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Over the years, our interest in the old silk road routes has brought us to quite a lot of old mud brick ruins in Central Asia. This time we have set our mind to the ruined towns of Paikent and Varaksha. Both settlements, we know, are not very far away from Bukhara, so during our two days in town we set out to explore them. „To Qoraköl? Ah, to the border, yes?“ Although we have only a small daypack between the two of us the shared-taxi driver naturally assumes we want to go to Turkmenistan – there's nothing else in the direction of Qoraköl where tourists might want to go. Except for the ruins of ancient Paikent:... Continue reading
Posted 5 days ago at Westwards
The very first newspaper travel article that we wrote and got published in a German newspaper, back in 2006, was about Turkmenistan. „Unzugänglich and bizarr“ (unapproachable and bizarre) we had titled it ... Some of the obeservations we made back then are still valid, but a lot has changed. Turkmenistan is one of the world's most reclusive countries and not exactly welcoming to tourists. You can only visit with a tour or a private guide and driver, making it a quite expensive and also very nannied experience. The only way to enter without a guide and move quite freely is on a transit visa, which we had already done in 2006. Back then we came from Bukhara in Uzbekistan and took the ferry over the Caspian sea to Baku in Azerbaijan. This time we applied for our tranist visa in Tehran ... Continue reading
Posted Jun 21, 2015 at Westwards
When we enter the museum in the town of Mary (the modern city near the ancient Merv), a whole platoon of soldiers is waiting in the archaeological section for a guided tour. "Too many men in that room", we are told and advised to start with the ethnographic exhibition instead, which turns out to be quite interesting, too…. Merv is the oldest of the oasis cities on the Central Asian Silk Road, dating back as far as the 3rd millenium BC. The Bactria-Margiana region in today's Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, was one of the earliest centres of agriculture and sedentary life, where the first Neolithic settlements appeared nearly 8000 years ago, … Continue reading
Posted Jun 10, 2015 at Westwards
A waiter is carrying a huge tray of ice cream and chilled faludeh (sweet starch noodles in rose water) to a group of friends sitting on low stone walls – the ice cream shop doesn't have seating facilities but the Naqshe Jahan Square offers enough of them. Extended families are sitting on carpet-patterned plastic sheets on the lawn, while their children are playing around, and in between you can see young couples discreetly flirting. It is Thursday evening and thus weekend in Islamic countries. The sun is low enough not to burn anymore, and it is the perfect time for a visit to Isfahan's largest and most famous square. Its official name is Meidan-e Shah, but everyone still says Naqshe Jahan, meaning „Image of the World“. To Isfahanis, it seems forgivable if you don't see the the world itself. Officially, the square is designated as a World Heritage site because it is „an urban phenomenon which is an exception ... Continue reading
Posted Jun 8, 2015 at Westwards
After one week travelling in Iran we can say for certain that we like the country tremendously. Actually we never once thought that we might not like Iran. We had seen pictures of the beautiful Islamic architecture and had some historical sights in mind – big names such as Persepolis and Isfahan that send you dreaming just by the sound of it. If we go it should be at least 5 weeks or so, we had always agreed. Now finally, we have made it, albeit just for a little more than 2 weeks and as a prequel to a work trip in Central Asia. Just as expected, our first impression of Iran is very advantageous, with friendly people and a cheerful, relaxed atmosphere. And yet, whenever we talk to Iranians they seem concerned: „I hope you have a good impression of Iran? ... Continue reading
Posted Jun 2, 2015 at Westwards
The young guardsman appears slightly uneasy: A group of German tourists is jumping up and down in front of the Marble Throne Hall in Tehran's Golestan Palace. A large glass screen is blocking the view of the enormous marble throne and its famed decorations, and it's angled in such a way that the sky reflects and it's all but impossible to take a decent photo of the pomp. Finally one man is taking his wife on the shoulders so that she can take a picture. Like most women in the group, she isn't exactly clad according to the stricter interpretations of Iranian dress rules, and the guardsman is probably mulling whether he should intervene for reasons of modesty, but decides against it. Golestan Palace, the palace of the Qajar rulers from the late 18th century onwards, is Tehran's only UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and along with the jewelry museum the city's main tourist draw. Actually it is more a collection of royal residences Continue reading
Posted May 28, 2015 at Westwards
"Buy coffee", people advise us when we mention that we will pass through Luxembourg on our way to Burgundy and "Calculate how much petrol you need before you get into Luxembourg, and then you can fill up there!" For most Germans, the tiny country of Luxembourg with its favourable tax laws is mainly a shopping or a tax paradise, but not necessarily a sightseeing destination – although the mighty structures of the former fortress are a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994 and well worth a visit. Armed with the leaflet “Wenzel Walk” dispersed by the tourist information in the city centre, we feel geared up for our self-guided walk through the fortifications. The walk is named after … Continue reading
Posted May 24, 2015 at Westwards
Hopefully, we are going to find out soon!
Last Friday we went to Stralsund, a hanseatic town on the German Baltic Sea Coast. It was not so much a holiday in itself as an escape from Berlin, where we had been urgently waiting for the reference number from the Iranian foreign ministry. … In spite of our distress, the sun is shining when we arrive in Stralsund, and people relax in front of the historic City Hall. Children are taking flight from the fountain on the Old Market Square with its erroneous burps of water. The long bridge over the Strelasund to the island of Rügen (where the camp site is located) is popular with anglers, and from the harbour of Altefähr on the opposite bank of the sund, Stralsund looks sparkling in the evening sun. But the next day it is cold and windy, so we decide for indoor sightseeing. Stralsund boasts the allegedly most-visited museum in Northern Germany, … Continue reading
Posted May 19, 2015 at Westwards
Maybe you should try the German poetry form of Schüttelreim in English? ("shaken rhyme": a rhyming couplet with a humorous effect caused by swapping of initial consonants) Es klapperten die Klapperschlangen bis ihre Klappern schlapper klangen. That should be possible in English, too, although it's not so popular. I've only found a few: From rose to rose they flutter by, hummingbird and butterfly. The expedition (polar) soured because the gear was solar powered. from
You might think it weird for us as vegetarians to visit a „Wurstmuseum“ – a museum that is dedicated to a specific variety of German sausage. But we went out of curiosity rather than of culinary interest, and it promised some undemanding diversion in an otherwise busy writing day. As one would expect, there is not much actually to see in such a museum in terms of "original art work" or artefacts – it is more like an entertaining read plus hands-on activities loosely grouped around the Currywurst theme. Currywurst is a fried pork sausage cut up into slices, seasoned with a curry-tomato sauce, and topped with curry powder. …. Currywurst is such a famous fast food in Berlin that people visit explicitly to taste it, and guided Currywurst tours are offered here. Berlin is where the Currywurst was allegedly invented, but the dish is also widespread in the West German Ruhr district. A novel by the German author Uwe Timm even claims … Continue reading
Posted May 13, 2015 at Westwards
When we visited Vietnam last year, we especially enjoyed the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants that were ubiquitous in the Mekong Delta. They were easy to recognise because "chay" means vegetarian and every such restaurant was called Chay Something. Chay Village in Schöneberg, then, is completely vegetarian, and most dishes are vegan anyway, as eggs and dairy products don't play a major role in Vietnamese cuisine. In any case, they offer to prepare any dish in a vegan version. On a Friday evening, the restaurant is full, and we are glad that a friend recommended making a reservation. The bar area in the front room is decked out in Buddha statues and flower vases, and the interior design with dark wooden tables … Continue reading
Posted May 9, 2015 at Westwards
Seit einigen Tagen ist die Neuauflage unseres DuMont Direkt Reiseführers „Mecklenburgische Seenplatte“ im Buchhandel erhältlich. Der Reiseführer ist ideal für Kurztrips in die Region, vor allem, wenn man wenig Zeit für die Vorbereitung hat. Die 15 Direktkapitel ermöglichen den direkten Einstieg vor Ort, egal ob per Kajak, mit dem Fahrrad, dem Auto oder zu Fuß. … Continue reading
Posted May 7, 2015 at Westwards
A subtle smell of incense wafts from the cone on the small plate. But does it really smell any different from that on the other small plate? Mrs Takazawa, the incense teacher, has only prepared three different fragrances for us – but assigning each one to the matching cone seems impossible. „Kôdô – the way of the scent" is not about winning – it is, as all Japanese traditional arts – about contemplation. Forgetting the daily routines and tasks, pausing for a while. … The town of Kanazawa is situated on the so-called backside of Japan, separated from the big cities and the Pacific coast by high mountains. Since April 2014, the Hokuriku Shinkansen (super express train) has made it easier to reach this little gem of Japanese culture … Continue reading
Posted May 2, 2015 at Westwards
Signs on the walkway below the blooming cherry trees say that tripods are forbidden by all means. The congestion caused by all the visitors taking snapshots explains why it wouldn't be a good idea to let gear-conscious Japanese amateur photographers put up their tripods and massive lenses in this bottleneck of the walking route around Kiyomizu temple. … This spot offers the best views (and photo opportunities) of one of Kyoto's most famous temples. The lane leading up to the temple is lined with souvenir shops and in the afternoon you often have to queue just to pass up or down. Kyoto's most visited site, however, is a Zen temple called Rokuon-ji, or rather, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji). Originally the retirement villa of a fabled 14th-century Shogun (or military ruler), this gold-coated pavilion was burned down in 1950 by a mentally disturbed novice monk … Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2015 at Westwards
At 5 am in the morning, still tucked into our sleeping bags in the filthy cabin of the Mercury ferry boat, we hear the anchor chain being lowered into the port basin. In the red sky of dawn we have a first glimpse of the skyline of Baku; some of our Turkmen fellow passengers are almost moved to tears. In 2006, we were on our way back to Europe overland, and coming from Turkmenistan we had to cross the Caspian Sea to get to Azerbaijan. From the time of landing it took another 6 hours until we were finally allowed to leave the ferry and enter Baku. We walked with two fellow passengers, a quiet Russian businessman and a gaunt, somewhat shabby guy with a baseball cap, along disused railway tracks until we found ourselves in the centre of town. The Inner City of Baku became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and is composed of cute winding streets with old houses, wooden covered balconies, and a fantastic mix of different buildings from the Persian, Ottoman and Russian periods … Continue reading
Posted Apr 22, 2015 at Westwards
Before we travel in a new country, we usually have a look at the UNESCO World Heritage list. Most of the time we have an idea of the major designated monuments and parks, but there are also others that we have to look up. One of these less-famous places that not even everybody living in Mexico City has heard of was the house of Luis Barragán in Mexico City. Luis Barragán was a 20th century self-taught Mexican architect. ... Only after the New York MOMA had held a retrospective in 1975 did he finally receive the prestigious Pritzker Prize, awarded to him in 1980. His own private home in Mexico City was declared a World Heritage site in 2004. On this particular sunny October day, we have difficulties finding the house ... Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2015 at Westwards
Fuji-san is not only Japan's highest mountain, but also its most important one, an icon of Japaneseness, one could say. A mountain that every self-respecting Japanese should have climbed once in their lives, according to a Japanese proverb. The „san“ in the mountain's name means „mountain“, but it also evokes the honorific „san“ used to address persons – to Japanese, therefore Mt. Fuji is also Mr. Fuji, in a way. The honourable mountain can be rather shy: The first time we went to Hakone to see Fuji-san (was that really back in 1991??) we arrived at the shore of Lake Ashi and ... Continue reading
Posted Apr 10, 2015 at Westwards
"Kandinsky was quite old when he came to Dessau. He already had furniture. So he made himself comfy in the modern Bauhaus architecture with his Biedermeier style sofas …" The museum guide almost apologises for Wassily Kandinsky's lack of style in his own home's interior design. The living room was painted in old rose and gold. His students, apparently, were appalled by his personal taste. "Well, he was Russian," one of the other visitors comments. We are visiting the Dessau buildings of that icon of modernist style, the Bauhaus school. Kandinsky, ... Continue reading
Posted Apr 5, 2015 at Westwards
„Rambo, Rambo!“ A small-framed man points agitatedly towards the courtyard of a wooden mansion. A brawl, we suspect, but a quick glance at our guidebook clarifies that the building with the nicely carved gables and the colourful window panes is the house where the French author and adventurer Arthur Rimbaud lived for a while during the 1880s and which now has become a sightseeing spot. Rimbaud came to Harar as a coffee trader for a Yemenite agency, and stayed. He made not so bad a living as a portrait photographer – charging the natives one Dollar per picture. Today it is the other way round – the tourists have to pay for every picture they take. On the upper floor we stroll through the exhibition of Rimbaud's black-and white impressions of Harar. Back then, it was also called the "White City“, because of the numerous white buildings. Today most of them are painted in gaudy colours like pink, lime green, purple, and yellow, but the city, which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2006, is still famous for its dark full-bodied Arabica coffee roasts. In the café „Mermaid“ in the main street an Espresso Macchiato costs only 50 cents and it goes well with a piece of "Black Forest" butter-cream cake. In the afternoon the old town and the market get quiet… Continue reading
Posted Mar 29, 2015 at Westwards
Two very large men are facing each other in a kind of circular boxing ring in a central Osaka arena. They show off standing on one leg, balancing their 150 kg or more in the air before throwing salt in the ring, turning around, throwing more salt, and finally getting down in the centre of the ring, only a meter or so apart. Following a sign from the referee, both touch the ground with their hands and storm into each other. In less than a minute the fight is over. The Japanese Sumo tournaments, which take place only 6 times a year, follow strict rules based on centuries-old Shinto rituals. The parades, the ritual entry of the participants, the show-off before each contest … Continue reading
Posted Mar 23, 2015 at Westwards
The restaurant scene in Berlin leaves nothing to be desired – one might think. Really nothing? So far we had not found a good Southern Indian restaurant yet, where you can indulge in dosas and idlis, but last week we tried the recently (in November 2014) opened Chutnify in Mitte. „Indian Street food,“ promises the sign at the front. We went with a friend who (similar to us) considers himself "a good vegetarian and a bad vegan". The Chutnify is in fact not even a vegetarian restaurant: they do have meat dishes on the menu, mostly chicken, some pork. But they offer a number of vegetarian and vegan choices. The core of the menu is made up of different varieties of dosa, a thin lentil-rice pancake … Continue reading
Posted Mar 18, 2015 at Westwards
Most countries we visited were exciting, new and friendly, but there are some that we didn't enjoy so much or where we even had difficulties detecting any positive aspects: Kazakhstan, for example, decidedly lacked charm at our first visit, and India proved troublesome. Djibouti ranges at the bottom of our country ranking list. We went there on a crammed overnight bus from Dire Dawa in Ethiopia. Maybe we had a bad start with the country from the very beginning, when we applied for our visa. We got the wrong dates stamped into the passport and the embassy claimed there was no way to change them, although it was them who made the mistake. Because we could not go at those specified dates we had to buy new visas, which was time-consuming and not cheap. Once in Djibouti we did the things we always do in a new city: Wander the streets, stroll through the local market, just to get the vibe of the place. And gosh, we did: What a bad vibe it was in Djibouti! Already used to Africans who often get angry at you if you take their pictures, we quickly decided … Continue reading
Posted Mar 12, 2015 at Westwards
The conference room is packed with men in suits with little flags or logos pinned to their lapels and wearing id tags around their necks. On the large front screen, a young woman in a bikini is snorkelling with dolphins, and happy tourists are shown participating in a "traditional dance" with locals. Having done plenty of research in Egypt for our guidebooks, we recognize it as a tourist-only event, the so-called "Egyptian Evening" that is standard programme on every Nile Cruise, which involves dancing and oriental dress-up as well as some Egyptian food on the all-you-can eat buffet. The term “experience” is a recurrent tag line in other events and presentations we attend. According to surveys by the tourist industry, today's tourists do not want mere sightseeing but “authentic experience" of the local culture … Continue reading
Posted Mar 7, 2015 at Westwards
It is 4 am - the streets in the centre of Basel's Old Town are lined with people waiting for the "Morgestreich" that marks the official beginning of the carnival in Basel. With the chime of the cathedral clock, all lights, street lanterns as well as the lights in private houses and shops, go out. At the same time small and big lanterns go on and some groups of masked people start to play pipes and drums. The active participants are dressed in full costume including sculpted masks and smaller lanterns mounted on top of their head, larger ones with intricate painted images are fastened onto carriages. With these lanterns as the only source of light and the strange, mediaeval music, the slow procession of dressed up people through the streets is eerie. The carnival clubs (which are called cliques in the Basel carnival jargon) don't follow a fixed route, but roam the streets in small bands. Everyone who is not a participating member of the Basel carnival cliques is not supposed to wear any costume or disguise – … Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2015 at Westwards