Metal Box

There are strange low hills in the vicinity of The Port of Felixtowe in Suffolk. Not the product of tectonic upheaval or Ice-Age earth shifting but man-made plateaus of painted steel. Around what is the largest container port in Britain vast acres of stacked shipping containers afford the local topography a distinct Legoland character. Ugly they may be, but containers can be piled high, safely and efficiently – this is really the whole point of them. Cross the Orwell estuary to the other bank and the mechanics of the terminal seem somehow easier to discern from a distance. Looking north across the water from Shotley Peninsula the enormity of the container ships becomes all too apparent, as does the immense volume of their gargatuan payloads. The juxtaposition of the tranquil saltmarshes, silent but for the piping of waders, and the distant metallic rumble of behemoths docking across the water strikes an oddly unsettling note.

There is something a little inhuman, sinister even, about shipping containers. Perhaps they are too much like a human-sized tin cans for comfort. They evoke fears of incarceration, claustrophobia – a living grave. Such fear affords them considerable dramatic possibilities.  A European shipping container was central to the plot of the second season of the acclaimed HBO production The Wire. In this, McNulty, the anti-hero cop who had been exiled to  Baltimore Docks, found himself involved in a case concerning a shipping container full of dead young East European women, the victims of a people trafficking scheme that had gone terribly wrong. Even the British soap Brookside once invoked a container for criminal purposes when top-dog ‘scally’ Barry Grant locked a business opponent in a shipping container at Liverpool Docks. We never learned of his fate – or if we did, I had stopped watching by then. Containers seem to fit snugly into the lexicon of crime pulp fiction and the threat of tinny incarceration provides a welcome alternative to hackneyed themes of ‘swimming with fishes’  or being concreted into flyovers.

Shipping containers can be found in the most unlikely of places, not just ports. Travel about as far as you can get from an ocean – Central Asia, say – and you’ll still find them in large numbers, not so much as moveable storage but more as make-do business premises. Both of Kyrgyzstan’s two largest markets make extensive use of them, double-stacked in parallel rows to create narrow shopping streets of easily-secured retail premises. In the capital Bishkek, you can find pretty well anything you might need at the Dordoi Bazaar north of the city. While the sellers are mostly Kyrgyz, many of the shoppers strolling the market’s metallic thoroughfares come from further afield – Kazakhstan or even Russia.

Larger still is the market at Kara-Suu right on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border close to Osh in the south. This one really is the largest market in all Central Asia. Kara-Suu is the grey economy writ large. Almost entirely populated by ethnic Uzbeks, this is the place to buy very cheap Chinese goods -clothes, electronic goods, household wares – just don’t expect a guarantee or 6-month warranty. The market is long-established and dates from Soviet times when the meandering Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier really did not mean that much. These days Kara-Suu is closed down periodically by the authorities but most of the time shoppers from Uzbekistan are able to sneak or bribe their way across this the border to buy goods at much cheaper prices than at home.   Sometimes they even bring raw cotton to sell at a premium in Kyrgyzstan.

Bazaars like Kara-Suu are hardly typical. Away from Bishkek, Osh and a handful of small cities, Kyrgyzstan is by and large rural – wild, mountainous and very beautiful. The country may be very long way from any ocean but it does have some stunning high-altitude lakes like Issyk-Kul and Song-Kul (above). No container ships, though.

White City Blues

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event called A Taste of Serbia in London. The evening was arranged by the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia and we were all generously plied with tasty nibbles and a wide range of excellent wines from that country.

Of course, this being a press event the main emphasis was to promote all that Serbia has to offer British would-be travellers. To serve this purpose a promotional video was shown that featured a Belgrade DJ walking through the city’s streets whilst waxing lyrical about his hometown to chill-out music. The video showed a cool yet ecstatic crowd dancing in a Belgrade nightclub before cutting to our DJ hero walking through oddly unpeopled streets; then it swooped to Kalemegdan Park before cutting to the DJ encountering a dark-eyed beauty in an apparently deserted shopping mall. It told a story, certainly, but it seemed a strangely incomplete one.

I recognised Belgrade alright but the video did little to flatter the Serbian capital. OK, it may not be Prague but the city does have a certain maverick charm that had been sorely overlooked. Maybe it was trying attract a young, ‘cutting edge’ crowd but the promotional film made the ‘White City’ look grey and drab — just like the stereotype.  As someone remarked as we watched it: ‘There’s nothing in this video that makes me want to go there.’ I had to agree. Where was Skadarlija – the so-called Bohemian quarter? Where were the floating splav cafes and restaurants on the river? Where were all the quirky cafes and wacky restaurants? Why was Kalemegdan Park, that wonderful spot above the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, so devoid of people? Where was the Zemun waterfront? Where was the Danube? Ada Ciganlija island? The list goes on. Why didn’t the film crew wait for a spot of sunshine to brighten things up?

Anyway, Serbia has a lot more to it than just its capital city, wonderful as that may be. To me, it’s forested hills, hidden Orthodox monasteries, Roma men driving carts, cartoon-book haystacks in fields, old rusting Zastavas serving as corn stores, solitary men fishing in rivers, storks clattering  their bills on village roofs. It’s the smell of Turkish coffee, grilling meat, roasting peppers and lime blossom. It’s the taste of sljivovica (plum brandy) and kajmak (a sort of cream). It’s tall men and elegant women; sometimes even tall women and elegant men. It’s the sound of violins, accordians and shuffling feet.

Perhaps all these things that I hold dear are considered a bit too backward and Old Europe for the marketing people? Still, at least they noticed the dark-eyed beauties. They got that bit right.