Diana Gleadhill

IMG_1194Diana worked as a  professional librarian before becoming a graphic artist. She began serious writing with her first published book “Kamchatka, A Journal and Guide to Russia’s Land of Ice and Fire”, published by Odyssey. Her natural curiosity and sense of adventure has taken her to such diverse destinations as the Kamchatka Peninsula, Central Asia, Papua New Guinea, South America and Kenya. Her leisure time is spent reading, gardening, sailing on Strangford Lough, and year-round walking in the Mourne Mountains. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and lives in County Down, Ireland.

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FINDING CENTRAL ASIA. (Synopsis)
“Did your mother never tell you not to get into cars with strange men”? I asked Elise. We
had wandered into a stable-yard where we found some quite nice looking horses. “Akhal
Teke?” I queried the caretaker. “Niet”, came the reply. We were then invited to get into the
car and were taken to a translator where we enjoyed a great conversation about the Akhal
Teke horse breed. We were in Kyrgistan in Central Asia.
Central Asia. This knot of ancient lands in the heart of the largest landmass on earth is
unknown, even today, to many westerners. Its recorded history began in the 6th century BC
when the huge Persian Empire created various kingdoms. Gradually, through the years,
Central Asia came under the control of other empires and place names and cultures
changed.
The trans-continental routes of the Silk Road were known to be in existence around five
thousand years ago. The road started with the transportation of salt and the stone Lapis
Lazuli. Using a web of routes through China, the Silk Road then came through Central Asia
before wending its way westwards towards Europe. As well as silk, other commodities such
as ceramics, jade, gold and horses were sold. Music, art, religion and ideas were
exchanged.
During the late 1800’s, Russia pushed her frontiers south towards the then British India, but
it wasn’t until the 1920’s, that Stalin delineated the “stans” as we know them today. In 1991
they gained their independence – for better or for worse.
As a pair of sprightly 60 year-olds, in 1998, my friend Elise and I first set foot in Central
Asia. We set off from Peshawar in northern Pakistan, up the Karakorum Highway, staying
several nights en route. What an extraordinary feat of engineering is this Highway. The
road follows the Indus, cutting through the eastern end of the Hindu Kush, and the spikey
black mass of the Karakorum Range. It felt almost claustrophobic sandwiched between
towering walls of rock, constantly shifting, resulting in huge and frequent landslides. “I’ll be
glad when we finish this trip”, confessed Elise.
And we did. Delightedly, we crossed the Kunjerab Pass, which at over 15,000 ft is the
highest paved highway in the world. We slid gently downhill into the Xinjiang Province of
China and Kashgar the capital. This most westerly part of China is the homeland of the
Moslem Uighur people. Although the Uighurs outnumber the Han Chinese, friction between
the two are frequent and often deadly Here we spent a day at the local market where you
could buy literally anything, from a cradle to a carpet or a camel (Bactrian), or have a shave
and a haircut while eating delicious spicy noodles. And the faces! Along with the colours
and the merchandise, a photographers paradise.
On northwards over the Tien Shan or Mountains of Heaven and into Kyrgistan. Here we
first met the Akhal Teke horse, went riding in the mountains and swimming in Lake IssyKul,
a deep alpine lake and a previous testing place for Soviet submarines. We ended our first
visit to Central Asia in Uzbekistan, probably the show-place of Central Asia with
Samarkand’s fabulous Registan Square and its three huge majolica-covered medressahs.
We were also enchanted by Bukhara’s elegant Labi Haus – a pool with fountains
surrounded by chai khanas (tea houses), and the 800 year-old Kalan Minaret, surprisingly
left standing by Genghis Khan so in awe of it was he.
We had loved our travels in Central Asia and vowed to return. However, it wasn’t until
2009, as a pair of almost-as-spritely 71 year-olds that we returned to visit Turkmenistan
and Tajikistan.
Turkmenistan is almost entirely desert. But it is here that the Akhal Teke horse is bred. A
handsome animal, needing little food or water for the long distances it can travel over the
desert. Here the famous rich red carpets – which we had seen all over Central Asia – are
made, used by the nomads not only for floor covering, but also as wall-hangings. We first
visited the ancient ruins of Merv. Then a journey over the desert to the Yangikala Canyon –
the remains of an ancient inland sea. Having sworn some years previously never to go
camping again, we found ourselves sharing a tiny tent in the desert, at Darvaza’s
extraordinary gas crater, set alight by the Soviets some 30 years ago, and has been
blazing merrily away ever since!
Tajikistan’s claim to fame is surely the High Pamirs – the Roof of the World. For several
days we followed the Amu Daria River – the old Oxus – demarcating the border between
Tajikistan and Afghanistan. We had to be careful not to stray off the road for fear of
landmines. We spent Independence Day in the small town of Ishkashim, partying with the
locals and watching displays of dancing and wrestling before venturing in to the High
Pamirs. To us spoiled westerners, it all seemed poverty stricken. Dry and dusty, there
appeared to be little or no grazing and we wondered how farmers – or indeed anybody –
made a living. We stayed one night in a family yurt near Jalang. This was, without the
shadow of a doubt, the highest, most barren, most remote place we had ever been to, let
alone slept in. During the next couple of days, we descended down the Bartang Valley,
driving and walking down a single, rough track with a fall of maybe 1000 feet on our righthand-
side, demoting the Karakorum Highway from the scariest drive in the world, to a very
definite second place.
We both loved all of Central Asia. So unusual and so historically interesting. Stunning
scenery with massive mountains, rushing rivers, and many beautiful old buildings. In
Turkmenistan and Tajikistan we stayed with local people, always sleeping on and eating off
the floor. It was never easy and certainly not comfortable. But everywhere, without
exception, we found such kindness and an almost embarrassingly generous sense of
hospitality.

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