No trip to Central Asia is complete without some yurt action, so naturally we had to check it out and see what it’s like to spend a night in a yurt. If you’ve read any of our other posts on Central Asia, you will probably not be surprised to know that getting to said yurt involved a pretty rough, long drive. The landscape was all desert, not so much sand dunes, but lots of patches of about 6-inch high plants and nothing else. We stopped in this one area that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, with just a few trees and tons of locals picnicking, which was completely random and really fascinating.
While here, we climbed up the slate rocks to check out some very old petroglyphs. Up top, a local guy showed us a scorpion he caught and somehow maneuvered into a water bottle. It’s probably for the best that we declined to share this piece of information with Linda until after the yurt stay was over.
When we finally arrived, we were smack in the middle of the hot hot desert. There wasn’t much around except for a handful of yurts and a few camels, though our yurt accommodation was surprisingly fancy – we got thick mats to sleep on, there was even a light and a power outlet in the room, and get this…flushing toilets on the premises! Living large, my friends.
Alan and Ron went off to explore Lake Aidarkul for a quick and refreshing swim. Meanwhile, Linda and I stuck around at the yurts for a camel ride. Our camel guy seemed to be mildly infatuated with me, and I was hesitant to include this on here because it makes me all bashful, but I got a kick out of the fact that in Alan’s notes from this day it reads “J and Linda do camel ride, guess guy loves J. Natch.” Aw, honey.
Dinner was a multi course meal amongst the other tourists in a bigger tent. We drank a little vodka, busted out the cards and played a little dhumbal, and then everyone headed outside to the campfire where a Kazakh (the yurt camp was near Kazakhstan and thus many local residents are ethnic Kazakhs) singer and guitar player serenaded us. The Americans headed to bed afterwards, but the Russian tourists stayed up late very passionately (read: loudly) singing some patriotic songs.
As a telling example of the monitoring and control the government does and has, know that tourists must “register” at every hotel they stay at. These little stubs we receive when we hand over our passports at each stop must be presented upon exiting the country as proof of where we’ve been. So, even at this yurt in the middle of the desert, we had to use our passports to get documentation to serve as proof of our whereabouts. I’m starting to get the feeling that the government likes knowing where we are!
On the drive out to the yurt we had stopped in Gijduvan for a demonstration of the pottery workshop. You know this guy is legit, because he met Hillary.
We also stopped briefly to see a fortress built by Alexander the Great (holy oldness!) and to see the holy water spring and holy fish (so much holy in this sentence!) at the base of the fortress. While Ron and Alan climbed up top for the view, Linda and I stayed down and chatted with Mansur. A very curious Uzbek tourist was intrigued, and, speaking no English (or anything for that matter), stood about three inches from my face and watched me as I spoke and listened. I tried to be polite but my personal space bubble was just bursting and I finally had to run away from her in the awkward, shamed way that us space-bubble activists do. By now we were quite used to being among very few tourists (meaning foreigners, as we saw tons of Uzbek tourists) and used to people saying hello, wanting to know where we’re from, etc. We joked with our guide that we should just wear a big sign that says “AMERICA,” since he was constantly fielding the same question from curious Uzbeks as to our origins. Luckily, all the Uzbeks we encountered responded with enthusiasm, or – at the very least – tolerance (sadly, this was not the case for all of our Central Asian visit).
We left the yurt early in a best efforts attempt to escape the desert heat before it was at its most oppressive. It was Samarkand or bust! By now, by the way, the views on our drives were becoming more and more incredible. Beautiful pastures backed by stunning snow-capped mountains. Every so often a boy riding a donkey, or a shepherd tending his herd of cattle. Or sheep. And then these fields of poppies. I can’t even stand how beautiful it was. These photos are not even properly taken. They’re car shots. From a moving van. You can see the reflection of the camera in the window. And the blur from the speed. And it’s still the most amazing pastoral scene.
And then, the pent-up excitement was killing us. We’d been teased by these mosques, these madrasas, these caravanserais, these architecturally and historically significant buildings. One after another of impressive, amazing, intricate, beautifully tiled, older-than-old things. But we knew the icing on the cake would be Samarkand. Oh, Samarkand, the holy grail of Silk Road destinations. And here it was, at our fingertips and ready for our incessant photo taking and endless stories of ancient Islamic tall tales. And this is what we arrived to:
Wouldn’t it be our luck that our trip to Central Asia coincided with a period of construction and renovation on perhaps the most noteworthy historical sight among all of the Silk Road’s sights. I can’t lie, after all the history we’d soaked up like a (partially functioning) sponge, we were not quite in the right state of mind to truly appreciate the awesomeness that is Samarkand’s Registan Square, but this construction really did us in. We could hardly appreciate the grandeur of these buildings. Their scale puts the ones we saw in Tashkent, Khiva and Bukhara to shame, but it is very difficult to appreciate from the side, with jackhammers screaming (as evidenced by my face in that lovely video). I think part of what detracted from our experience here as well was that there were so many souvenir shops in, and modernization evident on, the buildings – for example, plastered walls and lights installed in the rooms to create better gift shops. Restoration is one thing, but some of this felt more like alteration and enhancement. We did not realize that all three enormous buildings on Registan Square were built after Tamerlane’s rule. By the way, Tamerlane is the same guy as Amir Temur.
Our first afternoon in town we were on our own, so we wandered around a bit independently. We meandered down the walking street, which used to be lined with stalls and covered. There is a bit more of a regular city vibe here (short shorts sighting included – though jeans are still a rarity). It’s not too surprising given that it’s the second most populous city in Uzbekistan at about a half million people. While the walking street is lined with souvenir shops and feels quite sanitized, it is a very pleasant place to kill an afternoon.
We ventured into the Jewish quarter in a search for the synagogue. By chance, McLovin happened to find us and show us the way. Not kidding. This kid had the lisp and everything…is this not the Uzbek twin of McLovin?!
We escaped the heat with a soft-serve in the shade. When in Samarkand do as the Uzbeks do?
There is also a nice little market off the walking street.
Aside from Registan Square, we also visited the first mausoleum of Amir Temur, where he is buried among others. It’s decorated with marble, papier-mâché over brick, gold leaf adorning everywhere, and the tomb is black jade.
What still managed to impress us mightily after all the sightseeing we’d done by this point was Shah-i-Zinda, a narrow street lined with mausoleums so densely packed and intricate it’s hard to fully absorb what’s surrounding you. This was by far the most impressive tile work we saw on the trip.
The tile-making process is incredibly intricate. Check out these pictures that give you a little sense of how much work goes into each one.
Our next stop in Central Asia was Kyrgyzstan, and getting there was quite the ordeal. After a change in schedule made the Tashkent to Bishkek flight less appealing, we decided to drive from Tashkent and cross the border at Osh, Krygyzstan, followed by a domestic flight from Osh to Bishkek. This was probably a mistake. We will cover the Osh airport incident in a separate post, but even getting to that scene was not an easy process.
The drive was much longer than our travel agents (both local and foreign) said it would be (how neither organization, whose functions entail solely guiding tourists through these countries, could figure this out is beyond me), and thus we spent 6.5 hours in the car without time even to stop for toilets or water. There was some beautiful scenery, and, this is still Uzbekistan, so there were also some checkpoints. I mean, why would anyone think you can move around freely within a country? One checkpoint involved getting out of the car and waiting while watching our passports get tossed onto the hood of someone else’s (moving) car. But anyway, after 6.5 hours we arrive at the border for our final Uzbek exit, already frazzled about the timing mistakes (plural. Aside from driving time, neither travel agent realized there was a time change at the border, despite our efforts to confirm this given the time change in Bishkek) and potentially missing our flight and being stuck in a Kyrgyz city that some State Department equivalents recommend avoiding. The border officials know we are in a rush, and this appears to inspire them to be extra slow and spend extra time talking and joking about us while we stand there. And there is certainly no right to privacy here, or at least the border control folks have no concern violating it. This is evident as the bag searches begin. The situation came to a head when one guy made me take out my laptop, open my photos (I guess because you are not supposed to take photos of certain things and places, the authorities feel entitled to search your photo files upon exit) and then started going through not only the photos from our time in Uzbekistan, but proceeded to peruse my older photos, including a photo album I’d made for Alan after our first year of dating. At which point I, in the middle of this border control building and surrounded by about six employees doing nothing but helping themselves to a tour of my photos and belongings, barely able to contain the rage bubbling up inside of me, slapped his hand away and grabbed my computer back saying something along the lines of “enough, this is ridiculous…[mumble lots of swears].” Though he certainly wasn’t able to decipher what I was rapid-fire shaming him with, I told him in no uncertain terms that he had absolutely no right to be going through those photos. As Alan points out, it was a bit of a ballsy and risky move, but it was a highly effective one, because a few minutes later we were walking across to Kyrgyzstan. And this guy clearly knew he was doing something wrong, as that was the end of all the bag checks. Alan’s was cursory at most. Hopefully I succeeded in shaming him to some extent, though this was not the end of the authorities prodding out of some perverted curiosity with further questions. Can I just say that it’s never given me greater pleasure to look a man in the eye and say, “I’m a lawyer.” This series of events filled me with a lot of rage. In retrospect, what was I to have done? Not opened the computer? Told him I had no photos? To be at a border crossing, confronted by these men is to be in a place of no power. They hold all the cards. Power does strange things to people, doesn’t it?
To summarize our time in Uzbekistan, we spent cumulatively about 10 days there. I think we all agree that we may have bitten off slightly more than we could chew in the history and sight-seeing departments, even with cutting out a number of the other Silk Road cities. We generally prefer more culture or interaction or activity on our trips (and definitely less time spent driving). But overall, we found the experience in Uzbekistan to be fascinating and worth the headaches (e.g. even despite the immigration and customs headaches). Aside from the gems hired to work its borders, the people we met in Uzbekistan were wonderfully pleasant and friendly. And it’s a tough balance to figure out because, while the security presence and red tape bullshit in Uzbekistan got very tiring, very fast, we really did feel safe here. Contrast this with Kyrgyzstan where we didn’t need a visa (in fact we did not even fill out an immigration form), didn’t have to register at our hotels, weren’t subjected to arduous border crossing processes, and didn’t get pulled over at numerous checkpoints. That was lovely, but Kyrgyzstan has a higher crime rate, and we actually felt the least safe in Krygyzstan of any country we visited (again, more on that later). Uzbekistan was unusual in many ways, and very much a different experience from most of our prior Asian travels (and really all of our travels, ever). From small, interesting nuances like the fact that drivers already in the rotary do not have the right of way, to the Soviet style checkpoints, form checking and border control, it was a place unlike any other we’ve been. There is so much of interest to see here, we feel it would benefit the country much to fix some of the issues that inhibit tourism here (e.g. making visas easier to obtain and fixing the currency issues we detailed in prior posts).
Transportation: We took a high-speed train back to Tashkent. There is a cafe and a couple stalls selling snacks at the station. We boarded at 4:20 pm (our guide said you should board early, he may have been just trying to go home) and the train departed (exactly on time) at 5 pm. It was incredibly nice with spacious seats that reclined. I guess we were in business class, not sure if they sell lower classed seats or what those would be like. They served complimentary tea and these tasty little burrito-like things, plus a wide selection for purchase. We arrived in Tashkent a little after 7 pm.
Accommodation: In Samarkand, we stayed at Hotel Malika Classic (not to be confused with Malika Prime). WiFi worked reasonably well, and it we paid 3k UZS for access for the whole family on unlimited devices. The hotel was quite nice and the staff was friendly and helpful, but it seemed a little removed from the action. That said, I’m not sure where the action is.
Food: My dad and I had dinner at Venezia where we got pizza, which was fine and a welcome change. With two beers and water and tip it cost 35k UZS. Lunches were at Sayor Cafe (right next to Karambek which gets good reviews, and I think the same owner), which was good, and at the Choyxona (aka tea house) by the bazaar near Bibi-Khanym Mosque, where we had manti and bread and yogurt and cucumber and tomato with dill and soup.
Activities: We covered most of this above, but I’ll add some more detail and/or repeat here. Our travel agent arranged the trip to Lake Aidarkul and the yurt stay, but we saw tourist offices advertising a similar overnight trip from Samarkand and likely other places. While I enjoyed the scenery and overall experience, it is pretty out of the way and thus if you have limited time then I would say this is skippable.
In Samarkand, while exploring on our own the first day, we walked through some back alleys and saw the Mubarak Mosque and nearby synagogue. On our full day tour, we visited the Amir Temur Mausoleum; Registan Square; Bibi-Khanym Mosque; Siab Bazaar; Shah-i-Zinda; and Ulugbek’s Observatory.
May 4-7, 2014 (Sunday-Wednesday)