Tag Archives: Geography

Land of the Silk Road

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Is there any more romantic a symbol than that of the Silk Road?  Chinese silks, spices, jade, the western connection to the exotic East.  This mystical route conjures images of camels and nomadic horsemen and has a history of lands that have fallen under the Han, Genghis Khan, the Persians and Soviet Russia, to name a few of the empires that sought to control the trade route.  Everyone from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo have explored here.  Starting in at least the fourth century BCE, the silk road was at least 4,000 miles in length covering 40 countries, but at its centre were “The Stans” of Central Asia.

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Now independent countries, the Central Asian region comprises Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan now coloquially known as “The Stans” (“stan,” the Persian suffice meaning “land of”).  This was the very crossroads of the Silk Road, connecting Muslim lands with the people of Europe, India and China.  The Routes Network of Chang’an-Tian Shan Corridor, covering this area has been protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

72B9B2CD-9AD6-4265-842C-38E10EC82240The region was under Persian control from the 8th to 13th Centures AD and perhaps that period explains the demographic of the population today, which is 95% Sunni Islam, with some remaining traces of its past religions, Buddhism, Eastern Orthodox and Christian.  There is still a flavour of Soviet Russia, with some of these countries, supposed democracies, still being ruled by former Soviet leaders.

The amazing geography of this area – arid and mountainous – made agriculture poor but was perfectly suited to nomadic horsemen and animal herders.  East of the Gobi desert and steppe settlements rise the snow-capped Pamir and Tian Shan ranges of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, home to traditional herding communities and some truly epic mountain scenery.  It is these two countries that would be explored now, but for the current global pandemic. 

In the meantime, we shall have to conjure images of exotic skylines of minarets and medressas and caravans loaded down with exotic goods from the East.

We would fly into Tashkent, Uzbekistan but the next day we’d head for Tajikistan and visit its magnificent cities and travel over over the Khargush Pass at 4,344m (14,252’).  The second half of the trip we’d visit the beautiful cities of Kyrgyzstan and travel through the High Pamirs mountain range.

Joanna Lumley, the very first Bond girl, now travel documentarian extraordinaire, travelled the Silk Road.  There are 4 episodes, here is the first:

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This is where I’d normally post a photo of me stepping off on a journey, suitcase in tow.  For now, I’m writing from my sunny balcony in fingerless gloves.  Let me leave you with this,

And the people stayed home.
And read books, and listened, and rested,
and exercised, and made art, and played games,
and learned new ways of being and were still.
And listened more deeply. Some meditated,
some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And in the absence
of people living in ignorant, dangerous,
mindless, and heartless ways,
the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the
people joined together again, they grieved
their losses, and made new choices, and
dreamed new images, and created new
ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed

                                                                                       – Kitty O’Meara

Best,

Jan

with thanks to Joan McNeely and Margaret Slade

The Smoke That Thunders

First, A Word About Zim

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We were only in Zimbabwe for a night, but the situation there is volatile (not where we were).  The border crossing was comical.  The official kept me standing there for 15 minutes while he fiddled with a stuck stapler, frequently banging it on the counter, which of course accomplished nothing, until I just wanted to snatch it from his hands and fix it myself, but restraint was the order of the day.

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After 30 years of corruption and dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe may be in even worse straits than South Africa and Namibia.   

6ED2725F-D7FD-4D2E-9F99-20FA7C84012EThe current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa has struggled to fulfil promises of economic prosperity and greater political freedom. The health system has largely collapsed amid the worst economic crisis in more than a decade.  Frustrations are running high as the economy crumbles. Inflation was last calculated at 300% by the International Monetary Fund in August, the world’s second highest after Venezuela.   Electricity is only on for a few hours per day in the middle of the night, so that is when people have to work, and fresh water taps work for only a few hours on day a week.

In November in the capital of Harare, protesters were met with police who fired tear gas and water cannons and struck baton blows.  Some Zimbabweans allege that repression is worse than under the late Robert Mugabe, who oversaw widespread rights abuses that led to international sanctions.

There may be some hope.  The government is taking steps to turn the economy around, having just announced that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe plans to incrementally inject $1 billion into the economy over the next six months, stimulating demand and production in a measured manner while keeping money supply in check.  We saw long lineups of people waiting at the banks.

The Geopolitical Monitor states that “implementing reforms – especially after decades of mismanagement – is a painful process and Zimbabweans are tired. But with political will tangible results are gradually being achieved. The country may be on the cusp of a better future, finally putting the years of isolation behind it. Perseverance and collaboration will help to ease the way.”

The Smoke that Thunders

Early this morning we left Botswana and crossed into Zimbabwe to witness the dreamy, amazing Victoria Falls.  At the Falls, four countries merge:  Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana.  Victoria Falls are on the Zambezi River.  My research suggests the best viewing point for the falls is in Zimbabwe.

I heard recently from two independent sources that Victoria Falls was nothing but a dribble.  I had the impression that was on the Zambia side, not the Zimbabwe side, and it appears that is correct.  The Zambia visa is less expensive than the Zim visa, so people make the mistake of choosing to see them from Zambia.

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That said, the water was at a three-year low and we were visiting at the driest time of year.  The best time to see the falls begins in March.  There were still falls, but half of the length of the sheet, which is what makes these falls so unique, was dry.  This was more evident in the air.  We took a helicopter spin to get the bigger picture.

On the ground, walking the 18 points from which to view the falls from Zimbabwe, they were more impressive.

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We could hear the roar of the falls and see the spray before we saw the actual falls themselves. This is one of the reasons why the local Makalolo tribe’s name for the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The Smoke That Thunders,” is so appropriate.

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Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone (“Livingstone, I presume”) renamed them Victoria Falls when he became the first white man to see them, on November 16th 1855.   Having heard stories of a spectacular waterfall, Livingstone paddled down the Zambezi in a dugout canoe and landed on a small island at the lip of the falls.  In his diary, Livingstone wrote of the falls: “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

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Livingstone Island in the background.

 

We saw the Devil’s Cataract, a separate particularly heavy and dangerous flow.

The falls are twice the height of Niagara Falls and twice the width of its Horseshoe Falls. 

The spray thrown up by the falls creates a special rainforest microclimate along the rims of the falls where there is 24/7, 365 days of annual rainfall, in what is otherwise a very dry area.  We witnessed the spray and the full-on rain in the forest.

No, thank you.  During the months of September to December, tourists enjoy ‘toying with danger’ on the edge of the waterfalls at the naturally formed Devil’s Swimming Pool.  Several have died falling over the natural stone barrier and plunging down the falls.

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The Falls were beautiful, but I’d still like to see them like this, at full force.

 

 

I guess I’ll just have to come back.

Best,

Jan

Think Pink!

Solitaire

Solitaire, as its name suggests, is one of those out of the way places that never wanted to be popular.  Nothing more than four corners in the middle of the desert at the junction of C14 and C19, the major roads in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, it has a gas station, a general store and, perhaps most importantly, the only tire repair shop between Windhoek and Walvis Bay.  That Percy Cross, a burly Scot looking for tranquility, decided to stop here, bake apple pie and rename himself “Moose McGregor” seems highly improbable, but that’s exactly what he did.

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And he made the best apple pie you’ve ever tasted, still served straight out of the oven.

Moose’s tranquility went out the window, but as one of the beloved characters of this land, we think he wasn’t disappointed.  Solitaire, too, belies its true identity – nothing like the reclusive, disinterested place one might assume from its name, it has become the best kind of neighbour.   The two farms that make up Solitaire, the businesses, and other area land holdings, are now part of the 45,000-acre Solitaire Land Trust, focussing on habitat preservation and conservation for the area’s wildlife.  Solitaire’s own fame has grown since it became the focus of the eponymous Dutch novel about author Ton van der Lee’s stay here.  Sadly, Percy Cross died in 2014 at the age of 58.  Solitaire is a diamond in the rough, and we think Percy was too.

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Revivified after our pie and fuel tank refilled, we crossed the canyon of the Kuiseb River right on the Tropic of Capricorn to make our way to Moon Valley.

Since I am a Capricorn, I was interested.

Tropic of Capricorn

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The Tropic of Capricorn is the dividing line between the Southern Temperate Zone to the south and the tropics to the north. It is the southernmost latitude where the sun can be seen directly overhead.  (The Northern Hemisphere equivalent of the Tropic of Capricorn is the Tropic of Cancer).   When this line of latitude was named in the last centuries BCE, the Sun was in the constellation Capricornus (Latin for goat horn) at the December solstice, the time each year that the Sun reaches its zenith at this latitude. The word “tropic” itself comes from the Greek “trope (τροπή)”, meaning to turn or change direction, referring to the fact that the Sun appears to “turn back” at the solstices.   

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The line’s position is not fixed, but constantly changes because of a slight wobble in the Earth’s longitudinal alignment relative to its orbit around the Sun.  The line also crosses the Andes in Argentina and Chile.

Moon Valley

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We drove through what was once a mountain range.  Erosion has reduced the Moon Valley to rolling, low-lying hills, and a lunar-like landscape of a thousand colours.  For the past two million years, the Swakop River and its many tributaries flowed through this valley, giving it life and shape.

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The landscape had become so harsh it seemed it could no longer sustain life.  There was the beauty of the vast, open sky, but after passing through Moon Valley, the harsh environment seemed to carry on forever.

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But as we neared the coast, a line of mist appeared on the horizon and a covering of mossy green lichens coated the sand.  Unique in the world, there are over 100 types of lichen in this desert.  This area is also the source for those tiny air plants that are sold everywhere – plants that don’t attach themselves to anything and require only a misting of moisture for water.

We finally arrived at the coast and pulled into the former British colonial naval port town of Walvis Bay.  We drove toward the lagoon, where I began watching hopefully for pink.

Flamingo
Status:  Vulnerable

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We passed by a massive sea salt production facility and began to understand that this was why flamingos were here, and we got answers to a few other questions, too.   The algae and crustaceans they eat thrive in high saline or alkaline conditions.  According to Curiosity.com, flamingos make themselves at home on some of the most toxic, caustic bodies of water in the world. The water they prefer is often flesh-strippingly alkaline, and the ground that surrounds the shores absorbs those harmful properties. The scaly skin on their legs is tough enough to handle it, but their softer flesh is a little more at risk.  That’s why they sleep standing up.

Speaking of standing up, two scientists actually did an experiment with (already) dead flamingos and found that the joints in flamingos’ legs lock, allowing them to stand securely on one leg without losing their balance or using their muscles to stand.  Even dead, they remain standing when one leg is in the locked position.

Lesser and greater flamingos flock in large numbers to pools along the Namib Desert coast, particularly around Walvis Bay. They’re excellent fliers, and have been known to migrate up to 500 km overnight in search of proliferations of algae and crustaceans.  We must have seen over a thousand of them, along with a handful of pelicans and some plovers.  There were lots of colourful jellyfish here, too.

The greater and lesser flamingos are best distinguished by their colouration. Greater flamingos are white to light pink, and their beaks are whitish with a black tip. Lesser flamingos are a deeper pink – often reddish – colour, with dark-red beaks. Flamingo feeding is endearing, if not somewhat comical, worthy of two very short YT videos.

After a walk on the promenade along the mansion-lined lagoon, we continued on for a short drive on paved road to the former German colonial town of Swakopmund for two nights.

Best,

Jan