Then we drove to Uzbekistan, crossed the border, fairly simple, only 40 minutes, much faster than in Turkmenistan, we arrived in Urgench where we met the fourth member of our group, Mary, the United flight attendant. She couldnt get a visa for Turkmenistan because of SARS so had to meet us here. Our guide is named Zamira, a very boisterous and tough lady who had been a teacher and guide for many years and had a lot of stories to tell about Soviet times and her life in a newly independent country. Uzbekistan is about the size of Sweden, but you must put Sweden on its side to get an idea of driving from one end to the other, which we did over 8 days.
Despite the fact they had a lot more rain this year than usual, the Aral Sea is shrinking due to Soviet mismanagement and there is concern it will disappear altogether. One idea was to shrink the sea to make more arable land to grow cotton, so they could equal the USA in cotton production. Since the Aral Sea flows into the Caspian Sea, it has also made the Caspian Sea recede somewhat.
Urgench was founded in the 16th Century but destroyed in a flood in the 1870s. We stayed there the first night.
We talked about the pros and cons of Soviet times versus independencebefore it was very cheap to go to other parts of the Soviet Union, now it is impossibly expensive. As for the West, then they had guaranteed money but couldnt travel, now they could travel but there is no money. Just as before, they depend on Russia for manufacturing their raw goods. Of course for western tourists it is great because the area was completely closed just 15 years ago, now we can visit.
Zamira also told us how September 11 affected their part of the world too, since September and October is their fall tourist season. With the attacks, all the tourists cancelled and their guide and tourism income disappeared too. They have European and Japanese tourists (nonstop flights from Tokyo), but very few Americans.
One asideI tried to receive calls from home while in Uzbekistan and it never worked, not once. The other 3 countries were no problem, but a lot of times the phone numbers were wrong and I had to call home, give them the phone number then get called back. It is very expensive to call from the Stans to the States (between $2-$5 a minute, even at the post office) but from the USA to the Stans is between 60 cents to $1 a minute, a big difference! In Uzbekistan though, there must be very few lines because more often than not, I would never get a call back though they tried and tried.
I also learned that stan means land of, so it is land of Turkmens, land of Uzbeks, land of Kazakhs, etc. kent means town, so Tashkent, Penjikent, Shimikent etc. In May 2003 the exchange rate was 1100 sum to the US dollar, no real black market.
The languages in this area are very interesting, tooall but Tajik are Turkic languages, so a distant relative to Turkish. Tajik is close to Farsi, the language of Iran. Depending on the country, they either write in modified Turkic letters, or in the Cyrillic alphabet. Some are also changing, with road signs in both languages, but while this is good for visitors, many older people find themselves newly illiterate as their Cyrillic script changes to the Latin alphabet in a short time. I used my Cyrillic alphabet all the time in reading road signs and buildings. It is also very important to remember that Russian is the common language of all the countries, and with so many different ethnic groups in any particular country, the residents often speak Russian to each other instead of Turkmen or Uzbek etc. Unlike many former Soviet republics who are staunchly anti-Russian speaking, it is common and necessary here.
The next morning we went to Khiva , which is a beautiful city on the Silk Route. We are introduced to the beautiful turquoise domes an towers and things weve seen pictures of. We visited the Ichan-Qala west gate, the palaces of the Khans, with blue tiles made from natural colors.
We went to the top of the watchtower and looked over the city which was wonderful. The Khans of old were here, the Russians came in 1873, and we saw the first camera in Central Asia from about 1880.
During the US Civil War (1861-65) we didnt supply them with cotton so they had a slave trade which grew and harvested the car here.
They have wonderful wood workshops, they do these book holders that fold flat with a unique design, which are wonderful gifts (I took a lot of video on how to put them together, which takes only a few seconds for them). There are also lovely weavings, traditional puppets.
Avicenna, the physician and medical genius was also here, he was also in Iran (see my web page on Iran for more about him.) The 13th century poet and philosopher Pahlavan Mahmud lived here; he wrote rubiyyat (4-line poems), such as better to spend 100 years in prison than to explain something to a stupid man.
There are lovely madrasas and mausoleums, with beautiful tiles and designs.
There are also many gold statues of the phoenix, the symbol of Uzbekistan (as contrasted with the gold statues of Turkmenistan which are of the President.) In Uzbekistan we saw very few pictures of the President in fact, except in a museum where he is receiving an award or dedicating something.
We had lunch in Khiva in a very elegant house turned into a restaurantin Uzbekistan the main diet is kabob of chicken or lamb or beef (red meat is very fat here), excellent tomatoes, strawberries, carrots, with great rice.
In Khiva we also saw the Uzbek Handball team, which is a sport they are famous for, and these guys will go to the Olympics. There was a parade for them so we felt fortunate to be talking with them.
The day after we drove to Bukhara, about 7 hours in the car. On the way we see lots of donkey-drawn carriages and some amazing roadsall the roads in the Stans were built by the Soviets but not kept up, so most are paved with ruts so you cannot make fast time at all. We crossed bridges where we held our breath, with huge open spaces between the pieces of wood and not even stable enough to walk across, much less buses and minivans.
We drove through a bit of the Karakul Desert and the Kzyl-Kul Desert (black vs. red sand), and saw Astrakhan sheep. This is also where we had bathroom facilities in the Amu Darya River, which was not the first nor the last time. The toilet paper is also definitely former Soviet, but this shouldnt dissuade anyone from making the trip!
Unlike Turkmenistan, you do see cell phones in Uzbekistan, and there is also Internet here, and not expensive to check email if you need to do that. I was able to email a friend to congratulate her for winning an Emmy, from the hotel in Bukhara, definitely her first email from the Stans!
In Bukhara, we saw the old city, the Citadel, the miniatures made by Ulughbek (Timurs favorite grandson), we also saw his astronomical observatory later on in Samarkand, he as a genius of the 1400s in finding stars and planets.
We toured around the Labi Haus, with a lovely pool where you can sit and have lunch and be immersed in the beautiful buildings and the people drinking tea at low tables, eating, visiting, its an incredible experience.
There is a fairly large Jewish community here, many emigrated to Israel after the Soviet Union broke up, but I met some very nice Jewish people here who ran a camera shop and helped me with my video camera and batteries etc.
We also visited the Hoji Nasiruddin monument, he was a wise Sufi mullah that spoke in parables and stories, and visited the Emirs palace just pre-Bolshevik, from 1912, with beautiful rose gardens and incredible pottery, dishes, furniture, a lovely place. In fact the first electricity in Bukhara was here, they even had a refrigerator and an oven.
We visited mosques, mausoleums, madrasas, saw many mulberry trees which are sacred here as they feed the silkworms. We visited and shopped in a domed bazaar; it is the first time I have seen souvenir shops inside historical sites, but in Uzbekistan it is very common. One thing I really wanted was a dress from the traditional Uzbek design material, and there is a shop in Bukhara where the lady measures you, draws a design on a piece of paper (I wanted something I could wear to work), you pick out the material, the entire thing costs $40 and you pick it up in 6 hours! It was amazing, I wish I could have all my clothes made this way.
I also bought sizanny, which is the particular type of needlework in this area, beautiful blue and purple embroidery, perfect for gifts.
I also met many people on the street while walking to the post office, lots of kids trying to practice their English and helping me with directions. We stayed in a nice hotel, part of the same hotel group as the Hollywood Roosevelt, which was very comfortable.
I saw many beautiful sites in Bukhara, walked on so many streets, met so many people, it is a wonderful place.
We also visited another site of Jobs tomb, here is where he put his staff here and that is where the water supply came from.
We also went to a folklore show here, with interesting dancing and beautiful costumes. They also modeled clothes by Uzbek designers. The Japanese had been with us all through the country, with their cameras and tripods and also wearing masks, but here they took even more photos and were buying the clothes like crazy!
We also were singing in the minibus, and the love songs made me homesick.
I also learned about some local customs and traditionswomen slap each other on the back when meeting, and ask many questions about the family, while men shake hands then clutch to their heart. In a wedding, there are 2 women witnesses and 1 man as a witness, the women speak for the bride as she is supposed to be shy. The groom is responsible for the reception, while the brides family is responsible for furniture and household items for their new home.
Now we are on the way to Samarkand, with 2 stops, one in Gijdivan, with an incredible pottery studio, also perfect for gifts and they pack it to travel easily. The artisan there, Abdullah Nazarov (many names here are Muslim/Russian mixed) has made this specific style of pottery through many generations, and when the Clintons visited Uzbekistan, he had photos of him and Hillary accepting a gift of pottery. During Soviet times, pottery making was denounced as primitive, but now it is highly sought after. This workshop and farm also produces cotton for embroidery.
After lunch, we made one more stop, that I specifically asked for, at the shrine to Imam Bukhari, the principal writer of the Hadith. In Islam, the most important teachings are firstly from the Quran, Gods message sent to Mohamed, and the Hadith, the teachings and way of life of the Prophet Mohamed. He went to Arabia, got the information and eventually returned to Bukhara. It is a beautiful place, with many honored visitors, and it is a peaceful place of prayer, a calming, lovely place, with beautiful Qurans in the museum from many countries given to Uzbekistan. It is like visiting the burial place of one of the apostles in Christianity, a very special religious place.
After this we finally arrived in Samarkand, where we were supposed to stay at the Afrosiab Hotel but ended up at the Central, which had the only working telephones but otherwise, a step down. The Afrosiab is right across the plaza from the old city, the Central is a little farther to walk.
Imagine, being in Samarkand, the mystery of the name, the feeling of the city. The food was fine, though we dont have choices on what to eat in Uzbekistan. I liked the Turkmenistan system where you had x amount of money, so you could eat whatever you liked up to that much, or not that much if you didnt want it. I ate a lot of chicken and rice here but it was safe and clean; in fact, I would often wash my hands before lunch in the kitchen of the restaurant, then I could also see where they wash and how the counters look. The best restaurants are family owned, with just a few tables and they are very clean and things were cold in the refrigerator or hot on the stove.
The blue domes of Samarkand are legendary, I bought a uniquely Samarkand itema nesting painted carving of the 4-domed Shah-khi Zinda, like the matryoshka nesting dolls of Russia but this is a building that comes apart in several pieces.
Many of the photos you have seen of the turquoise ribbed domes and many-domed minarets are of Samarkand. The Guri Amir, with 63 ridges in the domes, with beautiful mosaics, the mausoleums, the Bibi Khanym Mosque, built in 1399, one of the largest in Central Asia. It was built to be too large and then it started to fall, but there is still a lot left and you can see the hugeness and how it might have looked.
There is a huge Quran stand that people walk around for long life, children, etc, and many people observe this tradition. We also visited the Ulughbek Observatory, with an old sextant in the highest part of the city, built in 1428. He was like Ptolemy in Astronomy and Euclid in Math, and he could only observe stars with the naked eye.
We also visited a site of Daniels tomb, there is also one in Iranhere the story is that he was originally in Iran but they were moved to Samarkand because Timur wanted them here.
The highlight of Samarkand and perhaps all Uzbekistan is the Registan, the beautiful, magical square, with lots of children on school field trips, the beautiful mosaics and the dragon and the moon face at the top of the building, it is an amazing place, I just sat for awhile to soak up the feeling of the place.
We also went to a ballet about Bibi Khanym and the Khans and so on which was very goodunfortunately very few tourists and Im sure the dancers dont make any money, but we enjoyed it and the theatre was very nice.
We also took a trip through the mountains to Shakshirbasz, and saw the square and old buildings, and drove through the city to the Ak Saray palace, beautiful mosques, mural paintings, the legendary Timur grave but its not him, then back through the Qaymar road to Samarkand. This day we had pizza, we were so happy.
The next day we were to go to Penjikent, across the border in Tajikistan. We want to do this so much, to see another country, I want to get the stamps and coins and we all have our strategies in order what we will do with the day. All through the trip, were told it is easy to go, not a problem, but when we get there, the border guards are wearing masks, the land borders are closed to everyone, not for extra money, not for anything. The Tajik guide was on the other side, I mean within a few hundred feet, maybe 50 meters, with postcards and stamps and coins for us, and they wouldnt let him cross , they wouldnt let us cross , neither side could come to the middle. We could see where we were supposed to go but they wouldnt let us for anything.
We were so disappointed, we couldnt believe this could be possible.
We also found out there is a USA base near Termiz, right at the border with Afghanistan, we are just a few hours away. Maybe we can go there, we want to see another place, but no, we need a permit and we dont have it. We looked at plane schedules, trains that pass through, how to get a visa and fly to Dushanbe, we dont want to go home without Tajikistan and we are determined.
Despite it all, we got on the road to Tashkent and planned to go in the Sitara Travel office for strategies. They are the agent of Bestway Tours, whom I love and love to travel with, but we need them to solve this for us.
We got to Tashkent and there are no options, no one will give us a visa, the flights dont go on the days we need to go, to cancel and move everything would cost a lot, you cannot go on the train, it is just impossible, they will not let anybody in, forget it, thats it.
We are inconsolable but theres nothing we can do. We dont accept it but we are resigned to it.
Tashkent is fantastic, and we dont have enough time to do it justice. We stayed in opulent splendor in the Sheraton Hotel, we were so happy because while I dont need the Ritz, it is nice to be pampered after so many days away from home. The hotel is gorgeous, amazing.
We had a wonderful dinner at Café Maya, and the next day we went sightseeing. I was fascinated with the TV tower (375m, 6th largest in the world), and a huge antenna farm that was used to jam signals from the West during Soviet times. The people never had any problem as long as they never had contact with foreigners or did anything to attract attentionthey were used to the life, knowing that anyone could be KGB, and they didnt know what was happening in the West so they didnt know about a different kind of life. It was very interesting to hear all about it. We saw the Parliament bldg. And the museum and I bought a tape of Setora when we walked down Broadway Street, a pedestrian area with shops and restaurants and a supermarket with Diet Coke! They were out but they used to have it, a bottling strike.
We walked through the old city, the lovely buildings, and visited a madrasa with the oldest Quran in the region from the caliph Uthman, just spectacular.
We had lunch in a food court, we were very pleased, and took a walk through some Metro stations, very famous but absolutely no cameras. They all have different themes, with Cosmonauts on the walls, with bas-reliefs of the Soyuz-Apollo, every station has a unique design and what a pity you cant take pictures but it is because of security, since they could be used as bomb shelters.
The next day we got up at 3:45 am to catch our plane to Bishkek (formerly Frunze), capital of Kyrgyzstan. We flew in a Uzbekistan Airlines Tupolev 154 plane, fine, they carry their own maintenance guy on the plane, I am fine with that.
We arrived and met our guide, Anton, who was great, young and nice and fun. After easy Customs, we went shopping, this is a very modern country. They have an American University of Central Asia here, high mountains up to 20,000 feet, many people used to go through China with trekking trips but with SARS it is just regular trips like us.
Prices are higher here but the standard of living is definitely higher than the neighbor countries. I bought M&Ms and Diet Coke and the others bought chips and cheese and all kinds of things. There was chicken and hamburger and potatoes and bananas from Spain.
We walked around the city center, the statue of Manas which is the symbol of Bishkek and their hero, the 1000th anniversary, a 500,000 line poem which people start memorizing from childhood, it is a tradition.
We also visited the Frunze museum the Al-Atoo Square, a friendship monument of the 50th anniversary of being part of the USSR. 700,000 people now live in Bishkek.
We visited the Lenin Museum (now the National History Museum) which I found very interesting, with gifts from various countries including a flag that had flown over the US Capitol .
We also visited the former TSUM store which had the best and cheapest souvenirs, tshirts and postcards and things that were impossible to find in other places. It is on the 2nd floor. I also went to the main post office and bought far too many stamps and they had to wait for me (Im sorry!)
People are very nice here, the standard of living is better and we had a great time.
We visited the womens rights monument, a woman holding hijab in her hand as a symbol of freedom. 10% of the Parliament is female. We also visited the Frunze House, where he grew up.
The Kyrgyz people, some look very Asian due to their nearness to China and many Chinese students come here to study.
Bishkek has very modern hotels, including the Hotel Dostok and the Hyatt, and the best food was the Orient Restaurant, I recommend it so much, 100%, across the avenue from the National Museum, where we had great stroganoff very cheap. I can even use my ATM card at the machine next door. Everyone seems to have a cell phone too. Unfortunately, salaries are quite low, with doctors and teachers earning about $10 a month, and the pensions now are very low, so older people have a difficult time.
Now we are moving on to Lake Issy-Kul, the most famous thing in the country, it is huge, with snowy mountains in the background. We passed Tokmok Air Force Base, formerly a top secret Soviet base, a forbidden city where people couldnt visit (imagine a group of Americans driving through now taking pictures of the airplanes), got gas in a cheaper station in a tiny sliver of Kazakhstan that appears on the main road.
We stopped at Burana Tower along the way, originally from the 11th Century but rebuilt after an earthquake. The minaret is also a lookout tower, with 2 mausoleums nearby. Buddhists were here as well as Christians, and all religions live freely in Kyrgyzstan. There are many marriages of Orthodox and Muslims and nobody seems to pay much attention to it.
It is a very good road from here to Issy-Kul, to the entrance of the national park, then it is many towns along the road, until we finally arrive at the Hotel, a former Soviet sanitarium, I can just imagine the cosmonauts and politburo walking the halls getting their treatments. This lake is the second in size and elevation after Lake Titicaca. It is very blue, tremendous with great views.
We could have massages and treatments and things for free if we had the time, which we dont, arriving at 8 pm. It was a very long day. I cannot imagine there are other tours that do the lake in a day trip from Bishkek, it is a 5 hour trip and very far.
The rooms are like La Costa, Soviet style, with very simple rooms, 3 TV channels, we traded around a stopper for the tub which I needed, I had a lake view but the rooms had not been renovated since the Soviets surely. I thought is was great, the big chandeliers and grand halls and the nurses walking around and it was definitely spa food, small amounts and not very good. Definitely no phones in the rooms, and I took the covers off both beds and put on my bed because it was cold and definitely no heat in the rooms.
The lake is thermal so it never freezes and people often swim in it. I walked all around, down to the lake, looked at the gardens with gorgeous plants and flowers, apparently they used to do torpedo testing in the lake during Soviet times, though.
Kyrgyzstan is the size of Austria and Hungary put together and we felt it on our long drive. Also, the roads are not sufficient for the distances that need to be covered.
The next day we explored the lake area and had a picnic on the beach. You cannot drive around the lake in a day, you would stay halfway down then go the rest of the way back. We saw petroglyphs in Cholpon-Ata, with hunters and leopards, stone circles with geomagnetic anomalies, very interesting. They have rock signs as our Chumash Indians in California.
We also visited the local museum and went out later to the Prezhevalsky Museum who was a fantastic man, headed the Russian Geographic Society and did many adventures through the mountains and into China and all over. He died in 1957 at age 49, on a trip but was returned here. His museum, memorial and grave are here, and the lady who took us through reminded me of an old schoolteacher who made this man her life, you could tell she loved him. She told us everything and we spent a long time there. Sometimes we spent too long in museums being guided around, when we preferred just walking around and reading the captions (many times they had captions in English). His brother invented logarithmic tables, his grandson just died in 2000 at the age of 91.
There is also a Prezhevalsky Peak in Alaska. He did 25,000 km of travel and was the first researcher of Central Asia.
We then visited Karakol, with an old wooden church and the Chinese mosque, where the Imam toured us around. He said we should do all for God and then give back to God for all he does for us, an excellent point and applicable to any religion.
We got to dinner by 7 pm, another full day, with some indescribable food like silver salad, but they had musical entertainment for another group and they were playing all these songs I know, so the group said I should get up and sing. I went over and complimented the musicians and I mentioned that I sing, they said, oh do it, so I did! I had such a fantastic time, we did Yesterday and he harmonized and played keyboards and I sang.
The next day, unbelievably, we have to go back to Bishkek to drive to Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan. Almaty is only 2 hours above us if there were a road through the mountains, but they stopped building it, and the mountains are very high, so we have very bad luck, we drive 5 hours to Bishkek, had food again at Orient Restaurant because we know there will be no lunch. We have figured it out, there is no readily available food between major cities and everything takes longer than we think.
We change guides and vehicles by the old Frunze Airport and off we go.
We got to the border at 3 pm/ 4 pm Kazakh time, and just a few cars in the line. Once we do the formalities, we got on the road, up through the pass, 5000 feet, we finally got to the hotel at 7:45 pm. We had a very good buffet and did some quick shopping and went to sleep.
The next day we had a full tour of Almaty. Now this is a drop in the ocean of such a huge country. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, about the size of Western Europe. They also have a common border with Russia of 6900 km.
They have the Cosmodrome in another section of the country, where the space launches go from, but it was too far to visit. Almaty is a very modern city, with big malls and fashionable stores like Prada and Versace, a Texoco food mart, a better standard than the other Stans (as we go east they get increasingly more modern.)
Our guide Alex was excellent and very experienced. He asked us what we wanted to do and let us do it. We walked in Paniflov Park, a main area., The Zhenkov Cathedral is absolutely spectacular, its yellow glistening in the sun and inside, the most spiritual feeling, with the icons, the singing, it was tremendous.
We walked through the park, with the huge War Memorial,
very shocking and intense with the shape of the former USSR and an eternal flame. We visited the Musical Instruments Museum, the main square with the monuments to independence.
We went to the bazaar and saw the markets, they do so much importing of chickens from the USA they call them Bush legs for George W which I found hilarious, we took tons of pictures of the different buildings and went to their Olympic skating facility, of world class high up in the mountains (quite chilly), called Medeo Skating Complex. It was great and fantastic views from the top. Then we took a chair lift down which was great.
Alex told us that with independence there were no English language teachers because they all went to work for embassies and private companies making many times the salary.
I was lucky the next day, when we flew out (way too early actually, we had so much more to see and Kazakhstan is a wonderful place), the Lufthansa plane never left Frankfurt so thank goodness I was on the Turkish Air flight, because I could not have stayed another day, my bosses would have been furious with me. It is 7 hours to Istanbul, 4 hours to Frankfurt, then 11 hours to LAX, it is so far it cannot be imagined.
I heard many times, in each republic, that just like the Khans of old, the leaders take it as their own territory, their own kingdom, running it to their own liking. It shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
But I had the most wonderful time and the greatest experience and did so much, and I learned so much about the people of Central AsiaI hope to visit more Stans in the future. I highly recommend this trip, Chi at Bestway Tours, www.bestway.com was instrumental in our success, but find your own plane tickets deals if you canI saved a lot of money flying Lufthansa and Turkish mixed, not just Lufthansa all the way (several hundred dollars). As it turns out, since the LH flight was cancelled, I did the right thing and therefore, I got home and back to work on time.
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