Category Archives: Uzbekistan

A Feisty Farewell

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).

Practical Info

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)

Bukhara: The Living City

After another long Central Asian drive and even longer Central Asian border crossing we were back in Uzbekistan, this time bound for Bukhara. We freshened up quickly at our hotel (necessary after the mile-long walk through no man’s land in the desert heat between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) before heading out for a night of Uzbek food, fashion, dancing and music. This dinner, at the madrasa Nodir Devon Begi at Lyabi Khauz complex, was a lovely welcome back, and we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner (including a surprisingly not horrible Uzbek wine) while being entertained by a show alternating between fashion and traditional dance. (Very dorky) fun fact: the “madrasa” was built to be a caravanserai, but the king misidentified it as a madrasa at its unveiling, and the poor guy who built it couldn’t correct the king of course. So this is why it’s an atypical structure for a madrasa, and why you can walk straight into the courtyard (unlike other madrasas where you must go right or left upon entrance). Maybe it was that Uzbek wine, but I got inspired to shop. I’m kind of digging the Uzbek style. So much so, in fact, that I caved and bought my first “real” souvenir of the trip: a lovely Uzbek jacket.

Walking back through the old city after dinner it was immediately apparent that Bukhara is not the museum relic that Khiva is, but a living city. People are out and about everywhere, dining, drinking, shopping, laughing. It’s far more vibrant. Also more western and touristy, but overall a nice mix of activity. And we aren’t complaining about access to some of those “touristy” things we’d been missing, like ice (Alan loves his iced coffee). So enamored were we that we returned the following night to Lyabi Khauz, a plaza built around a pool shaded by some seriously old mulberry trees, for dinner at a nice restaurant on the water.

Bukhara is one of the seven holy cities of Islam because the religion developed so much here. Real religion or history buffs can have an absolute field day here, visiting as many of the 997 historic monuments as they can fit in. It’s all the more impressive when you realize that many of the buildings in Bukhara were destroyed when the Mongols invaded in 1220, and again when the (Russian) Red Army attacked and bombed the city in 1920. We had neither the time nor the attention span to see all of these, but we did get a good sampling, starting at the first building in Central Asia built of fired brick (the Ismail Samani Mausoleum) and which served as the prototype for India’s famed Taj Mahal.

The Bolo Khauz mosque, built in 1713, with an ayvan built in 1917, was particularly stunning, and we sat there on a Friday morning observing a group of old men waiting for the Friday services.

Alan and Ron got in touch with their roots for a change when we stumbled upon an old synagogue, which is home to the handful of remaining Bukhari Jews. (If you are interested in learning more, check out this New York Times article on the community in Queens.)

The gigantic fortress was impressive. It was here, of all places and all things, that bowling began when guards used to roll giant rock balls down the entrance to defend it! But what we enjoyed most was the impromptu flash mob of Uzbek ladies. (Funny enough, these are the same ladies from Fergana valley who we laughed with as the two groups of us stood around photographing each other).

Check out the video:

We executed our first black market money exchange here in Bukhara and you really feel like you’re doing something illicit when a guy your guide knows through a guy shows up with a black bag full of bills, crouches down all shady to count it out and then makes the exchange. I half expected to find a couple packets of smack in that bag. Just to be clear, this was the first black market exchange that we personally conducted. Earlier that same day, the driver who gathered us from the border crossing pulled over by what appeared to be a broken down car. Perhaps he was just a good Samaritan who received a five-gallon jug of petrol as a thank you, but the bag of cash suggested otherwise.

Perhaps the most impressive view is in the square surrounded by the Kalon Minaret, the huge Kalon Mosque and the prestigious Mir-i-Arab Madrassa. The minaret was likely the tallest building in Central Asia when it was built in the 12th Century. Genghis Khan was so impressed that he declined to destroy the minaret even as he razed everything else. By the way, I never knew that many spell Genghis as Chinggis or Jenghiz and pronounce it differently than we were taught.

This mosque (the oldest one, now home to a carpet museum) isn’t too shabby either.

Just outside the old city are even more historical sights. We checked out Chor Minor, which is a unique madrasa with four minarets. As Mansur drilled into our brains, building a madrasa kills two rabbits with one bullet 😉 : it satisfies the builder’s obligation to give charitably, while at the same time bringing him fame. This guy killed three rabbits, because the four minarets were a symbol to the world that his four daughters were, ahem, single.

Check out these doors with the double knockers – they each create a different sound so the people inside knew if a man or a woman was knocking and whether the woman answering the knock could show her face when she opened the door. Neat, eh?

Next stop was at a Sufi mausoleum. I learned that Sufism has something to do with silent meditation…something about all dervishes are Sufi but not all Sufi are dervishes…but mostly I kind of tuned out this stuff and thought about how we call my cat, Safari, Sufi for short. I know. Probably not the ideal candidate for this much historical immersion. I apologize to all our readers who were waiting patiently for my notes on Sufism.

Last stop on the tour was a visit to the Emir’s Summer Palace (the last emir, Alim Khan), an extremely pretty and intricately designed home with a lot of Russian influence. Our guide often asked us questions to keep us guessing and engaged in the course of our tours. At the summer palace he asked us to guess how the builders knew that this area would be cooler than the old city (hence the putting of the summer palace here). Our three or four guesses were dismissed before he finally gave us the answer. Linda smartly pointed out how hilarious it was that he let us keep guessing on this one like we might actually get there. The right answer? They cut a slaughtered sheep into four pieces and hung each on the four corners of the old city, waiting to see which direction spoiled the slowest, and then assumed that such direction was the coolest.

We learned a little bit, too, about Suzani embroidery. Apparently they are kind of like resumes of the girl making them, and she chooses figures that symbolize aspects of her personality. For example, the turtle symbolizes patience, the pomegranate means fertility, and the scorpion: tough. We opined on what we might sew on our own Suzanis to court each other, and we agreed neither of us would be needling any turtles. Dogs? Yes, definitely some of those. Loyal, cuddly, and super happy to see you at the end of every day. Sorry, total corn balls.

Mansur took us to his favorite spot for lamb, Chor Bakir, which was just outside of the city and certainly not touristy. The baked lamb was solid, if not incredible. But the special bread took the spotlight. It was like a super thick, flaky, buttery pie crust. Delicious.

For a little relaxation we decided to visit the Hammam. Now, being half Turkish and having visited Turkey several times you might think that I’d experienced a Turkish bath before, but no. I’d somehow avoided this experience until Uzbekistan. And it will most certainly be my last time. I’d say that it was one of the least comfortable experiences I’ve ever had. Not so much the vigorous scrubbing or the weird body contortions or the intense heat that was amplified by the ginger they rub on you, but the fact that it was a young man and I was, well, naked. Why couldn’t I get a fat old lady with a really big mole on her face? No, who am I kidding, I’d still be incredibly uncomfortable in that situation. The baths are not for me.

On the way out of town we happened upon a bird market and popped out of the van to explore. I’ve never seen so many birds in one place! My friend Jaimie has pretty severe ornithophobia, and I kept thinking this would be her nightmare.

Over on the prepared foods side of the market we picked up fixings for another picnic lunch. We ate so many dried fruits and nuts on this trip! I was able to fuel the fire that is my obsession with yellow raisins, and we even discovered a tasty new treat: apricot kernels.

Practical Info

You can walk to visit all the attractions in and around the old city, but you will need motorized transport to visit the Emir’s Summer Palace and/or the Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum. If you like shopping, there are little domed bazaars at the crossroads of various streets and pedestrian paths. Today these seem pretty touristy, but markets have existed in this fashion for centuries. We saw many vendors with beautiful pottery near the Kalon Minaret and elsewhere.

Accommodation: We stayed at Karavan Hotel. The location seems pretty good, as it is right in between the different “old town” sites. There is free WiFi in the lobby, and they did our laundry for a reasonable price. That said, since Bukhara was the most lively and fun city we visited, I might prefer to stay closer to Lyabi Khauz. Which would put you further away from Bolo Khauz and the Mausoleum of Ismail Samani etc., but more in the middle of a fun little evening scene. A couple spots I noticed there were Hotel ASL and Hotel Asia.

Food: Our first night we went to the 6 pm dinner, folklore, music and fashion show at Madrasa Nodir Devon Begi (at Lyabi Khauz complex). It cost 230k UZS including a bottle of wine, i.e. not cheap but it was enjoyable and worth it. Another night we ate near the same place, right on the little water square at Lyabi Khauz. It was quite good and lively.

For lunches, we enjoyed Bolo Khauz Cafe (near the eponymous mosque), which had a nice mix of locals and some tourists. After our day trip to the Sufi shrine and Summer Palace, we had lunch at Chor Bakir, a non-touristy lamb spot outside the city. The baked lamb was solid if not incredible. The “special” bread we waited for out of the oven was incredible.

I finally got my iced coffee fix at Minor Coffee House. Well, actually it was a strange mix of espresso and Pepsi, but it had ice so I didn’t complain. Cafe Wishbone had a delicious iced coffee that was more like a frappuccino.

On our way out of town we stopped at the large market for picnic supplies. The variety and quantity of nuts and dried fruits are impressive (with combos like walnut-stuffed apricots). We bought outstanding apricot kernels…our guide said that Bukhara apricots are special which is why these kernels are better than most. They also sell chicken legs, apparently purchased from the US for their unnatural immensity. These are called Bush legs, no joke.

Activities: We covered most of this above, but I’ll list it out here. On our full day city tour we visited the Ismail Samani Mausoleum; the Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum; Bolo Khauz Mosque; the Ark Fortress (similar to Kunya Ark in Khiva, this was the royal town within a town), within which is the reception and coronation court, another mosque and some small museums; Kalon Minaret and Mosque; Mir-i-Arab Madrassa; an old Jewish synagogue near Lyabi Khauz; and the oldest mosque (I forget the name) which is now a carpet museum.

The hammam that Jenni so enjoyed is called Bozori Kord. I did not experience quite the discomfort that she did, but I would drop it in the category of an experience rather than a supremely enjoyable experience. My dad and I suffered in the uber hot room for about 15 minutes too long before being doused and roughly massaged with our faces pressed against a marble slab. All while I’m fearing that the man contorting me isn’t quite as focused on my herniated discs as I am. And that ginger scrub combined with lying down on hot stones honestly made me feel like my back was on fire. It was astoundingly hot, relieved only somewhat after they threw buckets of cold water on us. The fee for this hour of bliss is a mere 60k UZS.

On our day trip outside the city, we visited the Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum (the memorial complex of the Sufi saint Naqshbandi) and the Emir’s Summer Palace.

May 1-4, 2014 (Thursday-Sunday)

Khiva

Leaving Tashkent we flew to Urgench and then traveled by car to the desert fortresses (covered in our prior post) before arriving in Khiva. This was the first of many long drives across the ‘Stans. Looking back I think we greatly underestimated the amount of time we would be spending in cars during these three weeks, and while it often got tiring and I occasionally suffered from some bad-road-induced car sickness, we really enjoyed these chances to observe the less-seen nooks and crannies of Uzbekistan and its neighbors. While there is a whole lot of nothing, there is also a whole lot that’s interesting. The box-like houses that sporadically line the streets are all connected by exposed pipes carrying natural gas (a major natural resource of Uzbekistan). In general, we were struck by how much more prevalent colors like brown and grey (in the landscape and man-made structures) are here compared to supremely colorful places we visited like India and Sri Lanka. But in spurts, the red and yellow government subsidized houses dot the landscape like Ronald McDonald outposts. In sparser areas there are miles and miles of cotton and wheat fields and lining the streets is often a row of the silk worms’ favorite: mulberry trees. And of course, there are those donkey-pulled carts.

Khiva was the first major Silk Road city we visited. Among the Silk Road destinations in Uzbekistan, Khiva has a reputation for feeling more like a museum than Bukhara or Samarkand. The old city has been beautifully restored, but some fret it is now so polished and touristic that it has lost some of its living vibrancy. We can understand this sentiment, for when you enter through one of the four gates into the walled inner city (Itchan-Kala), the ancient mosques, madrasas, and caravanserais are all full and buzzing with shopkeepers and souvenir sellers (including some folks selling these incredible traditional Uzbek hats for the men, and lovely fur hats for the ladies. Alan and Ron look like 80s rock stars, no?), but at night it seems more of a ghost town.

In addition to the beautiful restoration, the sense that you’re in a museum is perhaps because the tightly compacted inner city means all these architectural gems and amazing sights are conveniently located a quick walk around, as though you are passing through a large, outdoor exhibit.

Our first night in town we walked up to a great vantage point atop the city walls to watch the sunset and get spectacular views of the blue and white tiles with a stunning evening light.

After sunset we had another hearty meal (hearty is a good word to describe every Uzbek meal), preceded by a medicinal vodka shot. Our guide informed us that taking a shot of vodka pre-meal helps the stomach to deal with any pesky digestion issues. Fact or fiction? We’re not sure.

The area in which Khiva is located is called Khorezm. Back in the day, people were named after where they came from, and so one man from this area, known as Al-Khawrizmi went on to become a pretty great mathematician. And it is from his name that we got the word for algorithm, and his book titled Kitab al-Jebr is where the word algebra derived from. Crazy, huh?

Among the other fascinating facts about the way life was in Khiva’s heyday, men sentenced to death were killed by impaling. And the punishment for adulterous women? They were placed in a sack with wild, giant Uzbek hornets that would sting them to death. What a way to go, eh? We were skeptical at first too, until we saw Uzbek hornets with our own eyes. They are enormous!

Within the Itchan Kala, the Kunya Ark is the old palace and a smaller fortress within the fortress. It was neat to learn some of the engineering and architectural intricacies, necessitated in part by the region’s extreme weather. Temperatures in Uzbekistan often plummet well below zero in the winter, and summers are scorching with readings of 120º and higher. So, for example, the ayvan of the Khan’s court faces north and tops out above the city walls, so it stays cooler in the summer by avoiding the sun and catching the breeze. We also learned that Uzbekistan generally has a high water table and high salinity, so drainage and irrigation were and are a common theme in land use and planning.

Apart from the scientific-leaning tidbits of knowledge, we heard many a tall tale. Legends and mythical heroes are commonplace in Central Asia. Thus when we visited the Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud, a fur maker and undefeated wrestler, our guide explained not only the various parts of the building but regaled us with a 10-minute story about how the wrestler was summoned to India because a rajah wanted to see him battle a local strongman and this local’s mother begged Pakhlavan Mahmoud to let her son win so he would not be punished in defeat and Pakhlavan Mahmoud did this but then got in trouble because the rajah knew he threw the fight but then in a dramatic turn of events…We must have heard 30 stories like this during our time in Central Asia.

Khiva was only stop number one of the Silk Road for us, and I have to be honest, we aren’t the biggest history buffs in the world, so there was definitely a bit of mosque/fact/history overload. Even this early on. One way to help us break up the long stretches and let us digest the information was to break for elevensies. Um, how had I never heard this term before?! Elevensies, tensies, twelvsies! You stop in the morning for a cuppa and a quick bite! Obsessed. I was told by Mansur that there is no such thing as threesies, but you can bet every time I snack break, be it ninesies or midnightsies I’m adding a “sies.” This also makes me terribly excited to go to London. Just so I can have elevensies (with scones and clotted cream!). And I can also try out the new expression we learned…Instead of saying, “kill two birds with one stone,” I can use the Uzbek twist on this phrase and say “kill two rabbits with one bullet.” Like, “Dear, we’re a bit knackered and hungry, aren’t we? Why don’t we break for foursies and we’ll kill two rabbits with one bullet? Right, then, cheerio.” Anyways, I digress.

A trip to the Silk Road would be incomplete without learning about the silk making process, and when we stopped at a small demonstration and educational facility it was practically impossible to pull Ron and Alan away from a book detailing the complexities of the silk dying and carpet weaving process. A very quick explanation: silkworms eat the leaves of the mulberry trees and grow tons and spin a cocoon maybe one-third the size of a chicken egg. When you unwind the cocoon they’ve spun you can have up to a kilometer of silk ready to be softened and died. The actual weaving process takes lots of time and is incredibly detailed. We were very impressed by these hard-working ladies.

On our last evening in Khiva and feeling a bit done with the touristy museum kinda thing, we requested Mansur help us find a non-touristy restaurant. He happily obliged, but even he had to say it as we sat practically alone in a big open room and were served a whole, cold chicken slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise, that maybe we picked the wrong city to try and get off the tourist track. I was also amused walking back to our hotel that night that despite the many very modern streetlamps, not a single light was on. When I asked Mansur why, he said “what for? They use them when officials are in town.”

Practical Info 

Accommodation: We stayed at Malika Khorezm Hotel. It is located outside the old city walls, but within easy walking distance. Our room was huge and spartan but nice. The WiFi worked only in the lobby. We saw several options located inside the old city which might be a little more atmospheric, though everywhere felt like a ghost town at night.

Food: We dined at Hotel Kheivak in the old city. The hearty soup with rice and beef plus dill, and the pasta with meat and yogurt etc., came with vodka shots. Our second night we asked for a non-touristy place. Perhaps we picked the wrong city for this. There was hardly anyone else in the large room. There was no menu. Our whole chicken arrived half cold and slathered in ketchup and mayo. Actually, it was not bad. The vodka came in a small water glass, and our guide calls it medicine.

Activities: Our first evening in town we entered the Itchan Kala (the walled inner town of the city of Khiva) through the gates of Ata Darvaza (there are four gates, this is the west gate), and we walked up some stairs inside the Kunya Ark (the palace) for a vantage point with great views (especially at sunset). We paid 4k UZS each to enter. I’m not sure exactly how to find this place, but maybe if you ask for the sunset view place inside Kunya Ark then someone could point it out.

We had a full day sightseeing inside the Itchan Kala. We saw the Kunya Ark, the Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud, the Juma Masjid (with its 213 wooden columns), some minarets and madrasas, and a great little silk making place with a book describing the process. A silk worm’s cocoon might be one kilometer long when unwound! Our guide handled everything but I think you may need a ticket to enter the Itchan Kala and then also for specific buildings, though I’m not certain.

April 27-29, 2014 (Sunday-Tuesday)

Welcome to Uzbekistan

Yup, you read that right. So began our travels to the peculiar and perplexing place that is Central Asia. Also colloquially known as the ‘Stans. Uzbekistan was the first stop on our trip along the Silk Road (we also ventured into Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Western China on this foray into the land of magic carpets). If you’re scratching your head and asking yourself “why in the world would one go to Uzbekistan?” well, you’re not alone. The response we received from many was, “where?” followed quickly by “why?” (or more frequently than I might have thought, “is that a country?”). So I suppose I’ll start with a very brief introduction to Uzbekistan and why/how we ended up here.

Uzbekistan is the most populous of the five nations typically considered to make up Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan), home to arguably the grandest of the Silk Road’s cities (Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva). Given its central location, Uzbekistan was a required stop for the multitude of trading caravans shopping their silken (and other) wares. This region of the world has largely been home to nomadic peoples and served as a crossroads for the movement of not only goods, but people, cultures, ethnicities and ideas to and from Europe and Asia. It’s a historically fascinating place, full of architecturally stunning ancient mosques, caravanserais, and madrasas. It’s also home to many Turkic descendants, and to our surprise, a substantial number of Turkish speakers.

Uzbekistan is also a former member of the USSR, and this Soviet influence is palpable in many ways, the most obvious probably the red tape you fight through crossing its borders. We’ll cover our two Uzbek overland border crossings separately (and do stay tuned because they were two of the strangest and most infuriating days of our lives. A truly unique travel experience that may not be rivaled outside this part of the world). And that alone almost sums up what we sought out of this visit: an experience unlike others. A chance to visit a part of the world rarely seen by people in our hometowns, and a place not so well understood. We learned an incredible amount while in these countries, largely because we knew so little about them beforehand, and in part because we had very informative tour guides unlike much of our independent travels. I should also mention that we were joined here by Alan’s father, Ron, and his wife Linda. We were also accompanied for the majority of this trip by local guides, as we booked this trip through a travel agent and decided (wisely) that these countries would be too difficult (if not impossible and at times prohibited) to visit independently.

With the exception of the characters we met at Uzbekistan’s borders, we generally found the people in this nation to be pleasant and friendly, and we were touched by their genuine curiosity and excitement to see us. This mutual fascination was so poignantly displayed one day while we were touring some of the mosques alongside a group of women from rural Uzbekistan. I’m not sure who started photographing whom, but we all stood there looking at each other through the lens of our cameras and laughing.

The people of Uzbekistan are predominantly Muslim, but it is not an Islamic state. In fact, the government suppresses religious expression by banning full-face veils and long beards. Our guides here and in Turkmenistan were adamant about how the people are Muslim but not fundamentalist and still like alcohol etc., which gave us a somewhat modern and progressive impression of the country. But in many ways, it feels like Uzbekistan is a nation stuck in time. What time I’m not exactly sure. The Soviet Era? It was certainly a time before smoking was banned in public establishments and hotel rooms. The stale smell of cigarette smoke lingering in old fabrics permeates the air of most establishments, including all of our hotel rooms. In fact, the first time we got an option for a non-smoking room was weeks later in Kyrgyzstan, and the non-smoking floor was one of ten plus floors in the massive hotel. And while there are a lot of the modern conveniences that you tend to associate with developed countries, there is a distinctly quaint, pastoral even, quality to the place. So, for example, while you will see modern roads and pedestrian crossing lights, there are also donkey-drawn carts on those roads (and cows and sheep and horses).

One of the first things visitors to Uzbekistan learn is that the money situation is absurd. What do I mean by this? Well, credit cards are accepted at approximately zero locations throughout the country. Cash is obtainable via ATMs, which are conveniently located at approximately two locations in the nation. In the capital city of Tashkent, only. And these ATMs dispense only USD, which you will then need to take to the bank (or the streets, as black market money exchanges are common) to exchange them for Uzbekistan Sum (UZS). And bring your biggest purse/suitcase/trashbag because the largest bills you are likely to find are 1,000s (and, on the rare occasion, 5,000s). Ladies and gents, let me break this down for you. 1,000 UZS = $0.43 USD. That’s 43 CENTS. That means when you exchange one US$100 bill you receive about 230 UZS bills! We quickly learned that a skill unique to the Uzbek is the ability to count legal tender in rapid-fire succession. Our guide, Mansur, did his best to teach us. On multiple occasions. But there is no rivaling one with a lifetime’s experience of counting out a three-inch thick stack of bills to pay for his borscht. I suppose it goes without saying that I was forced on multiple occasions to fight the urge to make it rain UZS. Among the next things you will learn about money in this nation: it must be reported. You must declare on arrival the exact amount of cash (USD, UZS or otherwise) you are carrying into the country. And then you must declare exactly how much you are taking out of the country upon your exit. And if that number somehow gets bigger, be prepared to explain. Never mind that there are ATMs, you will need proof. Oh, one last fun fact about currency in Uzbekistan. USD is often accepted, sometimes appreciated. But not just any old American dollars. The Uzbek have a policy on USD, which is to say that if it has even the most minuscule tear or even a smidgen of writing, you might as well consider it toilet paper. No, my friends, the Uzbek will have none of your shitty, dirty, written on or torn USD. You will need pristine bills. Not even kidding, that we held up the line at the airport for a good ten minutes as the man in charge of processing our visa on arrival sat there and rejected bill after bill after bill of the same United States dollars that every single US establishment will gladly accept. And don’t expect this same quality in your stacks of Uzbek cash, the rules may as well be opposite.

After sorting out our money, we were finally ready to get out and see what Uzbekistan was all about. Armed with pockets full of (not so valuable) cash, we set out for a tour of Tashkent, the capital city. Our accommodation, Hotel Uzbekistan, stands in a prime location, overlooking a large square centered by the statue of Amir Temur, the national hero. In fact, much of the city is covered by big, beautiful, green squares and parks, well-manicured gardens surrounding statues, monuments and buildings. The manicuring extends to the buildings, the streets, even the subways and the meat market – it’s an impressively clean city. And that subway. Let me tell you, it is just stunningly beautiful. Each station is decorated differently and my particular favorite was very art deco, with marble walls and columns and super in-right-now brass fixtures. Unfortunately, as with many sights in Uzbekistan, the taking of pictures in the subway is strictly prohibited (hellooooo nonsensical Soviet era rules and hyper paranoia!).

We checked out a local market where Alan and Ron indulged in their first taste of horse meat. Again, you heard correctly. Horse meat is a popular treat here, and according to Alan, it’s quite tasty when spiced up and served with noodles. Linda and I stuck to the bread on this occasion. There’s just something about eating a horse…it’s not quite a dog, but…I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Which brings me to Uzbek cuisine, and really Central Asian food in general. This is what the header of the Uzbek visa application should read: vegetarians need not apply. The options are typically meat, meat or meat. A typical meal is bread, a soup made with meat, potatoes in the soup and perhaps elsewhere, and then one of plov (made with rice and either lamb or beef), kebabs (again, beef or lamb), or manti (like a meat filled ravioli). We became all too familiar with these dishes as the variation of food all across the ‘Stans was close to non-existent. In fact, none of the ‘Stans we visited have any Western chains! We realized at this point how unusual it is that a significant chunk of our time over the course of this trip was spent in countries (and cities) with no McDonald’s. At first, this is an amusing, even impressive fact. After three weeks of plov and instant coffee, the lack of Starbucks seems a devastating flaw.

We were surprised by how clean, refrigerated and orderly the markets are. These are not your typical developing country markets with potent odors and abundant hazards for those sporting flip-flops. It was here in this market that we also got our first glimpse of the redonkulous junk-in-the-trunk sheep butts. (I’m not even ashamed to use the word redonkulous. You should see these lamb bums in action. They swing back and forth when they walk. It is ALL. FAT. In fact, every time a fat-tailed sheep walks by an angel starts singing Sir Mix-a-Lot’s classic.) And the Uzbeks love that ish. Sheep bum is everywhere.

The old town was our first chance to glimpse the beautiful blue and white decorated architecture that is so characteristic of the Silk Road. It’s pretty incredible to see the contrast of these old, intricate and colorful buildings next to the stark, cold Soviet architecture throughout much of the city. We were also fascinated to see the old neighboring homes made of mud and straw and with no windows to the street (so as to allow the ladies to be able to walk around uncovered without risk of being seen, back in the day). We also scoped out the world’s oldest Quran (printed on deer skin!) and a madrasa (Muslim school) before heading back to our nice-in-a-dated-way hotel to recover from jetlag.

From Tashkent we flew to Urgench and first visited some ancient fortresses before settling in Khiva for two nights. This area holds many fortresses in varied states of preservation, and we stopped to see Ayaz-Kala and Tuprak-Kala. These mud and clay structures are still standing after many hundreds of years. We really appreciated visiting these because they are so remote. Standing on top of these, looking out at the miles and miles of desert nothingness, you can start to get a sense of what it must have been like to travel on camel for weeks, waiting for signs of life and civilization as you make your way through the unforgiving heat and miles of endless terrain.

Practical Info

We booked most of our Silk Road trip through Jim O. at Tailor-made Adventures (somehow affiliated with Dragoman and Imaginative Traveller). I think you could visit Uzbekistan independently if you have a really tight budget and/or you are very adventurous, but I probably would not recommend it. English is not widely spoken and there are many nuances and formalities that would be tough to negotiate on your own. Besides, the history is arguably the main draw, and a good guide can explain it all and make the sights more interesting.

I am not sure if US citizens need an invitation letter to visit Uzbekistan. We were unable to obtain visas prior to leaving for Asia, and Jim was able to get us an official invitation letter from the proper Uzbekistan ministry such that we got a visa on arrival in Tashkent (after a bit of paperwork beforehand and $160 per visa on arrival). They were absurdly strict regarding the quality of the USD bills they would accept. If there was a 1mm tear or the slightest marking, forget it. It is almost entirely a cash-based country, so be sure the USD (or Euros, perhaps) you bring are pristine and ample. The official exchange rate was 1 USD = ~2270 Uzbekistan Sum (UZS), but the black market rate was more like 1 USD = 2750 UZS. We never tried to use an ATM. There was one in our hotel in Tashkent, but the guide said it dispenses USD so you would still have to exchange foreign cash for local cash.

Note that there may be several variations of how certain words are spelled (e.g. Khauz, Hauz, Xauz or Haus), so be patient and creative if you Google things and don’t get exact results.

Transportation: Our agent arranged everything. We had a private car for most of the trip, and we also flew from Tashkent to Urgench (on Uzbekistan Airlines, which was perfectly fine on an A320…Urgench is the nearest airport to Khiva) and took an amazingly nice high-speed train from Samarkand back to Tashkent. The roads were generally very bad, though it was smoother driving from Tashkent to the Kyrgyz border (at Osh, Kyrgyzstan) than it was driving in the western part of the country.

I love the taxi situation in Uzbekistan (and Turkmenistan). In most places (Samarkand had more official taxis), everyone uses “illegal” cabs. Which are just guys who give you a ride for a negotiated price. What you pay depends on how many passengers you are, which makes sense because they usually try to fill their car. It ends up being incredibly cheap (like $1-4 total to go most places intra-city), and since there is no meter you do not have to worry about getting the drive-around.

The subway in Tashkent has some beautiful stations (no photos allowed), and a token costs only 800 UZS.

Accommodation: In Tashkent we stayed at Hotel Uzbekistan. It is large and a bit dated, but kind of an experience. There is a barber shop on the top floor. The WiFi is free and works fairly well. The breakfast spread was quite a bit more substantial than other places we stayed. Our last night we had dinner across from the International Hotel (the old Intercontinental), and this seemed to be the more business-oriented area.

Food: We had dinner at Yolki Palki, a Russian chain. It was not bad, and the staff spoke English (107k UZS). Our last night we had dinner at Siesta. I think this is also a chain, but it did not feel like one. We spent 135k UZS for food and a bottle of lousy local wine. We were the only ones in the joint, but the service was great.

Much more exciting was the hot food section at/near Chorsu Bazaar loaded with manti, breads, grilled meats and noodles with ground horse meat. Which my dad and I ate, and it was delicious. The halva was tasty and very cheap at 6000 UZS/kg.

Activities: One day in Tashkent is all we had, and that’s probably all you need (well you don’t really need any, but it’s pleasant enough as part of your transit). We walked around Amir Temur Square (in front of our hotel) and Independence Square before taking the subway to Chorsu Bazaar. The bazaar was enjoyable. We strolled through the old town where the homes have walls made of mud and straw and there are no windows onto the street. Next we visited a large square (fairly certain this was the Khast Imam complex) where there is a mosque, a converted madrasa housing craft shops (we soon learned this is very common in Uzbekistan), and a small building that holds the world’s oldest Quran.

I believe there are mountains within a 1-2 hour drive from Tashkent where you can ski in the winter.

April 26-27 + May 6-7, 2014 (Saturday-Sunday + Tuesday-Wednesday)