Osh Bazaar

IMG_9760The first thing to know is that it isn’t in Osh. Rather, it is in the capital Bishkek. Why this bazaar shares the name of Kyrgyzstan’s second city is uncertain. Perhaps it’s because it is here that you come to look for a shared taxi ride south to Osh; or maybe it is something to do with the shout of the porters as they work their way through the crowd asking shoppers to move out of the way – “(b)osh, (b)osh”? No matter, there is no confusion when you get here as the bazaar’s name is spelled out in big red letters on the large arch that marks its entrance. In Cyrillic script OSH looks more like OW, but there’s no exclamation mark à la Devon’s Westward Ho!IMG_9761Osh Bazaar, just west of the city centre near the main bus station is Bishkek’s best known market, although not its largest – for that you need to travel just north of the city limits to Dordoi Bazaar where you’ll find thousands of stacked shipping containers serving as shops. Osh Bazaar is more traditional – no shipping containers, just hundreds of small shops and a couple of huge hangars that have stalls selling everything that you might imagine along with a few items that you might not. Mostly though, it is food and drink – fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods. This is the place to come for Kyrgyz specialities like kumys (fermented horse milk) or kuruut (sour yoghurt balls) but pretty well anything can be found here with diligent searching. If it is angels’ tears or unicorn ham that you need then Osh Bazaar is probably your best bet in the city.IMG_9763My last visit was early last summer on a scorching day with temperatures nudging 40 degrees centigrade. Osh Bazaar has something of a reputation for dodgy plainclothes policemen who home in on obvious foreigners to ask for passports and the handing over of foreign currency ‘to count’. Perhaps it was just too hot to bother that day – or maybe I just looked like an ethnic Russian local (unlikely) – but there was no sign of them. Just heat-frazzled shoppers and exhausted stall holders dozing between customers.IMG_9737IMG_9756IMG_9753IMG_9748untitled


The third edition of my Bradt Kyrgyzstan guide will be published later this week.



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IMG_3939Norwich, mid January. At dusk over the past few weeks an avian spectacular has been witnessed taking place in the sky over St Stephen’s Street. As the daylight dwindles around the four o’clock mark a swirling murmuration of roosting starlings may often be seen in the sky above this busy city centre shopping street. There’s a pleasing degree of unpredictability to such behaviour, and some afternoons the starlings seem to be conspicuously absent, but as a rule the birds circumscribe a giddy figure eight in the sky above the old Norwich Union office block, Surrey Street bus station, the Marsh Insurance building and Queens Road.

IMG_3933For many of the shoppers and workers hurrying home on the bus this phenomena takes place virtually unnoticed. Even so, there are those who stop to look and wonder at such wild exuberance in what is to them a familiar and quotidian urban environment. While shopping is bought and buses are boarded in the street below the massed starlings dance above – a joyous ensemble piece that twists and turns like a single organism, choreographed by some sort of instinctive group consciousness. As the light fails the birds finally settle, with what seems like a collective spontaneous decision, on the roof of a disused office building where they will spend the night. Darkness falls: the spectacle is over for another day.


True, this is not a particularly grand example of the murmuration phenomenon – perhaps just a thousand birds or so: it is hard to say – but beauty and wonder is relative and this modest display has a personal dimension in that it can even be glimpsed from the windows of my home. Such a spectacle within a stone’s throw of one’s own doorstep can only be seen as a gift.

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Whittlesea Straw Bear


If you venture to Whittlesea, at the edge of the Fens near Peterborough, during the second weekend in January you cannot help but notice that strange straw animals and oddly attired people have taken over the streets of this small market town.  The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival was re-established in the town in 1980 after having been outlawed for over 70 years. Hitherto, the last sighting of a straw bear in these parts was in 1909 when the annual winter festival was stopped by local police because it was seen as a form of unwanted cadging from the public.
No-one seems to know how far back the tradition goes but it was once the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress a ploughboy in a straw suit and parade him through the town. The ‘straw bear’, attended by a keeper, would dance for gifts of beer, money and tobacco that would be later enjoyed by the local ploughing fraternity who were always short of cash at this slack time of year.


Similar winter traditions once existed elsewhere – in other parts of England and also in central Europe and Germany. There are clear connections, too, with ancient pre-Christian wild man traditions, and even similarities with some forms of West African tribal practices in which men are adorned in fetishistic animal or demon costumes. There’s also a plain link with agricultural fertility, and the desire for a bountiful harvest, as only the best quality straw from the previous year’s harvest is used to dress the bear, which is paraded around the town’s squares and taverns on the Saturday before the straw suit is taken from its occupier and ritually burned on the Sunday.



Whilst clearly revivalist, the modern festival has a vigour and joie de vivre that is at odds with the sombre post-Christmas, mid-winter gloom that tends to characterise this time of year. Perhaps its joyous atmosphere has a lot to do with  the unselfconscious high spirits of the English whenever they get a chance to dress up in silly clothes and clown around. Such behaviour is aided and abetted by widespread music and dancing by brightly costumed dancing sides that go under exotic monikers like Gog Magog, Pig Dyke, Old Glory and Ox Blood Molloy, Kemps Men Morris, Red Leicester, Pretty Grim and Black Pig Border Morris. The fact that all of the town’s pubs are open all day really does not hurt either.



Some may find it contrived but, revivalist or not, there is something atavistic and primally English at work here. The good cheer and high spirits are infectious and it seems the easiest thing to instantly become part of this transient happy community. Whatever the precise truth of its historical tradition, the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival is a weekend of conviviality and broad smiles accompanied by daft dancing and the plentiful consumption of real ale. A time of gentle eccentricity, it is an occasion when, for once, it actually feels quite good to be English.






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The winter solstice marks the dark frontier of the annual cycle: that time of year when days are at their shortest; the period of feasting before the corner of the year is turned and daylight and warmth return to awaken barren nature with voluptuous spring. Perhaps it is appropriate to represent this seasonal turning point with images of another type of frontier – a geographical one?

Thingvellir in southern Iceland lies at the meeting point of two continents and two major tectonic plates – the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate. Rather than a violent collision of rock, as in the case of great mountain ranges like the Andes or Himalayas, here the plates are pulling apart in opposite directions – the rift valley between the two is actually becoming wider by approximately 7 mm every year. This is, in fact, the only place on earth where seafloor spreading of a mid-ocean ridge can be seen on solid land rather than at the bottom of an ocean. Elsewhere in the world this might seem remarkable but in such a newborn baby of a landmass as Iceland, where it is possible to witness the creation of new terra firma before your very eyes, such phenomena seem almost commonplace.


By what we can only imagine was serendipity the earliest Viking settlers in Iceland chose this very place for their annual outdoor assembly. Thingvellir and the beautiful lake of Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in the country, lie at a natural crossroads that connects the south and west of Iceland and so make for a convenient location for large gatherings. It was undoubtedly a pragmatic choice but, even so, the landscape here seems to glow with an inherent magic that goes beyond mere aesthetic appeal. Such magic of place seems to be at its most powerful during the short days of mid-winter when these images were taken. Those early Icelanders clearly knew what they were doing.

Happy Christmas


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There’s a good omen as we leave Heacham before dawn: the sharp cry of a tawny owl emanating from somewhere in the woods. Fifteen minutes later, walking from Snettisham RSPB car park towards the beach at The Wash, there are already a  few skeins of geese in the sky, flying west, ready to breakIMG_3208fast on sugar beet fields.

Mostly though, you hear them before you see them – a noisy gabbling racket coming from dark rafts of life out on the water. Tens of thousands of pink-footed geese overwintering from Greenland and Iceland – west Norfolk must seem like Shangri-La after all that tundra and icy water. The geese peel off in groups at regular intervals, forming fluid arrowheads as, honking excitedly, they fly west inland.


There is an unwritten discipline at work, and every bird seems to know its place in the squadron. Flapping inland, the geese merge loosely with other groups before they eventually disappear from view. To our human eyes, Snettisham church rising out of the mist is the only recognisable local landmark; perhaps its steeple serves as a beacon to the geese too, as they seem to know exactly where they are going. IMG_3218

The sun rises over the land, a brilliant orange fire that lights the birds as they fly over head, turning their underbelly pink, orange, red. Momentarily they almost resemble flamingos.

IMG_3244The tide is turning quickly and hidden sandbanks are revealed as the unseen moon sucks water from the land. As dawn-pink drains from the sky our attention is drawn to an untold number of hyperactive waders a little way to the south. Mostly dunlin, curlew and knot, it is the latter, another Arctic winter visitor, that are the most extraordinary as dense clouds of them rise sporadically into the sky, tightly grouped like starling murmurations. As they swiftly weave and turn, shifting the angle of their wings, the colour of this mass organism transforms dramatically from black to white to golden – the avian equivalent of a firework display. Such fleeting serendipity of form and colour: a photograph can hardly do this justice. As with the pink-footed geese, the Arctic’s seasonal loss is Norfolk’s gain.



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Fountaine’s Folly


October 31, 2014. Samhaine – All Saints’ Eve – Halloween – take your pick. Old-school seasonality seems to be in retreat as autumn suddenly slips back a season in denial of shortening daylight hours and the termination of British Summer Time. This is the swan song of a flighty Indian summer that has had thermometers teetering at 20°C. Records will be broken – but that is nothing extraordinary in this unpredictable inter-glacial in which the inevitability of climate change obligingly reveals its hand to blinkered, consumption-addled humanity. Whatever the omens, the summery warmth feels benign– a good day for a walk along the Nar Valley Way between Castle Acre and Narborough.

West of Castle Acre, pyramidal bonfires are piled high in west Norfolk fields awaiting Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th. Or maybe a day or three earlier, or later – national celebrations tend to be movable feasts these days. After an enjoyable tramp  alongside fen and through autumn-blazed  woodland I arrive in the small village of West Acre.

IMG_2797The village’s All Saints’ Church (an appropriate dedication given the date) is approached through a shaded corridor of dark yews, the skull above the door bidding a slightly macabre welcome. Above this, the tower clock face bears the legend: Watch and Pray. This is serious stuff, old time religion – no place for dilettante church visitors.


The graveyard to the church’s south – a suntrap in which a climatically confused cherry tree is bursting into flower – seems altogether more friendly. The ruins of a priory lie in the field next door guarded by brown bulls and a barbed wire fence. Just a gateway and a fragment of wall remain; the rest of the remains lie beneath turf, bulges like furniture draped beneath green baize.



From West Acre the way leads alongside fields of sheep and through dense woodland before emerging at a clearing that has views of Narford Hall across a lake to the south. Narford Hall is the pile of the Fountaine family and the previous incumbent, Andrew Fountaine,  who died in 1997, had quite a reputation for flirting with extremist politics. Disowned by the Conservatives for what were perceived as anti-Semitic views, he became a founding member of the National Front in 1967, standing for election on three occasions and organising “Aryan summer camps” on the grounds of his estate. His nephew, Tony Martin, the farmer who achieved nationwide notoriety for shooting and killing a 16-year old burglar at his home in the Fens back in 1999, was once a regular visitor.

North of the clearing, tucked behind trees, is a curious neoclassical building, an obvious folly. I duck beneath pollarded lime boughs to investigate. It’s a simple affair, yet a grand gesture: a summer pavilion positioned to take in the view over the lake to the hall, a place from which to gleefully survey all of one’s domain. Behind the pillars, there a niche surrounded by attractive Art Nouveau tiles, some of which have been prised away from the wall.  Broken tiles and crumbling bricks litter the floor. A closer inspection of the niche tiles reveals a number of ladybirds taking the sun, stirred from hibernation by the unexpected warmth. Folly indeed.



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Kyrgyz Graveyards

IMG_8525You see them everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. From afar they resemble hillside villages of mud-brick dwellings but a closer look reveals them to be cemeteries. Usually located a little way outside a village, sometimes on top of a low bluff, they are often more impressive than the villages they serve. With a mixture of mud-brick, shrine-like tombs, gravestones with etched images of the deceased, and Islamic crescent moons intermixed with communist five-pointed stars, they represent an odd amalgam of funerary styles. What makes them unmistakably Kyrgyz, though, are the large, wrought-iron, yurt structures that mark many of the graves.


A nomadic people until well into the 20th century, the Kyrgyz used to be buried without fuss wherever they died. Although important nobles and warriors were sometimes honoured with showy mausoleums, most Kyrgyz graves were simple and basic. However, when this nomadic lifestyle was forcibly abandoned during the Soviet period the erection of large memorials to the dead started to become fashionable with the newly sedentary Kyrgyz. It may seem ironic that a wandering people like the Kyrgyz should choose such an earth-bound dwelling after death but a new practice emerged in the 1930s of erecting monuments that recalled their former nomadic lifestyle. As well as the wrought-iron yurt frames that reflected nostalgia for the old way of life, etched portraits – a Russian custom – also started to feature on gravestones. Traces of an altogether more ancient culture became prevalent too: the tradition of pre-Islamic shamanism in which antlers, animal skulls and horses’ tails are used to decorate tombs.

IMG_8530In Kyrgyz graveyards disparate traditions – shamanistic, Islamic, communist – intermingle freely. Gently crumbling as their mud-brick mausoleums slowly decay back into the earth, such cemeteries can be seen far and wide in this central Asian country. Some of the finest are those that can be seen in villages along the Suusamyr Valley in Chui Province. The photos here were taken in two villages in this isolated valley – Kyzyl-Oi and Suusamayr.



There will be more on graveyards and many other aspects of Kyrgyz culture in the forthcoming third edition of my book Kyrgyzstan: the Bradt Travel Guide, which will be published early next year.

More information on Kyrgyzstan, including photographs and extracts from the forthcoming book, is available on the Kyrgyzstan page of the Bradt website.

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At Covehithe

IMG_1981The day before the autumn equinox: the setting, the beach at Covehithe. We have gathered here at the north Suffolk coast to walk and talk. A literary walk to celebrate W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, no less, organised as part of the Waveney & Blyth Arts festival. The weather – hazy grey skies, mist, light drizzle – is suitably Sebaldian.

Proceedings begin at Covehithe’s St Andrew’s Church – itself a curiosity, a church within a church –the large medieval shell of the original church sheltering the tiny 17th-century thatched-roofed replacement that was built when the former became too expensive for villagers to maintain. The fine 15th-century tower abuts the later build, dwarfing almost mockingly its dinky proportions. Before taking a pew to hear an introduction by UEA lecturers Jo Catling and Barbara Marshall, who both knew and worked with W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald, some of us examine the font, recycled from the earlier church, which has stylised lions and hairy human-like figures that have had their heads chiselled off. Headless or not, these strange decapitated figures are recognisable as representations of the woodwose (wild man), a creature that belongs to the same fabulist stable as the Green Man, the crude anti-masonry no doubt the handiwork of William Dowsing’s men as it was these same arch-puritans who did for the stained glass windows that used to illuminate the original church.


We drift down to the beach by way of Covehithe Broad – the direct road from Covehithe is closed and fenced-off these days thanks to the coastal erosion that constantly depletes this shoreline. The broad’s brackish water is alive with Canada geese that honk plaintively, their voices coming through the mist even before we can see them. The geese take off sporadically in small groups to circuit and survey the parish before returning to the watery comfort of the broad. At the shore, the tide is out and the beach is deserted but for the presence of a distant dog-walker and our own gaggle of muse-seeking Sebaldians. To the north, the curve of the coast at Benacre Ness near Kessingland can just about be discerned. Southwold lies to the south: a distinctive profile that stretches from sea to land – first pier, then low town roofs and blinking lighthouse before a water tower marks the point where the town ends and the Sandlings and marshes begin.


We walk north along the beach in small amorphous groups exchanging thoughts on Sebald’s gloomy oeuvre. The cliffs of Covehithe feature in The Rings of Saturn, albeit briefly, which is of course why this was chosen as a suitable territory for the walk. It was here that the author stood on the cliffs and gazed out on the leaden-coloured water of what he describes as the German Ocean (a rather archaic term for the North Sea that went out of fashion at the end of the 19th century but chosen by Sebald for his own, anything but nationalistic, reasons). As he lowered his gaze to the beach below he inadvertently spied a couple making love and noted that “it seemed that the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged”. Overcome with panic at the sight of this “many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species” he left to walk to Southwold.


Thankfully, no such sexual shenanigans affronted us on Saturday. In fact, the only other living thing on the beach other than a desultory parliament of herring gulls was a lone figure scrutinising the foreshore for Paleolithic flint hand tools that we were assured sometimes turn up here. The walk’s turning point was probably somewhere in the shadow of Covehithe church, although we could not see its landmark tower from our position on the sand beneath the cliff. Having examined some of the evocative bleached tree stumps that decorate the beach here like Arts Council sculptures, looked at the ever-receding cliffs with their abandoned sand martin burrows and observed a solitary craft out to sea just as Sebald had done, we turned to face south. With Southwold’s low skyline now silhouetted on the brightening horizon we placed the North Sea/German Ocean to our left as we ruminated and slowly ambled our way back to Covehithe’s church within a church. In half a century or so, this may well be gone, a victim of the ferocious erosion that defines this coastline. Covehithe and its church will have vanished forever, living on only in memory and books – a place of legend.

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Burston 1914 – 2014

IMG_1372Earlier this year I wrote of Norfolk’s radical tradition and how this would be the centenary year of the Burston School Strike, the longest running strike in British history that lasted from 1914 to 1939.  Last Sunday the annual rally took place in this quiet south Norfolk village and folk came from far and wide to particpate and celebrate. As always, there were stalls selling political literature and T-shirts, brass bands entertaining the crowd, and musicians and speakers on the small stage. IMG_1297As usual the sun shone obligingly. Sadly this year, those old stalwarts of the Left, Tony Benn and Bob Crow, were no longer here to speak but Owen Jones (a ‘braying jackal’ according to Fox News, an honorable plaudit indeed) proved a worthy successor making a stirring speech before the procession around the village ‘candlestick’ took place. IMG_1321IMG_1327Rural south Norfolk might not seem the most obvious place to see trades unionists and brass bands marching under banners but they are used to it here at Burston – it’s been going on for 30 years. A necessary reminder for what is usually considered a true blue county that zombie neoliberalism is not the only narrative. Long may it continue.



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Crossing Morecambe Bay

IMG_0733Of all the footpaths and byways that criss-cross our ancient landscape probably the most enigmatic are those that cannot be mapped because of their very impermanence. Such routes can only be defined by their start and end points rather than the space that lies in between. These conduits of human movement are impermanent in the sense that their course is forever obliged to change with the whims of nature. What is fixed is the historical notion of the route rather than the precise territory that has been traversed. Like shipping routes that must studiously avoid rocks but which have a freer rein in safe channels, footways across tidal estuaries are fluid and everchanging. One celebrated historic route is that which crosses Morecambe Bay on the south Cumbrian coast.


IMG_0859Men and women have been crossing Morecambe Bay for centuries, millennia even, but the passage has always been fraught with the danger of quicksand and fast-moving incoming tides. The tragedy that befell a group Chinese cockle diggers stranded here a decade ago is still fresh in the national psyche. Caught by the perfidious tide, abandoned by unscrupulous gangmasters, the poor migrants that perished here were caught out by both nature and the greed and indifference of their exploiters.


While Morecambe Bay’s dangers are apparent enough, there is one man who, given time, can always find a way across between the south and north shores of the bay. Cedric Robinson MBE is the official ‘Queen’s Guide to the Sands of Morecambe Bay’ and receives the princely sum of £15 annually from the Crown (and a virtually rent-free cottage) for performing this duty. Formerly a fisherman and farmer, Cedric is the 25th custodian of the the title having performed the role since 1963. The first official guide was appointed by the Duchy of Lancaster back in the mid 16th century. Prior to this, it was the monks of Cartmel Priory who escorted travellers across the sands. No doubt little has changed in the way that the guides read the landscape – assessing the movement of the sands, the shift of the channels, the whereabouts of treacherous quicksand and the height of the river water. In a grudging nod to modernity, Cedric also has a tractor at his disposal.


The weather forecast for our crossing from Arnside to Kents Bank was anything but auspicious, with predictions of heavy rain and the threat of the summer storms that had already tormented the south of England making an unwelcome appearance. Come the day though, there seemed to be nothing worse than light drizzle and low cloud.


Something of the order of one hundred people had assembled at the jetty at Arnside for the 11am start across the bay. Cedric appeared on cue to blow his whistle and lead a colourfully (yet sensibly) clad crocodile of hikers, geocachers, dog-walkers and other outdoorsy types along the high street and past a caravan site before venturing out across the estuary. Leaving dry land behind, the group soon becomes an ambulant community, a walking-talking organism worming its way west across the sands. Crossing is exhilarating rather than a solemn trudge and the next three hours pass quickly as we walk briskly over rippled sand and wade through knee-high through channels of the River Kent, its fresh water surprisingly warm.


It all seems surprisingly straightfoward, even crossing the river channels where there is a distinct undertow. Such ease of passage is thanks to Cedric who has already been out the previous day weighing up the options and marking the ever-changing route with laurel branches (‘brobs’, cut close to Cedric’s Kents Bank home at Guides Farm) that he has wedged into deep holes crow-barred into the mud. The markers are good for the next couple of days but when Cedric next takes a group out in a fortnight’s time he will need to do the pathfinding and route-marking all over again – nothing is permanent here. In Morecambe Bay the fluidity of time is all-apparent.


IMG_0806Halfway across, the light rain eases and the sun appears, albeit dimly like a ghostly face through frosted glass. In the distance, a tractor and trailer driven by Cedric’s assistant can be seen on the bank of the River Kent, our first serious wade. The shoreline now seems a distant and untrustworthy illusion, the glimpses of Morecambe seen to the southeast, a phantasmagorical will-o’-the-wisp beyond a hazy threshold to another world. Once across the second of the deeper channels we wait while Cedric does some last minute route-finding, walking some distance towards the houses of Grange-over-Sands on the north shore before returning to give us the all-clear.


Just before we reach the sheep-grazed marshes that fringe the shoreline, there is a moment of high drama as an area of sand the size of a car wobbles alarmingly like a jelly fish to warn of its danger: unstable quicksand with water beneath that could swallow a horse (indeed, Cedric has actually witnessed such a thing). Even the most maverick among us need no reminding to skirt this and keep moving until we are on firmer ground. A little further on and the scattered buildings of the shoreline assert themselves from behind the trees and we find ourselves climbing up to the platform of Kents Bank railway station. A southbound train is due and after bidding Cedric farewell (and purchasing a ‘Certificate of Crossing’ and a signed copy of his Time and Tide book) we climb on board for the two-stop, ten-minute journey back to Arnside. The train itself is bound for Manchester Airport, an altogether more obvious starting point for journeys to other phantasmagorical worlds that lie beyond the threshold of our imagination.

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