Friday, 27 July 2007

Keith Murdoch Mystery

Keith Murdoch (left) was my hero when I was a teenager. I was 17 years old and he must have been 23 when I got the chance to play with him. I must of played about five games with him that season, 1966.

He had represented Otago as a 20-year-old prop in 1964, then had a season with Ponsonby and one with Marist in Napier before returning to Dunedin. That was when I played with him. He was somewhat unfit and so he decided to start the season off playing for Zingari Richmond in the Dunedin second grade competition.

I remember that cold Otago winter of 1966, when we played on a frost covered ground against Eastern at Waikouwai-iti. I was a wing three quarter and my job was to throw the ball in at line out time. There was something unsettling about throwing it to Murdoch, a hulk of a man who physical presence was magnetic. The first time I threw the ball in, it was crooked. Murdoch glared at me. The second time I threw it in off centre. Murdoch grabbed me by the shirt and said, “Next time throw the fuckin’ ball in straight.” The threatening look in his deep eyes convinced me to improve instantaneously, I improved and never threw the ball in crooked again to Keith Murdoch. I was 17 and not fully physically developed, and a couple of the opposition forwards picked on me and roughed me up. Murdoch must have seen it and said, “next time someone hits you, give me his number.”

A few minutes later, a prop with No. 14 on his back, punched me in a tackle. I looked at Keith Murdoch, and said " No. 14.” A few minutes later No. 14 was on the ground, half conscious, and cowering. No one picked on me for the remainder of the game. I had found a grumpy Godfather.

We had a great after match function, and after consuming huge quantifies of beer, Keith offered to drive me home in his olive green Mini Minor. Imagine a 130 kg hulk of muscle getting into a small mini. About 30 mins later, he didn't quite make a corner somewhere south of Cherry Farm and the car slid off the road into a grassy ditch. I offered to help Keith manhandle the car back onto the road. He glared at me with disdain. "Leave it alone boy" he said, "I'll do it myself." With that said, Murdoch lifted, bounced, wrenched and slid the mini up the side of a a 3 metre ditch, skewed it onto the road, straightened the car up like a city slicker straightening his tie, and wiped his hand on the back of his tight shorts.

The famous Peter Bush photographs of Keith Murdoch leaving his hotel in Cardiff

We stopped at the Ravensborne pub for a few more jugs and Murdoch gave me a man-to-boy talk about how to play rugby.

A schoolmate, Nev Cleveland,told me recently he was a neighbour to the Murdoch family in Ravensbourne. Nev was the milk boy and remembers delivering 12 pints of milk to Keith's home daily. He told me that one Sunday morning about 7 am, he met Keith 'as pissed as a fart' crawling home on hands and knees. We both recalled Keith's older brother Bruce, a bricklayer, who was also a fine rugby player.

I also have pleasant memories of drinking after games we played at Montecillo, and walking through the southern cemetery, or drivinng to the closet pub at the southern end of the Oval. Wyndam Barkman, Frosty are some of the other players who come to mind. Murdoch was generally kind and protective of his friends and a pleasure to drink with. He choose his words carefully and added colour and zest to conversations. I am happy he is living a peaceful life in outback Australia.

Murdoch was often the subject of rugby talk, some of it about his not inconsiderable rugby ability, much of it about his behaviour.

A favourite story was of Keith Murdoch towing a car up a Dunedin hill, clasping the tow rope in his teeth! I could believe it !

 He also mentioned to me that he liked being alone and enjoyed his own company. Murdoch went on to live a large part of his life alone. It is a mysterious story.

Murdoch toured Wales in 1972 and achieved notoriety after scoring the opening try of the first Test.

Following the match he argued with the tour manager, assaulted a security guard at the tourist's hotel and was promptly dispatched on the first plane home.

Well known writer David Haviland writes in his blog posting "In 1979, Murdoch paid a brief visit to New Zealand, and was seen saving the life of a drowning toddler, by giving the child mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for four minutes."

He never reached Auckland and instead made the Australian outback his home where he lived in relative obscurity until the discovery of Kumanjai Limerick's body last October. Then the mystery man hit the media in 2001.

Left, a rare photo of keith Murdoch in Australia in 2001

BBC - 24 June 2001

According to the Times newspaper, Keith Murdoch, the former All Black forward who was sent home early from the 1972-3 tour of the British Isles, is wanted for questioning over the murder of an Aboriginal man in the remote Northern Territory.

The Dunedin-born Murdoch, already a controversial and mysterious figure, was dismissed from the All Black tour for attacking a security guard in Cardiff.

Instead of returning to New Zealand, he disembarked in Singapore and travelled to Darwin under an assumed name, before losing himself in the outback.

One New Zealand journalist who traced Murdoch to a logging camp in the 1970s was allegedly threatened and left in haste.

Murdoch was not heard of again until an inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Limerick was held on 15 June. It was adjourned until next month.

'No stopping'

The outback community where Murdoch has lived for 10 years is the remote copper-mining town of Tennant Creek.

It is little more than a dot on the 1,900-mile Stuart Highway through central Australia. The Lonely Planet Guide advises travellers not to go there.

So complete has been Murdoch's disappearance that police trying to trace him have had to issue photographs from the 1970s.

Locals, however, say he is now a grey-haired 57-year-old, still with a massive physique and by all accounts feared by the Aboriginal community in a place of simmering racial tensions.

Murdoch, who was known as a loner, played one Test apiece against South Africa, Australia and Wales.


The Northern Territory coroner heard evidence that Limerick, a 20-year-old alcoholic, broke into Murdoch's house on 6 October last year.

The inquest was told that Limerick had burgled the house at least twice before.

On the night in question he was allegedly heard by a neighbour pleading not to be "bashed".

Limerick was reportedly taken to Noble's Nob, a disused mine near the town, around 6 October.

He was reportedly seen there alive but disorientated. He decomposed body was found about three weeks later.

Murdoch was questioned, but not charged. He left town soon after the body was discovered and there is now a territory wide search for him as a potentially crucial inquest witness.

It seems the mystery of Keith Murdoch continues.

Keith Murdoch was a man of principles and I know he would never have killed any man. Defended himself, yes. Read what a women journalist wrote about him some years later and was so impressed she wrote a play about him.

Rugby - what does in mean to a New Zealander ?

Caption: Richie McCaw holding the Tri-Nations cup aloft after New Zealand cleaned up the series against South Africa and Australia

Although my rugby playing are over long ago, never a day goes by without checking a website or newspaper about Rugby. There were 3 million people living in New Zealand when I was playing rugby as a teenager - Sunday morning church and the rest of the six and a half days rugby at school, club, street, backyard or the local park. I even slept with my first football, nestled next to be and my pillow as a 10 year old.

Then country people usually played in the forwards because they were big and strong and did real work, and the city people usually played in the backs as they were the more frail university types, or worked in offices and hardly saw the sunshine. Colin Meads was the sterotype we loved as he was a farmer and carried a sheep under one arm, four heavy fence posts under the other and a coil of fencing wire round his neck. There were exceptions, like Captain Wilson Whineray, who went to University, but played in the forwards. In a country where social mobility was possible, playing good rugby could see you shoot from a working class lad to a nation-wide super star such as my two old team mates, Keith Murdoch and Duncan Robertson who I played with at Zingari Richmond and school and later played for Otago and then the All Blacks. Good old Murdoch he was my hero. I was 17 and he must have been 23 ish. To the British media he later became a villian when he punched a security guard on an All Black tour of the UK.

I remember the day in a cold Otago winter of 1966, when we had just played at a froist covered ground against Eastern at Waikouwai-iti, in the Senior B grade (we'd both been demoted for not turning up to practices) After consuming huge quantieis of beer, Keith offered to drive me home in his Mini Minor. Imagine a 130 kg hulk of muscle getting into a small mini. I thought of covering him with olive oil and prising him in with a crow bar. He finally managed to get in the car and about 30 mins later, he didn't quite make a corner and the car slid off the road into a grassy ditch. Being an inside worker, a technician, I offered to help Keith manhandle the car back onto the road. He glared at me with disdain. "Leave it alone boy" he said, "I'll do it myself." With that said, Murdoch lifted, bounced, wrenched and slid the mini up a 3 metre side of a ditch, skewed it onto the road, straightened the car up like a city slicker straightening his tie, and wiped his hand on the back of his tight shorts.

We stopped at the Ravensborne pub for a few more jugs and Murdoch gave me a man-to-boy talk about how to play rugby. Murdoch later became a mystery man and I will tell this story later. Got to go shopping.

Shortly after I finished this, Nev Cleveland who played rugby with Duncan Robertson at High School,told mr about being neighbours to the Murdock family in Ravensbourne. Nev was the milk boy and remembers delivering 12 pints of milk to Keith's home. He told me that one Sunday morning about 7 am, he met Keith 'as pissed as a fart' crawling home with a hangover. We both recalled Keith's older brother Bruce, a bricklayer, who was also a great rugby player.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

In Aceh province, Indonesia

On the road from Banda Aceh to Lamno

Arrived yesterday, 25 July, 2007 in Banda Aceh where we have a huge rehabilitation operation for people affected by the Tsunami. To date we have built 20,000 transitional shelters and have 17,800 permanent houses in various stages of completion. We also have major livelihoods, water sanitation, disaster preparedness, health, blood, ambulance and community outreach programmes.

It is such a joy to see people rebuilding their lives and most have conditions which are better than before the Tsunami. The international community is helping the people of Aceh to build back better.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Mountains of our Mind - Afghanistan

The death earlier this week of Zahir Shah, the former King of Afghanistan, signals the end of an era in Afghanistan. I spent four years living and working in Afghanistan and feel passionately about the landscape, the people and understand the tragedy which has befallen this beautiful country.

My book Mountains of our Mind - Afghanistan published by
india research press (www.indiaresearchpress) is a photographic essay and a collection of poetry on Afghanistan.

The book is available internationally at www.indiaresearchpress or if you live in New Zealand, Take Note Bookshop, Hokitika, New Zealand. ( There are references to the King of Afghanistan.

I hope you buy the book.

Bob McKerrow

Monday, 23 July 2007

The death of the King of Afghanistan

Today King Zahir Shah died. For 40 years he ruled Afghanistan and there was peace and stability during his reign.

I would like to tell a personal story about the King as told to me my old friend Masoud Khalili, the then Ambassador to India.

25 February 2004

On Wednesday I visited the Afghan Ambassador to India, Masoud Khalili.

I visited him at his residence. He warmly greeted me after talking poetry and matters of regional interest, he mentioned that King Zahir Shah is here at the moment in Delhi getting medical treatment. "He comes round almost every evening and sits outside, enjoying the garden, the crescent moon and the sky and stars. He speaks so highly of my father who was his advisor." (a court poet he would be called in the old days.)

Masoud went on to say "He kept praising my Father and asked me to tell him a sufi story. So I told him the story of a rich man, a ruler coming to a Sufi and telling him I have all the gold, silver and diamonds I want, hundred of palaces, as many wives as I want and I own half the world. I count my treasures and property regularly and I am a rich man. What else do I need ?

The Sufi asked him, "are you going to die ?" to which the Rich Ruler replied, "Yes !"

The Sufi replied " Then why count the belongings of a dead man ? "

Sitting outside under a beautiful night sky with the King last week, Ambassador Masoud Khalili went on to tell the story the King told him of a major crisis he faced as a young King in 1946. " My old Uncle was the Prime Minister and my adviser and he came to me saying that it is important we hang (take the life) of the young Poet Khalili because his poetry is controversial. The King said "I don't agree."

However, the next day, the Prime Minister sent a written order, stating that Khalili, the poet should be killed. " I refused to agree, but wrote on the PM's paper in French, I won't agree to this and if you persist in Khalili being hanged, I will resign."

"So my father Khalili was spared," said the Ambassador. "I thanked the King not only for saving one, but two, as I was born the following year."

Then he went back to the many evenings he had spent in the last week with the King of Afghanistan, sitting on the grand lawns, on simple plastic chairs which I saw in the garden. No thrones, no carpets, no musicians, just the King and the son of a poet who he spared the life of.

"What more to life is there" said the King as he looked to the heavens. "The sky, the crescent moon and this beautiful garden."

The ambassador said to me "yet again the King spoke of my father's poetry and he asked me to quote some of them. " I could see the tears in his eyes as he praised my father."

All the time I was thinking said Masoud, " Is it not the poet who praises the King, but here tonight the King is praising the poet ?"

Friday, 20 July 2007

Eternal Flame

Eternal Flame

Clicker-clack, shicker-shack
The aging keys rattle back
Typist here, translator there
The pretty one married last year

Iron clink, metal clunk
Steel wheels ply the trunk
Almaty’s old and its new
Mini-skirts and gaudy shoes

Camcorders whir, brides purr
The eternal flame libedoes spur
The brides are new then they’re old
No flames survive winter cold

Shiver back, wrap the sack
An aging soldier coughs and hacks
Cuddles the eternal flame for warmth
His medals lie as history taunts.


2 July 2007

Sunday, 15 July 2007

The most beautiful women in the world - Kazakhstan

The most beautiful women in the world - Kazakhstan
My holiday is drawing to an close in Kazakhstan and I leave with a sense of completion and a greater understanding of the Silk Road (Route) and the people of this hospitable land. We are having a big party and picnic this afternoon in the foothills of the Tienshans to celebrate.

Yesterday, I went for a stroll through Arbat with my wife. It was 35oC and the snow capped Tienshan mountains ringed the southern horizon. Buskers were singing, artists displaying hundreds of their paintings, and people promenading with joy. Ice cream and drink sellers were doing a roaring trade. The view of the snow somehow cooled my mind. Almaty must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In my biased opinion, Almaty has the most beautiful women in the world. I have been saying that for ten years now and yesterday, Friday 13 July, Black Friday, was a lucky day for me. The temperature and the bright blue sky, encouraged everyone to wear their briefest and most comfortable clothing. Men strolling without shirts drinking beer, women enjoying showing their beauty and gorgeous bodies that the Maker bestowed in abundance. I try to be detached and look at this wonder as a result of the Silk Route keeping the Kazakhstani people from in-breeding. Some countries are penalised for their geographic location such as Afghanistan and Iraq, others such as Kazakhstan are rewarded by their geography. I quote a noted woman writer on Kazakhstan, Dagmar Schreiber from her book Exploring Kazakhstan. She refers to Kazakhstan as having 126 different nationalities.

“ Both the migration movements and conquest campaigns in which the history of Central Asia is so rich, and wheeling and dealing along the Silk Route have lead to a situation, already in place at the time of Soviet power was established, in which the Kazakh territory was already home to a kaleidoscopic range of peoples; Kazakhs, Uzbeks,Turkmens, Kyrgyz, Persians, Chinese, Uygur, Dungan,Russians, Ukranians, tartars and many others already dwelt here, when Stalin started his deportation campaign. Forced migration following the outbreak the second World War caused the influ of over a million Koreans, Germans, Chechans, Ingush, Poles, Crimea tartars, Turks, Greeks and other nationalities sent across the Urals……
It is thus that Kazakhstan today represents a true melting pot of nations…. "

The 1999 census showed that the population is 15 Million, 52% Kazakhs, 31 % Russian, 4 % Ukranians, with Germans and Tartars making up 2 %. The remaining 9% consists of the 121 other nationalities.

What has this got to do with the abnormally high percentage of beautiful women ? With such a strong gene pool from the strongest and fittest surviving 90 years of famine, war, forced migration and collectivisation, you have a country where inter-marriage was common, and coincidentally the outcome is a race of very beautiful women. I’ll get labelled sexist but I make similar bold statements about the mountains, the landscape and culture, and in the past, poverty in this country..


Having now visited all places mentioned below and connected the road from Calcutta (Kolkotta) through Benares, Bodgaya, Delhi. Agra. Amritsar, Lahore, Taxilla, Peshawar, Kabul, Bamiyan, Herat, Balkh, Termez, Samakand, Tashkent, Shymkent, Turkestan, Ak Su, Taraz, Talass, Tokmak, Bishkek, Issyk Kul, Naryn, Kara Ssuu through to the Chinese border at Torugat, following fairly much the route and, places made famous by Hsuan Tsan the Chinese Buddhist Monk who travelled this way on his marathon journeys from 627 -643 AD.

I had earlier travelled and connected the above route from Herat to Meshad, Bukhara, and from Tashkent the more southern route through Khokand, Feghana, Andijan, Osh to Kashgar, The other from Kabul, through the Khyber Pass to Gilgit and Karakoram pass into China, or the more difficult one from Kabul to Faizabad, Ishkashim, cross the Amu Darya to Khorog, Murghab, and over the 4,655 metre pass of the Pamirs, down to Lake Karakul at 3,914 metre, and then into China.

It was also a pleasure on this trip to connect the route from Taskkent, Shymkent, Turkestan and to discover that the road from Turkestan to Kyzl Orda, where I spent time in 1997, ‘is a strategic place where the caravan roads from Tashkent, Bukhara and Khiva along Atbasar to Western Sberia and over Torgay to Troizk and Orenberg came together’. (Exploring Kazakhstan, Dagmar Schreiber, Caspian Publishing House, Almaty 2006)

Having crossed the Pamirs, Tienshan, Karakoram, Himalaya, Pir Panjal, Dhaula Dhar mountain ranges and crossed and recrossed countless times the great rivers of Syr Daria (Jaxartes), Amu Daris (Oxus),and the Zevershan, Ili, Chu, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Megna, the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, Beas, Indus ( the rivers of the Punjab) and camped by Lakes Issyk Kul, Karakul, Dal, Kagar and the Aral Sea, it helps somewhat to understand the hardship and deprivations the early conquerors, explorers, pilgrims and traders endured. Alexander the Great lost over 30,000 men on a surprise winter crossing of the Hindu Kush by the Khawak Pass. In summer the ascent from the Panjsher Valley is a grind, but to foot soldiers carrying armour it is inconceivable a mighty army crossed this pass in winter. Similarly, the Khardun La at over 18,200 feet in Ladakh,, a salt route from Lahdak in India to Tibet is a daunting challenge by car today, but a crossing by mule, horse or on foot makes the mind boggle.

When I worked in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, I was fascinated by the mountain river systems. With partition, these mighty rivers had international boundaries pushed on them. Punjab - the land of five rivers were originally referred to as the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas, but with partition, the Beas flows only in India, so to keep the name Punjab correct, Pakistan added a fifth river to replace the Beas, the Indus.

Many trips I have set out on, have been to connect ranges, rivers, passes and valleys that don’t quite make sense on the map. I spent many months in a place named Sidhbari, under the Daula Dhar mountains and close to Dharamsala. Somehow, the town down the road, Kangra, was the most fascinating as it appears on many ancient maps and later became an important feeder to the Silk Road and, some centuries on, to players in the Great Game.,

From Kangra. in 2004, I was able to connect the Kangra valley, with the Kullu, Lahaul and Spiti valleys.

The Dhaular Dhar and the magnificent Pir Panjal, both
ranges are the two lesser ranges either protecting, or enticing you to the greater Himalayas

Crossing the two great passes crossed by Alexander Gardiner and Moorcroft, the Kunzum La and the Rohtang La and seeing the mighty Himalayas and the majestic Pir Panjal was inspiring and to note that virtually all the people are of Tibetan stock, and they have preserved the Tibetan way of life remarkably well.

So during the last 30 years, one by one these famous places trod by Alexander the Great, Hsuan Tsang,Timur (Tamerlane) Chengis Khan, Admiral Raisa Ali (the 16th century Turkish Admiral, Marco Polo, and later all those great, and many notorious players in the Great Game, has been a fascinating experience. My next Silk Route trip is to China to make some final connecting journeys there.

Thanks to my guides and brothers in law, Erlan and Suin, who took me to Turkestan and brought the Kazakh culture alive.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Working in Central Asia and Trolley Buses

Photo: Ablai (my son) and Dimash (my nephew) still laughing about Bob getting lost on a trolley bus.

The fool who gets lost in a trolley bus

When I got lost in Almaty the other day while travelling by trolley bus I thought of one of Buddha Shakyamuni's sayings:

" How long is the road to the weary. How long is the wandering of
the fool who cannot find the path"

I felt a little foolish but to redeem myself, got off at a bus stop and then navigated by the sun, back to my apartment an hour of so away. Being back in Almaty brings back a flood of memories and I thought I would post an article I wrote in early 1998 about my work with the Red Cross in Central Asia. During that time I travelled to many remote locations on the Silk Road

Working and living in Central Asia

As I write a bevy of 4000 to 4500 metre peaks stud the horizon less than 10 km from my window. Living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which nestles in the foothills of the northern Tien Shan mountains and working with people living in the Central Asia, has brought another distant dream true. Ever since I was a boy I was fascinated by the thought of Samarkand and travelling the ancient silk road which twists through the Celestial Mountains (Tien Shan)

After three years in Afghanistan (1993-1996) I moved in late 1996 to Central Asia to be in charge of major Red Cross programmes in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, one in twelve people have had to move in Central Asia because of dire economic difficulties or conflict. In Tajikistan one in five people have had to move due to the civil war. Therefore my work with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the support of the national Red Cross societies in these five Central Asian countries, has been important in assisting isolated elderly and families who are facing starvation and other forms of acute deprivation.

My work takes me from the high Pamirs in the east of Central Asia to the extreme west where the Kara Kum desert in Turkmenistan meets the Kopet Dagh mountains on the Iranian border. I am rarely out of sight of soaring snow capped peaks.

Much of my travelling is done along the ancient silk road which travels through the heart of Central Asia, formerly linking China in the east to Europe in the west. Frequently I pass through the historic cities of Samarkand, Tashkent, Khojent, Khokand, Dushanbe, Termez, Merv, Ashgabat and cross the mighty Oxus River.

One of the most Herculean tasks has been during the past 3 months when have hauled 3200 metric tonnes of coal, 2,000 m2 of glass, 25 tonnes of roofing iron, 500 stoves, 600 flues and 2,000 sets of bed linen plus thousands of tonnes of food to remote hospitals scattered throughout the high Pamir mountains of Tajikistan.

The coal is extracted from the Alai coal mines at 3,300 metres under the shadow of the 7,134 m Peak Lenin, to the schools, clinics and hospitals situated in the Pamirs where temperatures plunge as low as -40 oC during the long and bitterly cold winter. Last winter we distributed just over 5000 metric tonnes of coal, but now with having provided all the institutions with an improved type of stove, which burns less coal and produces greater heat, we have distributed slightly lesser amounts this year.

From the Alai mine, the coal is moved by truck (more than 600 truck loads this year) over the Kyrgyzstan pass, further up the Kyzl-Art or Red Clay Pass at 4,275 m then over the incredibly high White Horse Pass at 4,650 m and driven to the recipients, an average of 600 - 800 km away. The Alai mine is situated at the cross roads of the old silk road. It is in a small valley leading to the larger Alai Valley, which connects Kashgar and the Sarafshan mountains of Tajikistan. Traders going through the nearby town of Saritash had a choice of taking the Pamir route up to Murgab and then down into Afghanistan or the more westerly Alai valley.

The stoves were produced in the ancient Kyrgyz city of Osh, creating jobs for many unemployed engineers and metal workers. Osh celebrated its 3000 year anniversary late last decade.

In the remote areas of Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast ( GBAO) in the Pamirs, we have worked closely with the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan financing the purchase of sheep, goats and yaks to enable these remote Red Cross branches to generate income which will in time, enable them to finance their programmes. Earlier this year I visited I visited the valley of Joshangoaz at about 3,500 metres where a Red Cross shepherd tends about 150 sheep and goats.

Our Red Cross workers; drivers, shepherds and field officers tell stories of hardship and danger of the past three winters of getting coal and food out to the people. Heavy snow falls blocking roads for weeks, frostbite while repairing vehicles, convoys getting scuttled by avalanches and being looted by modern day highway men is not uncommon.

The Tien Shan mountains lie mainly in Kyrgyzstan with northern parts stretching into Kazakhstan and a south-east finger poking into Uzbekistan. Approximately 750 km, or half of the Tien Shan lie in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Home to 60% of the world's dwindling population of the snow leopard ( Panthera uncia) there are estimated to be about 450 snow leopards dwelling here

In the foothills of Kyrgyzstan's Tienshan mountains, the International Federation of Red Cross supports the Kyrgyz Red Crescent to run a large relief programme providing food to isolated elderly people on a pension of approximately US $15 a month, and to institutions such as schools, orphanages and mentally handicapped homes.

I live on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan, at about 1000 m. It is paradise for mountaineers and skiers for you can drive to 2600 m within 45 minutes and can climb a 4200 m peak in a day and for six months of the year, the Chimbulak ski field offers some of the best and cheapest skiing in the world.

But it the people that makes Almaty's local mountains unique. The relationship between mountain dwellers and mountains has long fascinated me and it has been great to make strong friends with Kazakhstani mountaineers and share their natural mountain life-style.
These mountaineers live in the foothills of the Tien Shan and every Friday night either walk the four hours to their alpine huts from Almaty or drive. They spend every spare moment, every holiday in the mountains and from the age of three or four, the children ski like the wind and climb rock like a mountain goat. They have their songs, poems, climbing competitions and age old traditions of producing exquisite wood carvings.

I fondly recall spending Christmas and New Years day (1996-97) with my good mates Sergy and Yuri, their families and other Kazakh and Russian mountaineers in their club huts consuming large amounts of Vodka, horse meat and intestines, the staple of Kazakhstan. Outside at least a metre of snow covered the ground offering superb skiing. It was here I first met Anatoly Boukreev the famous Kazakh climber who not only climbed Mt. Everest a few times, but made one of the most selfless rescues on Mt Everest in 1996.

Spending days with Kazakhstani mountaineers and their extended families in the alpine huts in the Tien Shans while blizzards rage outside, it has been amazing to find those who have scaled Everest, Makalau, Dhalagauri and to hear them speaking modestly of significant climbs in most ranges of the world.

In 1997 the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has assisted 3 million elderly, orphans, handicapped people and multi-children families through a very difficult year. With one of the worst winters on record affecting Central Asia and heavy snow and severe gales lashing the region, we have stepped up our relief assistance to those without heating and inadequate clothing.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Reflections from a Tapchan

We gain wisdom in three ways:

By reflection which is the noblest
By imitation which is the easiest
By experience which is the bitterest

After our journey to to Otrar and Turkestan we spent a pleasant night in Shymkent (Chimkent) and the next day looked around this strategic silk route town. Not much of the of the pre-Soviet period here.

I wanted to slow down on our return journey, and reflect a little. My mind was packed with information, my camera loaded with images and my note book with lots of words. I wanted to make some sense out of it all. I had now completed virtually every strand of the Silk Route through the Himalaya,.Pir Panjul, Daula Dar, Pamir, Tienshan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush, Kopet Dag mountains separating Turkmenistan from Iran.

Buddha found enlightenment under a tree, poets had moments of clarity sitting by streams, and many oriental writers got flashes of brilliance in Chai Khanas (tea houses) sitting on Tap Chans, the traditional four legged platform on which you sit on cushions and eat from a table placed on a Tapchan. My old friend from Kabul Steve Masty wrote a classic song “ Chai Khana on the Kandahar Road which has a wonderful line about ‘ how you kept your country ree' over thousands of year mainly by, accidentally or otherwise, disabling conquerors and invaders by food poisoning.

The Persian word Ab, water, has always fascinated me. When living in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and other parts of Central Asia, it is a suffix to so many words.

Panjab ( Five Rivers) Fariab, Doab, Surjab Murgab etc. they generally are towns situated on rivers or lakeshores. Also the Kazakh word ‘su’ for water also helps ones vocabularly as rivers and towns such as Ak Su.

Back to the journey home. As we were coming down a hill side 45 minutes east of Shymkent, and just after Ak Su, I saw an idyllic spot that surely must have been a stop for travellers by horse, camel or whatever means they travelled in ancient times. There was a stream, trees and from the spot, you could see from where you had come and where you were going.
And hey presto ! There was a Chai Khana behind the trees.
We parked at the road side and walked down the stream to the Chai Khana. The name of the tea shop was written in Russian, and I could recognise the last two letters – ab.
Translated into English it was called Masab. Suin spoke to the waitress who said it meant water or stream by the undulations. It sounded OK to me as we had been travelling over an undulating road and had just dropped into a depression with a stream.

And there in front of me was something I have never seen on the silk route in over 30 years, a large tapchan straddling a stream.

This is the nirvana poets dream about.

The words from various writers came to mind:

We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds are fiery hearts are fanned
For the lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the golden journey to Samarkand

Man (woman) is a wanderer from birth.

We are pilgrims master and we will always go
Across the last blue mountains barred with snow,
Across the angry and glimmering s

And Robert Service’s poems are stacked with the race that don’t fit in.

There’s a race of men who don’t fit in
A race that can’t stay still
As the break the hearts of kith and kin
As they roam the world at will

In Victor Frankl’s book about concentration camps, he talks about the excitement when they moved by train from one camp to anothor and how inmates looked through cracks to search of recodnisable features that would give a clue for life or death tomorrow.

The Maori of New Zealand were incurable ‘Vikings of the Sunrise’
As they pushed from remote islands of Tahiti to almost Antarctica, and settling in New Zealand where they adapted to snow and ice as they crossed high mountain passes..

Over the last blue mountains barred with snow
Across the angry and glimmering sea

I am now back in Almaty with Naila and our two boys. Yesterday I dined with my extended Kazakh family. The faces were silk route faces. From the round Mongolian to the almost bluish eyes that are common amongst the Naiman tribe of Kazakhstan, who are Mongolian by descent. After all, they gave refuge to the wandering and persecuted Nestorian Christians who were drummed out of Eastern Europe for daring to be the first real offshoot of Christianity.

Sitting on the tapchan I found that this journey had helped me understand more fully who the Kazakh people were. The poetry of Abai had helped me greatly as did Tom Stacey in his introduction to the book, Silent Steppe by Mukhamed Shayakhmetov from which I have borrowed a little.

The Kazakhs are all Moslem faith, converted at various times since the 7th century but they are still have trappings of their shamanistic past and strands of Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and Nestorian, comprising today what we call ‘tengrism’ a faith in the unity of creation with Man at its centre and in communion with it, and of Man as the inheritor of a potential gift of ecstatic enlightenment. All this is exercise was mystically exercised among the Kazakhs in the rituals of their immensely ancient nomadic and transhuman existence, based upon their horse and camel-borne economy of herding sheep and goats across the vast breadth of steppe, and subject to a climate of extreme conditions, especially in winter. With it came an oral tradition of song and saga and poetry, and a flowering in the written corpus of work of the Kazakh poet Abai.

I am now back in Almaty relaxing, reading and travelling by trolley buses and trams with my nephew Dimash and son Ablai. This is a great city.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Turkestan (Part two)

Some make pilgrimages to Mecca, Jerusalem, soldiers to battle fields where they fought. For me me this journey has been a pilgrimage to Otrar and Turkestan. The last two places for me to visit on the Silk Route in Central Asia, Pakistan and India. The last posting was on our trip to Otrar, the spiritual capital of Kazakhstan and cradle of Kazakh civilization.

After being so impressed by the Otrar civilization it was with a sense of excitement that we crept north on the true right the Syr Darya River, with a freshly butchered sheep in the back of our car It was 43.5 o C but the dry heat was quite tolerable.

I had travelled extensively along the banks of the other great Central Asian River, the Amu Darya (Oxus) in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turmenistan and almost reached its source in Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. So it was a delight to be driving alongside the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) for some time. The reason I labour on about these two rivers as some of the most notable cities on the Silk Route are situated on these two rivers,

The road from Otrar to Turkestan is quite rough and took us an hour and a half. This is an ancient land and people here use horse and carts, camels, donkeys/mules and tractor for transport. Unlike Almaty that boasts the most modern cars in the world, old Soviet Volgas and Ladas ply the route with bales of hay in their trunks or on a roof racks. This is a back-water and occasionally you see families living in Yurts. Time has stood still here. Camel and mares milk is plentiful and I never saw a Coca Cola sign for more than an hour, a modern day expression of remoteness. Suin and Erlan were quiet. We swung into Turkestan via a dusty side road and suddenly saw the impressive Turkestan University that still produces scholars of a high calibre, carrying on the learning tradition of Al-Farabi the scientist and Abbas Zhaukhari mathematician and astronomer who were born in Otrar in the 9th century.

Soon we could see the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi, dominating the skyline.

This structure was commissioned in 1389 by Tamerlane to replace a smaller 12th Century mausoleum of the Sufi master, Khoja Ahmed Yasavi,(1103-66)

It was every bit of what it was cracked up to be.
In the West and in New Zealand and Australia we learn rather negatively of Tamerlane, Timur- the-lame as a bit of a Barbarian, something of a butcher, but how many have seen the works his dynasty, that brought us the history the splendour, the knowledge of the Timurid Empire ? Architecture, art, calligraphy, astronomy, mathematics, philospophy. When Oxford and Cambridge were fledging, universities they used the astronomical charts of Ulig beg, the grandson of Timur

We sat and marvelled at what was before us. But with Suin and Erlan having limited English and my Russian even more rudimentary, the architecture, the man, the satellites needed detailed answers. And then Aisulu appeared. Trained in English at the University of Turkestan, she had not only impeccable English, but a training and knowledge of this historic site and the Silk Route.

Aisulu explained how the great architect from Persia, Kwaja Hosseiin Shirazi, erected a 39 metre high rectangular building in ganch, i.e., fired bricks mixed with mortar and clay, and crowned with the largest dome ever built in Central Asia. This double dome, she said, “measures 18.2 metres diameter and 28 metres in height.”

I walked about stunned by the beauty and sense of history. She showed me the tomb of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi and told me how the dark jade tiles that cover his tomb, came from northern India. Aisulu and I soon found we had something in common. I told her I needed to see the vault where Ablai Khan was buried. She enquired as to why this was so important and I said my eldest boy is named after him as I believed Ablai Khan was one of Central Asia’s most outstanding statesmen and warrior. Taken by surprise, she said, “ So is my husband.”. She said Ablai Khan’s burial chamber is being restored and is locked. However, she quietly took me to the door and prised the chain ajar enough, so I could see the tomb. This man was Kazakhstan greatest leader. He lived from 1711 to 1781 and had the combined qualities of an astute diplomat, organiser of the liberation struggle of the Kazakh people against the oppressive Jungarian trrops and was also known as a far-sighted and wise politician, who united the three hordes in Kazakhstan into a one country. With astute diplomacy, he kept Russia from colonising Kazakhstan by having Chinese diplomats at his court.

After viewing the interior, we went outside and Aisulu explained how the other impressive Mausoleum in the complex was built for the daughter of Uligh Beg, ruler of Samarkand and probably the world’s best astronomer.

The last place to visit as the sun begin to dip in the dusty west, was to see the underground house that Khoja Ahmed Yasavi lived his final days. With such respect for the Prophet Mohammed, PBUH, Yasavi did not want to outlive the prophet. So he decided that the day before he reached the age of the Prophet’s death on earth, he would go underground and live in darkness, thereby not outliving him above ground in the sunshine. You can still see the original place he spent his last days.

We lingered by the rose garden in front of the Mausoleum as we watched a Kazakh gardener, lovingly plucking dead roses and leaves from the bushes. The symbolism hit me. From the first Mogul Emperor Babur, and throughout the Timurid and Mogul dynasties, rose gardens were an ascetic part of the landscape.

Finally, we had a sheep to give away. Erlan and Suin sought the poorest part of Turkestan city, and found a poor family. The head of the house accepted the sheep with dignity and in return gave us a large circular piece of nan.
Our final duty completed, we drove back to Shymkent nibbling on the home baked bread.

At night we dined in a replica of an ancient caravan serai, named Afriasiab, the ancient name for Samarkand, and were served by a Kazakh woman and an Uzbek man dressed in thousand year old dress. As we lay tired at the tapchan, we reflected on our journey thus far to Otrar and Turkestan. What would tomorrow bring ?

Once at Turkestan, I needed a good English speaker to tell me the story of Turkestan. Aisulu came to my rescue. See my next posting for the full story.
Erlan and Suin at Turkestan

Suin, Bob and Erlan at the Mausoleaum at Otrar

Friday, 6 July 2007

Silk Route Honey Girls

In my posting from Shymkent below, I mention the Honey gtrls who sit all day by the road side selling Honey. When it is hot some strip down to their bikinis and I am told sales go up.

This was taken in the cool of the morning when jeans were more appropriate. We are planning to buy honey on the way back. Marco Polo mentions the sweet honey and melons on his travel in these parts.

Perhaps this is where the saying, "Hi honey" came from. Well, believe it or not, Marco Polo brought spagetti from Central Asia to Italy.

Silk Route: Almaty-Taraz, Shymkent, Otrar and Turkestan

The Team: Suin, Bob and Erlan just before dawn 0n 4 June

Silk Route: Almaty-Taraz, Shymkent, Otrar and Turkestan

Time may have moved on along this part of he Silk Route and dynasties have come and gone, and cars and trucks are slowly replacing camels, horses and mules/donkeys, but the character, excitement, colour and lust for trading hasn’t changed at all.
On this 900 km trip from Almaty-Taraz-Symkent-Otrar to Turkestan, we dined like Khans in old caranvan serais, visited 2000 year old cities, saw roadside dancing girls competing to sell honey to passers by, drank camels milk in a Yurta, sacrificed three sheep in Turkestan and after being blessed by the Mullah, distributed the meat to poor families.

The most moving moments were visiting the Ancient Silk Route city of Otrar, situated at the confluence of the Syr Daria ( Jarxtes) and Ayras rivers, and walking through an excavated city of over 200 years. And later, Turkestan. (I’ll keep that for another dispatch) .

We left Almaty at 2.00 am on 4 July. My guides and Kazakh brothers-in-law, Erlan and Suin driving a new Lexus 4 wheel drive with good music playing. A cool start.After two hours we crossed an ancient pass on the road from Almaty (Verny) to Bishek. Around 4 a.m. we could see the lights of Bishkek as we skirted the border of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Shortly after first light we found a caravan serai at Aspara. We sat cross legged on a tapchan

(an elvated platform with cushions and a table on it) and drank tea served in a bowl, lagman soup - Central Asia’s spaghetti which Marco Polo took back to Italy -followed by a mountain of sheep meat. The waitress flashed her golden teeth as she filled our bowls with tea, a legacy to Soviet dentistry.

We set off again and slowed down near Merke where the Honey girls, scantily dressed, beckoned customers to buy their Honey. We counted at least 7 stalls and made a note to get some honey on our return trip.

We travelled close to Tokmak, Bishkek and Talass just on the other side of the border in Kyrgyzstan, places made famous by Hsuan Tsan the Chinese Buddhist Monk who travelled this way on his marathon journey from 627 -643 AD.

From sunrise at 4,45 am to 8 am we had splendid views of the Heavenly Mountains (Tienshan) rising to almost 5000 metres.

Erlan and Suin love music and the most appropriate song we heard was a local radio station playing Hurrah, Hurrah, have a happy, happy holiday, no doubt about it, we were starting on a happy holiday..

Mid morning we arrived in Taraz, now proudly displaying a new Mosque with the traditional Lapis coloured cupola. From Taraz to Shymkent the local name for this portion of the Tienshan Mountains is Talass Alatoo, the highest point 4,500 metres. On this this stretch of the road people were harvesting the wheat crop and many camped in Yurtas, the tradition circular Kazakh tents. Made it to Shymkent just before mid-day

From Shymkent we turned north towards Otrar and Turkestan, driving close to the Amu Darya. We soon passed a town named after Timurlan and Torlkol an area growing enormous melons, and camels, horses and mules becoming more prevalent.

Soon we reached Arystanab just a kilometre from Otrar. For Kazakhs, visiting Otrar and Turkestan, it is a very sacred pilgrimage, and the town of Arystanbab, has a famous Mausoleum, built after the death of the Sheik of Sheiks, Arystanbab, Although Christian, Erlan and Suin treat me as a brother and a fellow Muslim. We met the Mullah who is in charge of pilgrims and explained we had to do full ablutions before praying for us. That completed we selected a sheep each. I choose the blackest of a flock ranging from white to brown to grey and black. My elder sister once referred to me as the ‘black sheep of our family’ so why not live up to the reputation.
As the sheep were slaughtered one by one, the Mullah prayed for each of us and our families.

While the sheep were being cut into pieces for distribution to the poor later, Mullah Jan took us the Arystanbab Mausoleum-Mosque which was rebuilt in 1907, and said prayers in this very Holy place.

Mullajh Jan told us we were now ready to visit Otrar proper and Turkestan

The ruins of Otrar, once one of the leading cities on the Silk Route, occupies 20 hectares. The greatest intellectual of them all, Abu Nasr Al-farabi (870-950) the scientist who build on the creative heritage started in Otrar a thousand years before his birth, became a school pf learning for scientists, philosophers, poets, astronomers. Otrar had a enormous library and had links with similar libraries in Greece. Links of the Otrar learning can be found in Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Iran and Greece.

Otrar was a place where many caravan roads joined, one branch led to Taraz, Balasagam and to Eastern Turkestan (China), the other to Tashkent, Samarkand and Merv, Nishapur (Iran). Otrar was also linked with Urgench, the Volga area, the Caucasus, the Black Sea Coast, through Betpak-dala, right through to Siberia. Otrar is mentioned in all the travel notes of Arab and Persian travellers who visited Otrar.

It was with a huge sense of awe that we visited the huge mound that was the main fortified city of Otrar. An archaeologist who cares for the city, guided us around half excavated parts of the city
And there were houses, wells, fire places and irrigation systems, store house: for a moment my mind was 2000 years back in history trying to visulaize this early central Asian civilization from which the Kazakh people of today have come from.

Geerting from Otrar and Torkestan. Posted in Shymkent.

Will update tomorrow on the marvellous Turkestan tomorrow. Bob, Suin and Erlan

Monday, 2 July 2007

Unfinished work in Central Asia

Unfinished work.

Nazira is a fascinating woman. She was born on the Silk Route at Shymkent, Kazakhstan, close to the Kazakh – Uzbek border. Shymkent is close to Turkestan and as a child and teenager, Naziri frequently visited the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi and the tomb of Ablai Khan at Turkestan. It was at this holy site that a Mullah in the Mosque regocnised her gifts for healing and seeing the past and future.

So Naziri was born and lived her younger days on the route the Chinese pilgrims took on their way to India via Samarkand, via Termez and Balkh before visiting Bamiyan, Gandhara, Jalalabad and Taxilla. She is a strong featured and pretty women her late 40’s and once worked with Mother Teressa, in Calcutta and now runs an Ashram in Pupathi, Andhra Pradesh in India close to the guru Sai Baba. People from all over the world come to be healed by Naziri. She married Jagadesh, who was born in Agra, another great city on the Silk Route. Sai Baba arranged the marriage. Jagadesh was brought from Agra to Pupathi as a dead child by his Mother. It took her 48 hours travelling in a third class carriage on a train to reach Sai Baba, Although clinically proved dead two days earlier by doctors in Agra, Sai Baba bought Jagadesh back to life. The couple stayed in my house many times during the six years we lived in India. I modestly heard these and many stories as we chatted over Chai. These are just a few of the thousands of stories I have heard in my travels.

Nazira told me one night, “in your last life you were a Tibetan Holy Man and when I look into your past I see you in Chapan, wandering the mountainous regions of what looks like Tibet and Northern India.” She went on to tell me that I was completing unfinished work.

Do I believe this sage woman ? When you think of the millions of people who have travelled the Silk Route with storehouses of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual gifts, it is hard to disbelieve.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Finally in Central Asia

Road to Turkestan

At Calcutta railway station in 2004 I remember splitting my sides with laughter when I read the afternoon paper which had a banner on the front page;

"Pak Couple Loves Delhi Prick Trick" see page four, and on page four the headline it was even better.

" An Indian prick cures Pak Envoy."

The story was s about a Delhi acupuncturist who cured two Pakistani diplomats.

I am writing this at 5 a.m watching the first light kiss the Teinshan mountains from my room in Almaty. Almaty seems so far away from Calcutta, but it is linked by a common thread of networks - the Silk Route.

So I have finally made it to Kazakhstan to make a pilgrimage to Turkestan and Otrar and being trained for the journey by my brother-in-law and guide, Erlan. He is also bringing our other brother-in-law, Suin. We have married three beautiful daughters of Bolat and Raiza, a wonderful Kazakh couple.

On 28 th and 29th June evenings, we got into serious training for our journey to Turkestan. Erlan, is making sure I build up my strength with platefuls of horse meat, shanks of beef, Balsak, (bread deep fried in fat) Bisbarmak. All traditonal Kazakh food. Yes he would be my guide along the silk route from Almaty but judiciously reminded me I needed be respectful of Kazakh culture and its Islamic religion, by ensuring I was prepared for this holy place.

This promises to be an historiv journey.

Erlan started instructions: “ We will need to buy a sheep and sacrifice it, and then share it with as many poor people as possible to get Allah’s blessings before we venture to the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi and later the tomb of Ablai Khan, who my eldest boy in named after.

As we tucked into another plate of horse meat, Erlan told another haunting story of Turkestan and why we need to be prepared. With his handsome Kazakh face taking on a serious look, he told of a body guard to the Prophet Mohammed who was so alert, so tough, that he was never killed by a man. Later when living in Turkestan he came to prayers and as he was praying was killed by a women. Opponents put his head on a spear, and tried to desecrate it, but it fell down a well and they were never able, or possibly too afraid, to retrieve it. Today, at Turkestan, if you put a bucket down this well, what water comes up is a reflection of you. The lesser the water, the lesser a person you are, If its full, it shows you are a good person. Erlan added, “if there is no water or dirty water in the bucket, then you are a sinful person. #

I prepare in awe.

Each city or village on the great Silk Route network I have had a soul wrenching experiencing. I have visited over 200.

In unravelling cultural layers and geographical knots along the Silk route during the past 30 years has been a barrel of laughs, tears and awesome discovery.

I have been stuck for days on snow bound passes at almost 5,000 metres in the Pamirs, nearly dying of heat exhaustion in Balkh, the Mother of all Cities, at 49 oC and just a spit away from the Oxus river. jailed in a locked container by a zealous Mujahadeen for 12 hours in the Hindu Kush, and sleeping in a Yurta with Kara Kyrghis herders in The Heavenly mountains (Tienshan), In Delhi I was threatened by Eunichs,, propositioned by gay men in Lahore, ridden on camels to Agra and by Elephant to the Amber Fort in Jaipur, and by horse as I accompanied Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan, stripped searched by a stunning female blond jack-booted, mini-skirted border guard at Termez as just after crossing the Oxus River from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan, entertained by mystical boul singers in Dhaka, healed at the tombs of Sufi saints in Bokhara, and discovered the meaning of love in Ashgabad and Agra.

As I prepare for Turkestan I think of having to sacrifice a sheep and worry if will be any water in the bucket at Turkestan well, and if so, what colour ?

More in a few days time.

Almaty 30 June 2007.