The Lost City of Z by David Grann

-Issy’s book club

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An adventure story that grabs your attention and will scare you from ever venturing into the Amazon. The novel is full of suspense and intrigue and lots of historical detail to keep you interested. You won’t want to put it down.

In 1925, Percy Harrison Fawcett, armed with information only he had unearthed, accompanied by his son, his son’s best friend, headed off into the Amazonian wilderness in search of a large, ancient, fabled city, the City of Z (The Amazon’s El Dorado) and disappeared forever. Like many before him the author of this book becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Fawcett and goes in search of the City of Z.

Part historical novel, part biography, part adventure journalism (is that a thing?) this book will ignite a sense of adventure in you!

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

-Issy’s Book Club

Image result for wild swans

Hello everybody! I have A LOT of free time to read now that we are travelling, with my Kindle getting fuller and fuller each week I thought I would take the time to write a short review about book that I loved, those page turners (and not bother with those I didn’t). I remember when I was working I was always on the lookout for interesting new books, the Whitcoulls top 100 lists can be a little uninspiring, so maybe this can inspire you to try out one of these books- you can tell me what you think too!

When I started reading Wild Swans I was hooked. It’s addictive- it makes you forget about eating and drinking whilst you’re reading it as you get lost in the story, reading quickly to find out what happens next, and when you’re not reading you’re thinking when you might be able to sneak away to get a few chapters in.

It’s a captivating historical novel told as a memoir spanning three generations of strong chinese women in a family- the author’s grandmother, mother, and then autobiographical of her life. These women live during the 20th century China before the Chinese communist party took rule under the boxer rebellion, during its establishment, and life under Mao and the cultural revolution up til the 1989 Tiananmen square incident.

“Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.” 

The book was first published in 1991 and was the top grossing non-fiction paperback in publishing history, it sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. In saying that, I had never heard of it before and reading the book whilst travelling through China, it shocked me and had a major impact in how I experience our time in the country.

Wild Swans is the best book I’ve read this year so far!

Uzbekistan

After crossing the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan- we were in! No visa required, no US dollars to appease the border controllers- too easy!

Uzbekistan is another Central Asian nation and former Soviet republic like Turkmenistan. It has a population of more than 30 million people, the majority of whom live in rural areas rather than in the cities and islam is the clear majority religion. The dress code here is conservative in a sense that shorts and mini skirts would definitely stand out, but jeans and uncovered hair is A-OK. It’s known for its mosques, mausoleums and other sites linked to the Silk Road. On our tour we would go to four areas- Khiva, Bhukara, Samarkant, and Tashkent (very very briefly Tashkent- more on that later).

Khiva

Khiva was an absolute pleasure to visit although we got off to a rocky start having arrived to the city straight from the border with no Uzbekistan currency and all the banks having closed. Our hotel (organised through our tour) let us put some chips and beers on to our room- the next we found out the packet of chips (imagine a very plain normal sized packet of ETA upper cut chips) cost $10 USD- we were sad, but of course paid our debts vowing never to buy chips from a hotel again!

This was taken after eating the “never to be mentioned again” chips. Chris’ face says it all- Issy is about to win- again! We must have played hundreds of games of Whists on this trip.

Khiva is a town that is famous for its long and brutal history as a slave trading post sandwiched in between two large deserts along the silk road. The name “Khiva” apparently came from when a man travelling through the desert fell from dehydration and exhaustion into the sand and his knife pieced through the ground and out sprouted water. He had discovered a well in the middle of the desert and exclaimed “Khi-wa!”- roughly translated to sweet water. (sadly the water in Khiva is now not safe to drink so we were buying our water in Uzbekistan)

We spent a day in Khiva explore the sights- minarets (I learnt these were big cylindrical structures usually part of a mosque), mosques, fancy palaces, and workshops. My favourite spot was the concubine house- where the ruler at the time kept his wives (up to 4 fabulous wives usually from important families) and his concubines (his girlfriends). It sounds like this house was something straight out of The Bachelor TV show- many ladies compete for the affections of the one guy, whilst bullying, gossiping, backstabbing (or even poisoning) where common affairs between the girls.

A friendly local (you could pay 50 cents for a photo with him)
A fruiting mulberry tree appeared!

A fruiting mulberry tree! These were everywhere, and provided shade and a tasty snack! They also the leaf of choice for silkworms whose cocoon unravels into silk. The silk that was so amazing and so prized it had the great road running from China to Venice named after it (hint: the silk road).

Don’t worry I’m still as cute as ever

Khiva’s food speciality that we tried were dumplings! They told us egg dumplings and spinach dumplings were worth the try. I think this is the first vegetarian speciality we were recommended so naturally…

We had a very fancy cup-shaped tomato salad as well

Bukhara

A man, his donkey, and Chris

A short 30 minute flight later we were in Bukhara. Bukhara was one of the major trading cities along the Silk Road, we stayed in “the old city” which was an area of about 1.5km squared of preserved old buildings, roads, parks, and my favourite… minarets.

One of the initiatives taken by the Uzbekistan government is that merchants of certain crafts can sell their wears more or less tax free, and set up inside and around famous city monuments. It was quite surprising to enter these beautiful mosques, old caravan accommodations, and Islam schools to find stores set up all around selling everything from silk cloths, clothes, metal works and jewelry, and even old soviet antiques.

It was HOT in Buhkara and I became obsessed with soft serve ice cream- I had to have at least 1 (or 2) a day to survive. We were lucky that they had one soft serve machine every 50 meters in the old city- clearly this is a common ailment in Buhkara- so I can report that I made it.

Hats and soft serve ice cream were a necessary to survive here

We went to a cultural show before dinner one night which turned out to be national regional dances of Uzbekistan interperst with small fashion shows. The dancing was really impressive and interesting- the fashion show was not quite as engaging. Still we love a good show!

We decided that the most famous monument of Buhkara looks like a pepper grinder, what do you think?
Do you see it now?

Samarkand

We took the train to Samarkand. Samarkand is ancient, we were told it was founded originally in 6-8th century BC. It has been conquered by Genghis Khan and his crew, Alexander the Great, the persians, turks etc. Unlike Khiva and Buhkara the ancient sights were spread far throughout the city, and also unlike the previous cities- I got sick (don’t ask).

Chris told me they went to lots of cool places, here are the photos:

There’s grass on the onion domed roof of this mausuleum from birds pooing on it, they have to clear it away a couple of times a year otherwise the tiles get damaged
Apparently uzbek government spent an exuberant amount of money to restore the inside of this mausoleum with more than 10 kg’s of gold left to decorate this room

Then he went to the Registan. The registan square was the heart of the ancient Samarkand where locals would gather to here the latest proclamations, what was in the news, and public executions. The complex is made up of three big buildings.

A very nice ceiling

Chris dragged me out for a night viewing of the Registan- it was lovely all lit up!

Tashkent

Well. We took the train to Tashkent and had planned to stay and explore the city for a day or two, unfortunately not everything goes to plan. We had to fly last minute to Tajikistan (the next country) for visa reasons, so we spent a very pleasent evening have drinks with some people we had met on our trip, a very brief swim in the hotel pool (it was freezing, how is that possible when its so hot during the day??), and then at 7am the next day we took our taxi to the airport. So we have no idea what Tashkent is like, someone will have to go and let us know!!

Stay tuned for the next country- visa dramas, beautiful vistas, new friendships, and russian dance music…

This post is mostly for Nana who kicked my butt about getting another post up 🙂

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia bordered by the Caspian Sea and largely covered by the desert. It’s known for historical ruins including those at the old cities of Nisa and Merv, which were major stops along the ancient trade route the Silk Road. Ashgabat, the capital, was rebuilt in Soviet style in the mid-20th century during its time in the USSR, and is filled with impressive monuments honoring their first president Saparmurat Niyazov.

We arrived in Turkmenistan at Ashgabat international airport at 2am in the morning- we had to complete our visa payments ($99 USD in cash each) and paperwork on arrival. The airport itself was huge, modern, and is (we were informed by our guide later) the largest bird-shaped airport in the world. I didn’t get a good photo but here is one I took from the internet- can you see the bird?

Image result for ashgabat airport

To travel through Turkmenistan Chris looked at many blogs to see how we might be able to do it ourselves, in the end it did not seem possible to get a visa (Turkmenistan has one of the most strict visa policies among Central Asian countries) or to travel easily at all so we booked a tour through Advantour. We (us and two others) were met by our guide who took us back to our hotel- The Alk Aytyn hotel. The hotel is golden rust coloured in a soivet style suggesting its hayday may have been in the USSR, the interior suggested the same. We spent our day of arrival chilling out in our room and later even did a gym session (this would come to haunt me).

Our first “official” day of the tour started at 5am on a bus headed to the airport again- no we had not been deported- we were headed to Mary and Merv.

Mary and Merv

Although they sound like your kind old next door neighbours, Mary and Merv are actually old cities of Turkmenistan!

Merv (40 km from Mary) is one of the most ancient territories of Central Asia that introduced irrigation system among the first. It led to the formation of one of the largest cities of ancient world – Merv (Margush, Margiana, Mary). The origin of Merv is shrouded in mysteries. One fact is known for sure, though – the first written references to this city were found in Avestian chronicles of approximately the 8-6th centuries B.C. The chroniclers widely used bright epithets naming it “a soul of a king, a mother of Khurasan cities, and, the city that helds the Universe. Omar Khayyam, As – Samani, Imamaddin-Isphakhani and other great thinkers of the Middle Ages lived there. The site is filled with ancient sites, of the buildings most of them had undergone some restoration to make them look more like the original building.

Outside of a restored mausoleum of one of the ancient sultans
Standing on the old walls of the city of Merv
We accidently wore matching shirts today
This is a library and observatory in Mary

Ashgabat

Ashgabat is the capital of Turkemenistan, and our second day consisted of a tour around the city. The town began as a soviet outpost and gradually grew into the city it is today. There seem to be two parts to the city, normal suburbs and then a new part of the city which seems to be empty.

The normal part of the city was pretty unremarkable, but after going to the monuments in the new part, we started to get a feel for some of the more obscure aspects of the country. The gas money has gone into creating a huge amount of opulent ‘public’ buildings. Such as the wedding palace, the independence monument, and a giant rocket shaped thermometer which commemorates the hottest day in Turkmenistan 57 degrees. These are accessible by 6 lane highways. It just so happens that no-one ever drives on these, well often the only vehicle on the road when we were on the highway was our bus.

Davarsar gas crater

The ancient pagan tribes of turkmenistan used to worship 4 elements. Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire. The soviet union was an atheistic state, but during their occupation they managed to unwittingly turn the Karakom desert into a massive monument to these forces.

4 hours of driving on some quickly deteriorating roads took us into the middle of Turkmenistan, about 100km from the last village in the middle of the desert. We found three huge holes in the ground- one filled with water, one filled with sufurous bubbling mud, and one filled with gas fuelled fire.

We camped by the large Davazar gas crater (the fire crater), and at night we were able to see the darkness of the desert lit up by the flaming “gates of Hell” as its known to the locals. Dinner was quite fittingly cooked over right over the fire that night- chargrilled meats and veges with some local style bread and interesting conversation with new international friends.

The next day we were on the road through the desert, visiting one last ancient city then thrown over the border into Uzbekistan.

a fun video of our time in turkmenistan

St Petersburg (trans-siberian)

We arrived in St Petersburg at the end of May. This was our final stop on our 28 day trans-Siberian/Russian adventure. Our train arrived at 4am and we quickly arrived to our hostel and went to sleep. The thing that surprised us when we arrived was that it was already light outside at 4am, we would later find out that we arrived during the season of “white nights” in St Petersburg- it never gets completely dark, and it only starts to darken at night at around 9pm. It is very confusing, especially for people (us) who had changed time zones 4 times in the last 24 days!

We thought we would book ourselves into a 10 bed room at the hostel at a “party” hostel, obviously it was cheap, but having only spoken to each other for the last 24 days we were looking to socialize. The Cuba hostel was in a great location to all the major sites in the heart of the city. The room was social in the afternoons, and at night the 9 boys in the room created a loud symphony of snoring (Chris was a real team player here!).

It was chilly, pink nose season here

We explored some the major sites. A lot of these we saw on a free walking tour with a local guide through the city-checking out the river, statues, monuments, and museums along the way.

This is Peter the Great making a boat, one of his many trades, apparently he had several, including being a dentist!

St Petersburg is named after the Tsar Peter the Great who fought a war against Sweden to capture this area of land and the city, giving Russia access to the Baltic sea via the gulf of Finland and the ability to develop a ferocious navy. Back in the day (17th century) Russia had a “serf” population who were basically peasents who belonged to a noble family, like slaves with a bit more autonomy. These serfs were conscripted by Peter to come to his new conquered land and to build him an european city from the swapland. The conditions were terrible and tens of thousands of these people died during the construction- they call St Petersburg the city built on bones.

Peter the Great on a big horse on a big rock
We did not pack for things to be this cold!

The sight we most enjoyed was the Hermitage museum which we explored over two days (a few hours at a time) guided by a very handy English audioguide. The Hermitage was probably the most impressive museum/art gallery either of us have been to with the most impressive paintings, and at least one painting of every famous artist you have ever heard of. We were very interested to find out a lot of the painting were seized from German private collection at the end of WWII.

Posing by the hermitage photobombed by the wind

We were also lucky enough to be here during the 316th birthday of St Petersburg city. We were told by locals to expect something big, we were not disappointed. At midnight the drawbridges over the river lifted upwards to 90 degree angles to create screens that were filled with projected images of St Petersburg, followed by dances on cables in full LED suits flipping and swinging down the bridge/screen. Next came the man in the white suit playing electric violin as men in LED suits on water powered jet packs flew over the river with fire exploding out of their flame throwers, then of course the fireworks. It was pretty spectacular.

For those worried that we may not have been able to satisfy our new kebab addiction we picked up in Moscow- fear not! We found a little restaurant by our hostel called Pita’s which did delicious falafel and meat filled kebabs (visited twice).

Our last day we went to Peterhof, the former summer palace for the royal russian family.

The Grand Cascade (pictured above) forms the centrepiece of Peterhof. The three waterfalls, 67 fountains and 37 golden statues had even the most nonchalant tourists wide-eyed with amazement. Centre to all of it stands a golden statue of Samson ripping the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great North War over the Gulf of Finland. 

Russia was awesome, but after 28 days we were ready to leave to try something completely different. We are heading to central asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) to do explore the old silk road territory, previously held soviet states, deserts, dictator run countries, yurts and nomads. Let’s do some intrepid travelling!

Moscow (Trans-siberian)

You truely Moscow to Moscow!

Moscow is the financial and political center of Russia and the countries formerly comprising the Soviet Union. It has a population of around 13 million, one-tenth of all Russian citizens live in the Moscow metropolitan area. Moscow is the second most populous city in Europe, after Istanbul. We explored Moscow on a walking tour and solo as well during our time. We found the food was significantly more expensive here than it had been so far in Russia, luckily we discovered a kebab shop not far from our hostel which was so delicious we went back several times and I left a tripadvisor review! So TASTY!

These kebabs were the highlight of our Russian cuisine experience~
It did not take long until we bumped into Stalin on the street
Chris enjoyed the look of one of the seven sisters (the building in the background, not a lady- I have googled this to make sure)
Absolutely loving exploring the kremlin!
We decided Moscow is the most beautiful at night

One of the highlights was going to a show- we watched Anna Karenina the musical. We opted for the cheapest seats because we are on a budget and didnt think we would understand much of it because it was all in Russian. We were lucky to find that the level of the theatre we were on was only half full and we got a perfect centre stage view for the equivalent of $10 NZD (we were very smug). The musical stage set was very hightech and the cast and costumes were amazing! We ended up having a really good time!

The second highlight was doing a tour of an old soviet underground bunker that was used during the cold war by Russian generals called bunker 42. The facility (located 65 meters underground) operated as an emergency Command Post Headquarters and long-range aviation communications. The Bunker 42 was fully equipped with everything needed for a nuclear attack: air recycling system, diesel generators, stocks of food, fuel, artesian wells to provide clean drinking water. Up to 3000 people could live and work there for 90 days without assistance from the outside world.

I got to follow the nuclear launch sequence, enter the number, turn the key, and press the big red button. Then watch on the screen as my nuclear weapon destroyed a large (?american) city into a mushroom cloud. Chris was concerned about the amount of smiling he saw during this.
At the underground bar and restaurant

Our final train would take us overnight to St Petersburg, our last stop in Russia…

Siberia (Trans-siberian)

the train from Ulanbatar, Mongolia to Irkust, Russia (in pictures):

Within an hour or two of leaving Ulaanbataar we encountered a blizzard snow storm! Later we induged in instant noodles and chips before bed
Our view the next morning, skinny trees and pines, mountain ranges in the distance
We tried to DIY what we thought a russia brunch would be– bread, cheese, pickles, coffee, finished with a shot of vodka
Chris decided to have his vodka as an entree
tasty!
Soon encountered Lake Baikal! The pearl of Siberia! It was mostly frozen over from what we could see (Its past the trees in this photo taken from the train.

Irkurst

Irkutsk is a popular stopping-off point along the Trans-Siberian Railway and is known as one of the first major Russian cities after the railway the trains arrive on the Trans-Mongolian route (from China and Mongolia). Most visitors come here in order to visit the nearby Lake Baikal, but the city was actually quite an interesting place!

Our first night in Irukust we tried out a restaurant that had been recommended by a travel buddy in Mongolia. It was actually great! It was a traditional style soviet restaurant serving russian soups in bowls made of rye bread that you can eat as you go, kompot (russia juice drink), and the entertainment was amazing- a man in a tuxedo stood on a small stage in the centre of the room playing an electric violin to songs like wake me up by Avicii- it was outstanding!

Lake baikal and Orkohn Island

The next day we took a 5 hour minibus (then ferry) organised by our hostel out to Lake Baikal and across Orkohn Island.

Lake Baikal is a lake of tectonic origin located in the southern part of Eastern Siberia, the deepest lake in the world (1,642 meters) and the largest natural reservoir of fresh water (19%). The lake stretches from the southwest to the northeast for 620 km in the form of a giant crescent. The width of the lake is in the range of 24 to 79 km. So if you look at it on a map it looks like a banana.

We arrived at Orkohn Island to the local town with a population of around 500- unfortunately it was low season and most of the restaurants and shops were closed leaving us to make most of our own meals here. The lake was still frozen in this area but the ice was thin at the shore line so we couldn’t walk out onto it without running the risk of falling in and having a miserable walk back to the hostel. During our time here we went for walks, and hung out on the beach. We tried to go biking which turned out to be a bit of a nightmare because most of the ground on the part of the island where we stayed was sand- Chris took a corner too quickly and ended up over the handlebars and smashing up his elbow- a day later the elbow blossomed a violet coloured bruise about 30cm long!

It was so hot at times, and cold at others- classic spring weather making it very hard to dress appropiately

The highlight of our time on Orkohn island was definitely the sunset- it was truely spectacular. Watching the sky turn orange and purple over the frozen lake as the sun set behind the mountains (sitting on a rock having a beer and listening to fat freddy’s drop on our speaker) is not something I think I will ever forget.

We travelled back to Irkurst and spent two days exploring the city on self guided walking tours. Our favourite part about all the old historic sites was reading about the great fires of 1600 and 1700s that destroyed most of the city which was made of wood- it was only after the second massive fire that they decided to change their favoured building material into something a bit less flammable. One of the most memorable places we ate was at New Zealand Pies. It is a bakery in the heart of the city selling classic style New Zealand pies- the story in the shop goes that the owner, originally from Irkust, lived in NZ for a year and fell in love with the pies. She came back to Irkurst and started to bake them for herself and got a stall at the annual local food festival and they sold out in minutes. She then decided to open up a kiwiana themed restaurant in Irkurst to sell her pies!


Then we were off again on the train, to Novosibrisk!

Novosibrisk

Novosibrisk is the largest city in Siberia, and the third largest in Russia (after Moscow and St Petersburg). We were informed by our Lonely planet guide for the trans-siberian trip not to expect much, that the highlights included a monument to the first traffic light in the city, to make up for this dull day time the night life is very vibrant.

We arrived early evening to Novosibrisk and walked about 2km with our bags to our hostel which was in an old soviet style apartment building. We found ourselves that evening somewhere completely unexpected- a hip taco restaurant- serving delicious fresh tacos, home brewed beers, and we even shared tequilia with the owner! It was great!

The taco place!

The next day we went to the highest rated attraction on tripadvisor- the zoo! Low expectations were well and truely exceeded. It was really cool, with animals from massive birds and reindeers to tigers/lions/lynx/puma/etc and polar bears! There was also an area with rides which topped the day off.

We finished the day at a fancy tapas restaurant with cocktails to celebrate graduating from our diplomas that we did last year! We weren’t able to attend the ceremony in Auckland for obvious reasons…

After the short trip we were again back on the train to Yerkaterinburg

YEKATERINBURG

The 4th biggest city in Russia, Yekaterinburg was the natural next stop on our train journey across Russia.

Our time here started out like a nightmare, we arrived at 4:30am morning couldnt find hostel that we had booked and paid for a few weeks before. We were in the spot that was marked on the map on booking.com but no hostel in site. We tried for over an hour walking around the same area, trying to call the number provider for the reception but with no luck. We eventually gave up and booked another hostel nearby which thankfully was easy to find.

We spent our two days in Yekaterinburg doing a self-guided walking tour, seeing the sites including the church which was build above the place were the last Russian Tsar and his family was slaughtered in 1917 during the Russian revolution (the story that the disney movie Anastasia is based off).

This is the outside of the museum commemorating Boris Yeltz, the first Russia president. It was incredibly informative about the fall of communism party and the last 20 years of Russian history as well as being a very modern and cool museum! 10/10

Kazan

If it sounds like we were shooting through places quickly, we were! Finially in Kazan we were able to have a break with a 4 day stop over.

With a population of about 1.3 million, a rich history, deep culture and strong economic influence, thus taking the title from Nizhny Novgorod. By many measures, Kazan has one of the highest standards of living in Russia, following after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Located between Europe and Asia, having both Russian and Tatar populations, Kazan peacefully blends Muslim and Christian cultures. There are also many other religions represented in Kazan, we even visited a church that was dedicated to representing all religions in the world.

We spend one full day at an aquapark which was really fun on the water slides and lazy river pools. We saw another Ferris Wheel and couldn’t resist a sunset ride either.

The second stand out would have to be watching the new Avengers movie when Chris was feeling a little poorly, unfortunately it was completely dubbed in Russian (not an english subtitle in site)- we luckily got the gist of it (Chris fell asleep during some of it) and enjoyed a bucket of salty popcorn.

We checked out the rest of the city sites, including the famous UNESCO kazan kremlin, before heading onwards on our second to last train to Moscow.

Our favourite place in Kazan- the aquapark!
Inside the Kazan Kremlin
The church of all religions
Kazan Kremlin at sunset
Ferris wheel at sunset