Author Archives: lgermany

Uzbekistan Reflections

Uzbekistan does not make it easy for most nationalities to visit. My Letter of Invitation and Visa cost AUD$650 and took a month to obtain (my passport had to be sent to Washington in the USA).   I’m guessing this must be easier for French and Germans, as they seem to make up the largest number of tourists here.  In fact, most tourist stall holders will speak to you in French before they try English.   You also have to guard with your life the pieces of paper that each hotel gives you verifying your stay with them.

Uzbek bureaucracy - Uzbekisatan

Be prepared to help young people practice their English! They will either shout a bold “hello” (or occasionally “goodbye”), or shyly say it so softly as you pass so that you only just catch it – but it is worthwhile to take the time to stop and chat.  A great opportunity to learn about the hopes and dreams of the up-and-coming generation, and to ask questions about the country and culture as well! 

Making friends - Uzbekistan

The women are more rotund than those in Tajikistan, and there is much more of a mix in the clothes that they wear. Some opt for western clothing, some opt for the local patterned tunics with pants, some for the velvet (they must really be dying under all that velvet in this heat!)

Women clothing variety - Uzbekistan

Classic image: Madrassah at sunset with birds that look like swallows swooping and circling in front of the minarets.

Madrassah at sunset - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

It is the land of blue and turquoise

Land of blue and turquoise - Uzbekistan

The sights of Samarkand (especially The Registan) are more beautiful than you can imagine

Registan in Samarkand at night - Uzbekistan

Bukhara is beautiful but feels a little like Disneyland given its focus on the tourism dollar. Definitely the best place to buy souvenirs.

Tourism - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Khiva really does feel like a museum. It is an interesting place to walk around, but very enclosed with no grand vistas.  It somehow feels a little soulless and very much geared to the tourist dollar during the day, the zombie apocalypse during the early morning and evenings!

Khiva - Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has awesome icecreams!  The iPhone 6 Plus was my favourite.  Fake banana flavour … nom, nom, nom!

Uzbek icecreams - Uzbekistan

 

Uzbek Currency – The Som

The Uzbek Som is a crazy currency. 

At the time of writing, the official exchange rate was USD$1 = 3790 Som, which is not necessarily problematic, until you realise that the most commonly used note is 1000 Som.   And although Uzbekistan is quite a cheap country to travel in, even something that costs $5 suddenly starts to need a lot of notes!

Uzbek Som - Uzbekistan

To this end, you end up walking around with huge bricks of cash (the below is equivalent to about $35)

Uzbek Som - Uzbekistan

and spend forever actually counting out the money for whatever you are paying for.  Here is me counting out the equivalent of $10 to pay for dinner for 4 people!

 

This craziness is also suffered by the locals, who are extremely adept at counting wads of money very quickly, and vendors who literally walk around with armloads of cash.

The other interesting this is that there are very, very few (if any?) ATMs in Uzbekistan that you can use.   Perhaps this is because they can’t fit enough notes in them to make it viable, so make sure you bring USD or Euros to exchange!   Then make sure you exchange on the black market, where the rate is double the official rate (USD$1 = 8000 Som at the minute).   Where do you find the black market?  It’s really not hard … just walk around a local bazaar for a bit and any number of guys will approach you.

Happy shopping 😊

 

Khiva – Uzbekistan

The road from Bukhara to Khiva was an interesting one.   For the first hour out of Bukhara, we were travelling through more farmland, once again playing with potholes and making slow progress.    Then, as soon as the green fields and ubiquitous civilization suddenly gave way to the Kyzylkum desert, the road magically transformed into a 4-lane, absolutely smooth, super-highway!

On the road from Bukhara to Khiva - Uzbekistan

For the next few hours, we drove at maximum speed along this amazing road in the middle of absolutely nowhere through scenery that could have been lifted straight out of Australia, if it had been tinged with a little more red.

Kyzylkum Desert - On the road from Bukhara to Khiva - Uzbekistan

I actually really enjoy being in the truck moving from place to place and just watching the scenery go by.  It is incredibly relaxing, and it allows me to retreat into my own thoughts – though this is not always a good thing.  The cool thing I discovered along this stretch of road was if I stared out of the window at the passing desert for a while, then looked inside at the front of the truck, it looked like the whole thing was shearing apart!   I love optical illusions, and this was a doozy!   The first time I saw it, I was worried I’d done something to my eyes/brain – perhaps as over-exposure to sunlight having lost my sunnies out the window to the desert (the wind whipped them off my face ☹).  So I had fun playing with this for a while 😊

However, as with all good things, our incredible road didn’t last all the way to Khiva – in fact, it reverted back to a single-lane, potholed, bouncy crap-fest as soon as we emerged from the other side of the arid region into farmland again.   What is with that?   We also couldn’t find a petrol station with any diesel, despite asking in at least half a dozen places.   Turns out that most diesel is found at people’s homes in a thriving black market – you have to take your jerry cans to fill up.  Quite an operation to fill an overland truck!

Once again, our hotel in Khiva was right in the thick of things in a wonderful location in the walled Old City (location, location, location)!   I’d read in an ancient Lonely Planet that “the historic heart of Khiva has been so well preserved that it’s often criticized as lifeless”, and I have to admit I thought I may have been the only survivor of the zombie apocalypse as I walked around the completely deserted streets at 7pm the first evening.   Where is everybody?   In Bukhara – 7pm was the time that everyone emerged from the coolness of their hotels!

Khiva - Uzbekistan

Zombie apocalypse? Where is everybody?

It did allow me one of my favourite moments in Uzbekistan though.   I was walking along one of the main streets towards the Kalta Minor Minaret (short minaret) and there was what sounded like traditional local music playing.  For just a moment, I could so perfectly imagine what this place must have been like back in its heyday – with camels and market traders selling everything under the sun – my romantic vision of the Silk Road.  It was such a powerful feeling that I even took a video of it … even though the same feeling can’t be transmitted in such a format.

 

The first part of the next morning was spent doing a “truck clean” – the first since I joined the trip.  This involves taking everything out of the truck and cleaning it, and the truck itself.   Most of the group helped out with this activity, and we were done in a little over 2 hours – not a bad effort.  The funny thing was that the locals were asking the hotel manager whether we were selling things, given that we had everything scattered out on the street (drying in the sun).

Truck clean - Khiva - Uzbekistan

Spent the next couple of days wandering around the Old City of Khiva as well as exploring the local market located just outside its walls.   

Khiva market - Uzbekistan

My cook group had to do a food shop here. And yes, I tried almost all the pastries 🙂

It was a pretty chilled couple of days where I’d walk around for a while, then head back to the hotel for a while, then go out for another walk, etc.  Again, I decided not to actually enter any of the buildings/museums (none of them have information in English and there is limited information on them online) but just to wander and observe from the outside.

Views of Khiva - Uzbekistan

The most famous structure in Khiva is the unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret, which is truly spectacular given it is covered in tiles.

Kalta Minor Minaret - Khiva - Uzbekistan

But tiles are not all that Uzbekistan has.  The highly intricate carved doors are also fascinating!

Highly decorated doors - Khiva - Uzbekistan

And the city wall itself was quite impressive!  I was very curious to find what looked like tombs built next to, and into the wall.

Tombs in the walls of Khiva - Uzbekistan

Khiva, not surprisingly, is also very touristy, but somehow not quite as “Disneyland” as Bukhara.  In efforts to get rid of my remaining Som, I ended up buying 2 more scarves (can never have too many) and a ceramic tile to finish off the souvenirs.  I need to leave Uzbekistan so I stop buying things!!

Bukhara – Markets – Uzbekistan

Although the old city of Bukhara is full of Madrasahs, Minarets, Mosques and Mausoleums, it is also famous for its 3 surviving undercover bazaars, or trade domes – Taki-Sarrafon (dome of money changers), Taki-Telpakfurushon (dome of hat makers) and Taki-Zargaron (dome of jewelers).   Those who have been reading along for a while can imagine why I was so excited!  These bazaars sat at the intersections of major crossroads within the city and their domed roofs were designed to draw in cool air.

Market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Well, the money changers now wander the streets, the jewelers have moved to a different area, and I’m not sure what has happened to the hat makers (though there are still hats on sale) – so these amazing buildings are now given over to every imaginable souvenir for tourists.   Still a marketplace for sure, and the items for sale are definitely much higher quality than the tat in Samarkand, but somehow the offering of unnecessary souvenirs rather than essential items detracts from the experience of the place and turns it into Disneyland.   Call me a hopeless romantic for the Silk Road – it’s just how I feel.  

Modern Market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Anything a tourist could want… And much better quality than in Samarkand

I did wander into one large trading place where I could imagine myself back in the day.  It was actually dedicated to carpets and suzanis (embroidered cloths) and there was a large French tourist group in there distracting the sellers – so I was free to wander and not engage with anyone.    For a start, the domed roof was incredible.

Market dome - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Watching the haggling happening in the central area gave me a glimpse of what things may have been like (though I imagine with many more people and very different items).

Market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

And seeing all the carpets and suzanis hung around the outer rim of the building, I could imagine each of them being a small stall with people from all across the region buying and selling. 

Market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

They even had weaving looms and embroidery machines set up – though there was nobody working there during my visit.

Weaving - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

The funny thing is that when the French group left, the sellers didn’t come see me at all.  I guess they only really go after the big group dollar…

In contrast, the jewelry market (when I found it in its new location) was an absolute hive of activity during the morning!  4 rows of sellers set up – some with very little, some with a lot, most with gold (Russian 14ct), a few with silver.  

Jewelry market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

I spent over an hour there checking everything out and, I have to say, I was surprised at how busy it was given the prices.  Gold is not cheap – even in Uzbekistan!   In the end, I bought a pair of gold earrings (haven’t seen anything like them in Australia and I really struggle to find earrings I like) and 2 silver rings (I’m guessing second hand and handmade given their imperfections) for about $100.

Silver and Russian Gold Jewelry - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

At another place, I bought a pair of earrings that were made in a modern take on a traditional Uzbek design and got the maker to convert them into 2 necklace pendants for me.

Jewelry - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Then, when I wasn’t supposed to be looking anymore, I found one last pendant that was so unusual I instantly fell in love with it.  How could I say “no” for $13?

Jewelry - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

And, well ok, I also bought a raw silk scarf … because, like jewelry, you can never have too many scarves.

Raw silk scarf - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

So yes, although I have an issue with the extreme commercialisation of tourism and the need to buy souvenirs – I do partake in it myself to a degree…  I admit I went a bit berko in Bukara! :-/

The one other market/souvenir-related thing I’ll mention here was my visit to the local puppet maker.   Yes, I have a thing about puppets and I’m always enchanted by all types – from sock puppets to marionettes.

This place was about 2 doors down from our hotel and I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I entered.  Turns out, there were large posters up along the walls explaining the history of puppetry in Uzbekistan in Uzbek, Russian and English, and the puppet-maker (who was there making a puppet of course) quickly came and chatted to me.

puppet workshop - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Half miming and half talking in OK English, he explained to me the process for making the puppets.   Essentially, they are a papier mache head on a stick with moveable hands and traditional clothes.   The heads are designed, cast in a mold in a 2-step process with plenty of sanding in between, then painted.  The hands and sleeves are sewn and very stiff.

making puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Two fingers control the motion of the hands and your other hand controls the swivel of the head and shrug of the shoulders with the stick.  Here’s me being a truly awesome puppeteer – it’s harder than it looks!

 

The showroom is super-impressive with two large scenes on display.   The first is “Nasredin in Bukhara” – a local story.

Nasredin in Bukhara - puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

The other depicts “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves”.

Ali Baba and the 40 thieves - puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. He appears to be missing a few…

There are also loads of puppets available for sale at various price points.  

Puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

I was sooooooo close to buying the Uzbek man out of this pair for $35… but managed to resist … just!

Puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

I absolutely loved this place and spent a huge amount of time in there smiling like a fool and being truly captivated.   If I were heading home within a month, I totally would have bought my Uzbek puppet!

Bukhara – Uzbekistan – Madrassahs, Minarets, Mausoleums, Mosques

The drive from Samarkand to Bukhara is a seemingly never-ending display of agriculture and what would appear to be Russian commission houses (all identical).  

Russian commission houses - Uzbekistan

Along both sides of the road, an irrigated, green region fans out to a width of a few kilometres, but look a little further and you can see the arid hills lurking in the background.    At this time of year at least, the fields are all freshly prepared and there are small armies of women (mostly) working with their hands and hoes to ensure the next crop.

The old city of Bukhara– Central Asia’s holiest city – is quite compact and, given our hotel was right in the middle of it all (great location!) it was only a 20-minute walk to the furthest-flung sights.   Like Samarkand, the old city has been extensively restored (they are still working on it) and there are plenty of Madrassahs, Minarets and Mosques here to keep even the most hard-core tile-spotter very, very happy.

Tiles - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Though I did manage to find one or two places (like the Maghoki-Attar Mosque – the oldest mosque in Bukhara) that show what these glorious buildings must have looked like before the restoration efforts.

Maghoki-Attar Mosque - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Unlike in Samarkand, I decided to not actually enter any of the Madrassahs here, but rather just admire from the outside.   By far the best time to do so was between about 6 and 7am when there were very few people about, and before the tourist stall holders made their appearance (more on this in the next blog post).

In particular, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out around the Kalon Minaret/Kalon Mosque/Mir-i-Arab Madrassah complex, which is absolutely gorgeous before the crowds descend.

Mir-i-Arab Madrassah - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

And incredibly stunning at sunset – particularly with the birds (swallows of some sort?) swooping and looping around the domes and minarets.

Madrassah at sunset - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

The Kalon Minaret, in particular, was something quite different to what I saw in Samarkand.   With its 14 ornamental bands, it is believed to have been the tallest building in Central Asia when it was built in 1127, and the first to utilize the glazed blue tiles that became prevalent in the region under Tamerlane (Timur).  It is said that Genghis Khan was so impressed by the 47m tall structure that he spared it as he raged across the region. 

Kalon Minaret - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

A few of the other sites I visited in Bukhara:

Char Minor, which is hidden in the residential streets of old Bukhara.  With its 4 close minarets, it was apparently the gatehouse of a madrassah that has since been demolished.

Char Minar - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

The Ark – Bukhara’s oldest structure, a fortress and essentially a royal city within the city of Bukhara. 

The Ark - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Ismail Samani Mausoleum – with very intricate brickwork and 2m-thick walls, Bukhara’s oldest Muslim monument has essentially survived intact since it was completed in 905AD. 

Ismail Samani Mausoleum - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Bolo-Hauz Mosque – one of my favourites, and the place of prayer for several Emirs!   I loved the extensively decorated wooden roof held high above the ayvan (traditional verandah) by 40 carved wooden pillars.   It was like looking at a mosque through a forest of trees, and I spent ages sitting there admiring it.   

Bolo-Hauz Mosque - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

I sat there for so long, in fact, that a 20-something year old Uzbek guy who had come for prayer came and joined me to practice his English.   I watched as he and many other late-comers ran towards the mosque just as prayer was beginning (it was quite humorous seeing them come sprinting and cycling in from everywhere, kicking off their shoes as they approached the door) and, once prayer was over – he and his friend (who also spoke English) invited me to go for dinner with them to a great place they knew.   

It is times like these that I really resent the <5% of the population who make the world a bad place.   There is nothing more I wanted to do than say “yes” to an invite from locals to eat with them, but I couldn’t.   It was like when I was sitting on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul a few weeks ago admiring the view, but had to move on when 3 men suddenly appeared.   In both scenarios – I probably would have been fine.  But you never know, and as a girl – you have to be extra careful.  I hate it that such caution and distrust is necessary in our world 🙁 

Samarkand – Uzbekistan – Jewel of the Silk Road

After dire predictions about how strict the Uzbek border guards would be and long it would take us to get across the border, in the end only took 4.5 hours to cross from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan with the truck, the guards only interested in what medications we were carrying.  This meant we easily made it all the way back south to Samarkand in the one day.

My overwhelming first impressions of this city are: 

  1. Samarkand is HOT! 30 degrees by 9am, and it’s not even the hottest part of the year!
  2. Samarkand traffic is absolutely, bloody nuts and they really don’t like pedestrians!

I was super-excited about visiting Samarkand, as it is the home of the Registan – for me, the classic image of the Silk Road.    Needless to say, that was the first place I headed.

The Registan

The Registan was the heart of Samarkand and the center of the Tamerlane (Timur) empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.  It is even more impressive than you can possibly imagine from the pictures – the Russians and then the Uzbeks have done an amazing restoration job!

The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

It consists of three madrassahs, and I was surprised to discover that one – the Ulugbek Madrassah, completed in 1420 – is significantly older than the other two.  

Ulugbek Madrassah - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

The Sher Dor Madrassah (completed 1636) is directly opposite the Ulugbek Madrassah and is still undergoing restoration inside, but the roaring lions (that look like tigers) on the front façade are amazing.

Sher Dor Madrassah - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

The Tilla-Kari Madrassah (completed 1660) has a wonderful courtyard

Tilla-Kari Madrassah - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

and a very impressive mosque that is decorated with gold to symbolize the wealth of Samarkand at the time.  

Tilla-Kari Mosque - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

I love all the detail!

Tilla-Kari Mosque detail - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

I hung out at the Registan for about 4 hours on my first visit – exploring each of the madrassahs, and just sitting and taking it all in from different angles.   Given the fame of the Registan, I really expected to see tons of international tourists, but there were actually very few – I estimate 95% of visitors were locals.  Apparently, it is not high season at the minute, but still!

This meant that I myself was a major attraction of the site!  I felt like a celebrity as person after person, family after family asked whether they could have their photo taken with me.  I even had a baby thrust into my arms on one of these photo opportunities – the baby less than impressed with the whole thing.

Then there were the large number of young Uzbeks who were very keen to practice their English.   Many of them were quite direct in coming up and saying “hello” and asking if they can chat, and most of the time I was happy to do so.  It occurred to me after a while that this was kind of like sitting down on the Malecon in La Habana in Cuba last year … but for some reason I didn’t mind chatting here.  In Cuba, I didn’t feel like it.

Making friends at the Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

While the Registan is incredible during the day, it is unbelievably beautiful when lit up at night.   Thank goodness the Uzbeks have gone for a natural lighting rather that lurid blues and greens that I’ve seen in other places.  You really could sit here and watch forever!   In fact, it was so beautiful, I returned the next night as well.

The Registan at night - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

The one disappointment of the Registan is that every room on the ground floor of each of the madrassahs has been converted into tourist shops that sell the worst kind of tourist tat you can possibly imagine.  Seriously, who buys this stuff?  There were a couple of places that sold nice things, but the majority was very much crap.   I guess the good thing is that they are hidden away for the most part and don’t detract from the vistas of the site.  And while I understand why they are there, it’s disappointing that tourism equates with buying tacky souvenirs.  How much more enriching it would be if the madrassahs were fulfilling their original purpose as teaching centres, and visitors could learn about the history of Samarkand or attend a workshop in a traditional activity of the area (e.g. embroidery of suzanis).

Ulugbek’s Observatory

Ulugbek was the grandson of Tamerlane (Timur) and very keen on education – he built the first madrassah that would eventually make up the Registan.  One of the forefathers of modern astronomy, Ulugbek made many important measurements of the heavens.  Some, such as the length of the year and the tilt of the Earth’s axis, are surprisingly close to modern measurements, and the Zij-i-Sultani, a catalogue of 1018 star positions that identified many errors in previous measurements, bridged the gap between Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe.

Ulugbek Observatory - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of the Observatory he built (considered the finest in the Islamic world at the time it was completed in 1429), apart from part of the sextant track that he used to make his measurements.

Ulugbek Observatory track - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

It must have been incredible back in the day – its destruction a great travesty by religious zealots.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum

The final place I chose to visit (you need a lot longer in Samarkand to see it all!) was the final resting place of my friend Ulugbek and his grandfather Tamerlane (Timur).    Yet another gorgeous building decorated with blue and turquoise tiles – how I love this architecture!

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

And inside is simply stunning!

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum interior - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

One of the things I’m loving about this architecture is the 3-dimensionality of it.  This is especially prevalent in the recesses of the arches, but also in the raised script and other design details as well.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum interior - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

Tamerlane is buried in a crypt under a single block of dark green jade, and Ulugbek under a white stone.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

Ulugbek’s tomb is the white one in the foreground. Timur’s tomb is the dark one behind it.

I was there quite late in the day so had a few moments (between French tour groups and large numbers of locals) where I had the place to myself.   Very peaceful.  Very beautiful.  Absolutely amazing.

All in all, and despite the heat, I really loved Samarkand.  Although each of the tourist sites was relatively expensive to enter (if you can call $4-$8 expensive), they were incredible and absolutely worth every cent and every moment spent.  

The jewel of the Silk Road certainly didn’t disappoint and the photos really don’t do it justice – I wish I’d had a lot more time there!

To the border with Uzbekistan

From Dushanbe, we had to travel a long way north to a very specific border crossing that could process the truck.   The scenery continued to be very impressive for several hours

Spectacular scenery heading north from Dushanbe

Including lots of avalanche/rockfall shelters

Avalanche tunnels - on the way to the Uzbek border - Tajikistan

And several very long tunnels, including the Anzob tunnel, which runs for over 5km and is the modern link to northern Tajikistan (previously this area was cut off for large parts of the year due to avalanches and snow).  Until recently, the Anzob tunnel was otherwise known as the “Tunnel of death” – here’s a funny summary for exactly why, stories that were verified by our trip leader who passed through the tunnel 5 years ago.   Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), our journey was nowhere near as eventful – they’ve clearly done a lot of work on it.

At our first bush-camp we were joined by a very drunk Russian who would not leave us alone and became quite a liability (though we were camping outside his house, so not much we could do).

Campsite 1 - on the way to the Uzbek border - Tajikistan

My wonderful 1-person tent in the foreground. House where the drunk Russian was staying in the background, along with Alice the truck.

He was still sleeping it off the next morning as we had breakfast thank goodness, so it was an uneventful start to the morning where we packed the truck and moved further north.   Given that we didn’t have too far to drive, we stopped off for a few hours in Istaravshan (one of the oldest cities in Tajikistan) to have a look.   They were gearing up for the 9th May celebrations with lots of people in the street, and we were befriended by a few women and their daughters as we walked along – communicating through sign language and being gifted with roasted sunflower seeds.

Would we hand someone we saw walking on the street and who we couldn’t really communicate with part of what we were eating in Australia?   I think not.  And I guess one of the key differences is that here, we stand out like sore thumbs – it is obvious we are tourists.   However, in Australia – because it is so multicultural – it is impossible to tell who is visiting and who actually lives there.  Try to share something with a person who lives in Australia, and they would wonder what the hell was the matter with you and what was wrong with the food.   Try to share something with a visitor and they would probably have the same reaction we had here – grateful for the offer and keen to engage.  Problem is – you just can’t tell.

Given our short amount of time in the city, I headed for the Mug Teppe – a castle/fort on top of the hill just outside of the main downtown area.  It was a steep climb and, upon arrival, I was immediately swamped by about a dozen late-teen guys who were super-keen to practice their English. 

New friends in Istaravshan - Tajikistan

One of them (the guy in the brownish shirt just to the left of me in the photo) spoke excellent English and he was super-busy translating as he and his friends peppered me with questions about me, my travels and what I thought of Tajikistan.

We were soon joined by another group of about a dozen primary-school boys who were also super-keen to practice their English.  

New friends in Istaravshan - Tajikistan

The boy in the brown shirt to the left of me in the photo attends a school for learning English in Istaravshan (I actually met the son of the person who opened the school as well thanks to my entourage) and again, spoke extremely well.   He is planning to become a translator and “go to America” when he grows up, and was doing a great job relaying questions from his friends to me, and my answers back to them.

In the end, I think I ended up being surrounded by about 30 people – and was far more the attraction than the castle was!   Only got about 2 minutes to snap a quick picture of the castle – but really enjoyed chatting with the locals 😊

Mug Teppe - Istaravshan - Tajikistan

Next stop was the other main city of the north – Khojand.   Came across this really lovely park in my wanderings, and just decided to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet.   About 5 minutes later, I was joined on my bench by these two girls who (you guessed it!) were super-keen to practice their English 😊

New friends in Khojand - Tajikistan

Had a really lovely chat with them, and it is great to hear that their hopes and dreams are for lots of travel and interesting careers – one wants to be a doctor and study in Moscow, the other a lawyer.  Very impressive to hear the uptake of English in Tajikistan – and all the kids I chatted to today spoke multiple languages, usually Tajik, Uzbek, English and Russian.

When I come back to Tajikistan – will definitely return to this area to spend more time in these large and non-touristy towns.

Drove up almost to the Uzbek border on back roads trying to find a place to camp.  Problem was that it was all farmland!  Chucked a u-ey and went back along the main road and eventually it was decided that we would camp on the grass in this abandoned petrol station lot.

Campsite 2 - very close to the Uzbek border - Tajikistan

One of the guys who worked at the border actually saw us do the u-ey and followed us until we stopped (we are pretty hard to miss after all) to ask us what the hell we were doing.   He was satisfied with our explanation (he had thought our behaviour was slightly suspicious), and the guy who owned the petrol station lot was also fine with us camping there – and even offered that we could sleep in one of the buildings that he would unlock, rather than sleeping in tents.   We stuck with the tents.

It’s really amazing how cool everyone is with us rocking up and pitching our tents on their property.  Would we be so accommodating in Australia?

Childhood memories in Dushanbe – elastics

Walking up a back street in Dushanbe on the way to the Hostel I came across these girls playing “elastics“.   

Girls playing elastics - Dushanbe - Tajikistan

It made my heart absolutely sing to watch them 🙂  I have such fond memories of playing this game back in primary school – we were totally obsessed with it!  It seems things have not changed in over 30 years, and it is not just an Australian thing (I didn’t actually realise it originated in China).

If you aren’t familiar with the game – watch this YouTube video, which demonstrates/explains it quite well.   I remember we had heaps of different routines, though can’t for the life of me remember any of the details.

The other reason it made my heart soar – it is so rare these days in developed nations to see kids outside playing without any electronics in sight.  However, along the Silk Road, and in much of Latin America where I traveled last year, this is far more common and, in my opinion, much healthier.  I’d like to believe that we’ll return to this mode of play one day soon…

Dushanbe – Tajikistan

After several days of bush camping, we rolled into Dushanbe – the capital of Tajikistan.  To be honest, after wandering and exploring for 2 days, there doesn’t seem to be much to Dushanbe, it’s more like a very large town than a capital city.

Everywhere you look in Tajikistan, you see President Emomali Rahmon looking back at you.  Just about every billboard and large sign in the country has him posing in front of something, and Dushanbe was no exception.  He has been in power for 23 years and, according to a couple of Tajiks we spoke to, was doing a pretty good job.

Dushanbe - Tajikistan President

The main street into what one can only assume is the centre of the city is a lovely tree-lined affair that takes you past a few very cool monuments, including the statue of Ismail Samani in the impressive Freedom Square.

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Freedom Square

A little further on we found this statue labeled PYAAKH (or its equivalent in Cyrillic).   Even after a Google search I have no idea who this guy is, but I loved his intricately detailed coat, and the mosaiced backdrop of astronomical objects and flora.

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - statue and mosaics

As always, I took a trip to the local bazaar to stock up on fruit and nuts for the road and really loved this display of spices.   The guy tried to charge me 10 Somoni for the photo (AUD$1.60), so when I showed him I was going to delete rather than pay the price, he indicated not to worry about it.   Opportunist!

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - spices

I have never seen so much velvet in all my life as what I saw being worn around Dushanbe by the local women, who either wore 2-piece outfits (pants under a loose tunic) made out of that material, or other equally lairy options.   The variety of fabric at the market was enormous, though I have to say that I only found one or two pieces that actually appealed to me.  

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - cloth and material

You could buy ~3m of fabric for USD$10 (or a little more if it had sequins in it), then take it around the corner for a seamstress to whip it up into the local costume.

For me, the highlight of the market trip was finding an out-the-back “restaurant” (“eatery” may be a more apt description), where I pointed to what a couple of other ladies were having for lunch to order the same thing.  Turns out I’d ordered Fatir Shurbo – which is typically Tajik, and consists of broken up flat bread (Fatir) with chickpeas, meat, potatoes and onions.   Very, very tasty, and even though I was trying not to eat too many carbs, I failed – it was so delicious.  Bernice an I almost finished the entire plate between us!

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - fatir shurbo

The other highlight of my visit to Dushanbe was a play/concert/dance performance celebrating 9th May Victory Day at the Opera and Ballet Theatre

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Opera and Ballet theatre

This is a particularly important day for the ex-Soviet Union – commemorating their victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, and 10 Somoni (~AUD$1.60) bought a ticket to the show (this country is crazy-cheap!). 

Although I couldn’t understand a word they said/sang (except “nyet” and “da” – I have those down), it was a fascinating 1.5 hours.   The singing was superb, and there was one song performed over the top of imagery of the deprivations and deaths of the prisoners of war that was particularly moving.   Everybody stood for this song, and I got physically hauled out of my seat by the person behind me to make sure that I followed suit.   I would have done so anyway once I saw everyone else standing, but he was bloody quick off the mark about it!

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Victory Day Performance

Right at the end they helped this little old lady up onto the stage.  I can only assume that she was a famous singer before or during the war and involved in the war in some way, as she sang a few verses of a song and they showered her with flowers and other gifts once she was done.

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Victory Day Performance

The other reason I wanted to go to the concert was to actually see inside this beautiful building.   And it was spectacular!    I managed to get some photos before the turned all the lights off to get us out as quickly as possible!

Dushanbe - Tajikistan - Opera and Ballet theatre

Had a great couple of days in Dushanbe, though I am still very confused about where all the shops and city infrastructure was…

Along the Afghan Border – Tajikistan

Although we didn’t get to bed until after 1am in Khorog, we were up early the next morning to head off for another long day of driving.  It was going to take 2 days to get to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and given the roads we had driven on until now – no doubt it would take every second of those 2 days to arrive!

From Khorog, we basically followed the Panj River, which forms the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, for most of the next 2 days.    This fast-flowing river and the mountains on either side make a very impressive barrier – so quite obvious why it has become a national border.

Panj River - Tajikistan

Tajikistan on the right, Afghanistan on the left

Fortunately, I sat on the correct side of the truck for most of the awesome views, and I whiled away many, many hours of back-breaking roads just watching the scenery pass by and trying to take photos.   Turns out – it is INCREDIBLY difficult to take photos out of a moving vehicle on terrible roads!

Spectacular scenery - Tajikistan

This is another really beautiful stretch of “highway” – if you can stand the bone jarring and the precarious drops of extremely narrow, elevated roads!   I kept telling myself that if the articulated trucks we’d seen coming the other direction had made it … so could we!

Steep dropoffs on the road from Khorog to Dushanbe - Tajikistan

This is quite a wide corner. There were some that I was sure at least one wheel was at least half off the edge!

Obviously, we were driving along a road on the Tajik side of the river, there was an equivalent that ran all along the Afghan side as well.    Well, almost all the way along.  We came across places where they were still building it … the hard way!

Building roads the hard way in Afghanistan - Tajikistan

Drilling through solid rock. Can you see the 2 ends of the road in the middle panel – here’s hoping they meet up in the end!

And the fascinating thing is that there were all these people just walking along it, in the middle of nowhere, miles from anywhere – sometimes with animals and sometimes with just themselves.

The view across to Afghanistan - people in the middle of nowhere - from Tajikistan

On the Tajik side, we passed through several small villages  and almost everyone who saw us either waved to us and/or openly stared at us in disbelief.   It was quite funny actually, and really interesting to see that the faces have definitely changed from more Asian-like features to Afghan/Turkic features.   i.e.  The Tajiks look completely different to the Kyrgyz and Kazakh people.

After almost 11 hours of being lost in my own world watching the scenery go by, my travel companions started to get restless as the sun dipped towards the horizon and we drove past a couple of (rare in this area) potential camping sites.   We eventually settled for quite a lovely place, right beside some more abandoned buildings (it seems to be a theme for our campsites).   And it was warm!   A welcome change after our last 5 days in the cold 😊

Campsite near Afghan border - Tajikistan

Another early start to complete the last several hundred kms to Dushanbe along unknown roads. 

Tajikistan - Pakistan border - Tajikistan

We were told to turn off the “main road” that we were on, into what was shown as a secondary road on the map, based on instructions from the group that did the trip last year.    Much to our surprise, after about a couple of hours – we finally hit a great bitumen road!   It was heaven after 4 days of bouncing around in the back of the truck at 20km/hr!

Bitumen road finally! - Tajikistan

Tajikistan is a country full of checkpoints , and we passed through what must have been our 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th checkpoint on the way to the capital.  Some of them are quick, some them are anal about the paperwork and insist on seeing everyone’s passport and visa so they can transcribe the details into their ledger.

Checkpoint - Tajikistan

Barrier at yet another Tajik checkpoint

We finally hit a large town, had a quick lunch, and continued on into completely different scenery.   Gone were the incredible mountains and the river, and instead the views were filled with rolling green hills and tilled fields as far as the eye could see.

Rolling green hills near Dushanbe - Tajikistan

So, after 5 days of staring out the window in silence, and given the now-less-than-spectacular scenery, I finally put in my earphones and music 😊