Monday, 27 June 2011


After much agonising and soul-searching, i believe the time has come to speak out about Bristol Rovers' decision to sack manager Paul Trollope in December last year. Who on earth did the Board think they would find to replace him? Jose Mourinho? Alan Shearer perhaps? In the end they appointed Dave Penney, and then sacked him after only a couple of weeks - as if Steve Coppell's resignation at half-time during his first full game in charge of City, in August, hadn't heaped enough embarrassment on Bristol football. In a bitter irony, the full details of Fifa executives' deliberations over who should host the 2018 World Cup are only now starting to emerge. Apparently, when they saw 'Bristol' on the list of potential host cities for England's bid, they immediately thought to themselves "Yes, at last, World Cup football at the Memorial Stadium" - only to have these hopes dashed when told that, in fact, it was City who had a half-baked plan to build a new stadium in someone's garden - and the person hadn't even agreed!

On Tuesday there was a last-minute clarification at the Russian Consulate and i had to criss-cross town to change my train ticket; then it seemed really 'miraculous' that i had just enough money, to the nearest 50p, to pay for a six-day transit visa. In addition, the later train meant i had plenty of time to make my way, at last, to Ozjornoje.

At the parsonage of a Church near Ozjornoje
From what i gather, the entire population of a village which had been in Eastern Poland, now the Ukraine, was forcibly settled there, now northern Kazakhstan, during the War. One winter, faced with starvation, the inhabitants made a concerted effort to pray the Rosary for deliverance. The spring thaw came more quickly than usual, leaving a huge lake next to the village ('Ozjornoje' means "of the lake") - full of fish! Their lives were saved, and when the Soviet Union had crumbled in the early '90s, villagers and their descendants set to work building a really beautiful Church, dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of Peace - though no priest arrived until it was completed, around ten years later. There is now also a Carmelite Convent and Benedictine monastery, with plans to build a much larger Carmel. Thousands of pilgrims visit, from Europe as well as Kazakhstan and Russia, each year. I was glad at least to be able to walk the last 30km on Friday the 24th June (the birthday of St. John the Baptist), and was given a marvellous welcome and supper, followed by a drive around the lake in pouring rain, by Fr. Lucian, the parish priest. The next day, the 25th of June is (usually) the Feast of Our Lady, Queen of Peace. Not least it also seemed providential that i was able to make a "Thank You" card, using a postcard which my Dad had given me when i set off. It features the stained glass window at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Fairford; specifically the "Miraculous catch of fish".

I hope to visit the shore of Lake Baikal in the few days that i have here in Irkutsk before, God-willing, flying to Seoul, South Korea, on Friday.

Here is Our Lady's message from 25th June;

“Dear children! Give thanks with me to the Most High for my presence with you. My heart is joyful watching the love and joy in the living of my messages. Many of you have responded, but I wait for, and seek, all the hearts that have fallen asleep to awaken from the sleep of unbelief. Little children, draw even closer to my Immaculate Heart so that I can lead all of you toward eternity. Thank you for having responded to my call.”

Sunday, 19 June 2011

"No Go" Mongolia

It's touch and go. In the "Applicant's statement" section of the English language application form for a Mongolian visa i wrote;

'For nearly five months i have been travelling as a pilgrim from England, walking across the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Poland, then using transport, as well as walking, across the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. With God's help i hope to reach the Pacific Ocean, and somehow cross to Mexico, to the famous Basilica (Church) of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In Germany it was wonderful to meet a Mongolian lady called Ajusch; she sang beautifully and played a two-stringed instrument ('dombra'?).Then in the Ukraine i visited a place called Zarvanitsa, where the story is told of a monk who had fled from Kiev at the approach of the Mongols in the 13th century - an Icon of the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream. In Russia it was fascinating to pass through Kalmykia and visit the Buddhist temple in Elista. Part of my degree was Mediaeval History and i am very interested in Genghis Khan and his descendants. I also think snow leopards are magnificent.'

American citizens can just waltz into Mongolia without so much as a 'by-your-leave', so i really didn't anticipate much hassle; but i don't think the consul even read this bit of the form when at last he was available to discuss it, a whole week after i'd arrived in Almaty. "Tourists don't engage in charitable activity" was one of the things he grumbled, directing me to apply in London or Irkutsk; but there was no chance of getting a Russian transit visa without the Mongolian visa. I've since learnt on very good authority* that one should expect at least three visits to get visas in such circumstances - but i already had my train ticket for Irkutsk and time seemed to be running out. What i've done, then, is bought a plane ticket from Irkutsk via Khaborovsk to Seoul, South Korea - the Russian consular officials here in Astana (again) will need to see this if they are, please God (Blessed John Paul II - please pray for us) to issue me with a suitable transit visa in the next couple of days.

Kazakhstan's space-age capital, Astana
Astana was a pretty run-down sort of provincial city until it became the capital at the turn of the Millenium - you can still see the 'shell' of the old town amid the shiny new high-rise edifices. One lunch-time it was nice to be treated to 'khumus' - horse's milk, before using a lift which had to be paid for by credit-card. Kazakhs also drink camel's milk, though i haven't come across it, and go in for an only-partially-successful sort of carbonated yoghurt drink. Historically the Kazakh people lived a nomadic life on the Steppes, in 'yurts', a sort of tent; which is where our phrase "yoghurt-weavers" comes from. One also has to mention the silk road, major branches of which passed through Kazakhstan.

There are around a hundred different ethnic groups here apparently, of whom Kazakhs and Russians make up a big majority. Thankfully however, although the country has its fair share of '21st century' problems, ethnic tensions are not much in evidence. At least partly this is because it was never conquered militarily by Imperial Russia, but rather the local rulers invited the Tsar to come and protect them from some threat or other in the beginning of the 19th century, as the lesser of two evils.

The Hail Mary is also sometimes called 'the Angelic Psalter';

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee;
blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

*my Dad.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Real Big Apple

Practically the Himalayas
Officially the mountains which rise spectacularly to the South of Almaty, Kazakhstan's "former, warmer, and cultural" capital, are called the 'Tian Shan', but they're practically Himalayas, and may as well be called Himalayas for our purposes. For this reason, Kazakhstan might be designated the true "Switzerland with Minarets" beloved of Afghanistan-watchers, except that mountains aren't really typical Kazakh terrain, and nor are there actually very many minarets, though it's not unusual to see Mosques under construction. The name 'Almaty' is derived from the Kazakh word Alma, meaning Apple, and apparently all domestic apples trace their origins to this region - the city was even once famed for its own, huge, variety of apple. An extremely tenuous link with New York lies in the fact that Blessed John Paul II made a visit to Kazakhstan in September 2001; arriving in a predominantly Muslim country just days after '9/11'.

The Real Big Apple
The following is from a book called "Cycling Home from Siberia" by Rob Lilwall; it gets close to the sort of difficulty i've been having with bureacracy here - my current "excuse of choice" for not doing very much walking of late;

"The Office of Visas and Registration hides in an unmarked office, unadvertised on a random street...[it] opens late, seldom and closes ten minutes before it opens, except on weekdays and days beginning with 'S', when it doesn't open at all."

First Russian, then Chinese officials, when available, told me that my status in Kazakhstan precludes my application for a tourist visa. In Lvov the Russian Consulate actually had to bend the rules; but i was wrong to suppose that this is widely practised. So i took a bus here to enquire at the surprisingly weather-beaten Mongolian Embassy - only to find it closed, as the Consul is in Astana until Tuesday or Wednesday. It's all a bit 'up in the air'. Even if, please God, i can get a Mongolian visa, i'll need a Russian transit visa, perhaps from the Consulate here - flights to Ulaan Baator are only once a week, and booked up long in advance. The thing is, if my experience in Astana is anything to go by, the Consulate may only deal with visa enquiries on alternate Fridays, from citizens aged 65 and over, accompanied by all four grandparents, etc, etc...
Orthodox Church, made of wood, Almaty

Today is Pentecost, and it happened that i was given a lift to the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity this morning in the company of the local Bishop, who is a relatively young Spaniard. He led us in a recitation of the following famous Russian prayer to Our Lady (here translated into English);

We fly to Thy patronage, O Holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin. Amen.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Ascension Day.

Kazakhstan, to borrow Neville Chamberlain's ill-famed phrase, is "a far away country about which we know little"*. This is one reason why 'Borat' was allowed to make such a savage mockery of it, and escape any meaningful charges of racism or xenophobia (the other reason being that Sacha Baron-Cohen is himself a member of an ethnic minority, so it must be 'kosher' - poppycock). Personally i wasn't tempted to see the film, as Baron-Cohen's first incarnation, Ali "Is it because I is c**p?" G had ushered in a new 'dying away' of British comedy, which remained more or less in the doldrums until the National Theatre of Brent's magnificent skit "How i done the Bed" was aired on Radio 4 last summer. As Alexi Sayle put it in a recent retrospective; "A great deal has changed since i invented alternative comedy".

Anyway, just over a week ago i arrived here in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital of the last ten years or so. Registration of my passport was more of a rigmarole than i'd anticipated, but late on Tuesday afternoon i finally set off, heading North in the direction of an extraordinary place called Ozyornoje, the national Shrine of Our Lady in Kazakhstan. That evening and overnight however - would you believe it? - i came down with a heavy cold. Having spent the night in a derelict house, on Wednesday i didn't get far before deciding to take the next available transport back to the city. This turned out to be a mini-bus, on which i got into conversation with a guy the same age as me, Volodya, who offered to put me up(!) in his house in a village some way outside the city. So i ended up staying there in great rustic simplicity but also comfort, resting and recuperating until Friday morning, when i set off along the railway towards Shortandy (don't try this at home). The thing was though, i was only about 70% recovered, and too weak to cover the whole 35 km, so in the early evening it was great to be offered a lift by some guys doing work on the line. They had a kind of soviet equivalent of a jeep, and the young guy at the wheel clearly relished taking us along a very rudimentary and bumpy track; the nearest thing i've ever experienced to rally driving.

I was shown to the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, where i'd been told the community might give me a welcome (they turned out to be the same Order of St. Vincent De Paul as are in Kharkov, Ukraine), arriving just in time for Mass. I know it's a cliche - but i can't tell you how nice they were! Having put me up on a great sofa bed, in the morning i was brought really tremendous bowl of porridge - my very favourite. "World Porridge Day" is a Mary's Meals initiative, due to be celebrated, worldwide, on the 10th of October. They've teamed up with the organisers of the World Porridge Making Championship in Carrbridge, in the Scottish Highlands, part of the reason being that many of the school meals which Mary's Meals provide consist of a sort of "souped-up" porridge; see "".

I've come back to Astana because tomorrow, Inshallah, i hope to make enquiries about applying for a new Russian visa. So i haven't reached Ozyornoje yet, but hope to say more about it in another post.

The sisters at Shortandy are also of the same order as St. Catherine Laboure, whose famous 'Miraculous Medals' bear the following inscription;

"O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee."

*used in reference to Czechoslovakia after the Munich conference of 1938.