is known as ‘The Loulan Beauty’ and is important for several reasons. One is that her body dates from around 5000 BC and that the cloth she was buried in still exists 7000 years later. Another is that she wasn’t ‘buried’ at all, or embalmed, or wrapped in protective bandaging. Like other mummified bodies, several of which are on display here,IMG_0537.jpg after her death she was placed in a cave and preserved by the climate (a consistent low temperature and minimal humidity).

But the most important reason by far is, as the tag notes: ‘According to scientific test, she belongs to ancient Europoid.’ She’s Uyghur; she’s not Han. Uyghurs (‘wee-gurs’) were here first. They own the land. Children of the soil, they should control it. Their wishes should prevail.

She has recently been re-assessed by some Chinese scientists appointed by the Provincial Government who have confirmed that in fact the mummy is only 4000 years old — and, great heavens!, is Han.

Just as Tibet’s formal name is the Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang’s full name is ‘Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’. As noted in Wikipedia, which doesn’t usually use words like ‘hardline’, they have something else in common.

220px-Chen_Quanguo.jpgSince hardline official Chen Quanguo was transferred from Tibet to govern China’s Muslim region in August 2016, he has overseen the construction of a network of extrajudicial internment camps. He has also stepped up surveillance of residents by using advanced technology as well as increasing police presence, and passed severe regulations to curtail religious and cultural expression. According to estimates by rights groups and researchers, at least tens of thousands – or possibly a million members of ethnic minorities – many of them ethnic Uyghurs, are currently being held in “re-education” camps in the region.

While we were there we had companion who was Uyghur. For fear of possible reprisals, I can’t show you a photo, I can’t tell you his or her name, in fact I’ll have to gloss over much of what we were told.

I can show you this photo which sums some of the experience up.IMG_0548.jpg

Police presence. When we were alerted to it, we noticed there was a police control station at every significant intersection. There are 700 of them in the city centre alone.

unknown1.jpegMonster golden Buddha in what is billed as an environmental park, Urumqi’s latest major tourist attraction. We were warned by email before we arrived we would not be able to go to the Red Mosque (as advertised; a stolen photo at right, obviously something to see). Police have closed this area. So this ‘Park with Buddha’ is the new option.

The Buddha is approximately five years old, the same age as the Hilton Hotel built next door on the outskirts of the city. There is no significant history of Buddhism in Urumqi or Xinjiang as a whole for that matter. Fake religious news.

We didn’t go in; it all looked a bit new, raw. We read the ‘Civilisation Convention’ on a massive billboard. 

Love the Motherland, love Hongguangshan (the name of the park), safeguard ethnic solidarity and maintain stability … Treat others politely, respect elders and take good care of children, care others [sic] and take pleasure in helping others 

We drove past the usual forests of tower blocks but a lot of these were unusual. They were only three-quarters finished: no top, variable heights, no windows, limited cladding. What’s going on there? I asked. ‘The building has been stopped. The government building funds have been transferred to making prisons. There are 10 million Uyghur in China. One million are in gaol.’

The Uyghur are Muslim. Our companion’s spouse and four brothers went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. These five people have been imprisoned now for more than a year. What they are charged with, their whereabouts, and their future are all unknown. Why has this happened? Does our companion fear for his/her freedom? ‘Of course. Every time there is a knock at the door. Why do they do this? To wash the brain…’ 

There are several children in this family. Parents are fined 200 yuan (40 AUD, a lot in this context) every time the children speak Uyghur at school. (In this case 3200 yuan so far this year.) Teachers who speak Uyghur to their students are fired. Uyghur stories and songs have been banned from the curriculum. Doctors who speak Uyghur to their patients are struck off and imprisoned. ‘One year women who wear long Uyghur dresses in the street were stopped by police and their dresses were cut short with scissors. This year headscarves are removed and they are fined. Next year they go to gaol.’ Rugs and cushions on the floor to sit on are banned.

Downtown is littered with building sites, literally hundreds of them, covered in green screening fabric. What is happening behind that fabric is that pointed arches are being removed and replaced by rectangular openings. Curves and angles are being straightened out. All decoration that smacks of an Islamic past is being removed. 

This is the square outside the Grand Bazaar, the old hub of Urumqi.IMG_0566.jpg

Just incidentally, to the right of the neck of the big instrument (might be a dutar or a dombra) you might be able to see the four guys who were playing up a storm with hand drums and wind instruments the second time we came here. Central Asian rather than Chinese music. They were wonderful. We had to be searched and go through a metal detector to enter this square.

To the right is the base of a huge minaret. That and the ever so elegant building behind are scheduled for demolition. On the left is the market, once one of the busiest in Central Asia. From the suggested best photographic point to show its crowded alleys it now looks like this.IMG_0562.jpg

The markets are mainly used and run by Uyghurs. But more generally, Urumqi’s previously burgeoning economy is being run down quite deliberately as a means of controlling its population. With unemployment now a serious problem, priority is being given to Uyghur recruitment into the police and armed forces. It was suggested that these ‘turned’ Uyghurs were among the most brutal members of the police.

The Chinese have renamed Urumqi (‘beautiful pasture’) ‘Wulumuqi’ because, our friend said, they can’t say ‘Urumqi’ and anyway it’s a Uyghur word (actually probably Mongolian, but definitely not Han). Over the last decade the Han population of Urumqi has increased by 800,000, a mass importation of the dominant Chinese ethnic group just as has happened in Tibet — part of the game which has accelerated mightily in the two years since Chen Quanguo took over.

But what a game. Myriad insults, large and small. Every move covered. Fenced in from every direction. 

The Museum we visited is new but built before the latest dispensation. 

IMG_0547.jpgThe sign accompanying this display says:

Gorgeous Costume and Hats Graceful Women and Handsome Men

The Uyghur Nationality’s costume had condensed the national spirit, embodied unique creativity and ability of presentation. …Through various kinds of caps, it reflects the Uyghur peoples’ natural and unrestrained individual characters. Precious jewelry, gold and silver ornaments all reflect the invariably limitless and lofty sentiments of Uyghurs who like to explore nature, integrate quintessence of works of god with their heart, and create their own beauty.

How much longer will it be there I wonder. How much longer will that excellent museum be open?

* * * * * *

Qualifying all these impressions, we went out. Our friend persuaded us and negotiated an excellent deal on the tickets to ‘The Silk Road: A Millenial Impression’, a song and dance show of the type that is often so tired it nods off and falls to the floor during the first act. But not so. It was simply amazing. About 1200 people were entertained in a most superior fashion.

First we ate. A gigantic buffet.


IMG_0573 (1).jpg


The most popular dish was ripped up spit roast lamb. I counted four of these consumed, I don’t know how many I missed.


We did a few things wrong but were generally treated as somewhat exotic members of the family.


One of the clever aspects of the design of the show was that the dances were meant to reflect a trip across the Silk Roads, so dances from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Persia and so on, and that of course was great. But the first half was Uyghur. And if you’re thinking those dancers don’t look Chinese … you actually mean Han.

IMG_0576 (1).jpg

What this gal was representing I’m not sure but it was the high point of the night. The crowd howled. Men rushed forward to be entangled with the snake.


* * * * * *

Unrest. That’s what it is called. On the 5th July 2009 riots broke out in Urumqi during which an unconfirmed number but probably around 200 people were killed and several thousand injured. Government sources suggested that most of the dead were Han, and it is certainly true that Han were targeted by Uyghurs. The rather remote flashpoint appears to have been the failure of the central government to investigate the deaths of two Uyghur migrant workers in Shaoguan, 4000 kilometres away. 26 Uyghur ‘ringleaders’ were subsequently executed.

Unknown.jpegUrumqi is situated in a highly strategic location. In essence to go west from China by land you have two options. The first is to find your way round the Taklamakan Desert, one of the world’s largest, to Kashgar and then north to Bishkek or Andijon through the river valleys and mountain passes of the Tian Shan. The second, much easier, is to go round north of the high mountains. Urumqi is the key to that route. (Both are part of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.)

That means that this has been a contested area for hundreds of years. The fact that Xinjiang shares its current border with eight countries — Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India — suggests its historical complexity.

The disagreement between the Uyghur and the Han government about which group has greater claim to the Xinjiang region has a long and often violent history. The Uyghur believe their ancestors were indigenous to the area, whereas government policy considers present-day Xinjiang to have belonged to the various dynastic rulers of ‘China’ since around 200 BC. Uyghurs have been classified as a ‘National Minority’ rather than a ‘Nationality’ group. Thus they are considered to be no more indigenous to Xinjiang than the Han and, unlike other defined Nationality groups, they have no special cultural or other rights.

Historians point out that 400 years ago, the Qing brought in Han, Hui, Uyghur and Kazakh people as colonists after the Mongols who had previously lived in the region were driven out or slaughtered. Before that it was populated for hundreds of years by the Xiongnu mixture mentioned above.

But matters like that have been easy to ignore as the struggle has become more defined: just two ethnic groups at loggerheads. Forget the rest. A census of Xinjiang in the early 19th century indicated that 30 percent of the population was Han and 60 percent ‘Turkic’ (a language group, mostly Uyghur). In 1953 this had changed to 6 percent Han and 75 percent Uyghur. By 2000 the recorded population was 41 percent Han and 46 percent Uyghur, some of whom at least believe they live in ‘Eastern Turkestan’.

Yellow Han people have not the slightest thing to do with Eastern Turkestan. Black Tungans also do not have this connection. Eastern Turkestan belongs to the people of Eastern Turkestan. There is no need for foreigners to come be our fathers and mothers … From now on we do not need to use foreigners’ language or their names, their customs, habits, attitudes, written languages and etc. We must also overthrow and drive foreigners from our boundaries forever. The colours yellow and black are foul … They have dirtied our Land for too long. So now it’s absolutely necessary to clean out this filth. Take down the yellow and black barbarians! Live long Eastern Turkestan!

‘Tungans’, the ‘blacks’, are Chinese Muslims. When this was written some years ago it wasn’t a matter of religion but of ethnicity. What would the The Loulan Beauty have made of all these wrestles with identity, at once so fundamental and so trivial?


* * * * * *

I asked the hotel clerk if we could get a call for 4am. Our plane left at 7 and it would be 30-40 minutes to the airport and an international flight. He was nonplussed. ‘Do you mean Uyghur time sir?’ A moment of panic not having a clue what he was talking about. I showed him our schedule. It was quite clear. He just thought it was very early. ‘Too early.’ I did know that all of China is on Beijing time, so for example it was still quite light in Urumqi at 10.45pm. What I didn’t know was that on Uyghur time it would have been a more sensible 8.45. But it was a suitable departure point — a muddle, with murky undertones.

Our taxi got pulled over by police a couple of kilometres from the airport. I wondered if we had a Uyghur taxi driver; but it wasn’t him they were after. It was us who were searched. They also went through our luggage perfunctorily and put it through an X-ray machine tucked away in their roadside cabin. We went through another search as we entered the airport. Very very very thorough body searches. You haven’t had a body search till you’ve had one of these. At check-in a metal detector, and our passports were confiscated for a time. Kept, taken perhaps, rather than confiscated. I may have had a lithium battery in my packed luggage. We got our passports back. All this is happening with a very nasty underlying tenor. People used to their customers being angry and frustrated, developing a rhinoceros hide coupled with a ready sneer. Then customs. Another check and search, and this was weird. I had to remove my shoes for a hand check of the soles of my feet and between my toes. Then we both were sent off to a small room to stand on a platform which moved back and forth making buzzing noises. What that was none can tell. Another metal detection and hand luggage search at the gate before we got on the plane.

We were tourists, AND we were departing! Was there a message to take with us perhaps?

* * * * * *

How exciting it was to see the Muslims of Xi’an (who as it happens are mostly Hui, another ethnic group), celebrated, lauded, important contributors to the culture and tourist industry of Shaanxi. How troubling to meet the Muslims of Urumqi, conflicted, repressed, angry, despairing. In both cases because they are Muslim. China, mate. China.

Getting off at Bishkek was a breeze, such a breeze. We just wandered through. It was, and remained, a gust of the freshest air.







The Stations of The Cross, 30.06.2018


Via Dolorosa‘ means the Way of Sorrow or Grief.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, the Holy City, it runs about 600 metres from the Lion Gate in the Muslim Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Along its path are nine stations representing the path from Pilate’s judgment and Christ’s subsequent flagellation to the site of the crucifixion. The other five which make up the structure of a spiritual pilgrimage which informs some Christian practice are located in Holy Sepulchre. 

IMG_1447.jpgYou identify the stations by metal markings like this one, Station III at the Armenian Church.

Although this was not the case when we were there, the Via Dolorosa can be furiously busy with pilgrims. On the 30th June this year (2018) I took photos at each of the Stations thinking that they might have something to say, among other things, about contemporary Jerusalem. Some explanatory notes follow, but start with the pictures.


I. Jesus is condemned to death by crucifixion by Pontius Pilate and is scourged.

IMG_1436 (1).jpg



II. Jesus takes up the Cross.



III. Jesus falls for the first time.



IV. Jesus meets his mother.



V. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the Cross



VI. Veronica hands Jesus the handkerchief.



VII. Jesus falls for the second time.




VIII. Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem.



IX. Jesus falls for the third time.



X. Jesus is disrobed.



XI. Jesus is crucified.



XII. Jesus dies on the Cross.



XIII. Jesus’ body is taken down from the Cross.



XIV. Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb.



I.   The Old City has four Quarters — Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. (It once had five, including the Moroccan ‘Quarter’ (?). As noted the Via Dolorosa is firmly embedded in the Muslim Quarter and begins at what is now El Omariye School, a Muslim institution not over-endowed with equipment but not on its uppers either. We were taken there by a student and the first photo is the view out the window — immediately next door is the second most sacred site in Islam, not a church nor a mosque, but Jerusalem’s most familiar landmark, The Dome of the Rock.

It is an exquisite and, to us, inaccessible building.

The site’s great significance for Muslims derives from traditions connecting it to the creation of the world and to the belief that the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey to heaven started from the rock at the center of the structure. It may also where Muhammad convened a discussion with Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

However, in Jewish tradition the rock also bears great significance as the ‘Foundation Stone’, the place from which the world expanded into its present form and where God gathered the dust used to create the first human, Adam, and also as the place where God’s divine presence is manifested more than in any other place. So … no real pressure.

Since its completion in 691 under the Ummayad Caliphate, the first Muslim Dynasty, it has also been a Christian church, St Augustine’s, following the First Crusade (1099AD).

The second photo is the ‘Ecce homo’ arch immediately adjacent, near where Pilate produced Jesus after his scourging with the words intended to be ironic if not sarcastic: ‘Behold the man’.IMG_1437.jpg The plaque embedded into the Church of the Sisters of Zion here. Tunc ergo tradidit eis illum ut crucifigeretur. ‘Then therefore he delivered him unto them to be crucified.’

II.   The police presence in Jerusalem is constant and quite formidable. That is the barrel of a semi-automatic assault rifle, standard police weaponry, peeping through the metal grid.

III.   Outside one of the Armenian Churches. Although it might be anticipated that carrying a cross or part thereof might occasion a fall (or three as the Stations suggest) there is no biblical reference to this occurring. It is one example of the embroidery of the story which has taken place over 2000 years. Pope John Paul II made an effort to encourage the use of another more biblical version of the Stations beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane and including Peter’s denial and the crucified thief’s conversion to little apparent avail.

IV.    A decoration on the external wall of the Armenian Church. ‘Me. Stma. De La Esperanza Malaga — Espana.’ Probably referencing the Virgin of Hope of Macarena of Seville’, the weeping Madonna, a free standing icon. Why a hopeful Madonna should weep is unclear. Unlike most such images, the Seville icon has never been dressed in black, except once — for the funeral of the bullfighter El Gallo (‘The Rooster’).

V.   Just to confirm this was Station V., this is the rest of the plaque you can see in the top left corner.IMG_1451.jpg

VI.  Another importation. ‘A medieval Roman Catholic legend viewed a specific piece of cloth, known as the Veil of Veronica as having been supernaturally imprinted with Jesus’ image, by physical contact with Jesus’ face. Ecclesiastical wordplay [not an unknown entity] can convert the Latin words vera icon (‘true image’) into Veronica. It came to be said that the Veil of Veronica had gained its image when a Saint Veronica encountered Jesus, and wiped the sweat from his face with the cloth.’ No element of this legend is present in the Bible.

VII.    A minute separates these photos. Something happened.

VIII.   The first deviation from the straight and very narrow, a there-and-back up a flight of stairs. At that point also set into into the rock wall is this.


Much kissed, this symbol reads ‘IC XC NIKA’, shortened Greek, meaning ‘Jesus Christ conquers’. ‘IC XC’ is how the symbol of a fish, ‘ichthus’, became used to identify fellow Christians in the early years of the church.

IX.   Another imagined fall at the entry to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We are now in the Christian Quarter. A thousand large trucks would not be enough to remove all the material of this sort from the Holy City.

X.    The forecourt of the Church. He used his foot very skillfully as a brake.

XI.  There is some uncertainty about the location of Calvary/ Golgotha, the skull-shaped hill where Jesus was crucified. When visiting Jerusalem, (Major-General) Gordon of Khartoum (who also fought in the Crimea, China, India and the Sudan — what a taste for war he must have had) believed he saw the shape of a skull in rocks just outside the city walls, commanded an excavation and warmly congratulated himself on having found the site of Jesus’ death. Today that is a small quarry with a large bus station almost on top of it.

Our story has the crucifixion inside the walls, and certainly we have been climbing upwards towards the top of a fairly undefined hill. Jerusalem is a very hilly city and this includes the Old City. Some of the east-west ‘streets’ are called ‘Ascents’ and so they are.

The guide (in the red top) in this photo is telling her clients that the crucifixion occurred at or near the black-screened area with the dome on top. She’s paid to know these things. So, Station 11.

XII.   One of the many chapels in the Church, but the decisive one as far as the Stations go.

XIII.   The Stone of Unction where Christ’s body was laid after being removed from the Cross, site of the most fervent expressions of devotion we observed. Unction? Unguents, salves, ointment.

XIV.   The entrance to the Holy Sepulchre. The smokey atmosphere comes from an abundance of incense. The huge queue to enter the Sepulchre is out of sight on the left. The actual rock is not visible via this means. For this you need to go to the Coptic Chapel at the rear which is generally inaccessible. Far from reverent and calm the atmosphere is like that of a football crowd. Once a year when the  Pentecostal Fire descends from the Dome it can be dangerous to be in the unruly throng that gathers to view this ‘miracle’. You will not have noticed that there are 43 lamps over the entrance, 13 each belonging to the Greek, Latin and Armenian churches and four to the Copts. In the past there have been regular fist fights and worse here between priests and devotees of the various Christian sects.


* * * * * *

Last note. The best evidence, historical and archeological, we have places Herod’s Palace where Jesus was sentenced by Pilate not far from the Jaffa Gate near the Tower of David, about a kilometre from the nominal starting point described above and making it most unlikely that Christ followed the path described on the way to his crucifixion. But then the Tower of David is not the Tower of David but a fortification built under the Mamluk Slave Empire — Muslims, and a long and fascinating story in itself — in the late 13th century AD.

Jerusalem, a city of endless paradox and dissimulation.

The Little Town That Couldn’t


Saturday 7 February 2009.

We were looking for somewhere a bit cooler, anywhere really which would provide some respite from the heat. Marysville, I thought, only an hour and half away would be five degrees cooler immediately and that would only improve in the evening and at night. The cool change would come late in the day and on Sunday we might do the Three Lookouts walk and come back from the Falls through the tree ferns along the creek or, maybe if we were feeling adventurous, climb Sugarloaf and have a scramble along the Razorback in the Cathedrals …

The car’s thermometer said 47.5 when we turned right at Eltham towards Yarra Glen and the northerly had turned ugly. Scatters of small branches were frisking about on the road and landing on the car. From the lookout at Christmas Hills the Yarra Valley was grey brown with dust. The smoke cloud from Wandong had just become visible but it was well away over our left shoulders. Well away, and not in the direction we were travelling. We stopped at Tarrawarra to look at the art. The rammed earth walls of the gallery were startlingly hot to the touch, but the valley view framed by the northern glass wall was stable, unthreatening.

We had some late lunch at Healesville. The sun behind the smoke cloud over in the north-west had become photogenic, a disk of magenta. ‘Still a fair way away’, I said to a bloke watching as we came back out of the cafe onto the street. ‘Yeah maybe. But,’ he replied pointing, ‘have a look there. There’s another one’. And so there was, a new one, now to the north. But damp, temperate, green Marysville would be safe. That was its speciality. Despite being embedded in thick forest, it hadn’t been touched on Black Friday in 1939, nor Ash Wednesday in 1983.

The Black Spur was reassuringly itself, one of Victoria’s treasures with its long winding avenue of straight and tall mountain ash. The Fernshaw Reserve at its foot seemed cool and inviting and the car’s thermometer was dropping already. By the time we got to Dom Dom saddle it was down to 38, so comparatively cool we opened the car windows for relief. No smoke; therefore no fire. At Narbethong down the other side of the Spur, clusters of watchers were standing around chatting but they didn’t seem anxious.

We turned off right to Granton and there was a fire tanker filling up at the side of the road. We started talking about turning back, going home. Myrna did. But I thought there would be relief on the other side of the hill. A swim in the Marysville pool would be perfect.

About three kilometres from our destination we saw smoke to our left, low and slow, but there were licks of flame at its base, and it seemed sensible to get out of the way. There were other people whose business it is to control fire. Myrna put her foot down. We turned round. No panic. We just turned around and went back through the Granton hills, through Narbethong and up over the Spur.

On the way home we listened to Richard Stubbs on ABC local radio. Talking to those who had been affected by the fires in Horsham, Bendigo, Kilmore, Bunyip, he seemed audibly moved. We were glad that it was all so far away. But by the time we got to Coldstream there were dozens of small grass fires racing across the paddocks. The cool change with its associated wind change still hadn’t come. Once on the Eastern Freeway we were back in town, inviolate. We had left nature and its elements behind for the well-insulated version of life that most urban Victorians, most Victorians, live.

I rang Marysville’s Tower Motel the next morning to apologise for our no show and to explain the reason why. We would want to stay there again, as we had so many times in the past, and I wanted to make sure they understood. I got the owner’s mother. ‘It’s all gone’, she said. ‘All gone.’ ‘What’s gone?’ I asked. ‘The town. It’s all gone. Look at the television. The ABC. It’s all gone.’

It must be 35 years since we began going to Marysville. It was a pig in a poke, a happy mistake, somewhere we chanced on that we thought might be painless and different to go with young children when you got fed up with the city. A bit of water, hills, trees, maybe snow in winter. 

Unknown.jpegI wrote that about nine years ago and as I remember now and I think correctly, the very first time I discovered Marysville was by going to a conference there, a retreat, a charette, an event designed to correct the problems of the world. That would make sense. That was one of the things Marysville was for, one of its primary purposes. We stayed at the pub (at left). It was cold. That would always make sense. 

The first time we arrived as a family it was Autumn, and the massive European trees were awash with colour. It seemed as though around every corner there was another vista, something brilliant to see, another clutch of picturesque houses, mostly elderly from an Australia that had passed, with extraordinary gardens, huge banks of azalias, rhododendrons and camellias. The main street: an avenue of elms, branches reaching into each other across the road, petrol bowsers from the 1940s, occasional pieces of mock Tudor, the pub, the Cumberland guest house with its brick salute to modern times … the town was an intriguing Antipodean version of southern England with a thin wash of colonial style surrounded, closely, by magnificent Australian bush. Everything was a walk, and every walk a pleasure.

In winter, Marysville was the dormitory for Lake Mountain, with Donna Buang, the nearest snow to Melbourne. The groomed trails, in summer like golfing fairways, were home to cross country skiers. But there was tobogganing and, as the snow reports say, ‘sight seeing’. You could walk to the top, turn left and in good weather catch glimpses of Buller and Stirling before completing the circuit through alpine moss beds and tors of quartz. Our kids saw their first snow up on the mountain. We kept going back.

Like Sorrento, Ferntree Gully, Daylesford and Lorne, it was a town that belonged to the guest house era, a day’s journey from the city to a version of nature both beautiful and civil, to a time before jet skis, offroad motor bikes and downhill racers, to places where people could just enjoy sitting quietly, with the hills or the sea and each other for company. It was a place for romance.

But in time cars became more common, more reliable, faster; the roads were improved to all-weather tarmac; and Marysville became a way-station on a day round trip rather than a destination in its own right. Visitors would stop at the Bakery for a cup of tea and country cakes verging on the epic, fuel up at the Mobil or visit Uncle Fred and Auntie Val’s lolly shop, not knowing that a couple of kilometres away at Island Hop or at the falls or in the beech forest along Lady Talbot Drive or a bit further on among the big trees at Cambarville were sites of sheer delight.

Over the decades the town stayed the same. Shop owners would come and go, but their enterprises varied only modestly. In essence little changed. It was home for loggers, for retirees, for casual workers who needed cheap housing, for people who serviced the still operating guest houses and other tourist accommodation. It was place to honeymoon (a most important destination for this), to take your corporate group for team-building exercises when you didn’t want distraction, to lie back and think.


We found Fruit Salad Farm, down in a dip on the fringe of town, for a start because it was cheap, but also because it was simple in the extreme. It was a place you always slept well. The kids played their first Pooh sticks in the creek that ran through the property. I found my way through the thickets of a book there when I was stuck trying to write it anywhere else. Several times I spent time there trying to recover from a disease that no one could pin down. Chronic fatigue syndrome? Myalgic encephalomyelitis? Post-viral syndrome? I walked every day and usually after a week went home feeling better.

We ate dozens of times at the pub snug in the lounge near the fire, where the food was good, wine was cheap and the service unfailingly friendly. We have celebrated more elaborately in the dining room at Marylands Country House. On one memorable night we dined in an establishment up on the Woods Point Road, the only customers, perhaps for some time. We ate Swiss, we had stories, we swam in someone else’s nostalgia, and left with photos that we still have of a couple of feet of snow covering the town.

We watched the mud brick adventure happening in Kerami Crescent and the expensive but delightful fantasies occurring in Keppel’s Court and at the end of Murchison Street. There was the exquisitely judged bungalow at the junction of Barton Avenue and Murchison Street with the wonderful garden. A year ago, and as it happens in many days since, we were thinking about buying a property there — 28 Sedgwick Street, a big block with a 40 metre oak tree in the northern corner of a well-established garden with long lines of berry canes, and a small but cosy logger’s cabin with views north down the valley to Sugarloaf.

And now it’s gone. It’s all gone. You can talk about resilience and the spirit of the people and how we’ll fight back. All that. Terrible things have happened in these fires. Unlike some of my mates, I have lost no loved ones, no property, nothing tangible at all. I was just a tourist. But for now, and for these reasons, my heart is broken.

That was then. Nine years and three months ago.

* * * * * *

It was a fire like few others.


A satellite image from the night of 7/2/09, and below from higher up earlier that day.


From one side of this photo to the other is about 550km, all of eastern Victoria. That smoke is coming from the Kinglake/ Murrundindi / Marysville fire.

From the report of the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday Fires:

‘The wall of fire that burnt Marysville that night was over 140 metres high. It travelled at speeds of up to 120kmh, burned at 1,350C and created blasts of exploding gases that erupted in lateral pulses as large as 600 metres. The radiated heat alone was so fierce it was capable of killing people 400 metres away.’

IMG_0370.jpgDaryl Hull found shelter in this small lake next to the football oval where the residents had gathered. Giving evidence to the Royal Commission, he said:

‘The smoke suddenly got very thick and very very dark, the colour of charcoal, and was bubbling towards me over the lake. I knew the fire was about to hit and at that point I thought I might die. Then there was an explosion and everything was luminous orange, and embers began to shower down on me. The embers hissed as they hit the water around me. To take cover from the embers I ducked underneath the water. From under the water I could see the embers descending, like orange lights through green glass. I would surface for a breath, sheltering under the branch I had found, and then duck under the water again. When I surfaced I could see the school going up in flames in front of me. Those flames came across the surface of the water like a massive blowtorch.’

This was at 7.15pm. We had turned around about 3.30. 

Afterwards, a police sergeant said that the main street in Marysville had been destroyed: ‘The motel at one end of it partially exists. The bakery has survived. Don’t ask me how. Everything else is just nuked.’ Reports on 11 February estimated that around 100 of the town’s population of approximately 500 were believed to have perished, and that only ‘a dozen’ buildings were left. After a brief visit, Premier Brumby described the situation: ‘There’s no activity, there’s no people, there’s no buildings, there’s no birds, there’s no animals. Everything’s just gone.’

All but 14 of 590 houses and commercial buildings had been destroyed. (One of the painful things for the residents was that the town was declared ‘a crime scene’ because of the possibility of arson and entrance was forbidden to them or anyone else for six weeks.)

Just before the fire peaked several hundred people had gathered on the football oval and a very courageous and very lucky group of police guided them in convoy out the Buxton Rd to safety in Alexandra minutes before it became impassable and the roof really fell in.

Nonetheless, 173 people died in these fires, 39 in Marysville. Ken Rowe was one of them, a sometime colleague with whom I rarely agreed on professional matters but that didn’t interfere with our amiable relationship. Like a lot of the residents, he was transitioning up from the city to retire to his garden and trees in Hull Road.

David Sebald, the real estate agent, was another. We’d had quite a few conversations with him and his wife Marlene (who also died in the fires) about Sedgwick Street. He was excellent company, and a real enthusiast for Marysville, for a time its main booster. 

IMG_0371.jpgHe may have had a hand in two low impact bits of pre-Fires community tarting-up: the wisteria walk and the re-making au naturel of the gutters in Murchison St. Nice, but not decisive. But bear those in mind in terms of scale as we proceed.IMG_0358.jpg

He’d just had a new subdivision round Timber Jinker Place approved and was positive, excited, that the town was ‘on the verge of really taking off’.

* * * * * *

And that’s the thing about Marysville. In our time of contact with it, the town has always been on the verge — when it was in the mood anyway; more commonly it was to be found lying back on its haunches some distance from the verge, somnolent — of taking off. But it never did. For us, that was one of its chief attractions.

In the past it has had its moments.

Logging has been big. But what with one thing and another, including agitation by green types, the bottom fell out until there were just enough loggers left to sprinkle around the front bar of Keppel’s Alpine Hotel, the pub whose walls were decorated with photos of massive trees and spectacular feats of felling them. 20 km away in Cambarville, a former logging settlement, are stands of mountain ash which were more than 90m high. They’ve now been whacked by lightning and are a bit shorter, but they remain formidable, thrilling. There have been times when logging has mattered around here. But Marysville’s mill, Sund’s, closed years ago, the two at Narbethong more recently. Tourism became the go.

VJY2134.jpgThe five guest houses at their peak used to accommodate 500+ visitors; this in a town with a resident population in 2008 of 406. (Marylands above and below) However modern people no longer want to stay at guest houses. They don’t play croquet. They like BnBs with or without Air. And you might now go to Bali rather than Marysville for your honeymoon.

The Cumberland had been updated and was quite a solid proposition. We would go there for our version of luxury. It was right in the middle of the main street, which may have been to its advantage, and it did fair to good convention business. But it expired completely in the conflagration.

5519f86a-607c-41fa-93d6-6d1dc0fe9743.jpgThe Marylands’ drawcard shifted from the croquet lawn, the full-size pool table and the rather limited concrete swimming pool to gourmet-ish food and queen-size beds. But during our time it was always teetering, full of fond memories rather than paying customers. The Mary-lyn became a successful haven for semi-permanent residents over 50 and, pre-fires at least, was an important staple of the town’s economy. It was destroyed and hasn’t been replaced.

Every time we came another shop, another set of shops, was having a farewell sale, had already packed up and gone or had a new set of owners. We wished them all well, but like everyone else we never spent much money in them. 

VictorianCollections-medium.jpgCrossways, opposite the church at the T-intersection, has somehow stayed alive since the 1920s. This photo includes a large sign saying CABARET attached to its roof. CABARET. Unimaginable in Marysville.

The Bakery too was an exception. It just burst onto the scene, a new enterprise in a new building, and for years ran at full bore. Marysville is near two of the great motor bike rides in Victoria: the Black Spur and Reefton Spur, and on Sunday mornings the Bakery would be bulging at the seams with bikies hoeing into the prize-winning pies, vanilla slices and large mugs of country coffee. IMG_1814 (1).jpgThe verandah would be aswarm with flocks of the King and Crimson parrots memorialised in its doors.

The Motel did all right too. In fact, weirdly enough, the three buildings in the main street the fires didn’t destroy were the three steadily going concerns in town, Crossways, the Bakery and the motel. (The pub which was utterly flattened might be considered a fourth.) The church went.

The time had already come when there weren’t enough residents for a footy or even a netball team (the Marysville Villains of the past). Or a lot else. 

* * * * * *

We came back for the first time about nine months after the fires on the way back from the Alps to Melbourne. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see what had happened, but we both were curious. Will Storr wrote a ‘one year after’ story for The Australian in which he says, ‘There’s nothing tender or poignant about this scene; there’s a violence in the razed spaces of Marysville. Even after all these months, its wounds are still raw and shocking and open.’ And at that time that’s exactly how it seemed to us.

The walks were gradually, very gradually, re-opened and we came back to do them. Some re-routing had occurred and, not only had they been tediously slow and manically cautious in restoring them, it felt a bit like they, whoever ‘they’ were, couldn’t leave well enough alone. But a new building went up here and there, a monster information centre and a palatial police station early in the piece, along with some really tinny new housing, more fire resistant presumably but ugly as sin. Most residents were off in portable cabins 3km out of town at ‘Camp Marysville’. I don’t know anything about that, but there is this feeling that the people or many of them who lived there had been isolated like refugees.

IMG_0353.jpgThe VIBE was built covering half the major block of Murchison Street where the pub and the Cumberland had been. To stay there, as we have, you need to schlep your bags about 100m from where you park your car. And I hate to say this but the reception area and the people who worked in it shrieked: Somewhere else, not here. We don’t belong. We want to be somewhere else.

It was suggested to us that the reason the building is so bad was that the architect had never been to Marysville. The documentary evidence is to the contrary. There were consultations with the residents. Can’t you just imagine them. A team of bright young things with orange shoes, no socks, tight black trousers and very sharp collarless shirts, up from the office in Docklands, blowing fluff in the face of a small recently traumatised group of 70 year-old Marysville stalwarts who had no idea what they were talking about. Because, truly, only art-speak is worse than architecture-speak.

Metier3 (!), the architects. They say:

We set out to re-establish the charm of an eclectic alpine village, by creating a fine-grained urban design response to enhance and rebuild the street. By taking cues from the local built character, materiality and rhythm of the streetscapes, the design’s visual and performative qualities are strengthened. [Check out the photo. Just how performatively fine-grained can you get?]

We now have the opportunity to recreate its charms in a contemporary fashion, and focus on rebuilding quality spaces that will cater for the needs of today and the future. Understanding these things, we have built up our design to reflect such elements as the individual dwelling rhythm of the streetscapes, the charred trunks of trees once burnt by wildfires and the snow on the adjacent ranges.

The conceptual response we have adopted in our design response, is one of figuratively rebuilding the streets — Murchison Street in particular, to create a fine-grained urban design that responds and reflects the town’s character. These elements present as individual buildings to Murchison Street, however are actually elongated ‘fingers’ of buildings that are connected to a delicate white-glazed walkway to create an holistic facility.

What is formally created, is a series of pure building volumes that remain unmistakably of this place. The simple shapes express a traditional alpine village, maintaining values while giving the downtown area archetype of the traditional house with pitch [sic] roof.

Construction was completed in early 2015, and the Hotel and Conference centre is the centrepiece of the town and surrounding shire.

And so as its ‘centrepiece’ — and that is unarguable — we have this horrible black elephant, a monument to misery with its blank-faced address to the street, dominating the built town. They might have visited Marysville but how could they have had no idea just how awful and out of keeping the finished building ($28m, partly funded by the Victorian government) would be.

It’s not just the look, or the fact that we have a team of architects who can’t tell the difference between a pitch roof and a pitched roof — it’s the functionality.

For example, you enter Radius, VIBE’s eating place, straight off the street. There is no vestibule or lobby. So on an icy night like the first time we ate there, every time someone came in or out of the giant door there would be a blast of cold air chilling all the diners sitting within 15 metres. The extractor fan over the cooking area wasn’t working effectively and the only way to get rid of the smoke, yes smoke, (smoke! might be to go with the charred tree trunks) was to open the door for through-flow of air. It was intermittently freezing. Last weekend, some years later, I noted this problem still seems to exist. 

It opened in February 2015; it was for sale May 2016. Asking price $13m. Marysville.

Unknown.jpegThe Kerami Manor and Day Spa with its commanding position on one of the hills overlooking the town is more successful. It knows where it is — built on the site first of Marymeadows Guesthouse (Eric Dowdle who built and owned these guest houses as a chain had a thing about naming), and then Kerami Lodge which, before the fires, was sliding downhill both literally and figuratively at an accelerating rate.

We haven’t stayed here. Prima facie, it looks bit fussy, but that might be just the right style — cosy, leather, magazines, flock wall paper, contemporary versions of chandeliers. The 35 people who have reviewed their stay on Travel Advisor have unanimously given it five stars.

But the bakery …IMG_1817 (1).jpg

Peak hour, Sunday breakfast. We were there a week ago celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary. The pies are probably still great but they stopped winning prizes in 2006. Or was that when the steam went out of the proprietor’s engine?IMG_1819.JPG

Fraga’s up the street was lively in its own Marysville-ian way.IMG_1871.JPG

images.jpegAnd The Duck Inn, the new pub, was a real find. Very well situated on the main drag, terrific food, great place to sit, cosy fire, excellent service. A real bright light on the horizon. One interesting thing was that the new baker in the bakery might have been Vietnamese, the person who checked us into the motel was Chinese and our hosts at the Duck Inn were assertively Korean. An Asian infusion might just be a launchpad for recovery.


Unknown-2.jpegThe new church is another success, a massive improvement on the old one (at left) which was a bit picturesque insofar as anyone noticed, but pretty much worn out. Marysville’s climate is quite hard on weatherboard as a building material.

The new one has great lines, a smart and easy entry with protection from the elements. It’s notable but nestles beautifully into its setting. In fact most things about it look just right.Unknown-1.jpeg


But is there anyone going to it?

* * * * * *
The thing that was striking about our recent visit was not the commercial building. We assume that will take care of itself and fall into a pattern probably very similar to that of the past 20 or 30 years. 
There was a lot more private housing than when we had been there last. $700m won in a class action against electricity provider SP AusNet in December 2016 has now been distributed. 
The gardens are coming back little by little. The preferred plantings are exotics, and autumn is on its way to becoming as colourful as it once was.
IMG_0374.jpgThe view across the oval. With a couple of exceptions the new housing is still fairly unimaginative, fairly stock-standard suburban, rather than holiday resort inventive. But it has improved markedly from the first efforts of the recovery. 
One of the reasons for the slow pace of progress is the rigidity of the new building regulations applied after the Royal Commission: everything double-glazed, sealed against ember attack, no flammable cladding etc etc. This increased the cost of building, already suffering from having to cart everything over the Spur, by about 150-180%. (The Royal Commission did hear from experts who were emphatic that no building should ever occur again in Marysville.) Matthew Guy, as Planning Minister, relaxed these standards in 2014. (That’s a good example of the edges, the urgent matters set in stone, that get rubbed back over time after a disaster.)
But the availability of building stock has had little effect on the number of permanent residents. Our main informant told us that it is about half what it was before the fires — meaning about 200. Lots (comparatively) of people are building, but they are building holiday homes. They ‘hardly ever come up here’. He lived in Buxton because he couldn’t afford to build in Marysville. There were 31 kids enrolled at the school immediately after the fires; there are now 50, enough for a going concern. But only just.
But it’s a luxury going concern. I might be way wrong about this but for its three classes it looks to have a dozen rooms. It does include a kinder on the same site but that’s in a separate — large — building. This is all set off by its proximity to a huge multi-purpose building, one purpose of which is to provide a multi-purpose room or rooms. Community Health is another. Dr Lachlan Fraser, Marysville’s health service, who was a figure in the firestorm is located there. (His story.) And then there are the change rooms/ club rooms. As I mentioned above it’s hard work trying to draw a footy team from a population of 200 skewed towards the elderly.
The Villains Objectives are to:

• facilitate the ‘importation’ of country football fixtures to Gallipoli Park over the next few years (in much the same way that Tasmania do with Hawthorn, albeit at the grass roots level)
• market Gallipoli Park as a regional venue of high quality that not only attracts imported football fixtures, but taps in to the financially lucrative football club pre season training camp market
• develop an Auskick centre for primary school aged children
• develop junior teams in a nearby league.

Not actually play there, but hope that someone else can use these magnificent club rooms.

IMG_0377.jpgAt country football games it is customary to nose cars up to the oval fence, all the better to honk after a goal. But I don’t know whether this car park will be much used. Ever. 
Just behind where I’m standing to take this photo is a substantial skate park. Up the hill next to the brand new ‘Men’s Shed’ the size and style of a three-bedroom home, is Marysville Youth Space, between them missing only ‘men’ and ‘youth’. The former Information Centre is being expanded to include another community space and an 80-seat theatrette as well as a smaller venue for watching the two films about Marysville available to visitors.
I don’t begrudge these facilities to Marysville for one instant, but what I’m looking at, what I feel I’m looking at, is buying shoes three sizes too big to grow into when the feet in question are actually shrinking. ‘Build it and they will come’ hasn’t been a principle that has defined life in Marysville.
The Royal Commission estimated the cost of the Black Saturday fires (in toto, there were many others besides Murundindi/ Marysville) at $4.3b. Insurance companies footed about one quarter of that bill; the state and federal governments made substantial contributions. The Red Cross bushfire appeal raised more than $372 million in total. This grew to over $400m during the period of disbursement. About 2/3 of these funds went on housing support, another big whack went on cleanup and recovery.
But money is not the issue. I had a feeling that we were looking at architectural attempts to assuage the guilt we feel about what happened to Marysville, and that those attempts are misguided. They miss the point of Marysville. They don’t understand cosiness, intimacy, romance. They don’t get the climate. They don’t know the meaning of a — controlled — open fire and the strange comfort of the smell of woodsmoke lingering in the mist. Fraga’s has got quilts stitched into its bench seats. Their impact might be subliminal, but they say where we are and what sort of people we are. We’re not off to Squaw Valley or Whistler. We’ve come over the Black Spur to a quieter time, and we don’t want a martini; we want a scone and a cup of tea. If we want more we’ll go down to the fire in the wall of the Duck Inn and have best sausages with creamy spud complemented with exceptional mashed peas and a glass of Yarra Valley red. And think we’re Christmas. Because we are.
So you might modify your school message. Currently:As a consequence (of the destruction wrought by the fires) our School, Pre School and Maternal Child Health Centre all combined/relocated to the same site to see what we have today – a proud and purposeful showcase of 21st century state of the art facilities, teaching and learning.’
I think I’d talk about care, personal interaction, affection; maybe the chance to use some of the facilities in the monster clubrooms but probably not. I’d talk about how our school provides shelter, as well as developing alertness and historical memory, how we are a calm family together like rural schools should be.
I came across this while I was thinking about this blog:
There is something miraculous about Marysville. On 7 February, 2009 it was at the heart of one of the worst bushfires in Victorian history. Most of the town and the surrounding bush was destroyed. Forty-five local residents died in the fires and it was estimated that nearly 90% of the town’s buildings – including the police station and the primary school – were destroyed. Yet four years later, while many of the trees are still blackened, the town has recovered. It looks modern and chic. The eucalypts are green with new shoots and the most obvious evidence of the devastation is the photographs which recall the day the town was destroyed. Marysville survives because of human tenacity, because it is a popular tourist destination and because it is beautifully located in a picturesque valley surrounded by heavily timbered mountains. The air is fresh and bracing and it is especially attractive when the flowers bloom in spring and the trees shed their leaves in autumn.
It’s a very well-intentioned puff piece, and it’s wrong. It’s missed it all, or most of it. It’s drive past material. That’s not what’s happening at Marysville. There isn’t anything miraculous about it. It will never be modern and chic. It will be itself, which is bigger and more interesting than that.
This came from another news article.
‘Bruce Ackerman, with his extraordinary portfolio of seats on local committees, has a remarkably well-informed perspective on the town’s structural recovery. “Initially, in the press release we said it would take two years, but I knew it would be five,” he says. “Then we educated people it would be five years, but I know it will be 10.” His assessment of the town’s spiritual recovery is starker yet. “Oh, we will never get over this,” he says. “Never, never, never.”‘
But we’re back. We still love it. Our hearts are true.









Blog 99

e335b6cc53ad7431d5351305b28654f2.jpgGeelong by night

Yes. There are now 99 blogs on my website. On the 20th of January this year someone living in Canada where it was a Saturday and probably pretty cold, read 49 of them. Well … ‘read’, looked at, clicked the web address, spent a moment, ‘visited’. Some sets of statistics would allow me to know how much time this person had spent per click. However despite the welter of information available to me, that is missing. Nonetheless I suspect that because he or she went carefully through various series (apparently) it might have been more than a moment. 

Could that be because of their addictive quality? Mmmm. Yeah … probably. That’s my story. But even though in October last year someone from Malaysia seems to have either read one blog 62 times on the same day or be suffering from untameable chorea of the index finger, a hard-eyed analysis of the available data suggests that this has happened just the once.

But yes, there are 99 blogs which I have launched off into the ether. Each time there are some fairly predictable results, and just as often there are results which are well beyond my capacity to predict. It’s no news to say there’s a lot happening out there in the digital universe that is incomprehensible to the common man or woman.

* * * * *


The purpose of preparing these blogs is not to deliver careless slights designed to undercut Geelong’s inexorable rise as an international powerhouse.

They began as long-ish pieces of writing about travels. Originally I circulated these by email in Word files accompanied by other files of photos. Sue Mann, Ms Digital Technology herself, pointed out that you, one, could do all this much more efficiently by using a blog shell and suggested WordPress, which is where you are right now. 

WordPress has its virtues. Unless you write to surfeit (which I do) it’s free, it’s pretty simple to use and incorporation of photos has improved recently. It also has its failings. The capacity to format is very limited. (See my ‘Contents‘ page for a good example of how things go wrong.) Just the one font for example; just the one text block. It huffs and puffs if you try to stuff too much into the one piece, and sometimes expires if you’re open too long which produces the familiar infuriating losses. 

But, and this is important, all my stuff is in here now. It’s not just that I’m old and failing or lazy. Moving to another format would be like shifting house. What happens, I wonder, if it goes down? Unless I take steps — steps in the fog, I don’t know what they are — I lose the lot I guess. And that would disappoint me.


Sphinx Hotel, Thompson Rd, Geelong West (maybe Rippleside, but round there)

To return, my purposes: The blogs did begin as long-ish pieces of writing about travels. So they’re aides memoire, and they work very well like that. I am my most serious, consistent and appreciative reader. I am sometimes given pause by the way they ‘become’ the trip or the experience. If I go back to read my journals or look at all the photos I took I can find another story. But I don’t mind that. The finished articles are already the result of after-the-fact sitting down and thinking about what happened, going back over journal entries, collecting more information to try to make sense of puzzles and fill in gaps, and filching other relevant material and images from the internet. 

And then I publish. Or as we say these days, ‘share’. To ask why is to flip the lid off a well-populated can of worms. Why do we do publish? I suppose I want to show you what I’ve made/ to tell you what I’ve been doing or thinking about. Something like that. 

Unknown.jpegEven though there are bigger issues to be resolved here — how come everything on the internet is ‘free’? — it’s not to make money. Several unknown people have contacted me about ‘monetizing’ the site, but even if I wanted to there are so many reasons why that wouldn’t work. The most promising proposition would have yielded about $130 a year and I would have had to make some serious changes to what I wrote and wrote about, how often, how long and how it was set out. It might generate a vast new audience and produce $135 a year. Or I might as though by magic become Taylor Swift. But, hey, nice of them to think of me.

Do I want a vast new audience? Not really. In a resolutely old-fashioned way, I send notification by email to about 100 people I know, friends, relatives, contacts from the road. Maybe 40 of them read it and, although I hope not, it is quite possible that some find it annoying. But there’s always the bin. Bottom left. Easy.

Also in a resolutely old-fashioned way, most of them are not ‘followers’. Twenty people have chosen to be automatically notified by email when there is a new post; 15 others use WordPress and get a notification of anything new in their newsfeed. (There. Lost half my audience already with this dizzy sophistication.) As well as a couple of friends I know, these 15 include ‘Surviving Victim 2015’, ‘Angels of Passion’ and ‘The Riparian Times’. I have the idea that WordPress might be bunging random oddities into this list for the purposes of encouragement.

Brief pause for entertainment: Excitement at Geelong’s Eastern Beach.


I don’t think I’m looking for approval although that, of course, is most welcome. In this primordial version of digital interaction, my readers rarely ‘like’ what they’ve read. But some, a few, are diligent commenters. Among this crew Joan Holt, Andy Webster and Jane Cav are the standouts. Some blogs draw more comment than others and I hazard for very differing reasons. The first blog about the death of Girin Flat might have reminded readers of their own experiences of the ’70s; The Knee might have garnered a sympathy vote; The Miracle pulled in the footy crowd; and The Nakasendo Trail (see below) is usually people asking me questions.

The most generous ‘comment’ has been a long email from Michel Faber who went to the trouble of providing a very thoughtful and positive response to ‘Dancing with Mr Su’ as well as a boxful of suggestions for copy edits. This, from the author of The Crimson Petal and the White, one the the 21st century’s really good books, made several of my days.

That’s what people do. They send me emails — emails not texts or tweets or likes or ‘comments’ — and we correspond. It’s the old days round here and one clear purpose is to keep in touch. 

But in terms of purpose, I’d say, beyond anything, it is just what I do and have been doing since I could, which is now a long time ago.

More fun at Eastern Beach


What happens?

When I send out my notice very generally speaking 80-120 people visit the new blog that day, 45-60 the next day. It tails off after that. Generally speaking.

Supporting something the makers of soaps have long known, the blog about Mitzi and Simon’s wedding got 480 views in the 12 hours after it was posted. (How does that happen? Who are these people who want to look at the wedding of someone they’ve never met and never will? How do they find out?) The post about the Boat People was also comparatively popular, very quickly. One reason might have been that it was shorter than usual. I note that since my first blog was published on October 12, 2012 — ‘London’, the beginning of a trip to Europe — the number of blogs I write in a year has diminished but their average length has doubled. Could be a mistake. (TLDR. Look it up. It’s modern.) However, 180 people, about 175 more than I anticipated, have had a look at Dancing with Mr Su which is about 35,000 words. It was a pleasant surprise to find that there was a market even of that size for this precious set of 20-year old memories.

Someone looks at something every day, every single day! (it’s busy traffic out there), on average 18 times. A heap of this traffic, the considerable majority, is people looking at my blog on The Nakasendo Trail, the reason being that it has been hooked up to Oku Japan’s Facebook page. It has received 9997, 10,014, 10,017 hits since I wrote it in September 2013. This shows several things but primarily the power of Facebook (from which I abstain). 

I have gone back to read this blog lots of times a bit puzzled and vaguely wishing it was a bit less feeble. Maybe I could have tarted it up a bit more, filled out more of the detail.  But I also think these people could have been reading about the crisis of Catholicism as visible in the decorative effects of St Peter’s, or the distinctive religious sunglare of the epistle to the Ephesians. Far more interesting. But the excellent Adam Downham from Oku (who was good enough to meet up with us on Shikoku) has written: ‘Our team often point your blog out to guests curious as to what the trail is like; there’s no better honest description since the newspaper articles, as grateful as we are to have them, tend to speak in hyperbole.’

And I would never ever ever indulge in hyperbole. Never. Not even if the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode in here right now. Six.

The men of Geelong … and the womengeelong-beach-victoria-11495.jpgUnknown.jpeg




The greatest number of hits in any one day (1744) came after a Croatian site, ‘Dubrovackidnevnik‘ (‘Dubrovnik Diary’) made reference to a small portion of Croatia: Don’s Party which with Bosnia: Not Don’s Party are two of my all-time favourites. A sort of half-hearted and confused umbrage had been taken to my comments about Dubrovnik, a sacred site on its promontory there in the Croatian consciousness.

‘A group of tourists recently published a report from Croatia on their blog, and about Dubrovnik had some criticism. ‘It is very beautiful from a distance. Up close it’s another old town with highly polished limestone streets, including the famous Stradun down its centre,’ the tourists wrote. The criticisms were directed at prices. Namely, tourists wrote that they paid a lot for the most common food. [in fact — ‘Dubrovnik didn’t have as many tat shops as Venice, but it had its share. We paid a lot for ordinary food. Despite its remarkable history as an independent and highly civilised state, we were at a tourist destination.’]

‘Most of the text on Dubrovnik is related to the Homeland War and the attacks by the JNA during the war years. ‘Why would anyone bomb the world heritage? Because of little attention or because you’re stupid. Or to see where you could go with it. Or simply because you do not care,” the tourists wrote. They also visited Cavtat, but they had only praise for it.’

You might be sharing something with your friends, you might think you’re just sharing something with your friends, but of course you’ve thrown yourself on the mercy of the digital cosmos. Once you put it up it’s in the ether, the heavily populated void where anything can and does happen.

I know that if there is a hit from Turkey, it’s probably Onur; Croatia, Don; India (when he’s there) Geoff; Poland, Marta. But today, let me look: 32 from the United States, 6 from Malaysia, 8 from Canada, three from Singapore, two from The Netherlands, one from the UK, and one from Serbia (and will they have read … yes they have … On Being Serbian. I bet they were completely mystified.) I have no idea who any of them are, nor what they are making of what they are reading.

The same is true of course of any author who publishes. However there are well developed gambits, advanced strategies, indeed whole inclinations designed to manage the issue. How much can we tell about Shakespeare’s precise nature or that of Jane Austen from what they wrote? Very little. They are extremely well-disguised; the work is the thing. (As a counterpoint we could always throw in Norman Mailer I guess.) But generally they don’t insert pictures of themselves and their close friends and relations for just anyone to contemplate, and for that matter in order to match the correspondence of text and pictorial evidence.

What’s with this willing abandonment of privacy? Is it perhaps unwitting? If ‘witting’ means ‘fully conscious and attentive’ then there might be something in that. You just do it. And compared with the Twitter wars and the complete abandonment of mannerly and civilised discourse in digital comment, I have got off scot-free. Scot-free. (Originally meaning exempt from Royal levies. Wonderful.) Maybe it’s a process of keeping your head just so high. Not very. Finding the sweet spot whereby you can imagine yourself as an authorial and public figure free to write what you like while retaining an illusion of privacy.

With this in mind, if you search ‘McRae’ or even ‘McRaeblog’ (which is most of the unique address of the site) you will go for dozens of pages before there’s any sign of it. However if you Google ‘Frognie Zila’, and why the hell would you, coming in at number six is this.

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 12.12.13 pm.png

And when you go there you will find what’s below, a photo I have taken included in a discussion of what was in Le Printemps in the French Quarter of Shanghai. Note: I have never pulled this out of the run of the blog, nor titled/captioned the photo nor in any other way given it an individual identifier. So how did that happen? Crrrrazy eh. frognie-zila.jpg

I did Google ‘Frognie Zila’ because I was getting so many hits on this as the entry point to my site. When you search, nearby you will find access to an article: ‘6 Bad Brand Names in China: Lessons from intertextuality’ (which includes the same photo, cropped but almost certainly pinched from my site) which says a number of useful things that I had only provided as implications.

Vladimir Djurovic in ‘Branding Mag’ writes: ‘From a purely verbal identity perspective, Chinese consumers have minimal recognition of the name (there is no Godzilla in Chinese culture; frog is not read as evidently as for a Western English speaker). This illuminates the importance of the underlying Chinese name as the verbal identity asset which carries brand equity in China, while the alphabetic name functions as a more visual asset and plays a lesser role in anchoring the memories and brand associations.’ (The other five dud names: ComeBuy; Lance From25; Helen Keller (a brand for spectacles!); Greenland Being Funny (for a shopping mall); and Biemlfdlkk. It is a worthy  but wordy article.)

All serious writing is palimpsest, and the internet is making it easier and more routine.

There now. That’s the educational function of this blog served.

* * * * *

Geelong? Ah it’s just Geelong. I spent ages 1-8 there, and much as I wanted to, just not quite old enough to go off the wheel into the water at Eastern Beach (see pic above). It’s quiet down there at the other end of the Bay. If you use it as your blog’s yardstick, you can, you know, pump it up a bit. Like, help out.


* * * * *

Palimpsest. A Footnote. (Another problem with WordPress: you can’t have proper footnotes. No ‘foot’ I suppose.) Originally: parchment or other writing material that the writing has been scrubbed or scraped off so it can be reused. In contemporary usage: something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. In my mind: the building up of layers of borrowings and allusions to thicken out meaning.