Thursday 12 May 2022

Rivers don't always run to the sea.

In 2007 I was travelling through Kyrgyzstan when I discovered that one of the the lessons I was taught in geography at school was wrong. I noted the mistake in my description of the journey but only recently learnt that there is terminology to describe the feature. In my journey log I noted:

We also travelled near the Chuy River (pronounced: "chewy") which our guide said was the second longest in Kyrgyzstan. In one respect this river was unlike any I had seen or heard of. I have always thought of rivers as rising in high ground and eventually finding their way to the sea. However, the Chuy River flows into Kazakhstan where it eventually disappears in the steppe.

Recently, I was reading an article which referred to an endorheic basin. Briefly, an endorheic basin is the end point of a rivers flow which is not another river or an ocean. This "unusual" feature of the Chuy River was explained to me when I was near the rivers origin in the Kochkor District of Kyrgyzstan. It then flows for more than 1000km through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan where it eventually fades away into the steppe a little short of the Syr Darya River which flows to the Aral Sea (an endorheic basin). The Chuy is still unusual in the sense that it doesn't end at a body of water. It also passes withing a few kilometers of Issyk-Kul, an endorheic lake in Kyrgyzstan.

I have spoken to several people who also recall being taught this fallacious fact. I suspect that it is a true statement about rivers in England, and maybe even the United Kingdom but I do not remember any such qualifier when it was taught to me.

Postscript after a 16 year gap I recently returned to Uzbekistan to pick up the journey I had suspended in Tashkent and continued west through Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. While travelling between these cities we had cause to cross the Amu Darya river (historically known as the Oxus) and I learned due to the large-scale diversion of water it no longer reaches its historic terminus in the Aral Sea. This is part of why the Aral Sea is shrinking but it also means that, like the Chuy, the Amu Darya river just fades away into the desert. July 2023.

Saturday 5 October 2019

A visit to the Khatyn Memorial Complex

I remember in my youth watching the television documentary series "The World at War", it was a broad ranging look at events of the Second World War. For some reason, perhaps because it was covered in episode 1, the description of the massacre at the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane by the Waffen SS made a lasting impression. A decade later in 1984 I was travelling south through France on holiday and happened to see a signpost for Oradour-sur-Glane and detoured to visit the village. The original village is now a permanent memorial and museum, a new village was established nearby. The visit fixed the village of Oradour-sur-Glane permanently in my memory.

Fast forward 35 years and I am on holiday again, this time visiting Belarus. When I am travelling I tend not to research where I am going so that I can be surprised, serendipity is what I like about travelling. After four days exploring Minsk it was time to start seeing some more of the country, the first place I visited was Khatyn (Хаты́нь).

“The Unconquered Man”
“The Unconquered Man”

State Memorial Complex Khatyn

The memorial complex is located on the site of what was once a small Belorussian village. On 22nd March 1943 the inhabitants of the village were massacred by brutal fascists, all the adults and all but three of the children perished. Unlike Oradour-sur-Glane in France the village was never reoccupied. I won't go into the details of what happened on that spring day in 1943, I could never adequately describe what happened, the events are fully described elsewhere (e.g. Memorial Complex Web site).

As bad as these events are, there was much more to discover. Khatyn was not one of a kind, more than 600 villages suffered the same fate - complete annihilation of the population and destruction of the villages, 186 of those villages, like Khatyn, were never reoccupied. In total more than 5,000 settlements were destroyed along with a large section of their inhabitants.

The complex has a number of different memorials including the specifics of Khatyn and the other villages that suffered total annihilation. There is also a memorial for all the victims that suffered in the concentration camps located in Belarus.

Belarus, or Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (Byelorussian SSR) as it was during The Great Patriotic War, suffered enormous casualties, around two and a quarter million people died - 25% of the population.

Khatyn (Хаты́нь) cf Katyn (Катынь)

When I heard about a visit to Khatyn I thought that the name seemed familiar and recalled a massacre taking place, mass executions of Polish military officers by the Soviet Union early in the war. My memory was faulty, Khatyn was as described above. However, I later discovered that my memory was not badly at fault, simply my inability to distinguish the Russian pronunciation of two similar names. There were indeed mass executions of Polish military officers but they had taken place but in the Katyn forest a couple of hours drive east and just over the border in Russia! If you want to know about that massacre take a look at the Katyn Memorial Web site.

Monday 26 November 2018

The eating of insects

I first sampled "insect as food" back in 2002 when I was visiting Hua Hin in Thailand. I seem to recall that they were crickets and quite enjoyed them.

Fast forward to 2018 and I am yet again in Southeast Asia, this time I am in Cambodia when I encounter "insect as food". I didn't see insects for sale until I reached the tourist hotspot of Siem Reap. Wandering around the Night Market there were lots of vendors selling individual exotic insects, and arachnids, to the tourists. I saw lots of examples of small groups of tourists, most frequently young males, egging each other on to eat a tarantula or scorpion. The amount paid varied wildly since there were no prices, the cost was determined by how much the vendor could get away with, capitalism at its finest.

I felt not the slightest temptation to sample the food these vendors were selling. However, I did start thinking about the fact that I had not noticed insects for sale in the the various markets I had visited over the previous few weeks.

A few days after leaving Siem Reap I stopped for a break at a small market about 250km southeast of Siem Reap right on the NR6 highway near Skun. Finally I got to see insects for local consumption rather than for "adventurous tourists". The variety of insects for sale was huge, and unlike Siem Riep where a tourist would buy a single creature and often fail to eat the whole thing, here you could buy them by the kilo.

Here, if all you wanted was an individual exotic insect or arachnid, you could choose a live one and get it cooked to order. With the scorpions you see them remove the sting first. On this occasion I did indulge myself with a deep fried tarantula with garlic. Pretty tasty but I'm not sure it tasted much different to any other deep fried insects with garlic.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Reflection on my visit to Cambodia

It is now several months since I visited Cambodia but recently I got around to buying a frame for some artwork I bought while I was there. This action prompted me to think back to when I bought the piece and what motivated me to buy it. With all due respect to the artist this is probably not a great painting it is however a piece of work that I like and a reminder of the events that led to its creation.

In the years following the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Vietnam in 1975 the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians), led by Pol Pot, effectively took control of Cambodia which was renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea. A very dark period dawned and the regime set about systematically dismantling the old ways and implementing an extreme form of communism based on peasant powered agriculture. Staples of society such as health care, education, cities, money, religion, families were not tolerated.

So how does a single painting spark these memories? Well, among the plethora of forbidden activities were cultural activities which included art, literature, music… Among the literally millions (estimated ~2million +/- 1 million) of victims of this genocide were pretty much all the artists which destroyed not only the lives of individual artists but the teachers, role models and reservoir of local traditions.

While in Siem Reap I was asked if I was interested in a visit to the circus, at first I wasn't that enthused but my interest was piqued when it was suggested that circus skills were another example of activities that were banned by the Khmer Rouge and whose practitioners had been killed. A short tuk-tuk ride west of where I am staying is Phare, The Cambodian Circus.
Phare, The Cambodian Circus - Siem Reap
It had been a long time since I had been to a circus and had no idea what to expect… I may have started out rather unenthusiastic but after sitting through the performance I was a convert, the entertainment value was outstanding. There were certainly some familiar circus skills displayed as part of the performance but the blend of music, dance, story telling, humour and athleticism combined to give tremendous entertainment.

The common factor between these two examples of Cambodian culture, i.e. painting and circus, is the resurgence of interest and practice in these activities that were almost completely eradicated by the Khmer Rouge regime. More than a simple resurrection of the original practices modern Cambodians have sought help from their neighbours to regain some of the old skills but have also invigorated the old with more modern and experimental techniques. The results may as yet lack polish but are very exciting and even inspire admiration in artistic philistines like myself.

The painting that prompted this post was sold to me by the artist at Preah Ko, a small temple about 15 kilometers south-east of the Angkor temple.


Saturday 20 October 2018

"Where is everybody?"

This post is another that stems from a coincidence. I have been quietly reading my way through the excellent trilogy Remembrance of Earth's Past by Liu Cixin and had reached the final volume The Dark Forest when I also chanced to read an article in the Economist entitled Where is everybody?.

Both of these publications deal with the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been underway in one form or another for a long time and has, as yet, been unsuccessful. Along side SETI we also have METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). While there has been some disquiet about our unintended broadcasting by virtue of electronic communications intended for others humans leaking out into the wider universe we have not stopped broadcasting to the far flung, unintended potential audience. At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2015, Active SETI (METI) was discussed and questioned whether transmitting a message to potentially intelligent extraterrestrials elsewhere in the Cosmos was a wise.

The Economist article summarises the Fermi Paradox and then briefly discusses an assessment of our progress with SETI in the search by a trio of astronomers at Pennsylvania State University. In a few words, our progress amounts to... not much.

The fictional trilogy on the other hand is more focused on METI and how a lone researcher send a powerful message out into the Cosmos and gets a response, I will not spoil your pleasure should you care to read it for yourself. There are extraterrestrial intelligences out there but they may be quiet for a reason.

Also in 2015 a statement was released, signed by many in the SETI community, advocating that a "worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent". I would agree with this position but honestly do not know whether I would be in favour of any such message or not.