Monday, 26 December 2011

My Top 50 songs of 2011

Like every self-respecting blogger, time for my best of list of the year.

I generally lack the dedication, attention or time to listen to a whole album now (my favourite album was a re-issue of an 1989 album from Pretty Wicked Head, the only band to ever sign to a major label from my home-town, the only albums I listened to a lot being the Weeknd and PJ Harvey's) so it would be disingenuous to make a list of my favourite albums. Instead, here’s 50 of my favourite songs of 2011, some cringe-worthy, like the Selena Gomez song that got trapped in my psyche by my wife overplaying it  in the car and at home (at least, I can be thankful that her Justin Bieber fetish didn't break me down). Most of the other songs are cherry-picked from web-sites and albums. The only artist to appear twice is Lana Del Rey- I couldn’t separate her two entries and the backlash against her (she was a failed pop singer called Lizzy Grant who changed her name as well as her lips in order to succeed) failed to deter me from her charms. There's a home-town bias (three of the fifty are by New Zealand artists) and a notable, almost complete lack of heavy tracks (only a track from Liturgy who have been nailed hard by their scene as sell-outs) and a preponderance of female singers (like the aforementioned Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, Lykke Li and PJ Harvey to name a few). Maybe I’m getting melancholic in my old age.

Here's my list (in alphabetical order by song-title)

A.D.H.D - Kendrick Lamar                             
Abducted  -  Cults                                      
A Part of Me  -  The Adults                        
Belong  -  The Pains of Being Pure at Heart                                          
Bizness  -  TunE-yArDs                                        
Blue Jeans  -  Lana Del Rey                            

Lana Del Rey:only artist to have two entries.
Bones  -  Male Bonding           
California  -  EMA                                               
Cold Feet  -  Liam Finn           
Countdown  -  Beyonce
Dirt  -  WU LYF                                               
Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair  -  Arctic Monkeys           
Don’t Play No Game That I Can't Win  -  Beastie Boys (ft. Santigold)
Far Nearer  -  Jamie XX                       
FFunny Frends  -  Unknown Mortal Orchestra                                   
Freaks And Geeks  -  Childish Gambino                                   
Generation  -  Liturgy

Liturgy: Band under attack.
Get Away  -  Yuck
Gucci Gucci  -  Kreayshawn                                               
Holocene  -  Bon Iver           
I Don't Want Love  -  The Antlers           
I Follow Rivers  -  Lykke Li           
I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl  -  Wavves           
I'm God  -  Clams Casino                       
I’m On One  -  DJ Khaled Ft Lil Wayne, Drake, Rick Ross           
It's Real  -  Real Estate                       
Jesus Fever  -  Kurt Vile                                               
John  -  Lil Wayne (feat. Rick Ross)                       
Love You Like a Love Song  -  Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez: Horrific case of my taste being influenced by marital over-exposure.
Midnight City  -  M83                                   
Monopoly  -  Danny Brown                                   
My God  -  Pusha T           
Need You Now  -  Cut Copy           
No Church In The Wild  -  Jay-Z & Kanye West (feat. Frank Ocean)
Novacane  -  Frank Ocean           
Out Getting Ribs  -  Zoo Kid
Pumped Up Kicks   -  Foster the People
Pure Radio Cosplay  -  ....And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
Rolling in the Deep  -  Adele           
She Found A Way Out  -  Cant           
Some Children (Ft Michael McDonald)  -  Holy Ghost!                                   
Street Halo [Hyperdub]  -  Burial                                               
Surgeon  -  St. Vincent           
The Last Huzzah  -  Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire ft. Despot, Das Racist,
Danny Brown and EL-P           
Video Games  -  Lana Del Ray                       
Vomit  -  Girls           
Wicked Games  -  The Weeknd            
Winter Beats  -  I Break Horses           
The Words That Maketh Murder  -  PJ Harvey           
Yonkers  -  Tyler, The Creator            

Monday, 19 December 2011


Korea is divided now but its past was also often a tale of division. The country is strewn with ancient capitals, hotbeds of power, of dynasties and empires, some short-lived and others long standing. These dynasties often cut the peninsula into two, three or even more sections. Only at rare times was the peninsula unified. The most famous of these ancient capitals is Gyeongju, a town that flourished after its establishment in 57 BC. Its population swelled to over a million at times, rivalling the size and even the grandeur of imperial Rome. Gyeongju is now a city of about 250,000, a provincial backwash maybe but one with a history as proud as any city in Korea. Gyeongju lies about 4 hours from Seoul. The KTX, the 300 kilometre per hour express train, is the best way to get to Daegu where you can catch a local train that will take you to Gyeongju. On the KTX, you get glimpses of the country-side, views into rural Korea, a in-sight into an older Korean lifestyle seldom seen when you’re stuck in suburban Seoul, glimpses gone almost as soon as you see them.

Tumuli in Tumuli Park, Gyeongju
Called the museum without walls, Gyeongju boasts more tombs, temples, pagodas, statues and ruins of palaces and royal buildings than any other spot in the country. We stayed in a traditional styled inn, almost having to double up to get through the short door, sleeping on thin mats on the floor (it was nicer and more comfortable than it sounds). Our inn was near Tumuli Park, the hub of tourist activity in the city.  The park is famous for its tumuli, which are the tombs of monarchs and family members. Twenty-three exist in this park and they look like grassy hillocks, the sort that I remember sliding down on oyster sacks at a school camp twenty years previously. They serve as natural tombs with the same purpose as the pyramids did. Just as in Egypt, tomb-raiders got away with much of the loot but as in Egypt, much of value was left behind.  Excavations of the tumuli in the early 20th Century led to many fabulous treasures being found, like a golden crown, bracelets, jade ornaments, weapons and pottery. One tumuli dating back to the 5th Century AD is open to the public (the rest are closed off). Winged horses adorn the side of the tomb which is more spacious than it would appear from the outside at 13 metres tall and 47 metres in diameter (the largest tumuli in Gyeongju has a diameter of more than 200 metres).

Cheomseongdae, one of Asia's oldest observatories.
To the south-east lies Wolseong Park. Food vendors sell candy floss alongside smelly beondegi (silk-worm larvae). Families flew kites in the favourable autumn breezes while men waited along the main-road for people wanting to go on a horse and cart ride. Used for leisure by families, this park is most notable for Cheomseongdae, East Asia’s oldest astrological observatory, which was built between 632 and 646 AD. Its design appears simple but complexity lurks below. The twelve stones that form the base represent the months, while from top to bottom, there are thirty layers, one for each day of the month. The whole observatory is made up of 366 stones (roughly corresponding to a year). Its position is also said to have been influenced by the stars, aligned in a way that would match its design with certain stars.

Anapji pond.

Anapji, a royal pleasure garden, is a five-minute walk from here. The buildings were restored in 1975 and 1976, a period of great restoration in Gyeongju under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee. It was first built in 674 AD to commemorate the unification of the peninsula, celebrating Shilla’s defeat of the Baekje Empire at Buyeo. It now consists of a few buildings centered on a lotus pond that is roughly shaped as the Korean peninsula, made to allow the King to look out over his entire “kingdom”. Views around the lake are hotly contested as couples and groups hustle for the best photo spot.

Gyeongju also has a collection of notable temples, including Bulguksa, perhaps Korea’s premier temple, and unusually easy to access as most temples are in secluded places, forced underground through a combination of Japanese rule and Confucian zealotry. Bulguksa is now only a fraction of its former self but is still of an impressive size. It is notable for its architecture including a couple of rare pagodas and its location among pines and delicate and subtle gardens only adds to its appeal. 

Tiles at Bunhwangsa
Bunhwangsa was another temple, famous for having the country’s oldest datable pagoda, which dates back to the 7th Century AD.  Only three of the original nine layers are left. Fortunately, the statue work at the base has survived, including a couple of cool-looking lions. Bunhwangsa is a twenty minute walk from the National museum which  houses many of the artifacts found during excavations. This is one of the best history museums in the country, with a wealth of artifacts on display and information (in Korean and English) to explain them. The grounds have a slew of Buddhist statues and art-work on display as well as the Emille Bell, one of the largest and loudest bells cast in Asia.

Buddha in the museum grounds.
The other two capitals of old that I visited were Gongju and Buyeo. These cities were once capitals of the BaekjeGyeongju, closer to the west coast. I drove down to visit them one autumn morning, leaving early to avoid the worst of Seoul’s notorious traffic. Autumn is a good time of year to travel in Korea. Sometimes, it seemed whole hill-sides were on fire such was the riot of colours on display. On rare occasions, you would see a patch of trees bearing fiery golden leaves in a sea of green, like a seam of gold uncovered by heavy rain. Farmers were harvesting their wheat, which had taken on a golden glow of their own. On small rural roads, farmers dried the grain on the road on mats, taking advantage of the flatness of the surface and the heat it provides. Pomegranates grew on trees near the roadside and waterfowl, duck, geese and teal were migrating from Siberia and beyond. 

Grain drying on the road.
Men were fishing on small ponds shared with graceful herons and pheasants flew close to the car, wings whooshing in their distinctive style. Soon, it would be winter and too cold to enjoy such travels, the country-side turned into the somber grayish-brown that I have came to dislike more than the cold and which persists for four to 5 months of the year.

Lake near Ganwaldo.
I arrived at Gongju at about 8. The sky was overcast and threatening to rain but the rain never came, giving me a window to look around the royal tombs. Gongju served as the capital of the Baekje kingdom for a short time (only 70 years). It however contains the Korean version of King Tut’s Tomb, with King Muryeong playing the part of Tutankanem. Largely untouched by tomb raiders (or tumuli raiders as the case is), excavation started during the Japanese occupation in the early part of the 20th Century. 2900 treasures were found here, most stored at the new Gongju National Museum. At the site itself, seven tumuli stand serenely on a hill, overlooking the modern town. These are not open to the public to look into. You can see what they look like at the reception centre on site, where a replica of Muryeong’s tomb has been created. The door of the tomb is formed by a narrow and shallow arch, leading into a domed chamber decorated with elaborate locus-patterned tiles. 

Tumuli in Gongju.
While Gongju only served as the capital for a short time, a fortress (Gongsanseong), built by during the Baekje period, was maintained and re-enforced during the Joseon dynasty (1362-1910 AD). A walk around the walls affords great views over the river, with the grounds littered with pavilions, forts and temples.

Looking out from Gongsanseong

On the opposite hill stands a Catholic shrine. Here, 300 Catholics of all social classes were executed in the 19th Century for their belief. A statue of Jesus stands at the base of the path up to the monument and chapel that marks this somber spot. As well as a memorial to those who died, it serves to highlight two important facts about modern-day Korea. The first is that Korea is much more tolerant of foreigners and foreign ideas than it was 150 years previous (it wasn’t called the Hermit Kingdom for nothing), and the second that Christianity has come a long way quickly in this country (up to a third of Koreans are now Christians).

Jesus at the martyr site
By the time I got to Buyeo, the greyness of the day had dissipated and it had turned into a pleasant day. Buyeo had been the capital of the Baekje dynasty for a hundred years, after the capital had been shifted from Gongju, and was the capital when the Baekje Empire was crushed and consumed by a joint Shilla-Chinese army in 660 AD.  Much of Buyeo’s history is linked to that time when Baekje was destroyed. In a corner of a large park, Busosan, lies Nakhawan (falling flowers rock), a rock that overlooks the Baengma River. It’s said that 3000 Baekje women threw themselves from this rock to their death (the falling flowers the rock is named after), trusting in death rather than trusting in their conquerors. Near here is a small Buddhist temple that stands on the bank of the river, built over a spring that is said to give properties of eternal youth and fertility. Busosan was popular with day-trippers. Groups of women were power walking, dressed in fluorescent jackets, many with the visors that seem to be an essential part of the costume for women of that age. Older men sat in pavilions sharing stories and a bottle of soju. Children giggled when they saw me approach. This is a corner of the country that would seem to see few foreigners, making me a source of amazement and amusement. Squirrels played in the trees near the river, where old-styled boats took people on short rides along the river.

At the temple overlooking Baengma River
From the park, I went to see some of the smaller sites of Buyeo. Jeongnamsaji is a temple that houses a five storey Baekje era pagoda (that survived the Shilla invasion and consequent Japanese and Mongolian invasions) and a weathered looking Buddha. It also has a recently upgraded museum that had little in the way of English commentary but was aesthetically appealing. The museum staff were obviously very proud of the new museum so I spent as long as I could looking at their displays, without actually understanding what I was looking at.  A little way down the road was Gungnamji, a reconstruction of a royal pond that was popular with school groups. In the middle of the pond was a colourful pavilion, reached over a bridge. The pond had colourful koi and some catfish that you could feed. At the pavilion, a group of elementary kids lined up to shake my hand, giggling as each of them told me their name. Like I said, foreigners still seemed to be a novelty in Buyeo. I met an older man, drunk with a bottle of makgeolli (rice wine) in a paper bag, sitting on a bench. He was missing three fingers on one hand, which made his handshake a little unnerving. He had good English though, having served with American forces in Korea and then overseas in various countries. He had then managed a car service centre in Seoul before returning to Buyeo. He offered me a room for the night but I had other things to see so I had to turn him down. In hindsight, I wished I hadn’t. I’m sure he had some tales to tell.

Mural in a tumuli in Buyeo.
My last stop in Buyeo was at the royal tombs. Seven tombs are here and they looked much the same as those I had seen in Gongju that morning and Gyeongju a couple of years before. Their excavation, like those at Gongju, had been overseen by the Japanese during their occupation. One, in particular, is notable for the colourful mosaics and paintings of tigers and other creatures. Almost no-one else was here. The only other visitors are a family from Seoul. I chatted with them for a minute before leaving to start the journey home, getting lost a few times on small, rural roads before finding the main artery that led directly into Seoul. As the traffic slowed as we got closer to Seoul, I started to think about my trips around some of Korea’s ancient capitals. These trips had reminded me that while Korea has changed a lot, it has a long, proud and distinguished history, one worth preserving.

Sunday, 4 December 2011


Another day that began with promise ended in disappointment for that long-suffering breed, the New Zealand cricket fan. New Zealand cricket has never been a powerhouse but currently, the team is ranked 8th out on 10 teams, with only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe below them. They had just beaten Zimbabwe in a test but only just. Australia are far the team they were 5 years, when a team list read like the roll-call of all-time greats. Now they are seen as vulnerable and the possibility of New Zealand beating Australia in a test for the first time since 1993 had been written up in the New Zealand press, with even ex-players expressing that the game was New Zealand's to win. Such hyperbole ignored the fact that much like the All Blacks, there is never a bad Australian cricket team. Some just aren't as good as others.  It also ignored the fact that the New Zealand seam attack consisting of Chris Martin, Tim Southee and Doug Bracewell, while probably the best New Zealand has to offer, is still well short of being world class.  Martin, the aging but seemingly tireless spearhead averages over 80 in tests against Australia; Southee, while highly promising, still averages over 40 in tests and Bracewell has only played in one, the one in Zimbabwe that the New Zealanders only just won. True, Vettori is a class spin bowler but not the sort of bowler to run through Australia in Australia. Much of the optimism largely stemmed from the fact that in McCullum, Guptill, Williamson, Taylor and Ryder, New Zealand has an in-form top five that potentially could be world class, potentially the best that New Zealand has had ever. Of course, games aren’t played on potential or on paper and the now traditional collapse of the New Zealand top order losing 5-96 (repeated to worse effect in the second innings with 5-28) was followed by the traditional lower-order recovery. It almost goes without saying that the recovery in this first innings was led by Daniel Vettori, former captain and selector of the team and its number one all-rounder. In short, Daniel Vettori is New Zealand cricket. But is he New Zealand’s best batsmen, a statement that is almost always made on the cricketing website Cricinfo by commenters and fans whenever he comes out to bat, usually in a precarious position where his country needs some saving.

Daniel Vettori with the weight of a country and batting order on his shoulders.
Vettori is an unlikely batting hero. Bespectacled and gangly, he has an unlikely presence at the crease. It's not a presence that would suggest permanence that must frustrate the opposition. But he has admirable qualities of concentration, of being able to rise to the occasion when it is needed (and it's needed frequently). He bats within his means, using a home-baked technique that plays to his strengths. He plays late with little footwork, finding gaps in the field by placing the ball in unusual areas around the field. He is especially strong square on the off-side and  is effective at taking balls off his hip for well-placed runs on the on-side. 

Obviously, if you just take his average which hovers just above 30, he is some way from being the country’s best batsmen. However, he is a candidate for the world’s most improved batsmen. If you only look at his average from 2003, the year where he made his first test century until now, he averages 40 runs per innings with six centuries (before 2003, his average was 16.25 with no centuries). The batting averages of New Zealand players in the time period between 2003-2011 reveals a few interesting facts. Vettori has the third best average during this time, with only ex-captain Stephen Fleming and current captain Ross Taylor exceeding Vettori.

Name              Tests              Runs                      Average
Fleming             38                 2887                         47.95
Taylor               32                 2387                         41.87
Vettori               62                3448                         40.09
Oram                 31                1751                         37.25
McCullum         59                3448                         36.68
Astle                   24                1282                         34.64
Styris                  26                1380                         34.50

Qualification: 20 tests for New Zealand, 1000 runs in the period January 1st 2003-December 2nd 2011.

Ross Taylor: Vettori's successor as captain and one of a select few who average more than Vettori since 2003.
Of course, it goes without saying that he has been our most valuable all-round player. Bowling, he has played the role of both main attacking and main defensive bowler, often bowling himself into the ground. Chris Martin is the only other player to have captured over 100 wickets in this period. Shane Bond is his only challenger as the most important bowler and unfortunately Bond only managed to play 10 tests in this period due to chronic injury concerns.

Name              Tests              Wickets              Average
Vettori             63                     216                     33.54             
Martin             52                     171                     34.91             
Franklin          25                      73                      34.21
O’Brien           22                      73                      33.27
Bond                10                      49                      21.85
Oram               31                      49                      37.81
Mills                19                       44                      33.02
Patel                13                      40                       48.40

Qualification: 40 wickets in the period January 1st 2003-December 2nd 2011.

Shane Bond, the only New Zealand bowler who was more important to the team than Vettori.
Several players including Brendan McCullum, a player of rare talent but questionable shot selection, have a lower batting average than Vettori. This would suggest that McCullum, for one has definitely underperformed as a test player. So why doesn’t Vettori bat higher in the order, given that he is one of New Zealand’s best batsmen. He does seemingly have an unflappable character, capable of performing in situations under high pressure. Despite his ability and his results, there has been a reluctance to push him higher up the order, a reluctance shared by selectors, fans and presumably by Vettori himself. After all, over the last eight years, Vettori has averaged more than what Hussain, Atherton, Hooper, Atapattu, Wright, Kapil Dev, Ranatunga and Botham did over their whole careers. There still remains the feeling that he doesn’t belong in the top 6 of an international team.  When he has batted in the top six, his average is about 30 (this figure will be skewed from times when he batted as a night watchman in the earlier part of his career). In contrast, he averages about 40 batting at 8 (he is in fact the most successful no.8 batsmen in the history of test cricket). For the time being, Vettori will continue to serve as New Zealand’s lower order savior, trying to remedy the flaws inherent in the talented but inconsistent New Zealand top-order.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in India if not the world, has been a city of cultural and religious importance for millennia. Befitting a city of such antiquity, it has acquired several nick-names throughout its long history- the ‘city of temples’, ‘the holy city of India’, ‘the religious capital of India’, ‘the city of lights’ and ‘city of learning’. Varanasi holds a special place in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu religions. For Jains, its esteem was cemented as three of their holy leaders were born here. Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples in a place close to Varanasi, meaning the Varanasi region is the area where Buddhism was founded. But given the pre-dominance of Hinduism, Varanasi is most famed for its connections to that religion. It remains one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities and an important place of pilgrimage.

Varanasi shares a special relationship with the Ganges.
Varanasi and the Ganges are irretrievably linked. The Ganges is the most sacred river to Hindus who believe that sin can be remitted by simply bathing in the Ganges (a type of fluid cleansing equivalent to Catholic confession). Dying in the city can release a person’s soul from the cycle of transmigrations. Here, as perhaps to the same extent as no-where else on Earth, the river is revered. In fact, the Ganges is worshipped as a goddess called Ganga. Unfortunately, even with its divine status, the well-being of the Ganges is threatened and ranks among the top five most polluted rivers in the world. 200 million litres of untreated sewage a day flow into the Ganges. People use the waters in many aspects of daily life. Women do their laundry here, washing saris which are then left to dry in a colourful arrangement along the banks of the river.
Array of colours drying by the river
Men and women bathe in the holy waters along her course, disregarding bacterial counts many times higher than WHO guidelines (fecal coliform counts downstream of Varanasi are one hundred times that of official Indian limits). They disregard health warnings to pay homage to their ancestors and to the gods by letting Ganga’s water flow over them, pouring contaminated yet holy water over their heads from cupped palms. Attempts to clean it up have been described as a “failure”, a “major failure”, a “colossal failure” and a “widely recognized failure”. FAIL then.
Hard-braving the Ganges
Much like people collect holy water from the Vatican, Hindus will carry water from the Ganges for use in rituals. The British carried large quantities in ships that housed Indian labourers, both for use in rituals and to try and appease those Hindus who felt that they would lose their caste if they traveled across the ocean. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of an independent India, described the Ganges as “The Ganga is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."  

Small boats line the Ganges waiting for fares (preferably from a foreigner so they can charge higher prices)
People come to Varanasi to die and/or to be cremated here. Cremation occurs on the ghats, the series of steps that lead down to a river, with bodies burnt on pyres of wood. As all Hindus wish to be cremated here, large piles of different types of wood used to construct the funeral pyres of the faithful deceased lie in the back-alleys near the ghats. Each type of wood has different values with sandalwood being the most expensive. Families buy what they can afford. If the deceased family was poor and they couldn’t afford to buy wood, the body will not be cremated at all. Some families can only afford either a minimal amount of wood or poor quality wood, which often results in a half burned body. Cremation happens on the ghats with the relative position of the funeral pyre determined by the caste of the deceased. After cremation, the ashes and bones of the deceased are then thrown into the Ganges. Those who might have died far from the Ganges can have their ashes scattered there if their family can afford to get them there. To avoid epidemics that have been spread more quickly from bodies thrown into the Ganges, only ashes and bones are supposed to be scattered in the river. There are exceptions to the rule; the bodies of holy men, pregnant women, lepers, snake-bite victims, suicides, paupers and infants are not cremated but allowed to decompose in the river. Apparently, turtles have been trained to consume dead flesh and not to bother swimmers or bathers.
The piles of wood used for cremations
We somehow navigated our way through and around the maze-like arcades of Varanasi. The Ganges is the dominant presence, the heart of the city as it winds laboriously through the city of more than a million. Mud piles up around the ghats, evidence of the Ganges tendency to flood annually, its function as both a giver and a taker of life. Holy men are more evident here than they were in other cities and bhang, a combination of cannabis, milk, ghee and spices, is a common sight, being prepared on the steps of the ghats, a green paste made in mortar and pestle. Government shops also sell it and they do a brisk trade selling to holy men, locals and interested foreigners.
Trident traveller: Sadhu at rest.
The smell of sweat and cow dung used as fuel merges with the smell of wood. Mongooses dart between the feet of travelers and hide among the accumulated woodpiles. As you get closer to the Ganges, other smells can be detected, the smell of burning wood, the smell of death. Here, along the banks of the Ganges, the earthly remains of the faithful met their end, under the gaze of family members and foreigners. Gathered together in a second-floor window, a spot secured by a donation, supposedly given to poor families to buy wood (although I suspect it is just pocketed by the enterprising entrepreneur), we could look over one of the ghats, one of the most famous and prestigious in Varanasi. A stiff wind blew smoke and ash from burning bodies back into our faces, the wind and fire conspiring to remove the funerary cloth of the deceased, exposing limbs and torsos to all interested parties, glimpses into the last ritual of life.
The Ghats
Its as macabre as it sounds, a tourist attraction based on the local industry of death. Most tourists are respectful of the requests to not take photos of the funeral pyre. Others blatantly disregard it, taking snapshots of burning bodies, pictures that they can use to tell stories with back home. It would be little worse if they went and touched the bodies and I wonder if any of them had stopped to contemplate this situation in reverse, think about how they would feel if it was their dear mother sitting in a funeral parlour, touched, leered at and talked about by strangers, photos taken to illustrate a story. I would hope that if these tourists had taken a moment to think about it like this that they would have stopped. Unfortunately, India and its accompanying human travesties desensitize and dehumanize the long-term traveller who grow accustomed to the extreme poverty, the desperation and body mutilations commonly seen around India. Given this, I guess this final indignity, the act of recording so sensitive a ceremony for personal gratification, can be explained if not justified.
Boating along the Ganges on the look-out for bodies
At dusk, we took a boat-ride along the Ganges, the light from the pyres standing out in the gloom, as the last of the stored energy potential in the bodies is converted to heat and light. Unlike many travellers, we didn’t see any bodies floating past, just the bloated body of a dog. We stopped midstream, where a puja was being performed by seven Brahmin priests who prayed and made offerings for Shiva, Ganga and world peace on behalf of the pious. They were watched by a multitude of the merely curious, who watched on from a myriad of boats anchored together in the middle of the Ganges. Amid drumming and chants, we released candles that floated like so many spirits back towards the mouth of the Ganges before heading back to our hotel. Life is frantic here and dirty but there is also a spiritual side that is commendable. It’s just a pity that the visitors who deem it acceptable to photograph burning bodies of somebody’s loved one can’t find the spirit to avoid doing such a tasteless act. Just like a glass of Ganges water, this behaviour left a dirty and lingering bad taste in your mouth, behaviour not befitting a city with such a proud history.

Monday, 14 November 2011


Part 4 of 4 of our travels in Uzbekistan

Arriving is always the worst part about travelling. You get off the plane or train, not aware of your surroundings, not sure how far away your hotel is or what a fair price is to get there. You are at the whims of the locals as to how much they rip you off, because unless there is reliable and frequent public transport and usually there isn’t, you will get ripped off. The only question is just by how much. It was the same when arriving at the train station in Tashkent. We fought through the usual gauntlet of taxi drivers (these guys are without doubt the most likely to try and rip you off) and found ourselves a taxi near the main street. In Uzbekistan, as I’ve said before, a taxi driver is anyone who has a car and the desire- a student wanting to practice their English, a helpful passerby or an opportunistic free lancer who sees the opportunity to make some cash. They have no special skill in linguistics or in spatial awareness, their driving is usually poor but the price they ask is fair (if you don’t mind the haggle) and it’s easier than walking. The taxi we took, (a Russian made car with a driver who looked more Russian than most) was a free-lancer, out for the night cruising Tashkent with his wife (or girlfriend). As usual, he said he knew our hotel but didn’t and of course ended up getting lost. I took pity and paid him above the agreed cost in recompense for his time but then got angry when he had his hand out for more.

Private car taxi
The hotel was the same one we had stayed at the first night in Uzbekistan-not particularly aesthetically pleasing but cheap and clean and relatively central. The first night they had ripped me off on my money transfer but I was wiser to the ways of the dollar black market now. Uzbekistan has two currency rates, the official rate which equals 1700 Som to the dollar and the more lucrative black market where the exchange rate can range from 2100 (the exchange rate I got on the first night here) to 2500 Som to the dollar that we got subsequently. The largest note you can get is 1000 Som, so if you transfer 200 dollars, you receive at least 500 notes in return, a thick wad to carry (or hide).

$200 US gets you a big pile of cash

Tashkent, the hub of Central Asia, the so-called eastern capital of Tsarist Russia, is a sprawling cosmos. Its been russified to a large extent with Soviet style apartment buildings and imperial looking public buildings but with a smattering of traditional design that give it a Central Asian vibe. Despite its nickname, it reminded me less of Moscow and more of a landlocked equivalent of an Italian city like Naples, lived in and looked after. Tashkent was practically destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1966 that left 300,000 homeless and rebuilt in the 1960s with help from all the Soviet republics. Tashkent lacks the architectural hubris of a Samarkand or Bukhara but has its own, less obvious, charms. There seemed to be more people here of Russian descent, more peroxided women and rough-looking men. Fewer people wore traditional dress around downtown (although at the market, most of the woman vendors were still wearing their bright and garish garments).

Timur on his gilded horse
The centre of the city is formed by Amir Timur Square, graced by a large, statue of the irresistible Amir Timur who rides on a curiously gelded horse (it’s unknown who was responsible for the emasculation of the statue). From here, the wide, tree-lined main streets radiate out across Tashkent, traditional plov restaurants intermingling with designer stores. Nearby lie a number of imposing buildings, many built by the dictator Karimov including the large Dom Forum, used for overseas dignitaries. Timur has a prominent museum here and a Romanov palace, built for Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich, a cousin of the tsar who was exiled to Tashkent due to some dodgy dealings involving the Russian crown jewels is a 10 minute walk from here. Across the road from the palace lies the senate and Independence Square, apparently the largest city Square in the USSR, that once had the complimentary tallest statue of Lenin in the Soviet Union. Now, a globe stands in Lenin’s spot. Nearby is Karimov’s senate building, where he and his lackeys plot how to best use Uzbekistan’s riches and also how to best feather their own pocket. This area also seats the original Crying Mother’s memorial, which is almost identical to the one we saw in Samarkand, commemorating the almost 300,000 Uzbekis who died in World War 2.

Crying Mothers Memorial

Central Asia’s first subway was built here and like in Moscow, some of the architecture in the subway stations was remarkable. Like Moscow, the police in the metros can be a bit over-zealous. We had to show our passports several times but no infractions were found, no palms needed greasing. A train comes along every 5 minutes or so (a timer tells you how long it’s been since the last train departed), old but efficient. Foreigners are still a novelty in the capital so several people took the opportunity to practice their English with us.

Guarded subway.
We took the subway from Independence Square to Chorsu Bazaar, a large market under a huge green dome. The sellers try all of the tricks; flirting, grabbing, trying to initiate conversation and when all else fails begging for a sale. All types of produce are here; fresh, dried, pickled and fermented. 

Hive of activity: Chorsu Bazaar.

Kimchi, Korea’s national dish, is well represented, made by descendents of the Koreans deported from Manchuria/Siberia to Central Asia during Stalin’s rule. The old Korean women here were the grumpiest vendors in the entire market. Not for them the jovial guessing at which country we come from. No, they weren’t interested in that. The only thing they were interested in was selling the doff. An annyong haseyo made them sullen, perhaps because many of the Uzbek Koreans speak only Russian; food their only tie to their ancestoral homeland.

Grumpy Kimchi seller.

The biggest concentration of beggars anywhere in the country seemed to be at the market; mothers with puppy eyes carrying children with puppy eyes, a monkey see-monkey do cycle of hardship, hands outstretched in a true intergenerational cycle of dependence. Throughout the country though, begging seems to be uncommon and frowned upon. In Tashkent, we were approached a couple of times by people on the street asking for money, often quite brazenly. One well-dressed guy said I’m Russian, can you give me some cash. We didn’t and he walked away disappointed.

That night, after unsuccessfully trying to find the country’s largest supermarket and after a couple of vodkas, we headed to watch Madame Butterfly. I’m not much of an opera fan and my knowledge of Madame Butterfly is limited to what Weezer said about it. But at about $6 a ticket, it’s a good excuse to do something cultural, especially as it stops my wife complaining the next time I want to go to a rugby game that I never do anything cultural with her.

Madame Butterfly
We spent our last day here, tying up a few loose ends; buying vodka for friends (it took us an hour to find somewhere that sold spirits), a bit of last minute shopping at an old converted medressa, watching women going for walks and young couples enjoying a little bit of freedom in Navoi Park. We tried to find a couple of old medressas but didn’t succeed. Instead, I almost got arrested for taking a photo of the secret service sign on the side of a building. I have never been so concerned as I was at this moment; having survived an initial approach from a soldier armed with an assault rifle, I was questioned by four men, two uniformed and more disturbingly, two plain clothed agents. They demanded to look at my camera and I managed to convince them that I hadn’t taken a photo of their logo, that I hadn’t breached some unwritten and unknown law of national security. My heart was still bounding vigorously a few minutes later when I caught up with Mary and Evelyn.

Uzbeki secret service sign (not so secret)

We caught a car-taxi back for dinner (Italian) and left Tashkent that night, feeling like true travelers who had been somewhere where relatively few people have ventured. If arriving is fraught with potential danger, departure leaves a taste of bittersweet (happy to get back to your home, sad to be finishing your vacation) mixed with a shot of ego. Part of the enjoyment of travel is saying that you have been to these exotic parts, countries visited displayed like battle scars. I would like to think Uzbekistan deserved one of those battle scars.