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.

 

 

Mildred Holland’s Seven-year Task

IMG_3824Mildred Holland was an unusual and determined woman. Not content with  being merely the new rector’s wife at St Mary’s, the parish church at Huntingfield in northeast Suffolk, Mildred took it on herself to singlehandedly repaint the ceiling of the church’s hammerbeam roof. This enormous labour took seven whole years between 1859 and 1866, a period in which spent she much of her time on her back atop scaffolding wielding a paint brush. First she painted the chancel, then the nave. A novice to church painting, Mildred was given some advice by E L Blackburne FSA, an expert on medieval decoration, but other than this and the help she received from workmen erecting the scaffolding she had no assistance whatsoever. Naturally, such arduous toil took its toll and Mildred died in 1878, a relatively young woman, not so many years after completing her task.

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There may be those who will find the roof decoration here far too bright for their taste –  the colours are brilliant and vibrant, the overall affect almost psychedelic. But if you have  a plentiful supply of pound coins  – there is a cash-hungry slot for inserting coins to supply short-lived electrical illumination – you can see for yourself the sort of church decoration that might have held illiterate medieval peasants in awe. True, Mildred’s work was a Victorian makeover but it was probably quite faithful to the original paint job – the bling of medieval church decoration was often far more garish than many of us imagine it to be.

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To find the church you must first venture down winding narrow lanes southeast of Halesworth in Suffolk, a modest adventure in its own right. There is a monument to Mildred and her husband in the churchyard close to the gate. The dedicated font cover, a sort of internal church steeple, is rather impressive too.

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St Mary’s, Huntingfield and the story of Mildred Holland makes an appearance in my new book Slow Travel Suffolk, a companion volume to the recently published Slow Travel Norfolk, although the book is by no means solely about churches, medieval decoration or single-minded determined women.

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Slow Travel Norfolk

2029[1]

Well, it is finally out – my new book Slow Travel Norfolk.

Here is a brief extract from the book about an extraordinary rook roost that takes place at Buckenham Carrs each winter:

A  large  wooded  area  just  east  of   Buckenham  station, Buckenham Carrs is in winter home to an enormous rook and jackdaw roost mentioned in the Domesday Book. It’s thought there may be as many as 80,000 birds. The roost is the central motif of Mark Cocker’s Crow Country, which celebrates both crows and the Yare Valley where he lives. The Buckenham roost, which takes place in the winter months, roughly between late October and March, is quite a spectacle to behold, a natural phenomenon that has been taking place long before the fields were ploughed here and the church at Buckenham constructed. Ideally, you’ll want a crisp winter’s evening with a clear sky and a full moon.                                                                                                                                                    The best vantage point is to walk up the narrow road from Buckenham station until you reach a copse on the left with a small ruined brick shelter. You’ll see it all from here. The performance – if you can call it that – is a slow burn. Just after sunset, groups of rooks, and some jackdaws, fly in to gather on the large ploughed area immediately to the west; others land in the trees that surround it. Some have come quite a long way to be sociable but the crow conversation taking place sounds rather tetchy, all guttural complaining caws.                                                                                                                                       Momentum slowly builds as more and more groups of birds fly in to land in the field. As the light fades, the noise from the congregation builds louder and eerily expectant: something is clearly about to happen. Eventually, when the darkness is almost complete some sort of signal spurs the birds airborne and the sky blackens with rooks that swirl noisily east to settle in the woods of Buckenham Carrs where they will spend the night together.                                                                                                                                                It’s an astonishing, almost primal, event. One that almost laughs in the face of man’s perceived dominion over nature. No collective noun can adequately describe it: a building of rooks, a train of jackdaws. It’s less a murder of crows, more a mass execution.

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For an another take on Slow Norfolk, here is a lovely post about Going Slow on the north Norfolk coast on The World According to Dina, which generously mentions my book too.

Einstein on the Heath

It’s been a long time since my last post. The main reason for this is that I have been busy working on Slow Norfolk, a new guide for Bradt that is scheduled for publication early next year. Rather than a new edition of Slow Norfolk & Suffolk, that guide will become two separate books in the future: Slow Norfolk and Slow Suffolk. Naturally, there will be a degree of cut and paste involved but, as well as a fresh look and a new emphasis – less in the way of listings, more in the way of a personal take on the county — there will be lots of new material that celebrates that which is strange, quirky and particular about the county. For a taster of the sort of thing that Slow Norfolk will contain, here’s a snippet about a certain German physicist’s brief sojourn in north Norfolk.

Einstein on the Heath

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A couple of miles southeast of Felbrigg Hall is the village of Roughton on the Norwich to Cromer road. Although the village is unremarkable, Roughton Heath just to the north was the unlikely residence of Albert Einstein for a few weeks in 1933. The celebrated German physicist was brought here under tight security to live in a small hut on the heath after fleeing Nazi Germany. Whilst living in his modest hut Einstein continued with important work that would later be put to use developing the world’s first atomic bomb. The scientist also found time to pose for a sculpture by Jacob Epstein. It was this brief episode by the Norfolk coast that provided inspiration for Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach. A blue plaque commemorating Einstein’s short-lived residence on the heath adorns the wall of the New Inn in Roughton village. The whereabouts of the hut itself is not known.

Serbia 4

1849[1]

The new edition of my Serbia guide is published today. It’s fully updated, of course, with revised text and lots of new listings, especially for Belgrade, a city that despite considerable setbacks seems to drive itself forever onwards and upwards. Here’s a snippet from the new edition that describes a possible future development for the Serbian capital. It looks quite remarkable (although probably hugely expensive too).

A ZAHA HADID DEVELOPMENT FOR KALEMEGDAN?

A large plot of land between Kalemegdan Fortress and the Dorćol riverfront is currently awaiting development. Originally owned by Beko, a company that went bankrupt, the land has been bought by Lamda development, a Greek company that is part of a holding company with EFG Bank and EKI Petrol. The Greek company approached the studio of Zaha Hadid to come up with a project for the land and the Iraqi-British architect has come up with a stunning plan for the development: a sweeping modernist design that connects with the surrounding landscape and incorporates essential public spaces and public transition between the fortress and the riverfront. At the time of writing, the proposed project was still awaiting public review (www.beobuild.rs). The design can be seen on line at: http://www.zaha-hadid.com/architecture/beko-masterplan.

Belgrade’s not a stranger to developments that never quite get off the ground. Here’s another snippet from the Belgrade chapter of Serbia 4:

GOING UNDERGROUND – THE METRO THAT NEVER WAS

At the edge of Ćirila i Metodija Park in the city centre, under the whiskery gaze of Vuk Karadžić whose statue graces the western corner, are several entrances that lead down to what appears to be an underpass. But there is more to this than you might imagine: this is the location for the only station on Belgrade’s metro. The station, known simply as Vukov Spomenik (‘Vuk’s Statue’) was to be part of an underground system that never came to fruition, and which, as things turned out, ended up being one of the city’s biggest white elephants. It was built during the Milošević period in 1995 as the first component of what would be a comprehensive underground network but the turn of events in Serbia in the late 1990s resulted in the country having far more pressing needs than that of a highly expensive underground railway. The part that was completed is well worth seeing, even if it is a bit surreal. A number of entrances lead down to a stylish atrium in brushed steel from where escalators plummet down further to the platform. The station has since found use as a stop on the Beovoz line that plies between Zemun and Pančevo and a few shops have opened for business in the atrium.

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Architecture without Architects

It all started more than 25 years ago when I bought a book called Architecture without Architects in a second-hand bookshop. The book, pithily subtitled A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, and authored by Bernard Rudolfsky, came as a revelation, presenting all manner of strange and wonderful vernacular buildings from all over the globe.

The book was actually a follow up to an earlier exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Within its pages were numerous black and white photographs of African mud huts, Galician stone granaries, Cappadocian cave dwellings and the tightly clustered dwellings of Italian hill towns. What struck me most though was
three grainy old photograph of titled: The fortified villages of Svaneti. Of all the fanciful structures depicted in the book, the buildings in these images looked the oddest, the most improbable of the lot – menacing stone skyscrapers set against a snow-covered mountainous backdrop. Accompanying the photos was a little text that explained that they
dated back to the 12th-century and were built and maintained by local families as defence against the ‘blood feuds and vendettas that raged unchecked’ in the region. It didn’t even say which country they were in, just ‘western Caucasus’. They were, I subsequently found out, in the Georgian SSSR of what was then still the Soviet Union.

Almost two decades later I get to visit Georgia – following the breakup of the USSR such things have become altogether easier – but it was not until my third visit to the country that I finally managed to travel to Svaneti and see the towers for myself. Svaneti happens to be home to some of Europe’s highest villages, with permanent settlements where snow lingers late into May, but the region is better known for its unique ancient culture and for its somewhat sinister reputation. Even within Georgia, the Svan inhabitants of the valley are treated with suspicion as Svaneti is usually thought of as a backward, lawless region with a reputation for brigandage. This certainly used to be the case, and until a decade ago Svaneti was a risky place to visit with robberies at gunpoint not uncommon. Thanks to a big clean-up operation a few years ago – the Georgian government is keen to develop tourism – it is now pretty safe.

Visiting Svaneti  for the first time I realise that the place I saw in Rudolfsky’s book all those years ago was a collection of villages  called Ushguli, nestled beneath high Caucasus peaks and stretching high up a valley. At 2,200 metres altitude, Ushguli is probably the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe (although currently no-go Dagestan on the other side of the Caucasus range also has contenders to the title) but it is its magnificent medieval towers that make it truly extraordinary. Some have collapsed over the years but there still sufficient to present an imposing spectacle and render Ushguli’s towers a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There has never been a better time to visit Svaneti, although things are changing fast – too fast for comfort perhaps. Following centuries of isolation – both the wheel and the internal combustion engine arrived here at roughly the same time during the 1930s – Svan villagers are starting to leave their high valleys for an easier life in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The building of a new road will no doubt help accelerate this change and the days of unadulterated Svan culture may now be numbered. For the time being though, travelling there is still to take part in an adventure.

Bradt Travel Guides have a good guide to the country. Authored by Tim Burford and recently updated by yours truly for the 4th edition, it contains all that you need to know about Georgia – Svaneti and Ushguli included.