Archive for July, 2010


Week 70: Back in Germany

   Posted by: Rhona    in Germany, Latvia, Lithuania

And I’m in Germany again. Brett, on the other hand, is bobbing around like a cork in the Barents Sea, eating Russian food and dealing with things like the affect of the curvature of the earth on 2D maps and lack of satellite coverage near the North Pole. Me, I’ve moved into a place in central Munich for a month and am settling in to the closest thing I’ve had to a home since Beijing about this time last year. A whole month in one place! I’ve enrolled in a German course which starts next week, bought groceries and checked out the nearest pool to swim some laps. To be honest I’m looking forward to a bit of a routine. It’s strange having to feed myself again though, and it’s amazing how much mental effort is going into my daily meals. “What do I have left over?” “What needs to be eaten ASAP?” “What else do I need to buy so that I can combine categories a and b into a nutritious meal”. The things normal people do all the time but I just haven’t had to think about lately.

Just in case you thought I was actually growing roots and erecting a white picket fence: I’ve booked my flight to The States for the end of August, and am reading about Central America. My itchy feet haven’t disappeared that quickly. And although it feels like I’ve been here forever it’s only been three nights. Wait, really? Wow. Here I am worrying I haven’t finished my to-do list! I’ve been studying at home for three days and I’m still not fluent in German?? I might as well just give up now. I’m really looking forward to the classes and am curious to see how my level compares to other students. I assume in the listening section I’ll be pretty advanced but speaking I have an accent and reading/writing I’ll be behind.

But before I came back to Munich, Brett and I spent a few days in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. It was a cool city with a nice old town, though I have to say I prefer Riga’s old town. Even though Vilnius had some really nice churches and buildings, somehow it didn’t have the same atmosphere. Maybe we just didn’t give it enough of a chance – we were only there two days. I didn’t know this but back in the 15th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was actually quite big. Its territory stretched to the Black sea, including areas that now belong to The Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Russia and Transnistria (Moldova). In the 18th century things declined, and for the next little while Lithuania seemed to swing between occupations by Russia, Poland, Germany and brief windows of independence. Unfortunately for the large Jewish population in Vilnius, one of Germany’s occupations was during the Second World War. About 95% of them were massacred.

Things weren’t great under Soviet occupation either, as we learned at the Museum of Genocide Victims. It focused on Lithuanian resistance to Soviet rule and the repression of that resistance and the local population. The building itself has an interesting history: it was first built as a court in 1890 but was used by the Germans in their WW1 occupation, then a Soviet prison, then the headquarters of the Gestapo in WW2, then KGB offices, prison and interrogation centre. Downstairs in the basement, away from most of the cells, is the execution chamber. On the explanation it noted that the people about to be executed stood in front of a wooden panelled wall so that the bullets wouldn’t ricochet and accidentally kill someone else. That would be an appalling loss of life I guess.  All of the people held, interrogated and killed there were there for political reasons. There was also a poignant exhibition dedicated to those who were deported to remote areas of Russia, whole families at a time, and a section dedicated to their struggles to readjust if they were allowed back “home”.

On a lighter note, we spent a few hours wandering around the Republic of Uzupis, a bohemian area of town that has cheekily declared independence from Vilnius/Lithuania. It has its own president, prime minister, constitution, anthem, army (12 people) and holidays. April Fools Day is it’s national day, the day on which it declared independence back in 1997. Articles on the constitution include: “Everyone has the right to be unique” (article 5), “A dog has the right to be a dog” (article 12) and “Everyone shall remember their name” (article 27). It was a nice little area and we enjoyed a lazy few hours sitting in the sun, looking back over the rest of Vilnius as we had a drawn out dinner.

Of course we also saw plenty of churches in Vilnius, and a few other sights like the Gate of Dawn. It is the only surviving gate from Vilnius’ 16th century city walls and houses an icon of the Virgin Mary. The icon is highly revered by Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers, so when the Russians ordered the demolition of the city walls in the late 18th century the gate and its icon were allowed to stay.

Back in Riga we had time to squeeze in another Tex-Mex fix (though sadly they were out of brownies that night) before we headed our separate ways. We’ll meet up again in Montana at the end of August to spend some time with Brett’s family and show my sister Erica around a little. Then Erica and I will explore Central America for a few months, hopefully joined by Brett once he’s taken care of some admin back home. Then it’s back to Australia in November and December. At the moment we’re hoping to head to Iran before we move to Germany early next year.


Week 69: End of the Silk Rd

   Posted by: Rhona    in Latvia, Uzbekistan

Photos to come

Well we headed back down to Shakhrisabz but decided to hang out there instead of heading further south. It’s a cool little town, full of sprawling markets, winding backstreets and friendly locals. Though, as it turned out, our stone carving was finished earlier than expected – we are now the proud owners of our portrait carved in granite! Once we’d picked it up we headed back to Tashkent to explore for a few days before our flight to Riga. Even though we’d been there twice we hadn’t really done any sightseeing and to be honest I wasn’t overly optimistic about the attractions in the ex-Soviet capital, but it had a few surprises up its sleeve.

Chorsu Bazaar was near our hotel and provided hours worth of wandering and people watching. I dream of living in a place that has a market like that, the fruit and vegetables were all so fresh and beautifully presented. There was a massive section devoted purely to melons, with huge army trucks coming in to restock the cages of watermelons. We can attest to their tastiness. Actually it was a bit hard to tell where the market ended. There was the official section under the dome, with it’s numbered stands and signage but outside that the stalls, stands and people presenting their wares on blankets stretched on. They sold not only food but also everything else imaginable – clothes, kitchenware, hardware etc.

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Week 68: Samarkand

   Posted by: Rhona    in Uzbekistan

note: photo album isn’t complete as i’m on a reeeeeally slow connection here in Samarkand.

We’ve spent most of the last week in Samarkand, checking out the various monuments and sights in this ancient city. It’s a place whose name conjures up romantic visions of silk-laden camels and exploration in an era when men were men and regularly died in the course of getting to such exotic corners. Now it’s a firm stop on the tourist itinerary and the caravanserais and medressas shelter souvenir stands instead of traders or students. That’s been a little disappointing.

But before we could enjoy the sights of Samarkand we had to head to Tashkent to work out our visa. In a nutshell we have a visa which has validity dates which don’t match the duration of stay listed (validity dates 32 days, duration of stay 30). I heard one thing from the embassy in London where I picked them up, but we heard a different thing on arrival in Tashkent. When we double-checked at another office in Tashkent they agreed with London. In short, nobody seemed to have any idea. Unfortunately, one of those options had us potentially overstaying our visa so that wasn’t really good. As it turns out, the fourth person we asked confirmed that duration of stay was the overriding factor and to extend would cost US$40 for me and US$131 for Brett. Being American he often gets a rough deal on visa costs. As we were only planning to stay two extra days we opted to change Brett’s ticket and buy me one accordingly. We like Uzbekistan, but not that much. We’ll spend the time in Riga instead.

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Week 67: Bukhara

   Posted by: Rhona    in Uzbekistan

The luxury of time has been appreciated even more as temperatures continued to soar into the high 30s and possibly low 40s. We don’t really know how hot it’s been – we haven’t had access to forecasts. All I can say is that staying hydrated is a constant battle which we’re only just starting to find a working strategy for. The sights in Bukhara are a little more spread out than Khiva, where all the main things to see were inside the compact old city walls. Here they’re not that spread out but walking can be a sweaty business. Have I mentioned that it’s really hot here??

We’ve been bouncing about between medressas, mosques and buildings built for the powerful local rulers. In the 9th and 10th centuries Bukhara was a vibrant cultural and religious centre, with many of the Islamic clerics in the surrounding countries coming to the city for studies. There were once about 120 medressas, of which only 30-40 remain. We visited quite a few, including Ulugbek Medressa which is the oldest in Central Asia. When we visited, it was undergoing some much needed restoration work, something a little lacking in many of the places we’ve visited. It was built in 1417 by a grandson of Timur, the man who waged a bloody war with the fractured Mongolian empire following Jenghiz Khan’s death.

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