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Dashoguz - Konye-Urgench - Darwaza

The Gates to Hell

View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

With David still being unable to put weight on his leg to walk, we take a serious discussion about the programme this morning; and when Meylis and Artem arrive, we tell them about our suggestion for Plan B:

Instead of driving from Turkmenabat to the village of Koyten where we have two days of walking in the Kugitang Mountains at the end of the trip, we propose that we return to Mary for a night, then continue to Ashgabat for the last night here in Turkmenistan. It seems totally pointless to travel all the way to the far north east of the country, seven hours drive each way, when David would be unable to do ANY walking when we get there.

Discussing Plan B

It also means the journey home won't be so arduous, as the original plan saw us driving seven hours to Turmenabat, flight to Ashgabat, a few hours for change and a shower in Ashgabat, then fly home via Dubai – making it a heck of a long day.


The boys think it should work, but obviously they have to check with the office, whose immediate reply is “of course”. The service from Owadan Tourism, the local agent here in Turkmenistan has really been excellent!


Before we leave town, Artem takes me to a pharmacy so I can get something for my upset tummy, as the Ciprofloaxin isn't working. I am given some capsules and told to take one of the green ones and two of the silver. Getting it all mixed up, I take two of the green and one of the silver.


I later find the green packet contains Tetracycline and the other one probiotics, so no real harm done by the 'overdose'.


The UNESCO Heritage Site is the place of the the ancient town of Ürgenç, and the capital of Khwarazm Empire, parts of which are believed to date back to the 5th century BC.


Its inhabitants deserted the town in the 1700s in order to develop a new settlement, and Kunya-Urgench has remained undisturbed ever since.

Many ruined buildings of the former town are dotted over a large area, and most tourists walk between one site and the next. With David's bad leg, however, we are given special permission to drive, and the barrier is lifted up for us to enter.


Türabek Khanum Mausoleum

This is the largest and most impressive of the surviving monuments at Konye Urgench, the mausoleum is final resting place of Türabek Khanum.


The story goes that a renowned architect was madly in love with Türabek and asked what it would take to win her love.

“Design me a unique building, like no-one has seen before” she said, “and I will marry you”

He does.

Still not satisfied, she stipulated: I need you to jump from the top of the building to prove you love me. Then I will marry you.”


After he made his leap of love and broke both legs in the process, the cruel heartless woman stated with disdain that she couldn't possibly spend the rest of her life with a cripple. Ouch!

Instead Türabek married the ruler at the time (1321-1336) - Qutlugh Timur.

Türabek Khanum Mausoleum is recognized as one of the earliest monuments to make extensive use of mosaic faience (multi-coloured ceramic tiles).


The inner dome is of particular interest with its 365 stars (one for each day of the year), 24 arches with 12 of them open to the elements, and the other 12 closed (to represent the 12 hours of daylight and 12 of night time). The 12 larger arches below denote the months of the year.


And lastly, four large windows stand for the four seasons.


The tomb chamber

Another interesting thing about the mausoleum is that while the outside shows eight sides, from the inside you can only see six.


This drawing shows you how.


Kutlug Timur Minaret

Legend tells that the minaret once had a golden dome atop with a fire inside, and when Genghis Khan arrived at this site, he thought he was seeing two suns and fired his catapult at the minaret, causing the top of the tower to lean. A much more logical story would be that it was caused by the Mongolians breaking a local dam, creating a considerable flood which undermined the structure.


In the photo below you can see the entrance door is a considerable distance from the ground. When the minaret was built the access to it was via a bridge from a mosque close by.


Inside the mausoleum there are 144 steps (12x12) in a spiral fashion (anticlockwise, of course, as it would be in Islamic architecture). At 62 metres high, it is the tallest building in Central Asia.


The site includes a few more reminders of its once great importance at the time when Urgench was the capital of the Khorezm Empire.

Soltan Tekesh Mausoleum


Sultan Ala al-din Tekesh was the founder of the Khwarezm Empire and its ruler between 1172-1200.

Fahr-ad-din Razi Mausoleum


The mausoleum of famed Muslim theologian and philosopher (1149-1209) is one of the earliest surviving structures in Konye-Urgench.

Kufic Arabic letters

Reading these intricately carved scriptures, taken from the heart of the Koran, is said to bring forth angels to protect you from the evil eye.

Najm ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum

The façade of Kubra's mausoleum (on the left) is leaning toward the Sultan Ali Mausoleum which stands directly opposite it, in what is believed to be a show of respect.


Pilgrims make an anticlockwise circumbambulation around a piece of wood sticking up from the platform of the gukhana - the building which contains Kubra's cenotaph. The post is said to mark the traditional place where Kubra's head was cut off and buried during the Mongol conquest.



We stop in Konye Urgench town for lunch in a very touristy place with several other westerners. Both David and I order samsa – a pasty-like snack which traditionally is made from a choice of meat, spinach or pumpkin. Today we have the meat variety.


Desert Drive

Driving out of town we head for the Karakum Desert and the adventure that lured me to this country in the first place.

I love these little three wheel tractors - I have never seen those anywhere else

There are miles and miles of cotton fields along the side of the road

After a couple of hours, we leave the sealed road behind and continue on sandy tracks.


I have to pinch myself at this stage, as it doesn't seem real. For so many years I have dreamed about the burning crater of Darwaza, expecting it to be out of reach for me, and here I am, on my way to see it, and in a few hours I shall be feeling its heat.


I gasp as we reach the top of a hill, and there, spread below me, is the flat desert floor. With a huge hole. Darwaza Gas Crater. Wow.


Darwaza Gas Crater

The crater – or more accurately sink hole – far exceeds my expectations. Although I thought it would impress me after dark, I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude and drama exuded during daylight hours.


Even the disappointment of finding the crater surrounded by a fence, does not take away from the extraordinary sight before me.


The fence was erected within the last twelve months as The Mongol Rally made a stop here, and officials were concerned about drivers going over into the massive fiery hole. And quite rightly so: from a car it can be quite difficult to see the edge of the crater.


I guess the fence is there more as a visual barrier than a physical one as such, as it has been broken down in many places, and is easy to climb across.


The back story

Colloquially known as The Gates of Hell, the Darwaza Gas Crater was accidentally created in 1971 when a Russian drilling rig punctured a gas chamber which subsequently collapsed, taking the entire rig with it into the newly crated sink hole.


Fearing the poisonous gases would create an environmental catastrophe, the Soviets set the hole alight, figuring it would stop burning within a few weeks. That was 48 years ago.


We chat to four German guys who have travelled down from their home country in their campervan, a journey which took some three months. I am concerned that they have parked so close to a flaming crater with a massive gas cylinder on the side of their van!


The temperature in the centre of the fiery cauldron is said to be between 6,000 °C and 7,000 °C. That is mighty warm! Standing close to the edge (where the flames reach around 700 °C), is OK for short periods, apart from downwind from the crater, where it is unbearably hot!


Although I could stare into the flames for hours, we reluctantly leave the burning crater to head to the nearby yurt village, owned by Owadan Tourism, our local agent.


I must admit that while it almost seems like sacrilege to build a (semi) permanent camp here next to the crater, the thought of having a proper bed and toilet facilities does rather please me. But first we are shown how the local chorek bread is made in traditional ovens.



We get a chance to taste it as well.


The general director of Owadan, who we met in Ashgabat, is here, and he explains how he leased this land to build up a solid tourism business here for people who want that little bit more comfort.

Horses and camels have been brought out here, for tourist rides and photographic opportunities.



Our accommodation is not part of the main complex (which is occupied by a larger Belgian / Dutch group); we have a small, select camp with is much more private, with just 3 yurts for the four of us.


It is set up on a hill, overlooking the crater.

Chez nous on the right

The yurt is spacious, with three beds and a set of drawers.


There is also a toilet block with cold showers and flushing loos. Plus a massive pile of toilet rolls. Now I know why there has been such a shortage of paper in all the bathrooms so far on this trip – all the rolls are here!


In a small communal area we are served dinner, and get chatting to a couple from Brazil who flew in from Almaty in Kazakhstan this morning and are continuing to Baku in Azerbaijan later this evening. They are obviously 'collecting countries' and boast of having visited 120 so far. Meylis takes great delight in informing them that we can beat that, with over 150 countries and overseas territories. They struggle to understand why we'd want to spend two weeks exploring the one country, rather than moving on to one we haven't been to.

The kitchen and dining area

Vegetable soup

Grilled chicken with grilled veg, tomato sauce, [] smetana[/i] (Russian style soured cream), chips and salad

Artem has gone off to fill the car up with diesel for the long journey across the desert over the next two days, and once he is back and has had something to eat, we all go down to the crater for a party.


And what a party! The boss gifted us a bottle of vodka earlier, and we are joined by one of the other drivers called Max, as we share jokes and stare into the eternal flames.


The fire in the crater is made up of thousands of little flames, and is stunningly spectacular. Photographs cannot do it justice, and I give up trying to take pictures, and just sit by the crater enjoying the moment. After all, I have dreamed of this place for so long.



We eventually retire to our yurts, where I promptly get locked in the toilet! Eventually, after no-one hears my screams (for what seems like an eternity), I figure out that there is a double lock and you have to pull the door towards you and lift it at the same time as turning the key.

David has more luck in the ablutions block and comes back terribly excited, having seen a three-inch long scorpion on the path!

Even after the generator is switched off for the night, the moon lights up the landscape beautifully, and I go outside for one last photograph of the crater, before going to bed feeling unbelievably content, having just fulfilled a long time ambition and dream.


Thank you Undiscovered Destination for making my dream happen.


Posted by Grete Howard 14:15 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged desert horses party flames fire unesco tractor camels ancient gates_of_hell scorpion pharmacy yurt turkmenistan minaret timur central_asia gas_crater undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy sink_hole karakum toilet_rolls darwaza ex_ussr karakum_desert dashoguz ciprofloaxin owadan_tourism konye_urgench tetracycline urgenc khwarazm soviet_central_asia tubarek_khanum mausolem kutlug_timur soltan_tekesh fahr_ad_din_razi kufi_arabic_letters najm_as_din_al_kubra darwaza_gas_crater darwaza_crater locked_in_toilet vodka_party yurt_camp chorek Comments (5)

Serengeti Day 2 Part 3 - rimlit lion, anniversary dinner

A lion's share of cats this afternoon

View Tanzania for Lyn and Chris' 40th Anniversary 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.


Just like breakfast, Ole Serai (the luxury camp we stayed at last night) has provided us with a terribly posh lunch hamper, complete with 'hot' food in traditional tiffin containers.


We are joined by a couple of Superb Starlings in a nearby tree.




Moving on from our picnic site, we stop at a small pond area that reveals a hippo and a couple of birds.



Three Banded Plover


Across the dry, grassy plains we barely see the tops of a pride of six lions, eating the remains of a warthog.


The older animals patiently wait for the youngsters to finish their meal for deciding to go off for water.




A really strange sound, like rubber tyres on tarmac, reaches us, and we become aware that it is a 'mini-tornado'. Quickly covering up all electronic equipment, by the time the whirlwind reaches us we become sandblasted and totally engulfed in dust. For ages afterwards we feel as if we are eating grit.


King of the Castle

A lot of the plains animals of Serengeti like to use termite mounds as look-out posts, surveying the surrounding landscape for any predators or prey depending on which end of the food chain they are.

Thomson's Gazelle


Black Bellied Bustard


At a dried-out waterhole near Ogol Kopjes, a herd of topi have gathered to lap up what little water there is left.



Over their lifetime topi go through six set of teeth, the last of which grow when they are around 15 years old. When they lose those teeth, in what is their old age, they basically starve to death. Nature can be so cruel at times.




Not far away, in the shade of a tree, a healthy looking lioness is chilling.



She certainly looks like she has a belly full of food.



When, after a lot of fidgeting, rolling, yawning and several changes of plan, she finally stands up, the topi are on high alert.









Our beautiful girl has other ideas, however, and walks off in a different direction, towards a warthog in the far, far distance.


Then she changes her mind again – talk about fickle!


When she has yet another change of plan and lies down in the long grass, we give up on her and move on to see what else “nature has to offer us” (one of Malisa's favourite sayings, which has now become mine too).

Yellow Fronted Sandgrouse

While spotting animals is theoretically easier during the dry season, the problem with coming this time of year is that everything is so brown; and birds, such as this Yellow Fronted Sandgrouse, are extremely well camouflaged. And photos look so...well, brown.



Baby Black Backed Jackal

Another brown animal on the brown earth surrounded by brown grass.


This one looks so much like a puppy dog, I just want to throw him a stick and shout "fetch!"

It looks like he heard me, as he has picked up a small piece of wood.


For the last four or five (or maybe even more) safaris we have taken in Tanzania, my dream has been to see an aardvark. Imagine my excitement when Malisa points out a fresh aardvark hole. That is, however, all we see. A hole.


Helmeted Guineafowl

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while, will probably remember that we have a saying “just a chicken” referring to an incident back in 2007 in Sikkim when David exclaimed excitedly “Oh look, a colourful bird!” The driver let out a loud exhalation of air while stating in a most disinterested and almost despairing voice: “It's just a chicken”. Malisa has the intonation down to a T, and won't let David hear the end of it, referring to all guinea-fowls as “just a chicken”.



Baby Thomson's Gazelle


The Research Pride

In case you have ever wondered, this is what eighteen sleeping lions look like.


There is some slow and gentle movement within the pride, but mostly it is all about that late afternoon siesta.





Rimlit Lion

One of the (many) things I admire about Malisa, is the fact that he is very interested in photography himself and has an excellent eye for a great photo, knowing where to position the car for the best light for instance. When he sees a lion walking across the plains in the setting sun, Malisa has a plan...


He keeps moving the car every minute or so, which means that we are shooting straight into the sun at all times as the lion continues walking with the occasional sit-down for a rest.


I try out a number of different camera settings for various high key and low key effects, and play with some of the images further in post processing too.



Of all the pictures I took, I think this is probably my favourite and is most like the image I had in mind when deliberately underexposing to get that rim-light effect.



Trying to remain inconspicuous by hiding in a tree, this reedbuck's camouflage tactics are no match for Malisa's eagle eye.


Yet another lion

We have certainly seen more than our fair share of big cats today (31 lions at six different sightings and three cheetahs). Lyn spots this one, initially just seeing the lower parts of his legs as he rolls over in the long grass.


The Golden Hour – every photographer's favourite time of day.



Our young man is fighting a losing battle with the pesky tse tse flies.



He's not a happy bunny.



We make Malisa stop for more photos as the setting sun peeks from behind a low cloud, creating some of my favourite crepuscular rays.


I continue shooting as Malisa makes his way to the camp. As usual it is a mad dash to get back before darkness sets in (it is against the law to drive within the national parks in Tanzania after darkness).



'Drive-by shooting' is never easy from a moving safari vehicle on a dusty, bumpy dirt track, but I don't think I am doing too badly with some of these photos.



We make it back to base just as the last remnants of daylight leaves the African plains, all too soon followed by that all-encompassing darkness you only see in places with very little light pollution.


Celebratory Dinner

After a quick shower and pre-dinner drink while we get ready, we meet up with the anniversary lovebirds for an evening of celebrations. The dining room looks very welcoming with soft lighting, period furniture and white tablecloths


Tonight Malisa has been given permission to eat with us as we are celebrating Lyn and Chris' 40th Wedding Anniversary. It's a shame that he couldn't join us for dinner every night – that would make this place absolutely perfect!


After dinner all the staff come out playing drums and singing the customary celebration song, just as they did at Ang'Ata Nyeti. Poles apart, the two lots of accommodation couldn't be more different, yet both extremely enjoyable and both places made us feel part of the family. Only two other people are staying here tonight, and I feel somewhat sorry for them as they are rather left out of all the fun!






Once it is all over we go back to Lyn and Chris' tent for a couple of drinks before returning to our own tent and settling in to bed ready for another early start tomorrow morning.

Thank you yet again to Calabash Adventures for making this dream safari come true, and to Tillya for the fabulous surprise stay in Ole Serai.


Posted by Grete Howard 14:08 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals birds sunset party dinner safari tanzania celebrations birding picnic lions serengeti topi starling jackal bustard game_drive whirlwind calabash_adventures hartebeest tse_tse_flies plover guineafowl superb_starling game_viewing 40th_anniversary 40_years ole_serai sandgrouse lunch_picnic ruff mini_tornado thomson's_gazelle aardvark research_pride rimlit Comments (2)

Grand Comore - Anjouan

Another day, another island, another spanner in the works

This morning there are no bowls or spoons at breakfast, so David ends up eating his cereal out of a coffee cup with a teaspoon.


After breakfast we meet with Omar in the lobby to hear of news about today’s ferry to Anjouan. “We leave in five minutes” he declares, which is not a problem for us: we are ready and packed!


Another small car, unable to close the boot with our luggage inside, arrives to take us to the ferry ticket office to check in our bags. We are an hour early: check in starts at 09:00, with the ferry leaving at 10:00. Inshallah.



We are not the first, however, there are already a lot pf people here: families travelling together, young men arriving in taxis, sales people trying to cash in, children throwing tantrums…




Rather than hanging around here in the heat and melee, Omar suggests we go for a drive around town and come back when the office is open. Good idea.




It seems to me that all the streets of Moroni are one giant market place with everyone selling and no-one buying.







Volo Volo Market

We take a short walk through the new market, which, to be fair, doesn’t look all that different to the old market in the Medina that we saw a couple of days ago.






Clothes, household good and food are sold from a number of very similar stalls.





The Grand Marriage

On our way back to the check-in area, we come across a Grand Marriage. An age-old tradition that has been passed from generation to generation and is very much kept alive today, the Grand Marriage is so much more than a ‘mere’ wedding; it is all about a symbol of social status, being elected to the rank of a person of note, something that every self-respecting Comorian must do. A Comoran man can only wear certain elements of the national dress, take part in decision-making at the bangwe (gathering place where village elders meet to discuss important matters), or stand in the first line at the mosque if he has had a grand marriage. Apparently, the current president has not had a Grand Marriage and for this has become the scandalous subject of consternation and ridicule.



While most people here in Comoros get married in a small wedding like many other places in the world, some men will then devote the entire rest of their lives to pay for the Grand Marriage. Most men are middle aged before they can afford to pay for this important celebration, having been officially married to their spouse for years already. Sometimes the Grand Marriage involves taking a second, much younger wife; Comorian men are permitted to have up to seven.



The celebrations for this important occasion involve a major series of parties, processions and gatherings that can last up to two weeks and take over the whole village.



Check in – another spanner in the works

When we get back to the port area, lots of people are queuing with their luggage, ready to check it in. Omar takes our nags to go and get them weighed and comes back looking somewhat concerned. “There is a little bit of a delay…” he says his voice trailing off into a kind of embarrassment.

The security police are on strike and refuse to go back to work until the government has made promises that they will repair the badly potholed road leading onto the docks. Their luggage truck has been damaged several times now and they are fed up with it.

The luggage truck ready to go

”How long is it likely to be?” I ask. Omar shrugs and looks defeated: “It could be one hour, or two, one day or two days or more…”

My heart sinks. This trip started off as a three-island tour; then yesterday it became a two-island itinerary after all the flights were grounded. Now it looks like we may be stuck on this main island for the duration.

Omar suggests going to the Itsandra Hotel (the best hotel on the island) for coffee while we wait. He leaves our bags in the safe hands of the harbour master while we head for some refreshments.

Itsandra Hotel

Even in the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm, the hotel looks friendly and welcoming.



We sit and enjoy a cold drink and the view out over the bay, while Omar goes to check on availability of a room for tonight, ‘just in case’. They have two rooms left and Omar asks them to reserve one of them for us, in case that ferry never leaves.



Back to the dockside check in area

In order to reach the docks again, we have to drive right through the capital, Moroni, and as usual there is a traffic jam. At least this gives me a chance to people watch and take some photos.

Love the name of this boat: Air Force One 007



Meanwhile, back at the loading area, everyone is still waiting. And waiting. And waiting.







The only people benefiting from this situation are the local tradesmen and women.



The nearby 'Old Market'




After 1½ hours of nothing much happening, Omar thinks lunch is in order, so we yet again leave our luggage in the office and head out.

New Select Salon de Thé


Today being Saturday, I decide to try the Comorian Saturday Special. It’s off. We see someone on another table with a very tasty looking baguette, so order ‘”one of those please”.


Chicken, chips and coleslaw sandwich. It was really tasty and fresh.


Suddenly the heavens open and torrential rain that within minutes has caused quite some flooding of the roads outside.





Half an hour goes by, no sign of Omar. We pay for our lunch and get ready to leave, and after 45 minutes they turn up. Africa time. There has been no change in the strike situation and Omar suggests we go down to the docks one more time, and if there is still nothing, we’ll grab the cases and go to the hotel for the night. That sounds like a plan to me.

When we get to the docks it is all go! A compromise has been reached, the luggage has left and the passengers are making their way on foot towards to docking area. Omar hands us our tickets and luggage tags and we drive the kilometre or so down to the docks.

Yay, I have a ticket! I am a little concerned that the date of departure shows tomorrow's date, but Omar tells me "not to worry, it is correct".

The entrance to the docks is locked. It seems the ferry company decided to tell passengers to go, before any agreement had been sorted with the security, so now we are left standing, in the full sun, on the pavement outside the dock gates. Women on the right, men on the left. After 20 minutes or so of communal baking, we are let through the gate (tickets checked) into a waiting room, where we are asked to take a seat.


An official walks around the room, collecting tickets (and in our case also our passports, which he has to check in with the ‘big boss’) and puts them in a large pile on a desk. After collecting all the tickets, he then picks them up again, and walks around the room, shouting out the names on the tickets, the corresponding passenger must show ID in exchange for a boarding card (which he carries under his arm in a cardboard box, wrapped in glittery red Christmas paper).

Once we have our boarding card, we are free to leave the waiting room and walk the ¼ km or so to the boat.


The free-standing aluminium steps are steep and wobbly, without a hand rail, and there is a one foot gap between the steps and the ship. One man each side holds my arms, and they helpfully (and thankfully) take my bags off me as I board. Then I watch the local women carry a child in one arm, a large bag in the other and a bundle of stuff on their head, all while wearing flip flops, negotiate the steps as if they were a smooth marble floor. I suddenly feel very ungainly and awkward.

Having already been told off twice for taking photos, I daren’t scratch my itchy shutter finger any more, despite being ‘desperate’ to document every part of this whole day’s shenanigans.

We take our seats, and as soon as all the passenger have boarded, we cast off. Just then they remember that a motorcycle must come off. The gap between the ship and the step is getting bigger and bigger as four men try to haul the heavy bike across. I am fully expecting it to end up in the water, but it seems they have done this sort of thing before. I risk a photo when I think no-one is looking.


The crossing

We finally leave at 14:45, nearly five hours late. At least we are on our way.

You know it is going to be a rough crossing when the first thing the crew do, is to routinely hand out sick bags to every single passenger.


I really cannot find anything good to say about this crossing, much as I would like to. The temperature is sweat-drippingly hot, and the TV is showing a bloodthirsty film full of violence, gore, and carnage (not just one, but three savage films, back to back). There is lots of screaming going on, by unwell kids, and each time a child screeches, a mentally disabled youngster near the front of the ship wants to imitate, shrieking his lungs out, jumping up and down in his seat and frantically flailing his arms about.

In addition to crying children, there are a number of adults shouting into mobile phones, holding the top part of the phone up to their ear for listening (as normal), then removing the phone from their ear and shouting into the ear-piece when talking. I have never seen that anywhere else on all my travels, but it seems quite common over here.


We follow the shore for some time, and the waves are reasonably calm. Once we round the tip of the island, however, huge swells make the ship bounce around in a most unpleasant way. All around us people are throwing up (I am sure watching the awful films does not help one bit!), and shouts of “sachet” (bag) can he heard almost constantly. The crew are very attentive; collecting used sick bags and handing over fresh ones.


Omar told us the journey should take 3½ - 4 hours from Moroni to Anjouan. After four hours its starts to get dark, and land is still nowhere to be seen. 5½ hours: I see land!


There is another big step to negotiate off the boat at this end, with the added disadvantage that it is almost pitch black. As soon as we step on land, Patrice, the local guide, greets us warmly. I guess, as the only white passengers, we are easy to spot.

Although I was not actually sick on the journey, my stomach does feel a little unsettled, and it feels good to be on dry land again. I can’t wait to get to the hotel for a shower and change out of these clothes that are soaked through with sweat. So, where do we collect our luggage? “Tomorrow” is the answer. The crew are not taking any luggage off the ship this evening; we will have to come back at 07:00 tomorrow morning. Groan. No toiletries. No nightwear. No sandals. Thankfully I always carry a change of clothes in my hand luggage, so at least I do have some dry clothes.

As it turns out, by the time we reach the hotel, it is so late that we go straight to dinner.

The good news is that they have beer! The bad news is that they only have one.


We both opt for chicken pizza tonight. There is a cute old guy (he looks about 80, but I am guessing he has just had a hard life) who speaks excellent English waiting on the tables tonight. Table. We are the only two diners this evening.


As we leave the restaurant at around 22:00, we notice some pretty impressive speakers being installed in the restaurant. We soon find out that Saturday night is party night in Al Amal Hotel, with loud music (our room is two floors directly above the restaurant), singing, dancing and shouting. I am too exhausted to take any notice and despite the ruckus below, quickly drift into sleep.

This trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.


Posted by Grete Howard 02:18 Archived in Comoros Tagged rain market ship music party africa sick docks ferry pizza floods street_market queue strike sandwich comoros nausea delay moroni grand_comore spanner_in_the_works itsandra_hotel tantrum anjouan volo_volo_market ferry_crossing al_amal_hotel grand_marriage new_select_salon-de-thé rain_shower torrential_rain sea-sick boarding_card loud_speakers violent_film Comments (3)

Chișinău - Bendery - Tiraspol

♫♪♫ Back in the USSR ♫♪♫

sunny 38 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

That pesky lift this morning! Complete with our luggage, ready to check out, we press the call button. We can see the lift come up from the ground floor, then go straight past us to the top floor. It's the same on its way back down – it does not stop on the third floor for us. Five lifts whizz past on their journey either up or down, as our frustration grows. When one eventually stops, it is full. The same happens with the next two. This is getting beyond a joke; walking down the stairs is not an option with all our luggage. Finally an empty lift arrives and we manage to get in. Just. We feel like sardines pressed up against the mirrored walls of the miniscule lift.

Today we have a new driver, Ivan, to take us across the border from Moldova into Transdniestr. Valeriu pulls us aside before we get to the car and with a hint of drama requests that as Ivan hails from Transdniestr, we do not mention anything about the relations between the two countries or the political situation while in the car with Ivan.

Border Controls

The Moldavian side of immigration goes without a hitch and we don’t even have to leave the car. After travelling through a substantial stretch of no-mans-land, we arrive at the Transdniestr border, where we enter a small wooden hut on foot. Having heard stories about how previous travellers have had to bribe officials and even having their camera equipment confiscated at the border, I leave everything back in the car. Through the small window used by the immigration official, I spot a wall full of a ‘rogue’s gallery’ featuring artist impressions of ‘wanted’ travellers. We hand over our passports. Valeriu is travelling on an ID card, whereas Ivan has what looks like an old USSR passport, but is in fact issued by the government of Transdniestr. As Transdniestr is not recognised as a nation by most countries in the world, this passport is about as useful as a chocolate teapot: it cannot be used for overseas travel!


The atmosphere in the hut is tense; with people shuffling about uncomfortably and speaking in hushed voices. Finally we receive our approval to enter the country. The border officials do not stamp passports; instead a loose-leaf permit is issued which we need to hand in when leaving the country. “Do not lose it!” Valeriu implores, and I guard this piece of paper with my life, fearing the consequences!


We have permission to enter the country for 24 hours only, with the permit dated and timed TO THE SECOND!


We’re in!


So what’s the big deal with the border crossing between these two countries?

Transdniestr is a breakaway republic nestled between Moldova and Ukraine. Following the break-up of the USSR, conflict between Moldova and the Transdniestr republic escalated to some serious and bloody military clashes, which ended in an uneasy ceasefire. The territory of Transdniestr broke away from Moldova, who granted it the status of ‘Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status’. Although the ceasefire has mostly held, the territory's political status remains unresolved: Transdniestr is an unrecognised but de facto independent state with its own parliament, currency, flag, anthem and border controls. And passports.


So why did they not want to be part of Moldova?

Unlike the majority of Moldavians who are of Romanian descent and speak a form of Romanian, the people who live in this small, self-declared republic are mainly ethnic Russians and speak Russian.

This is how the BBC describes Transdniestr:

”…one of the post-Soviet space's ‘frozen conflicts’. The international community does not recognise its self-declared statehood, and the territory, which remains in a tense standoff with Moldova, is often portrayed as a hotbed of crime. It has a reputation for corruption, organised crime and smuggling, and has denied accusations of illegal arms sales and of money laundering.”

That’s OK then.

Wikivoyage also warns tourists that:

”Visitors should note that they are highly likely to face demands for substantial bribes from the border guards either on entry or exit from Transnistria (or both). Despite official orders from the previous President Smirnov to act professionally and to decline such payments, bribery is rife and your passport may be destroyed if you do not pay. Indeed, you may be turned away from the border on the Moldovan or Ukrainian side if you are unwilling or unable to pay the border guards a bribe.”

Which is the reason we approached the border controls with some trepidation and distrust, and why I am terrified of losing my slip of paper.

Bendery Fortress

The fortress, also known as Tighina, dates from 1538 when it was built to protect what was then one of the most powerful cities in Moldova.



The Military Historical Memorial is the cemetery where soldiers who died in the two world wars are buried, as well as those who lost their lives during the storming of the fortress by Ottomans, Ukrainian Cossack soldiers of Mazepa, and Swedish soldiers under the rule of Charles XII (who took refuge here), mostly from the 18th century.


In 1710, Pylyp Orlik (a Cossack Hetman in exile) wrote one of the first state constitutions in Europe here at Bendery, and was named as the ‘Protector of Ukraine’ as a result. This open book celebrates the occasion.


Busts of various Russian generals who liberated the fortress from the Ottomans in the 18th century.


It looks like the Ottomans have returned.


The fortress is pretty unusual in that each of the eleven towers has a different shape.





In the small museum hangs a portrait of Carl XII of Sweden, who fled south after the Swedish assault in the Great Northern War in the 18th century ended in disaster and saw him badly injured. He and around 1000 of his men took refuge in Bendery Fortress where he was initially welcomed with open arms by the Ottomans.




Also in the museum are relics from an ancient Greek settlement found here, old currency, and a cool model of the fort showing how it would have looked in its heyday.





Outside in the courtyard we find a trebuchet and some stocks.



We move slowly back to the car as the temperatures are already in the high 30s. It’s going to be a hot one today!


Internationally this city is recognised as the second largest city in Moldova, but Tiraspol is in fact the capital of the breakaway republic of Transdniestr, and celebrates its Russian connections with a fairly modern statue of Lenin in front of its Parliament.



Glory Monument

Monument Plaza features commemorations to those who died defending Transdniestr during both world wars, the Afghan War, and the Great Patriotic War (the breaking up of USSR and ‘independence’ from Moldova 1990-1992).






The T34 Tank was brought from Hungary in 1945. Underneath it is a capsule with soil from Volgograd (site of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942).


Statue of the Sorrowful Mother

Eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

A newish chapel

Dniester River

The river is used for a variety of leisure activities, such as boating, fishing, sunbathing, or swimming.




Central Square

Here we find a statue to Alexander Suvorov, a national hero and city founder who liberated Bendery Fortress back in 1770.


What I didn’t expect to see, however, is a group of Hari Krishna singers here!


Independence Day celebrations

Two days ago – on September the 2nd – Transdniestr celebrated its Independence Day, and everywhere we go in Tiraspol, we see posters and decorations, including these banners in the colour of the Transdniestr flag.



A statue to Catherine the Great, the Russian leader under whom Suvorov fought when he founded Tiraspol.

In-Line Skating

I am really impressed to see this guy, who must be well into his 70s, keep up with the youngsters in the skate park! Respect!




City Hall

We stop to admire the City Hall and later Valeriu asks if we would like to taste some Cognac. We are both feeling the heat today, and I have an upset tummy, so we kindly decline.


Kvmahëk Restaurant

Instead we continue to lunch, at a Ukrainian restaurant well known for its excellent food.


When we arrive, we are presented with vodka shots accompanied by some amuse bouche.


This will be 'kill or cure' for my upset tummy, for sure.


I'll go with the 'cure.


We start with the ubiquitous soup of course, this time traditional borscht – beetroot soup with smetana (soured cream).


The restaurant specialises in varenyky – traditional Ukrainian pierogi - and we have a selection, filled with cheese, potato, and even cherries.



Hotel Russia

After the late lunch, Ivan drops us off at Hotel Russia; he then has to drive Valeriu back to Chișinău for another tour this evening! Talk about being in demand!


The hotel is very new and modern, with a retro style throughout.



The A/C is very welcome and we take a long nap, followed by a refreshing shower and feel very much better afterwards – almost human again.

I start to snigger as I read the description of the hotel services, detailing how they offer “speed dating” in the bar. It certainly sounds like a euphemism to me, and I become even more convinced when I read about their “private room where you can relax in utmost privacy or conduct confidential business negotiations” I feel sure that there is more to this place than just a hotel.


Dinner and ‘entertainment’

It is still very warm out when we go down for dinner, but thankfully there is a shady courtyard where we can eat.


It seems they are expecting us, and a very pretty waitress brings us some water and later a salad, explaining that the ‘meat will be around 20 minutes’. Or at least I think that is what she is trying to tell us.


Initially we are the only two people in the restaurant, but there seems to be a private party or something going on next door, and we watch guests arrive. One by one, or sometimes in pairs, the most stunningly beautiful girls arrive, wearing precipitously high heels, skirts so short that if they even slightly bent over I could see their breakfast, or dresses so tight they would have needed a shoe horn to get into them – usually with splits reaching for the armpits. When I say that these girls are glamorous, I mean it to the point that they would not look out of place on a red carpet in Hollywood. These are amongst the most beautiful and elegant girls I have ever seen!

Watching the comings and goings. No pun intended.

The girls are truly conversation-stoppers. Or rather starters – we do wonder with so many flashy and seductive girls (and mostly scruffy corpulent men) if this is anything to do with the “speed dating” and “private room” we read about earlier…?

David is bemused but enjoying the view.

They all disappear behind a wall at the end of the terrace, to what I presume is a private party, but being the nosy sort, I go to have a peek. The setting is equally sophisticated, with colourful drapes and a multicoloured fountain.



Having taken what I had hoped was a surreptitious photo of the girl in the gold dress; the chap in the background comes up and starts to talk to me in Russian. Although I can’t understand what he is saying, I feel quite uncomfortable about his demeanour, so I shrug my shoulders, smile sweetly and hurry back to where David is sitting.


Our main course soon arrives, a very tasty beef stew with potato wedges.


The dining area is more like a café or bistro, and the first two courses were fairly plain and ordinary; the dessert is therefore all the more of a surprise when it arrives! It is almost as glamorous and dazzling as the girls!



Not wishing to gatecrash the party next door, nor wanting to change money into Transdnistrian Roubles just so that we can have a drink in the bar; we retire to the room fairly early.

I’ve been asleep for a couple of hours when a sudden noise wakes me up. I hear the clippety-clopp of high heels on the hard floor of the corridor, then the slamming of a door. I look at my watch – it is 02:30. More clippety-clopp and door slamming follows, accompanied by giggling and laughter. It seems a number of guests are returning to their rooms a little worse for wear.

I have almost managed to drift back off to sleep by ignoring the noise from the corridor, when I hear shouting. Loud shouting. First a male voice, and then a female. A very loud door-slam follows, with the noise seemingly emanating from the next room. More shouting. They are obviously having a major ‘domestic’ dispute. At around 04:15 there appears to be a ceasefire, and I am just returning to a slumber when they start off again. At one stage the fight gets pretty intense, it sounds like things are being thrown around, and I am very much expecting to hear the sound of broken glass followed by sirens. Thankfully that does not happen.

At 05:15 the argument reaches a crescendo: the female screams what I can only assume are Russian profanities, slams the door and leaves him, running down the corridor with more clippety-clopps. It doesn't sound like he follows her.

Was this another "speed date" gone wrong, or did the "confidential negotiations" break down? Either way, I am extremely grateful for silence at last. and I collapse into a deep sleep.

And so endeth another 'interesting' day in Moldova / Transdniestr with Undiscovered Destinations.


Posted by Grete Howard 04:13 Archived in Moldova Tagged lenin fountain memorial museum party border_crossing fortress passport chisinau immigration moldova bender transnistria hookers hotel_russia tiraspol transdniester transniestra hotel_codru codru bendery tighina bendery_fortress tighina_fortress berder_fortress carl_xii glory_memorial Comments (0)

Ndutu - Mbuzi Mawe

The Legendary Serengeti



I start the day with a spot of bird watching as the sun comes up.

White Rumped Helmetshrike

Dung beetle for breakfast anyone?


Superb Starling


Beautiful Sunbird





Unusually, we take breakfast in the lodge this morning, before setting off for another day of game viewing.

When asked if he would like egg and bacon, David jokingly says – in a lowered voice as the waiter walks away – “mushrooms, baked beans…” Of course, that is exactly what he gets!



On our last couple of safaris with Calabash, I bantered with our guide Dickson about wanting to see an aardvark, and that I will keep coming to Tanzania on safari until I do.

Today I finally get to see my aardvark, in the grounds of Ndutu Lodge. Shame it is made from metal – I guess I can’t quite tick it off my wish list yet.



These birds have a symbiotic relationship with the giraffes. The giraffe provides a happy home for ticks, which the oxpeckers eat, relieving the giraffe of the annoyance the insects can cause.







Today's host is an old male giraffe.


Black Faced Vervet Monkeys

As the leopard’s favourite food, the vervets go to great lengths to hide their whereabouts from their nocturnal predator, including smearing their poop on the branches at night, rather than letting it drop to the ground so that the leopard cannot easily detect where they are sleeping.



He is showing off his bright blue testicles again.


Dik Dik


Secretary Bird

On the prowl across the grasslands, looking for snakes.


Spotted Hyena






These guys have not moved from the spot where we left them resting last night, although the missing ninth lion has rejoined them.




A couple of them head our way, coming right up to the car, sniffing the tyres and eventually settling down in the shade of the vehicle. That’s pretty close!









I think that means we have a symbiotic relationship with the lions – we provide them with shade, they give us some great photo opportunities.

This guy does not look too sure about Chris. It makes me wonder how high they can jump.


Woolly Necked Vultures


Engine Failure

Ten minutes after leaving the lions, the engine coughs, splutters and then dies. After a few tries, Malisa gets it going again, but not for long. We joke that he’s filled it with ‘jumpy diesel’, but eventually he cannot get it going again just by turning the key, and has to get out and under. Oh dear.


An area filled with lions, cheetah, leopards and hyena is not the best place to lie down on the ground under a car, so I am relieved when Malisa gets the car going again reasonably quickly – a wire had broken from all the off-roading.


Having a trained car mechanic as a driver-guide certainly has its advantages. Well done that man! I am surprised that breakdowns don't happen more often - this is the first one we've encountered in the four safaris we've had with Calabash.

Short Grass Plains

Heading for the entrance gate to Serengeti, the track runs across what is known as the Short Grass Plains, for obvious reasons. One of the great things about a safari on the Northern Circuit in Tanzania is that even as you drive from one place to another, there is always an opportunity to do some game viewing, and this morning we see a few animals along the way.


Here we can see Naabi Hill in the distance, which is what we are aiming for - the official entrance to the Serengeti National Park.


Grant's Gazelle










As we approach, panic mode sets in and these enormous flightless birds start running around like headless chickens. “Don’t panic, don’t panic!”



We leave the Ndutu area behind a join the main ‘road’ to the gate.



Just before the entrance, we spot a lioness with two cubs resting in the shade of a kopje.


Giraffe Drinking

It is fairly unusual to see a giraffe drinking from the ground like this, as being in that position makes him very vulnerable to predators.



It is even more unusual to see a three-necked giraffe!



Naabi Hill

Towering above the grassy plains of the Serengeti, Naabi Hill is the location of the main entrance gate to the park, and offers amazing views over the Endless Plains below.


While Malisa goes off to get our tickets and sort out the registration, we take a short walk on the Kopje Trail that leads up the scenic observation point on top of the rocky outcrop behind the information centre.



The kopje appears to ‘float in the sea of grass’ that is the Serengeti Plains.


From the summit we can easily understand why the Maasai named this place Serengeti – 'a vast land that runs forever, where endless plains meet the sky' in the local language.


It is said that the only way you will get a better view of Serengeti, is from a hot air balloon, and that is definitely not on the agenda for this trip, not at $539 per person!



Naabi Hill is a haven for lizards, who lounge on the sun-baked rocks along the path, totally unperturbed by passing tourists.








Exit is through the shop, as usual.


While we wait for Malisa to finish up the paper work, we do a spot of bird watching.

Rock Martin

Juvenile Ashy Starling (I think)

Juvenile Hildebrand Starling

Hildebrand Starling

Lappet Faced Vulture

After a while I comment that the entrance formalities seem to be taking a particularly long time today, which considering how quiet it is, I find a bit strange. It turns out that while we have been waiting for Malisa outside the information centre, he has been at the car, wondering where we are. Doh!



Serengeti National park

This has to be the most renowned wildlife park in the entire world, and for good reason; with over 10,000 square miles of pristine wilderness, it’s like stepping in to a wildlife documentary. The variety and abundance of wildlife here is unmatched anywhere else in Africa. Serengeti is unparalleled in so many ways – not only does it have the world's largest herd of migrating ungulates, but also the largest concentration of predators in the world.



Most people think of the Serengeti as being a vast endless grassy plain, as well as totally underestimating its size. In reality the park is comprised of a wide range of ecosystems, with some parts featuring areas of acacia forest, others granite mountains and soda lakes, each with its own different character and range of wildlife.



Rather than taking the main road this morning, we head east towards Gol Kopjes, an area where we need a special permit to visit.










Aren’t they just the cutest when they run with their tails straight up? They do that so that the babies can see their mums in the long grass.



A naturally occurring optical illusion, a mirage is caused by light bending rays, giving the impression of an oasis in the distance.


Steppe Eagle

For one spine-tingling moment we believe he has picked up a snake; until we realise he is merely nest building.


It is still pretty cool to see him carry it away in his beak though.



Marabou Stork

This has to be one of the ugliest birds in existence, surely?




In the distance we spot a couple of lions. We are becoming almost blasé to them now – there is not much point in hanging around when they are so far away. We have seen them nearer and better before…


Gol Kopjes


Nicknamed the ‘world’s largest Japanese rock garden’, this is a picturesque area, with a series of granite outcrops (kopjes) dotted on the otherwise flat short grass plains.





This area is said to have the highest concentration of cheetah in Africa, but it is not a cheetah we spot sleeping on the rocks, but a lion.


When we go closer, we see it is in fact a collared lioness. The head of the pride, she is an exceptional hunter, which is why the authorities want to monitor her.


As this girl is a well-known matriarch, it’s a pretty good bet that there are more lions in the near vicinity; and we don’t have long to wait before another lioness appears on the top of the rock behind.


With a full belly she walks slowly and lazily, settling down in the shade of a tree.








A heaving brown lump in the long grass indicates a male lion panting heavily. The lions have obviously recently eaten and are all full to bursting.


This one seems to have the right idea.


Golden Jackal



Committee Meeting

The collective noun for vultures is committee, and here we have Rueppell’s Griffon, Woolly Necked and White Backed Vultures, as well as a couple of Marabou Storks.


Thomson’s Gazelle

It’s that time of year – two Tommy males spar for the attention of a female.






Tawny eagle



Coke's Hartebeest



Dung Beetle

This poor little beetle is trying to roll his ball of dung into a hole in the ground, but is finding the earth too hard. He eventually just rolls it into the grass cover.



More Lions

Another kopje, another lion pride. Such is life in the Serengeti.







The one ‘security guard’ left out on the sunny savannah looking after the remains of dinner (probably a baby wildebeest) gazes longingly at the other pride members resting in the shade.



One of the animals on my wish list this year is a tortoise, and this morning one strolls right by as we are watching the lions.


Steppe Eagle






Judging by the droppings, I'd say this is a favourite perch of his.



After finding a large pride of lions at each of the last three kopjes, Lyn is not at all happy about getting out of the car when we stop at another rocky outcrop for our picnic lunch. “Is it safe” she asks Malisa, but eventually - after plenty of reassurance - she reluctantly alights the vehicle.


Malisa teases her about it, and even takes a photo of her still in the van to send to Tillya.


As we drive away from the picnic site, Lyn jokingly shouts out “Oh, look: simba!” pointing to a non-existent lion near the kopje we had just been sitting next to. Much to our amusement, Chris falls for it!

Grant’s Gazelle

A bachelor herd full of young wannabes.





After one quick look at us, he takes off. Literally.



White Stork

Non-resident, they are European migrants – just like us then.



We come across a small herd of migrating wildebeest.




A few minutes later we see this lone youngster, probably left behind when the herd moved on. He seems to be rather dazed – no wonder they call a group of wildebeest a confusion.


He looks suspiciously towards us, then misled by his very poor eyesight, runs off in the opposite direct to the group we saw earlier.


Having eaten too much for lunch, I feel like the lazy lions we encountered this morning and all I want to do is go to sleep in the shade to digest the food. I have a little nap in the car and wake up when we stop.

Dead Wildebeest

Malisa surmises that this wildebeest mother fell during a stampede and got trampled on, and has now become food for the vultures and Marabou Stork. Each of the different vultures have beaks that are designed for different actions, so as not to cause competition at a kill. The only one who can open a carcass is the Woolly Neck; so that's who they are all waiting for.


The saddest thing about this scene is the baby wildebeest just standing there, watching the scavengers eating her mum. That really breaks my heart.


In the middle of the road there is another, much younger baby wildebeest. We are guessing that his mother has probably been taken by a predator; this guy is so weak he can hardly walk and way too young to make it on his own - he is literally just waiting to be someone’s dinner.

That’s the stark and sometimes cruel reality of the wilderness.


Long Grass Plains

As we drive further into the Serengeti, we notice that the plains change from the short grass that is typical around Ndutu, through medium grass plains around Naabi Hill to the longer grasses in this area. The plains are framed by rocky hills and river courses, swelled by the recent rains.

So why is the length of the grass worthy of a mention?

It is not so much the grass – although length does matter dontcha know – it’s the fact that the change of grassland also brings a change in the balance of the species – for instance, we see many more hartebeest and topi here than anywhere else on this trip.

Another point - sometimes we can only just see the tops of the animals, one of the disadvantages of travelling in the Green Season.



Muddy Tracks

One of the other downsides to coming here at this time of year is that often the tracks become just pure mud after a heavy rainfall.


Some even turn into impromptu streams and become totally impassable.


Malisa engages the 4WD to make sure we can get through OK – we don’t really want to have to get out and push unless absolutely necessary.


It’s easy peasy when you have the right tool for the job.


Cape Buffalo

A breeding herd – or obstinacy – of buffalo.


Bateleur Eagle


White Bellied Bustard




Maasai Kopjes

Kopjes – an Afrikaans term referring to isolated rock hills that rise abruptly from the surrounding flat savannah – are remarkable in that they have their own little ecosystems with a range of vegetation and wildlife.





Maasai Kopjes are home to a large pride of lions, who are the subject of numerous studies by the Serengeti Lion Project. We study them sleeping for a while this afternoon.


Dik Dik


White Headed Vulture

Malisa excitedly informs us this is a very rare sighting – it is certainly a new bird to us.




One lump or two?



Greater Blue Eared Starling


Pin Tailed Swallow


Defassa Waterbuck













It seems that stripes are in this year.



Wildebeest Migration

The rains being a month late arriving this year has confused the wildebeest, and instead of being up in the Western Corridor now, they are found in great numbers here in Central Serengeti.








Lappet Faced Vulture


Coqui Francolin


He makes the most peculiar sound – as if he is laughing.


White Rumped Helmetshrike


Stormy Clouds

Some formidable dark clouds are building up and the light is extraordinarily intense with the low evening sun creating remarkably saturated colours! I think we might be in for some rain before long…











And here comes the rain – bringing with it some even more bizzare conditions: the sunset reflecting in the water drops with a rainbow behind.


We move on a bit further and are able to see the whole rainbow, with the dramatic light constantly changing.


Mbuzi Mawe

By the time we reach our camp, it is dark and the rain has really set in – what was a gently drizzle, is now a heavy downpour. It’s the first ‘proper’ rain we’ve had on this trip, so we shouldn’t complain.



A small army of porters with umbrellas meet us in the car park and take us to the reception. It seems a long walk.




After the usual formalities, we are shown to our tent – which ironically is half way down to the car park again. Apologies for rubbish photos taken hand held in almost pitch black.


The tents are very spacious, with two huge four-poster beds, a seating area and a writing desk. Attached to the back is a modern bathroom with double basins, shower, toilet and changing area. This is my sort of camping.



This place is as much of a surprise to me as it is to Lyn and Chris. When he knew the wildebeest migration was changing route, Tillya changed our accommodation to a more convenient position – that is one of the numerous reasons we keep coming back to using Calabash Adventures – their customer care!


I love it!


Just after we get to the room, housekeeping arrives to carry out the ‘turn-back service’. A young girl is being trained and they seem to take forever - I know they prefer to come and do it while we are in the room so that we’ll tip them; but its a bit of an inconvenience as we have just a short time between arriving back from safari and going for dinner.


So we have a drink instead of a shower. Shucks. Life is hard.



The tents are all facing outwards on the edge of the camp, overlooking the kopje (or you would be looking at it if it wasn’t pitch black). Buffalo graze in the long grass the other side of the path.


A gentle man with a big spear, little English and a contagious laugh escorts us from the tent to the restaurant.


Rock Hyrax

On the way he shines his torch at the rocky outcrops, illuminating a huddle of rock hyrax.




The dinner is impressive, arriving served under large silver domes, all four of which are removed at exactly the same time to reveal the piping hot food underneath.



Both David and I have Kuku Wa Kupaka – a local dish of chicken cooked in a coconut cream with ‘coastal spices’.


Lyn and I share a bottle of white wine, David and Chris have red.


The dessert gateau is a disappointment apparently, as is my self-serve cheese and biscuits: there is next to nothing left.


The servers and kitchen staff serenade an Australian couple celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, just as the staff did for us in Maramboi.


We retire to our rooms after another spectacular day on safari with Calabash Adventures. Thanks again guys!


Posted by Grete Howard 03:51 Archived in Tanzania Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds sky night monkeys rain hills sunset road_trip restaurant travel vacation hotel adventure roads scenery sunrise clouds holiday fun party africa mud safari rainbow tanzania lodge zebra eagle wine beetle lizard birding chicken tourists picnic photography alcohol lions giraffe hippo roadtrip serengeti hyena vulture night_time glamping waterbuck starling wildebeest stunning bird_watching game_drive tented_camp road-trip ndutu african_food dung_beetle safari_vehicle night_photography canon_eos_5d_iii testicles calabash calabash_adventures the_best_safari_operators which_safari_company best_safari_company vervet_monkeys black_faced_vervet_monkeys blue_balls ngorongoro_conservation_area tower_of_giraffe hartebeest nadutu_safari_lodge gol_kopjes maasai_kopjes mbuzi_mawe serena_hotels long_grass_plains short_grass_plains naabi_hill central_serengeti mussy_tracks kopje stormy_clouds Comments (0)

Seyun - Tarim and Aynat

Arabia Felix - Yemen December 2007

View Arabia Felix - Yemen 2007 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today is Christmas Day and we turn up for breakfast in our red Santa Hats, which the drivers willingly wear for us to take photographs.




Heading east towards Tarim, we pass by many typical everyday scenes in Yemen. It is often these snapshots of daily life that remain the best memories from my travels. Much as Mohammed is not the best local guide we’ve ever had, his redeeming feature is that he does stop at various places he thinks might be of interest to us, such as these people carrying out building work during the dry season.



The bricks are made nearby, and stacked up for drying in the sun, so at least the materials don’t have far to travel.



The Hadramawt area is well known for women with large straw hats, either this type with a flat top or the conical shape. We don’t see many women out and about, mostly working the field or herding the goats, and all are covered from head to foot in black. Some with a small slit for the eyes, some with the full veil.




Camels are a common sight throughout Yemen and are used for transport as well as food.



Everywhere we go in Yemen; there are remains such as this, a rich man’s palace abandoned some 200 years ago. These are signs of the affluence which once reigned in this area.


There is always surface water in the Wadi Hadramawt, even during the dry season. I can only imagine what this place looks like after the rains. The scenery everywhere is jaw-droppingly beautiful.



Tarim is best known for its mosques – 365 of them, one for each day of the year - and the skyline is dotted with minarets. The city is in a beautiful setting, on the valley floor of the Wadi Hadramawt, flanked by vast rock cliffs on one side and surrounded by palm groves on the other.



Another of Tarim’s claim to fame is its collection of 19th century palaces in the Al-Kaff area. Mostly built by Javanese immigrants, they are now what you might call ‘ripe for restoration’.



Many of the mansions here were built by Sir Sayyid Bu Bakr Ibn Shaikh al-Kaf, who used some of the fortune his family has amassed in Singapore to build roads, palaces and mosques in Tarim. This palace is also known as Ishsha Palace.



This is the only palace we are able to enter, and it is partly made into a museum. Apparently, Freya Stark was entertained here on her visit to Tarim, by the owner himself.


Many of the rooms are empty, but still offer some insight into what life must have been like in those days.



There is a small but interesting museum within the building, mostly displaying firearms. I just couldn’t resist playing with the exhibits!


One of the more interesting items is a passport issued by the British in 1963. It seems so recent, yet still a totally different world.


The building itself is really quite elaborate; it is hard to accept that this is a mud-brick creation.


Some of the rooms have decorated walls and ceilings, like this one with mirrors on the ceiling. It’s a shame there is no furniture in here, it must have been very grand in its time.


One of the many things I love in Yemen is the beautifully decorated doors. Whether they are made of metal, such as this one, or carved wood, there seems to be such love and pride put into the creation of the entrances here.



The most famous mosque in Tarim is the al-Muhdar Mosque, named after the religious leader Omar al-Muhdar who lived in the town in the 15th century. The minaret, the most prominent feature of Tarim, has been repeatedly renewed since the period of the Islamic middle ages. The current minaret, 50 metres tall and built of mud and brick, was added in the beginning of the 20th century.



Walking around the town, we come across a stall selling artifacts and souvenirs. I am really taken with a niqab made from black velvet and beautifully coloured beads. I try it on and get encouraging comments from my fellow travellers. I try to bargain with the stall-holder, but he won’t drop below $40. I really want it, but walk away. Halfway down the street, I change my mind, and David goes back to buy it for me.


I wonder what I would look like as a ‘real’ Bedouin woman, with brown eyes and dark skin?

Isn't Photoshop fun?

We pass through a market selling fish, grains and fresh produce.




Some fish looks better than others, although most of the produce I see in Yemen is fresh and looks appetising.



Tarim has always been a very important scientific centre in the Islamic world, and the Shafa’i school of Sunni Islamic teaching, spreading the word in and around the Hadramawt area. The Al-Ahqaf Library was founded in 1972 to preserve the spiritual heritage of the region’s Islamic teachers, and the books were gathered from all over Hadramawt.



In the library are 14,000 volumes, amongst which some 3,000 manuscripts could be classed as ancient.



Many of the books are adorned with beautiful gold and colours in their pages.



We stop for lunch in Tarim at a small restaurant obviously aimed at tourists, as there is another group there. We are all shocked at how disrespectful these other tourists are to the local customs here in Yemen – women wearing close-fitting tops with short or no sleeves and not covering their hair. They quickly leave and we have the restaurant to ourselves. We order from the non-existent menu: fried fish, chicken, goat or camel.




The chef is outside the restaurant cooking the meat on a large barbecue.


While we’ve been eating, the drivers have been off to get their daily fix of qat, and Musad looks very happy.


Lime Production

We stop to see how limestone is collected from the valley, placed in the large kiln and fired with wood for 3-4 days.



It is then further soaked in water for another 2-3 days to soften the stone.



Once it is soft enough to manage, the stones are beaten with a stick to break them up. Once they are the desired size, the lime powder is dried, bagged up and sold at markets.



Bee Keeping

There was a time when Yemeni honey was almost as expensive as gold, and although the value of the honey has come down, it is still prized all over the world. Beekeeping methods have barely changed in Yemen over the centuries. Box-shaped hives are made of sukan wood, stacked and covered from the fierce heat of the sun.


During extraction, beekeepers will use smoke to get the insects to move away, then draw out the honeycomb through the rear of the hive, which is sealed with mud and thus easily opened, causing minimum disturbance to the brood inside.

The honey is then strained to remove excess bee larvae and pollen. The first extraction is called balade and is sold directly to a traditional clientele. It is the most prized honey of all as it is considered pure.

Good Yemeni honey is so highly prized that its possession is considered a status symbol in Yemen. Being offered honey when welcomed into a Yemeni home means you are an honoured guest.

Yemeni folk medicine prescribes the use of honey for a wide range of ailments. For example, when mixed with myrrh it is said to provide efficient relief from constipation, with carrot seeds it is an aphrodisiac, with various plants it can be used against epilepsy.

Husn Dhiban Masilah

Everywhere we go in Yemen, there are relics of fortifications from a bygone era, such as this fortress called Husn Dhiban Masilah from where the name Wadi Masilah has come to identify the remainder of the route to the sea.



Aynat was once one of the largest and most famous towns in the Wadi, but recurrent floods have gradually washed away crops, houses and small dams. Still left is the white qubbas of the cemetery. Being on the pilgrimage route, this has become a site of worship.



The main tomb is that of Sheikh Abu Bakr bin Salim, and there are other tombs of important sada close by, with hundreds of ‘lesser’ graves scattered around.



Women all in black with the conical hats so typical to Wadi Hadramawt tend to their goats along the road. The women object to being photographed, and will throw stones at the car if they spot us. The secret is to slow down as we approach, take a couple of shots with a long zoom lens and then speed up again before they realise what we are doing.


Tomb of Ahmad Ibn Isa al-Muhjair

The Tomb of Ahmad Ibn Isa al-Muhajir (‘the immigrant’) is a place of pilgrimage and is especially popular with women pilgrims, as it is also the burial place of a sheikha – a holy woman. Ahmad Ibn Isa was the sayyid who re-established orthodox Islam in Wadi Hadramawt about 1200 years ago. Originally from Basra in Iraq, he made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and continued south to spread the Sunni orthodox branch of Islam. He was the seventh generation descendant of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law.


At ground level is a mosque and ablutions room, alongside which is the domed tomb. Steps lead up the lower slopes to another collection of tombs and graves, those of members of his family. Stuck to the inside of the tomb walls and ceiling are hundreds of little balls of thread, placed by pilgrims hoping to be blessed with good luck.


Christmas Party!

We return to the hotel in Seyun for a Christmas Party (it is after all Christmas Day). This morning we were given gifts by Emad – the gents all had futas, the Yemeni dress of choice for most men. They all sport their new fashion items and pose willingly by the swimming pool.


Emad has a special surprise for us for dinner – the chef has killed a goat for us and cooked it whole. Some people feel a little uncomfortable about the fact that it still very much looks like a goat, complete with legs, neck and tail. I think it’s delicious.


Emad carves the goat for us, we have plenty of other food, and a bottle of Duty Free Vodka does the rounds at dinner. Although Yemen is a ‘dry country’ per se, it is not illegal to bring in alcohol for non-Muslims, a fact that we’d taken advantage of.


Somehow Emad has managed to arrange for a few jugs of cocktails to be delivered from the tea shop in the centre of town. A very special surprise indeed.


David learns how to sit cross-legged on the ground with the help of the band that is so often worn by the local men. Now we know what that is for! For someone who has never been able to sit like this before, not even in assembly at school, it is quite a revelation.




Also arranged for us, is some local entertainment, some music and dancers.



Knowing how conservative the Yemeni women normally are, not wishing to be seen in public and certainly not photographed, we conclude that this must be the Yemeni equivalent of a strip club. This is the first woman in Yemen we have seen with her face exposed, all others have been wearing the niqab or the full veil.



As with any dance display in any country, there is audience participation.




It has certainly been a Christmas Day to remember!

Posted by Grete Howard 02:16 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged travel palace cemetery party christmas yemen library hadramawt christmas_day middle_east hejab seyun tarim niqab Comments (0)

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