Service, Slate and a doomed enterprise

Despite current circumstances I managed to get out with a couple of friends on a circumnavigation of Cwm Ystradllyn to look at Chwarel Gorseddau and the associated deserted and ruined village of Treforys.

Whilst North Wales isn’t exactly the Yukon, Service’s sentiments about the Yukon have stood the test of time, especially when applied in a large(ish) quarry that produced very little product and an awful lot of waste. The valleys are indeed unpeopled (and have been since 1867) but this currently has more to do with Dwr Cymru protecting the water supply.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will.

Coflein (the online database for the National Monuments Record of Wales (NMRW)) provides the information that “its main period of working was between 1854 and 1857 when it was developed by the Bavarian mining engineer Henry Tobias Tschudy von Ulster. The quarry was a complete commercial failure. Despite massive capitalisation and investment in milling, water courses and reservoir, workers’ housing and railway to Porthmadog, returns were derisory.” It would be interesting to see the accounts for the period as there is a lot of investment still apparent.

The journey to Cwm Ystradllyn was eased by Dave driving, which eased the pain and stress as the road is unduly narrow. It also meant a sleep on the way back. Having disregarded the delights of the tea shop at Tyddyn Mawr, we wandered up to the bwlch above Ynys Wen, where we stopped to talk with the farmer  who was mourning the loss of a ewe. What was unusual were his two New Zealand Huntaway sheep dogs, one of whom was protesting loudly at being confined to the quad bike.

There are a considerable number of hut platforms and hut circles in the area, many of which are still visible. They served as useful navigation markers to guide our path onto Moel Ddu where Dave engaged in the traditional habit of filling his butties with crisps. That is, until the crisps blew over the cliff. A frantic recovery mission retrieved some of the contents and the bag.

The descent into Cwm Ystradllyn and the mines at Chwarel Gorseddau continued under hot sunshine, and we had the chance to explore the old workings, of which existed many large piles of poor slate, some derelict buildings and some impressive walls. And several fields of bluebells.  I’d never sniffed bluebells before and in an artistic ‘get on your face to get the shot’ moment discovered that bluebells smell. As was pointed out, better than I did.

Up the hill into the abandoned village of Treforys, where it was evident that a ‘tyddyn’ pattern of housing had been intended, but there was very little left. The final visit were to the impressive buildings of Ynys-y-Pandy.

All in all a productive day

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From Both Sides Now

In a far away land, a long time ago, there was a shop in Groombridge (Sussex) near to Harrison’s Rocks. The owners of the shop were Terry and Julie Tullis. For us wayward kids the cafe they ran was a kind of haven, and it was a regular stopping spot on the way to and from the weekend’s climbing exploits. Julie was to die on K2 in 1986.

Her autobiography captures something of the magic of those early climbing days for me, and in the front of the book are the words from Joni Mitchell’s song ‘From Both Sides Now’, a song I’ll always know as ‘Clouds’.

Apart from the words and the link to Julie, the song has a special poignancy for me as in the autumn of 1989 I was pulling through the back of the Nepal Himalaya heading for Manang. After a long, hot day, I walked into a guesthouse looking for a bed for the night. The owner had a short wave radio on, and he twiddled the dials and said “BBC World Service”. In amongst the heterodynes a song started to break through. It was Judy Collins singing ‘From Both Sides Now’, and now always my preferred version. When it plays, I can see the terraced fields opposite, see the dusty path with chickens scratching around, and children playing as the sun set. It was a special and enduring moment.

Like all song lyrics, you can take what you like from the words, but there are some pertinent bits at this point in time:

So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

There are times when you need to dig deep, and today and the next few weeks will be somewhere in that range. Digging deep means holding on to the basics without loosing the dreams, and doing what is possible rather than what you want to do. As Mitchell says;

Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day.

Something may be lost, but not everything, and once again it’s important to ‘do the right thing’ which is something I’m not well known for. It’s a bit hard to throttle the hedonism back when there’s a well formed plan in place.

So that’s it. Got that off my chest. Here’s Mitchell’s last verse to Clouds, and a link to Collin’s version

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Images of the Nant Ffrancon

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Following the advice from a friend, I’ve just completed a photography course. No longer do I merely point and shoot; I think, point and shoot.

Therefore, I am a photographer. I have the certificate to prove it. QED.

The assessment was to create a panel of images, which for the edification and general delight of the blogsphere can be found below. Enjoy!

I wanted to show the different aspects of the Nant Ffrancon, the valley falling from Llyn Ogwen to the Penrhyn slate tips at Bethesda, North Wales. I included a view of the mountains from one of the old farms, a common shrub, the slate tips and fences, the paths and gates, a High Street shop and the River Ogwen. In creating the panel of images, I took the old coach road to Blaen y Nant Farm, walked along the quarrymen’s paths into Bethesda and returned to St. Ann’s Church where I discovered the graveyard, which despite living here for over thirty years, I had never seen before.

There was snow on the hills.

Lle i enaid gael llonyddo

Ban Rak Thai sunrise

I blame Iolo Williams. He was on the TV the other night waxing lyrical about small birds as he does. I’m always amazed by his ability to enthuse about another little brown job that he’s seen a hundred times before as if it was his first finding. He was talking to a farmer from Dolgellau who was repairing a stone wall around a small enclosure. The farmer said that his grandmother used to refer to the enclosure as “lle i enaid gael llonydd” and she would frequently come here when things were dark. Like all Welsh words or phrases, there isn’t an exact translation, but the meaning of it was clear.

Over these last few weeks the world has started to crowd in again, and the need for my own “lle i enaid gael llonydd” has been increasing. In a few weeks I’ll be back at Ban Rak Thai for a few precious hours, but before then I’ll be looking for some personal time and space away from the madness of the world.

More than anything we need all to relax and recharge and to find our own “lle i enaid gael llonydd” – literally “a place to rest the soul”.

We made the Golden Journey to Samarkand

It’s the last day in Samarkand. I’ve been here for a week and I really like the place. The decision to stay rather than pushing on to Ferghana was the right one for many reasons.

There were a few things to do today, but nothing in particular. I wanted to see more of the old town, so in a radical departure from tradition, I went to the end of the lane and turned left instead of right. It took me down through the old town, and I loosely followed the wider roads until I got to the Shahrisabz road. 


I headed back towards town and on a busy crossroad found a café with seating and a view over the traffic. At the front were two men producing Somsas at a huge rate; one would get the little dumplings from the kitchen at the back, knead them flat and throw them into a pan of hot fat where they would puff up. The other would stir, turn then lift them out and sell them. Despite the previous problems I had no qualms about eating these; food doesn’t get fresher than this. And it was cheap too; 1500 Som for a somsa and a pot of chai – £0.30p. I stopped and watched for a while, fascinated by the flow of production. At one point one of the customers called me over to say hello. It was only when he went for a formal embrace that I realised he was a bit … er … the worse for wear. It wasn’t chai in his cup, nor water but something a little stronger. I’d been offered vodka on my way in to town the other morning, and decided not to accept. Too early in the day for a tipple and as the British Empire isn’t any longer, the excuse of ‘sun over the yardarm somewhere’ carries no weight. I extracted myself politely and went back to my chai.

I wandered on, through back streets and quiet areas until I got to the wide tree-lined avenue of Universitat bulvari where I walked under the shade until I reached the great statue of Amir Temur sitting watchfully over the roundabout. In the distance, the Registan, and to the right his earthly remains. There were fresh gladioli in front of him. I wonder if this is a daily thing?

Having seen the Registan only somewhat clandestinely, I parted with $7 for a formal viewing. Once I’d cleared the gauntlet of tour guides telling me how much more rewarding my perambulation of a pile of restored bricks would be with their company, I then ran another gauntlet of people wanting me to come into their shop for “just one minute mister”. Now I may be faster than a speeding bullet, but I ain’t that quick. 

Although the Registan is big, the two inner Holies are not as impressive as Amir Temur’s mausoleum so I’ve been spoiled. But judge for yourself:


So that’s it. The trip is nearly over. Economy class on the Sharq train to Tashkent tomorrow for another look at the capital. At the moment, I’m happy. I’ve done the things I wanted to do, seen the sights and much, much more. There may have been a blip in the middle but that’s why it wasn’t a holiday. 

I’m writing this sat in a café next to the Bibi Khanym after a great dinner, drinking an Arab coffee. There is the oddest selection of music being played, so I’ll close with this one which is currently on full flow. It rather sums up Samarkand, and Uzbekistan: “… go straight to number one”.

Take it away Touch and Go …

A day in the hills

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I didn’t realise that I’d missed the wild places so much. To get up every day and have coffee looking up at the great faces of the Carneddau makes things right. That’s what had been missing for the last two weeks. All this historical architectural greatness is special, but it was the hills that were missing. Yes I know what I said several scribbles back, but they are “all of life to me”.

When I rolled into Samarkand on Sunday after the Bukhara Belly episode my host suggested a day trip. A camel ride was mentioned. After the last episode in Morocco the last thing I need is a repeat of that. We talked about the possibility of a walk, a picnic with a family and a market. Once the digestifs settled, that’s what I booked.

I woke just before 7:00am to hear rain. Not being sure of the type of road we were on I wondered if there would be a cancellation. Avazbek (my driver, guide and local college teacher of archeology) collected me at 8:30 and we headed off on wet tarmac roads although these occasionally turned to gravel. The rain continued as we headed south, and the air was fresh and clear. The pothole and truck-dodging was measured, and in occasional India-like moments cows were avoided. There are still a few donkeys being ridden here. The rain gradually eased although puddles of water remained to make the sun polished tarmac slippery.

As we moved from the agricultural plains, passing fields of tobacco crops, great rounded rock formations started to appear and sharp mountain ridges headed away from us. These were the foothills of the Pamirs, heading away to the southeast towards Tajikistan.

We stopped at the side of the road and walked down a short path to a collection of houses in a garden on a small riverbank. We had tea with Avazbek’s parents before heading to an old Soviet summer camp in a wooded valley. To the left were Accacia, Corsican Firs, Oaks, Cherries, Walnut and Maple trees, all planted here when Emperor Nicolai 2nd had established the camp around the end of the 19th century. To the right was normal scrub hillside. It was a noticeable contrast. Avazbek told me that when the Russians came they had chased the local people off into the hills killing as many men, women and children as they could. The old buildings of the camp are still visible, although many now derelict.

We arrived at Lion’s Cave, a name derived from the shape of the rock around the mouth of the cave. Apparently there was a better shape before a Russian archaeologist had decided to dynamite it to see if there were any Neolithic remains inside. The narrow entrance opened into a small chamber and then subsequent bigger chambers leading to a pool of clear, fresh water with a colony of beetles enjoying their environment. Tiny straws of stalactites were forming on the roof and evidence of much bigger features showing the age of the place were all around. Avazbek told me that when he was young he had gone through the smaller openings to a much bigger chamber further on. We agreed we were much too well fed to try that now!

Back into the sunlight we headed further up the hill passing cows enjoying the stands of wild mint to look at the avalanche debris from last winter’s snows. The roads close between about December and March with over two metres of snow laying. In the debris, several boulders had split to show the blue marble used to build Amir Temur’s mausoleum.

We snacked on wild cherries and the honey in accacia seed pods on the way back and talked of the ‘old’ knowledge. Avazbek knew the names of each plant and whether it was a food or a medicine; I could name the common European species and compare and contrast the differences of smells and tastes. He laughed as he told me of four English youngsters who could not even identify the common wild dog rose.


We met his 93 year old aunt at the bottom of the hill who was heading up to eat some wild cherries. Not exactly spry she was still giving it a good try!

We arrived back at the house for lunch, which was to be Uzbek borscht with salad, green tea and local honey. The teapot appeared with a cover. “Universal Uzbek thermos” said my host. “A tea cosy” was my reply! Afterwards I sat in the garden for a while and watched birds feeding young, listened to the breeze in the trees and the sound of the river wandering behind me. For a rare moment, everything stopped, was calm and the clutter of my mind stilled. Why I have to go thousands of miles from home to get these brief, fragile windows of sanity I have no idea.

We made a leisurely departure, collected somebody’s kids and headed up the road towards the top of the pass. The road was known locally as ‘The Kings’ Road’ and had been the route used by both Alexander the Great and Amir Temur (Timurlane) on their great crusades and conquests of Afghanistan and India. At the top of the hill (about 2500m) was the local farmers’ market with rows of dried fruits, herbs, nuts and sweet things that looked like marshmallows. There were some fairly villainous-looking dried rhubarb as well. Just time for views over Shahrisabz towards the plains of Afghanistan before the run back to drop the kids off and head for Samarkand.

It was the day I needed; the rat has been fed and now the soul has been watered too.

What a day

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Last night I wandered into the Registan for sunset, and the guards came over for a chat. It seems it’s possible to watch the sunrise from a minaret if you turn up at 5:00am. Thinking this is going to be a mass tourist event I turn up at the crack of doom and meet a Swiss (Stefan) and the two of us are taken up dusty staircases onto the roof of the Registan. It became clear that this wasn’t the normal route. We popped out onto a roof, then clamber over the roofing sheets to the base of the minaret. We waited until just before sunrise and then climbed up a very dark and very dusty spiral staircase to a tiny trap door through which we both barely squeezed. Samarkand was laid out before us and in a few moments we had our reward. Sunrise! What views and what a weird experience. Then back down and into the great courtyard which was entirely empty. I won’t forget that for a long time.


Then it was back to the guest house for my first meal for 48 hours and I was nervous of the consequences. Once I was confident there were no nasty surprises imminent, I went out to see the Amir Temur mosque, and the mausoleums at Shaki Zinfa. I managed a bazaar as well, which cheered me up and had a grandstand view of the local fire service fighting a roof fire. The sun was high by now and so I headed back to sleep the afternoon away.

About 4:30pm I went out to spot a place for dinner. Wandering down through the town, I came on the Guri Amir mausoleum. Having wandered outside I decided to look beyond the gift shop and discovered the most incredible chamber. Exquisitely decorated in gold, white and blue, there were six stone coffins in the centre, the centremost being that of Amir Temur; known to us in the west as Tamerlane. Those who came there were clearly pilgrims as each small family group would offer a prayer. A family sat next to me and the mother posed questions to her son, who spoke to me in good English. Where was I from? Was I a Muslim? Did we have Muslims in England? I obviously gave the correct answers as she and her husband nodded in approval.

As I was about to leave, a group came in with an older man wearing a traditional Uzbek cap. He sat down and in the most beautiful voice began to sing what I take to be prayers. It was extraordinarily exquisite, his rich tenor voice resonating in the chamber. Everyone had stopped talking and had their palms raised. Men, women and children praying side by side. He stopped, each person spoke their own words and then an older woman started to sing another prayer. The setting, the beauty of the place and the possibility of being close to the remains of one of the most powerful leaders in Asia was a deeply moving experience.

Two significant moments, entirely accidental. The right place at the right time. This has certainly been more than the journey I expected.

By Special Request

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I rarely do requests (well not in a blog!) but international bog-trotting superstar, long time friend and climbing partner Dave Salter asked for a poem. It’s not ‘Poetry Please’ so I’m not going to get all lyrical and record a reading. I’m sure that’s a relief to many readers!

So here is the verse inscribed on The Regiment’s clock tower at The Lines in Hereford (and has become known as ‘the SAS poem’):

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

The verse is an extract from Flecker’s Hassan … The Golden Journey to Samarkand (1913). Flecker (1884-1915) was educated at Cambridge and Oxford and only got as far as consular service in Istanbul and Beirut before he died from Tuberculosis at the age of 30.

The extract from Flecker’s poem ( full version here) reads

THE PILGRIMS :

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

There is no evidence that Flecker ever saw Samarkand, but the execution of Conolly and Stoddart in Bukhara in 1842, and the publication of an account of the event by Wolff in 1845, and the ensuing public outcry, would have fallen within Flecker’s formative years. Perhaps that is what inspired him.

The connection with The Regiment and the inscription on the clock tower in Hereford is more tenuous. Flecker and T.E. Lawrence were friends in Beirut in 1911, and Lawrence had photographs of Flecker in Arab dress. There is a suggestion that David Stirling whilst working with Lawrence may have been inspired by a quote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) where Lawrence paraphrases Flecker “they were not soldiers, but pilgrims, intent always to go the little farther”. It’s also been suggested that Stirling had a liking for a phrase within Hassan : “But who are ye in rags and rotten shoes, You dirty-bearded, blocking up the way“? However, the suggestion for the inscription came from Dare Wilson, who served in Palestine and commanded The Regiment in the 1960s.

But enough of the history lesson. My own Golden Journey to Samarkand, dreamed of since I was about 14 or 15 when I read about the Silk Road and the overland bus journeys (the so-called magic bus) to Kathmandu, is complete. I walked into the magnificent Registan an hour ago to watch the sunset. Khiva was the aperitif, Bukhara an appetiser, but Samarkand is the main course complete with silver service, cut glass and champers.

I’ll leave the last line to Flecker:

VOICES OF THE CARAVAN : in the distance, singing
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand

.. but surely we are brave, Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

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It wasn’t quite the way I’d planned it. I’d found a really nice restaurant the night before I left Bukhara and had enjoyed a great setting, exemplary service and a simple meal of Plov, as well as a couple of local draught beers.
By the time I’d finished breakfast, which I cut back to half of what I normally eat, I was aware that all was not well. A bit of a knot was forming in my stomach. I went for a walk in the searing heat just to have a look at the great Medressas for the last time, and returned to shower and pack before checking out. Things were clearly not right, and the knot was quite uncomfortable. I knew the railway station would be clean, quiet and with immaculate toilets, so I decided to wait the four hours there rather than anywhere else. In a sudden rare piece of wisdom, I decided to go for the taxi rather than the bus. I’d only been in the taxi for five minutes when I had to tell the driver to stop, and I got out as quickly as possible and threw up under a tree. As I finished retching the taxi driver got a bottle of water out of the car and poured it over my head and neck. It was such a relief. We got to the train station without further incident.

Once in the train station, there were several dashes to the toilets for explosions from both ends. I think the lady stoically sat behind an 800cym (£0.75) sign for entry took pity on me as had she had chosen to charge I would have been bankrupt. But the worst was yet to come. I was craving something sweet and bought a bottle of juice in the shop and had a good mouthful. As I sat down, I knew I had to sprint so rushed to the toilets as the vomit filled my throat. I headed for the sink, but a policeman was washing his face. I really didn’t want to spoil his immaculate uniform so pushed him to one side as the outpouring of juice and bottled water shot from my mouth. As I stood there retching, hanging onto the sink for dear life, I suddenly realised what I’d done. I wasn’t sure what the consequences would be, but as the spasms stopped, he filled a jug with water and gently poured it over my head and neck, patted me on the shoulder and left. I never did see him again to say thanks.

The train boarded at 15:30 and I was very impressed by the quality of the Afrosiob express. It is state of the art railway technology and incredibly plush – as good as an airliner. I had a seat with some Chinese lads who were watching Chinese films on their iPads, so they missed the scenery as we sped across Uzbekistan. Mind, so did I as a slept for some of it. I do remember huge oil or petroleum plants, vast agricultural centres with miles of poly tunnels, and rather unimpressive barrack-style buildings lining the tracks.

Samarkand station was as impressive as every other railway station in Uzbekistan; clean, modern and bright with marbled walls and plazas. Thanks to the directions from the guest house, I went out into the heat and looked for bus no 3. There were trolley buses which I was hoping to ride on, but I managed to find the bus stop for the marshrutka. Eventually No. 3 arrived and I later wished it hadn’t. It seemed to wait incessantly at every stop, and either the clutch or gearbox was at the end of it’s useful life as starting was an interminable disaster of grinding, crunching and jerking. At this point I was in real pain, hanging on to everything, sweating in the heat and only wanting to crawl away into a hole and hide. It took an hour to cover 4kms and I got out into the Registan, looked briefly at the architecture and headed down the back streets to the guesthouse. The owner was sympathetic, there was hot, sweet black tea and the room was up in the breeze and shaded by vines.

The air-con is quiet, and I’m sat with the doors and windows open enjoying the breeze blowing through the room. Plans are changing; recuperate here for a few days, and then go to the mountains for a day and then head back to Tashkent. And of course, take time to see the fabled sights of Samarkand. That’s what all this was about; never forget it’s an adventure, not a holiday.

Pah!!

Revenge of the Somsa

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It happens to us all when we’re travelling. I’d been told that Uzbekistan was ‘hard on the stomach’ and that this was due to cooking food in cotton oil.

Since the Somsa pasty a couple of days ago, things downstairs have not been as they should. Nothing as desperate as a Kathmandu two-step, but still requiring precautions. Wet wipes in the back pocket. So I’ve been wandering across the old city not really worried about anything.

This morning I had a chat with the landlady about train tickets for Samarkand, and was delighted to discover that there’s a ticket office just 15 minutes away, rather than 45 minutes out at the train station at Kagan. I duly set off and after several false starts found the ticket office alongside a photographer’s desk. Realising that there wouldn’t be any English, I wrote the journey details on a scrap of paper assuming that all would be solved. Hah!

There was a queue (but not as you know it) which involved a person at the window being outflanked by various pincer movements from intruders on either side. This went on for a while and was lengthened by the speed of the clerk behind the counter and the presentation of carrier bags of cash needing counting. As a thousand Som are worth about £0.20, a train journey for a family of four costing 100,000 Som paid in small denominations takes some time. I was third in line, or I could have been seventh or even twelfth. There was no air-con, nor fan and my shirt was by now soaking. The man behind me exerted a calming presence on several grumpy customers who were shouting at the clerk, who resolutely maintained her pace.

When I finally got there, I glibly presented the piece of paper with my passport. The clerk resorted to Google Translate without success, then dialled a number and had a conversation before passing the phone across to me. A voice spoke in English and I explained the journey I wanted. Ten minutes later I had the ticket, much to the relief of the waiting Uzbeks who surged towards the desk as I left.

Once outside my soaking wet shirt started to dry in the hot breeze, and I cooled off. But there was suddenly an urgency; an immediacy over which I knew I had no control. I started to look for coffee shops, but found none. Then I looked for quiet corners and alleys, but there was always someone around. Ahead was a wide boulevard, and I hoped for a public toilet, but there were none. As I crossed the wide street, all seemed lost until I saw a closed restaurant with toilets on the terrace. I feared they would be locked, but thankfully the Gents was open.

Many years ago I went to an infamous talk at Plas y Brenin by John Barry where he showed a picture of ‘Smiler’ Cuthbertson crossing a railway platform somewhere in India. Cuthbertson had a similar problem to the one I was experiencing. In a statement that reduced the room to tears for over 15 minutes, Barry said “as Smiler headed for the train, there was a sound like a flock of starlings taking off”.

I just managed to avoid disaster, and was fully prepared as the starlings took flight. Not only was there running water, but paper too. The closest shave for many years.

I headed out into the sunshine and back through the Jewish quarter, this time making the correct greeting – Salom aleikum – before getting several bottles of Coca-Cola to deal with the stomach bugs. The rest of the day has been horizontal.