The In-Transit Report


More posts will come eventually!

I’m a more consistent photographer than blogger, but I’ll try to update and add posts for my more recent trips. In the meantime, check out the pictures on the righthand side.

Europe Part One: Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic

From Istanbul I had about 5 weeks to get to Amsterdam overland. It was a bit of a blur, and I left a long trail of places I want to go back and “do properly” sometime. I’ll talk about the highlights, reminding everyone that there’s so much more to a place than just a city or two.

Bulgaria  Rila Monastery 16

I wound up spending about a week and a half in Bulgaria, which was a surprising gem that I really enjoyed. It had an interesting mix of Roman ruins and Ottoman empire history sandwiching the first and second Bulgarian empires.

My first stop was Plovdiv, with its small old town peppered with Roman ruins. I’m not a big fan of Roman ruins, but the combination of shops and restaurants surrounding partially-exposed ruins made a really lovely stop. I took a free walking tour that covered pretty much all the major sites in the old town in just a few hours, and even though I only spent two nights there, I felt like I saw a lot of it.

Sofia is Bulgaria’s capital and biggest city. Also fairly small and walkable, it also has quite a number of ruins throughout. After one night in a hostel I wound up Couchsurfing with a Bulgarian woman who’d studied in the UK and taught at an international school. We spent a weekend hiking in the countryside with her friends, took a boat out on a lake, generally relaxed, and ate her delicious salads. I got introduced to some local cuisine, in the form of yaitsa po panagyuski (eggs on ice: eggs, yogurt, cream and butter!). There was also a day trip out to Rila Monastery (pictured), a striking complex in the mountains, which I did on a day trip from Sofia.

I had wanted to stop in Kosovo as well, but the timing wasn’t going to work out. Instead, I went straight into Serbia. Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city, isn’t exactly on the trail of beautiful cities, but I wound up loving it anyway. It has nice architecture, but it’s real gold was all the graffiti. Knowing the history helped it all make sense, and it’s hard to believe it was at war less than 20 years ago. There are still a few bombed-out buildings, a chilling reminder. On a happier note, another wonderful stop there was the Tesla Museum. Tesla was actually of Serbian descent, and the museum holds much of his personal papers and electrical pieces.

Hungary  Budapest 60

Next on the whistle-stop tour was Budapest, where I spent four packed days exploring. I did a few free walking tours in Hungary, joined by, Kerry, an Aussie I’d met on Couchsurfing. Budapest was the biggest city I’d been in since Istanbul, and full of life, tourism, architecture (pictured above), and of course language — Hungarian is in the same family as Finnish and Estonian, and together they are pretty far removed from anything else in the entire region. The sound is pretty distinctive, very different than the slavic sounds of Bulgarian and Serbian I’d gotten used to. It was strange to not even be able to discern root words.

Made up of Buda on one side and Pest on the other, the city was the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the other being Vienna. The walking tours covered the history of the city, from before those times and up through Soviet times, with the Communist-themed walking tour covering life and rebellion behind the Iron Curtain. There are blissfully few ugly communist buildings in the city, but there remain a number of monuments, including a massive one to the USSR that stands in a courtyard next to the US embassy. From the monument, you can look over and see the parliament building, obstructed (intentionally, perhaps?) by a statue of Ronald Reagan stepping forward, as if confronting the USSR.

Hungary  Budapest Synagogues 15

The Jewish quarter of Budapest is perhaps the most popular part of the city. It holds most of the “ruin pubs”, creatively restored and redecorated buildings which now are bars. I went with Kerry and checked out a few of them. They were all creatively decorated, my favourite one having furniture attached to the ceiling.

Also in the Jewish quarter, unsurprisingly, a number of synagogues are being restored, and there was one large one that is now a massive museum and monument to victims of the holocaust. My favourite was a much smaller one with only one big room, falling apart but beautiful in a decrepit way, with some amazing carved wooden details (pictured). Given the size of the Jewish quarter, it must have been massive at one time, but even now there is still a reasonably sized Jewish community.

Budapest was definitely a highlight of this part of the trip. It just had such an interesting vibe and history, plus being so photogenic helped. I wish I’d had more time to get to know it.

My next stop was Vienna, which I hadn’t expected to go to this trip, but it was perfectly on the way to allow me to visit a friend, Malina. We were in the same hostel in Urfa, and we were, along with another woman, the three travellers who went to the protest and then to the refugee camp near Kobane. That was quite a bonding experience. Visiting her was like being with an old friend, even though it had only been a month or two since we’d even met.

Vienna was a taste of western europe. Very clean, but also very expensive, and beautiful. Malina and I just relaxed, mostly, and met up with some of her friends for drinks. She took me around the city and showed me some nice spots, Viennese coffeeshops (oh coffee, my perpetual weakness), and we randomly wound up at a cabaret show. It was in Austrian German, which I don’t get much of, but one of the comedians was actually German, and I was happy to discover that I could get the gist of what she was saying and enjoy it. An Austrian guy got on piano and did some hilarious parodies of pop musician styles, which you don’t need language to enjoy. He also parodied Herbert Gronemeyer, a German pop artist that I’ve heard before. Overall, the night was absurd and fun,  and decidedly not touristy. We also managed to hit up a Turkish cafe, where Malina practiced her Turkish with the worker, and I remember at least ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. I miss Simit.

IMG 0992

Four days was short for Vienna, but time was ticking. I headed next to Prague, Czech Republic. Prague is definitely a hotspot for tourism nowadays, but it’s perfect for a short trip: small and easy to walk around, chock full of beautiful architecture and picturesque cobblestone alleyways, inexpensive for food and especially beer.

After arriving, I wound up in the main square quite randomly and happened to be standing next to an english-speaking tour guide as she talked about the famous astronomical clock that was set to perform in a few minutes. It was built in the 1400’s and still runs today, though much of it has been restored. Figurines of despised vices do a dance on the hour, so that’s why the square was crowded when I wandered in.

In met up with my next CS host, a really nice Czech guy who had met up with Kerry previously. We shared a few great (and cheap!) beers, watched a football game, and he cooked his speciality, fried rice. Though he had to work the next day, I slept in and then later went out and walked around some more, crossing over the decorated Charles Bridge (statues on the bridge, pictured). I hadn’t really taken pictures of anything since Budapest, instead deciding to soak it all in and just enjoy the moment, aside from the occasional iPhone photo. I visited the Kafka Museum as well, but generally I just strolled along and took as long as I needed. It was worth it, for the little time I had.

Turkey Part Four: Fethiye, Izmir and area ruins, Istanbul round 2

Fethiye  Kayakoy Abandoned Village 27

After spending time in Urfa, so close to a war zone, arriving in Fethiye after a night bus was kind of a shock to the system. It took a lot of adjustment, and forgiving of the partying backpackers. Fethiye is a bright summery getaway on the southwest coast of Turkey, perfect for beachlovers and partiers, while also being one of the coastal spots of the Lycian Way, dotted with Lycian tombs carved into the cliffs.

Another day trip from Fethiye was Kayakoy (pictured), an abandoned village that’s set up for tourists now. Crumbling and ghostly aside from a steady stream of sightseers and trinket sellers, it’s also oddly bright and cheery. Its previous inhabitants had been persecuted and fled, many to Greece, and by the end of the Greco-Turkish war in the 1920’s, the town was abandoned.

I also went to a nearby village / settlement called Kabak, which was basically a bunch of small hostels and hotels nestled in the side of a mountain, overlooking the ocean, and sat with cups of tea just enjoying the scenery for a couple of days. The bus ride there and back was also worth the money just to stare out of the window and do a lot of thinking. 

Finally, I took yet another long bus ride out to Izmir, one of Turkey’s biggest cities, on the west coast. I’d been in touch with a backpacker, Peryal, who I met in Peru and Ecuador almost a year before. She was home visiting her family in Izmir, and invited me. That wound up being one of the highlights of the trip!

Somehow, even if you only spent a few days with someone before (or two weeks, in extreme cases like ours), to see them again feels like visiting an old friend, and we’d gotten along so well then that it didn’t feel odd at all to visit her with her family. I stayed for a week or so with her mother and sister, sharing the comfortable living room with Peryal and enjoying authentic Turkish breakfast with her authentically lovely Turkish mother. Her sister Burcu, an English teacher, was also nice to get to know, and it really rejuvenated me so have a rest at a place that felt like home. I owe her and her family a debt for that one!

That week was mostly spent walking around Izmir, sleeping in, sharing cups of tea and coffee over long conversations with Peryal. We talked about politics and life, which is always interesting with someone who’s been outside of her home country for so many years (10, 15?).

Selcuk  Ephesus 118

From Izmir I did one overnight trip to Selcuk, a very small city next to Ephesus, a famous Greco-Roman ruins site. Although I’d figured out that I’m not very interested in Roman ruins, I decided to visit this one because it’s one of the most enthusiastically talked about ones. It wasn’t very far from Izmir, either. While there, I quite unexpectedly ran into a guy from the US that I’d met before. Interestingly enough, I’d met him almost a year beforehand, in Mexico, which was his first international holiday. Turkey was the second. What are the chances of that happening? We laughed, marvelled, had a beer and caught up.

Ephesus was heavily restored and very impressive; the detailing in some parts was pretty incredible (pictured). It’s also known for an abundance of stray cats (also pictured). Turkey in general is home to so many stray animals that you can sit in Istanbul and pet cats for hours — they’re friendly, usually vaccinated by the state, and used to all the attention.

Ephesus also has a huge amphitheatre, but in addition to my indifference to Roman ruins in most cases, I apparently have even less interest in amphitheatres. That’s a benefit of having travelled so much; I understand what I do and don’t want to spend my energy I want. In Ephesus, the little carved details were the most interesting, stone in particular.

The next day, I went with two others to a small village called Sirince, known for its fruit wines and charm. It was incredibly lovely, matched with a bright blue sky and calm breeze, so it wound up being perfect for a half day. We done with fruit wine tasting, and I fell in love with a cherry wine that was just too impossible to buy and bring back with me. I still kind of regret not buying a bottle. Anyway, from there I parted ways with the others and went back to Izmir for a night or so, before venturing back toward Istanbul.

Bergama Ruins 13The last “touristy” stop I made was in Bergama, which in retrospect should’ve just been a day trip or stopover. The site, known more commonly as Pergamon, was small and quite standard for Roman ruins, though I managed a few good shots (see above!). I was happy to be on the move again, though, and got back into Istanbul for a few days of wandering the streets and sightseeing.

In Istanbul, I made it into the Blue Mosque, one of the city’s major sites, next to Aya Sofia. The Blue Mosque is a beautiful structure, and so popular for tourists that there was a long line stretching from the entrance, with lots of foreign women struggling to figure out how to put on a headscarf. Luckily, I’ve gotten a bit of experience with that! Over the next few days, I walked up and down Istiklal, the shopping street, through markets and all over, and caught up with the Couchsurf I’d met, had some beers with her and her friends, and prepared myself for the mad dash through Eastern and West Europe, which I had about five weeks to do.

Turkey Part Three: Kobane, and the Stories That Want to be Told

IMG 0794

The time I spent in Urfa was half visiting archeological sites, and half spending time with people I’d met in the hostel, along with others I’d met through Couchsurfing, including an NGO worker who I wish I’d had more time to get to know!

With two other travellers, I also went to donate goods to the refugee camps in a nearby town called Suruc, which was a jarring learning experience. I’d found a contact who told me where the goods distribution centre is, as opposed to simply showing up and handing out supplies indiscriminately.

We were able to see how things worked in the facility thanks to an English-speaking volunteer, and got a glimpse of the monumental amount of NGOs, charities, and volunteers. I chose not to go inside the camps themselves, because I felt I had nothing to contribute, couldn’t communicate or listen, and generally didn’t want to be a ‘poverty tourist’, if you will.

I wrote a piece about one of my experiences there, and added an addendum at the end for context, which I’ll post here, edited for clarity and anonymity. The picture was drawn by a young refugee that V. met at the pond, who is amazingly artistic.


It started with the stories. Refugees, NGO workers, journalists, photographers, all telling their stories. The city of Urfa is diverse. It’s a Turkish town with a Kurdish and Arab population, with an influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees, making for a tragic scene of beggars and unpaid labourers, and a much less tragic increase in places to find good falafel.

Everyone you talk to has a story. These are stories with different angles, different good guys and bad guys, different rage and indifference, different causes and solutions. There was a young man that V. (another traveler) met at the pond, that she’s been trying to help find a job ever since. He sat at the guesthouse and told his story in accented English, of how he lost his father and other family members, painting a picture with all the details he left out. Another story was that of a teacher I met at my favourite Syrian-run falafel place, educated and fluent in English, trying to help the refugee children keep learning in a time of total chaos and insecurity.

One that really inspired me was the NGO worker who was from Kobane, this city under siege with its plumes of smoke curling upwards. She speaks Kurdish, Arabic, English, even Turkish, and stayed on this side of the border to help support the masses of refugees that cross to escape Kobane. H. has an amazing smile in all the pictures of her I see. When I see her name I think of her kind, beautiful eyes and light smile, short stature and loud laugh, with a strength inside that I can’t even imagine having.

IMG 0788

H. told me she waited so long to leave Syria because she didn’t want the label of refugee, and I can understand why. When we talk about refugees, we think of old women clutching children, stumbling through the dust and dirt toward the kindness of another land. We think of people that don’t have choices or opportunities, that are helpless and in need of our open hands, hearts, and of course wallets.

The refugees at the camp in Suruc are these: they are the desperate ones, the poor ones. The ones on posters and in fundraising ads. They aren’t the ones that were lucky to have extended family on the Turkish side of the border, family who could take them in and help them get jobs.

We don’t think of the protesters, political dissidents and freedom fighters who cross borders simply because they can’t fight from the other side anymore. H. isn’t really a refugee the way we see it — she’s a displaced Syrian who’s still fighting in her own way, just from a different place. And it’s people like her who will be the future leaders of Syria, if it’s ever really safe to go back and start again.

On the second night of protests in the city of Urfa [by the Kurds, against the Turkish government’s lack of support for them], we were out for beer, because life just goes on no matter where you are. Instead of going to the protest, we devoured beers and surreal conversations that you could only have sixty kilometres away from a city at war, with the photographers, journalists, Syrians, NGO workers, and travellers all mixed together. H. was with two friends who were also Syrian, from a part that wasn’t Kurdish. They said, though, that it didn’t matter; they were united.

They all went to the protests in Syria early on, they all knew that it wasn’t certain they’d come back at all, and that was simply the risk they took. They were lucky they did come back; just lucky and not blessed, because they don’t believe in god. As H. talked about going to the protests in Syria, we sat at the table and breathed through our headscarves when the tear gas crept through the open air at the bar. It was something like normal to us now, the tear gas. And yet these protests were nothing to people like H. and her friends, because what was a little tear gas compared to bombs and chemical weapons and a government who wants nothing more than to destroy any ounce of resistance? And what was a little tear gas compared to having ISIS come up from nowhere and take over your hometown, slaughter your family? How little I knew about life and fear compared to them. Gradually the tear gas dissipated, floating onwards to find new people to terrorise.

Turkey Part Two: Urfa and around

After beautiful Cappadocia, I headed southeast to a city called Urfa (short for Sanliurfa), in the Kurdish region in Turkey. Close to the border with Syria, Urfa hosts a mixed population of Turks, Kurds, and Syrians. It was the first time in a while that I’d found great falafel — I wound up at the same restaurant four nights in a row! My main reasons for going to Urfa were archeology and culture. There are several monumental sites nearby, and I wanted to also learn something of Kurdish culture, since Urfa is on the western edge of the Kurdish region. I wound up with more than I bargained for, but I’ll get into that later.

IMG 0772

Urfa itself is a sizeable city with a historical area. It’s home to several important sites, including cave thought of as the birthplace of Abraham, Urfa castle, and Balikligol, a pool of sacred fish. The legend goes that Nimrod sentenced Abraham to death for his ideas, but when Abraham was thrown into the flames, the fire turned to water and the logs into fish. It’s now surrounded by a beautiful park, which makes for a nice walk and an opportunity to feed and commune with the fishes. Nearby, a steep walk up leads you to a variety of cafes on the cliff, overlooking the old city and the Mosque (pictured). I met up with a few people in the city, and spend a few evenings drinking coffee with that view in sight.

Mt Nemrut 12

The first of the sightseeing was a day trip out to Mount Nemrut, a sanctuary of sorts created by Commagene King Antichus at the top of a mountain. The site, perhaps intended as a tomb (although no actual tomb has been found), contains sculptures of a variety of gods: Persian, Armenian and Greek. It’s said he was creating a cult, and intended to be worshipped after death.

Nowadays, there’s a steady trickle of tourists that come through the site to admire the huge statues; some of the heads are taller than me. There are two main sets of sculptures, placed on the east and west side the artificial conical mountain top. They have all been beheaded and defaced, likely a punishment against idolatry. The heads rest at the bases of their sitting Gods.

I went with three other people from the hostel I was staying at, which was an amazingly strange and interesting group of people. There was a dearth of tourists at the moment, which was nice. The main groups come for sunrise and sunset, but we arrived around noon, which was perfectly fine anyway. It was nice to have the site almost to ourselves. I shared some philosophical conversation with one woman while sitting in front the first batch of statues, a lovely Muslima from Malaysia.

Urfa  Gobekli Tepe 26

The next site of importance was Gobekli Tepe. This ancient site (almost 12,000 years old) was recently discovered, and provides compelling evidence of the earliest known city. Compared to Stonehenge, “Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.” (Article at National Geographic)

I first learned of this site while watching a documentary about agriculture and wheat harvesting at the dairy farm I volunteered at, and added it to the list of places to visit. While I mostly like visiting sites that are photogenic, large and impressive, I can still appreciate seeing places that, while small and still being unearthed, represent important insights into ancient history. This is what that was: seeing a simply carved animal on a stone, and knowing how significant it was for the time.

Urfa  Harran 28

Another small stop I made near Urfa was the ruins of Harran, an ancient city in Upper Mesopotamia that was a commercial and cultural hotspot around the 3rd century BCE. While the ruins themselves were not very interesting comparatively, the beehive huts nearby are a major draw. These adorable mud brick buildings are actually very cool inside despite the heat.

The southeast of Turkey is an archeological gold mine. Unfortunately, it also comes with political conflicts, having history of major clashes between the Turkish government and the Kurdish independence movement. In addition to this, it’s close to the Syrian border and the region has received hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, many of them Syrian Kurds. At the time I was there, the city of Kobane, only 60km/37mi away from Urfa itself, was under siege by ISIS. Although at the time I’m writing this ISIS has mostly been pushed out of the city by the Kurdish forces, at the time it seemed that the fall of the city to ISIS was imminent, and the tension of that had a major affect on the mood of the hostel I was staying at. The hostel was, at one point, half tourists and half journalists and photographers. In my next entry, I’ll talk more about that situation.

Turkey Part One: Istanbul, Pamukkale en route to Cappadocia

Istanbul  Hagia Sophia 1

I landed in Istanbul in early August, which was hot but not completely unbearable. I’d been excited for years about the idea of visiting Turkey, a country full of history and ruins to see. Istanbul itself, Turkey’s cultural capital although not its official capital, is chock full of sites to see, and can entertain tourists for weeks if not months. I started with just a few days there, visiting first Aya Sofia (also known as Hagia Sofia), a Greek orthodox church later converted to a mosque after the rise of the Ottoman Empire. You can see elements of both religions throughout the building, which is impressive in size and beauty. Intricate Arabic lettering decorates doorways and ledges and rings of domes, although the style is more simplistic compared to the architecture I’d last seen in Central Asia. Nearby, the Blue Mosque is an active mosque with its own impressive architecture, and a long line of tourists awkwardly trying to figure out how to put on headscarves.

After the relative dearth of tourists in Central Asia, Istanbul seemed completely packed. Wandering down the shopping street of Istiklal or the small alleys south of Taksim Square inevitably involved weaving through swarms of gaping tourists and their cameras. It didn’t help that it was summer. My first night in Istanbul, I met up with a girl from Couchsurfing and spent an evening wandering around Istiklal, sharing beers in nearby metal bars, and radical opinions on politics among other topics. A few weeks later, I met up with her again, covering even more of the city.

Istanbul  Dairy Farm 63

After Istanbul in those first two days, I went to a small dairy farm as a volunteer, which was a treat, a complete change of pace. After a relatively fast-paced romp around Central Asia, to be in one place for five weeks was amazing. The farm itself was pretty small, with tight-knit staff and a rotating but enjoyable group of volunteers living in the guesthouse. The numbers fluctuated between four at one point, to about fifteen at another. By choice, I wound up working a lot of mornings, getting up to help with the milking before the sun rose. Even cows don’t want to get up in the morning, and pretty much glare at you and refuse to move when you want them to. Most of the work was shovelling cow poop, with a side of bottle feeding and cuddling baby cows. We stopped for tea at 16:30 every day and learned a few Turkish words to communicate with the non-English speaking staff. Overall, it was a rewarding and insightful experience. I had originally been waiting for a friend to come and travel with me, that didn’t wind up happening, so instead I wound up deciding to travel with another girl, Leo, a German who was also volunteering at the farm.

We started back in Istanbul, just for a short stopover, staying with a friend of another Turkish volunteer from the farm. This girl was super smart and spectacularly good at languages, and practiced some German with Leo. It was sadly only a short stop, though, and the next day we took an early bus down to a city near Pamukkale, which took around 12 hours. Luckily, Turkish busses are extremely comfortable, and give you free snacks and drinks. We got there by evening and met up with our Couchsurfing host, another smart and multi-lingual Turkish girl with a generous heart and big personality. We had such a great time together we wound up staying longer with her.

Denizli  Pamukkale 37

Pamukkale, famous for its white minerals and hot springs below a Roman ruins site, is a huge tourist attraction in Turkey, and sadly is mostly reconstructed at this point, after the government banned hotels that had been built on top. People have bathed in the natural pools for thousands of years, but at this point the pools are mostly artificial. Still, it was lovely to see, and Leo and I got a large pool all to ourselves for a bit, overlooking the travertine terraces.

From there, we went beachward, taking a few busses to get to Olympos, a small cluster of huts down a valley near the beach, with a walkway of ruins en route. This was a few days of utter relaxation, which I used to catch up on blog entries and generally laze around in the open-air lounge of the hostel. One night was spent swimming in the ocean with phosphorescence, little lights sparkling when you move through the water.

Cappadocia  Red and Rose Valley Walks 2

After Olympos we made a brief stop in Konya, where we visited the Mevlana Museum. This is the mausoleum of Persian poet and mystic Rumi, and the centre of Turkey’s famous whirling dervishes. Finally, another bus ride later, we ended up in Cappadocia, famous for its “fairy chimneys” (pictured) and scenic hot air balloon rides. Cappadocia was 1000% worth the extra days we’d allotted for it. We found a cheap dorm room and bought groceries, making simple meals on the balcony and bringing snacks for the daily hikes we took. Since we were low-budget travellers, Cappadocia was perfect after we’d quickly (and independently) ruled out the obligatory balloon ride.

Cappadocia is a loosely defined, vast expanse of land consisting of many valleys of unique geological structures. My favourite hike out of these was Rose/Red Valley, which was incredibly painful to hike with bad knees, but well worth the views (see picture).

Another fascinating part of this place was the rock-hewn churches and houses. Some were simply spaces cut from the rock, such as the one you can see in the middle-right of the picture, but others were intricately carved churches with still-intact frescoes created by early Christians from the 4th century onward. Although I’m not usually a particular fan of frescoes, the age, simplicity and unique location makes them more interesting. 

There are also a few underground cities, including the one I visited that was complex and multilevelled, going down 60 metres / 200 feet underground! This was a fully functional city with an air ventilation system connected to the outside, but fortified to provide refuge to a population of 20,000 under persecution by the Ottoman Empire. It also included amenities like wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, and even a cruciform chapel at the bottom. A bit claustrophobic, but incredibly fascinating. 

Cappadocia  Red and Rose Valley Walks 91

Overall Leo and I went on at least four hikes of varying lengths together, and although she was much faster than I was, she still waited around for me! On one day, a small dog started following us, or rather guiding us along one of the hikes, and followed us back into town. We named her Samwise for her faithfulness, and I threw her bits of flatbread once we got back to town for lunch. Stray, or at least loose, cats and dogs are all over Turkey, and are wonderfully friendly and not rabid. Turks are incredibly friendly and warm people, so it doesn’t surprise me that the street animals are the same.

Urfa  Protests 1

Leo was running out of time, so I saw her off on a bus back to Istanbul, and went back to a completely empty dorm room. In the end, I was so happy to be there that I wound up staying in Cappadocia another few days, taking more slow hikes and waking up to sunrises with a sky full of hot air balloons, and stopping for the occasional latte with a spectacular view.

IMG 0738

Central Asia Part Five: Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan / Countryside & Cityscape

In between the mountains of Tajikistan and the sights of Uzbekistan, I also got some time in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, two countries with similar cultural roots but very different experiences.

After the Pamir Highway trip through much of Tajikistan, I ended in Kyrgyzstan in the city of Osh. Osh itself wasn’t particularly impressive, but I learned a bit about Kyrgyz culture and spent some time Couchsurfing and meeting other independent travellers who’d been in the region longer than I.

Kyrgyzstan  Osh Area Yurtstay 026

Since many tribes around the region are nomadic, you can see yurts all around the countryside outside the city. These are easily constructed (and deconstructed) round houses constructed of beams, covered with fabric and felt (the picture is of the signature roof, whose caps moves over to let the sun in). The people housed in them still live simply, and much of Kyrgyzstan’s original culture is preserved through them.

Kyrgyzstan  Osh Area Yurtstay 009

Through a program called Community Based Tourism, I got to go out and stay in a yurt for a few nights with a family living there. They spoke no English, but we were still able to communicate with my basic Russian. I went for a long horse ride with just a guide, riding over and through the rolling green hills, and stopping for a short lunch with a lovely view. We got back to the yurt just after it started raining, and then I settled down for a meal of fresh naan bread, fresh cream, fermented horse milk, cooked vegetables and kefir, all fresh from the land, and the cows and horses that aimlessly roam and graze on it.

At night the family sets up beds from thick mats, along with warm blankets and pillows as hard as rocks. During the day they are stacked up against the wall, leaving the whole area open for meals and games played by their two little girls. I spent most of my non-horse riding time reading and writing in my journal by the light from the yurt’s door, and the clean breeze sweeping through, making it a seriously relaxing experience. That and a refreshingly nap without the pressure to get up and “do something”. A group of travellers came through on the last stop of a multi-day trek through the area, so I had company for a bit, including another day of horse riding, which was hilarious as my horse was particularly uncooperative and didn’t want to do anything but stop and eat, and roll in mud.

Kazakhstan  Astana New City 32

From Osh I entered Uzbekistan and from there went to and from Turkmenistan, afterwards going north from the Uzbek capital of Tashkent into Kazakhstan (pictured above). Kazakhstan was not originally on my itinerary, but the government had recently announced that 10 nationalities could go to Kazakhstan without needing a visa (better than the US$160 visa I’d needed before!), starting July 15th. I was able to enter on July 16th, though it meant at least 15 minutes of confusion and phone calls by the border officials who didn’t know about the visa-free scheme. It was only possible to enter for 15 days on those conditions, so that’s exactly how long I spent there.

Kazakhstan  National History Museum in Astana 5

My first stop in Kazakhstan was the city of Shymkent, not too far from the Uzbek border, where I got to Couchsurf with an exuberant Quebecois who made my first days in Kazakhstan very enjoyable! She works with the tourism department of the region, and it was very interesting to hear about the plans to make the area more interesting and accessible for tourists. Unlike its neighbouring countries, the tourism industry in Kazakhstan isn’t as developed, or at least as obvious. While Kyrgyzstan has its well-run and well-liked CBT (Community Based Tourism), Kazakhstan doesn’t have such an obvious go-to. The gems of Kazakhstan are certainly in the countryside, and hopefully I’ll one day get to go back and see more.

Kazakhstan  Astana Khan Shatyr 5

Kazakhstan is the most developed of the ‘stans, sporting many new buildings all over and especially in its capital, Astana. Astana was named the capital less than 20 years ago, and has been the centre of a flurry of development ever since. While Astana gets compared often to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, mentioned in a previous post, it’s quite different — all the buildings are different styles, not all white marble, and people actually live, work, and go out in this city, a nice contrast to the creepy emptiness of Ashgabat.

I made it to Astana and got to see its array of new buildings, like the impressive new National Museum (pictured above), famous tent-like Khan Shatyr shopping mall, and the whole stretch between there and the Presidential Palace, which was chock full of new and impressive buildings, a proverbial paradise for a photographer who shoots architecture (aka me). There was also an aquarium that was noted as being the furthest away from the ocean, and had a whole presentation about how dangerous sharks are, which of course was factually incorrect 90% of the time. Luckily, I don’t foresee Kazakhstan instituting a shark cull anytime soon.

From there I went to Almaty on the overnight train, my second in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, being the most Russian of the post-Soviet states, has Russia’s stolid old trains, making for a very familiar experience. While the ride up from Shymkent to Astana was mediocre, the train from Astana to Almaty was probably the best quality in the region. It was a newer train, air-conditioned, and the people were also particularly nice and not that noisy or drunk. Pleasant experience all around. They even provided a packet each of free coffee and tea.

IMG 0403

Almaty is the old capital, which is still the de facto capital. It’s more populated than Astana and home to more businesses and foreign embassies and consulates. I Couchsurfed with an absolutely lovely Kazakh girl and her boyfriend, and got to go on a day hike in the Tian Shan mountains, which are just south of the city. My knees were still pretty terrible and unreliable at this point, something which I don’t seem to have much control of, but I pushed through and managed to survive the long hike. The views were beautiful and it was nice to be away from the city, but I was particularly happy to have a comfortable couch to crash on once we got home!

Being in Kazakhstan was so much like being back in Russia. It was quite strange, actually. So many signs and things in Russian, old Soviet monuments and buildings, so many Russian products, so many people speaking Russian. In fact it seems that more Kazakhs speak Russian as a first language than they do Kazakh. Definitely a holdover from the Soviet era, which of course has its complex mix of curses and blessings. In the National Museum in Astana, there’s a sculpture with a quote by the president, Nazarbyev, saying that the future of Kazakhstan will depend on its ability to communicate in three languages: Kazakh, Russian and English. I can’t say I disagree. Central Asia is caught, geographically and political, between many powerful regions — China, Russia, and Europe in particular, with its politics most closely aligned with Russia’s.

IMG 0424

After Almaty I took a marshrutka (Russian minibus) to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, on the other side of the Tian Shan. This city was very much like Almaty, but a bigger hub for tourists, travellers, and expats. It’s a very popular place to stay and teach English, which I considered doing. A twist of fate, however, had me book a plane ticket to Istanbul, so I only stayed a week and change in Bishkek. While there, I got to meet up with a number of backpackers I’d met before, all over the ‘stans. This included a few guys I’d met and travelled with in Uzbekistan. So we all had a few nights out with shitty beer but great company, and even a few sub-par pizzas. Luckily, Turkish food is prevalent in the region, and even some decent Korean food thanks to the history of Koreans being relocated to Kazakhstan and other ’stans by the Soviet Union.

In Bishkek I went on yet another day hike with my bad knees, where the altitude also took a toll on me. Compared to that whole week of hikes, walking in a flat city for 8 hours is nothing! This walk also included the most ludicrous “bridge” I’ve ever seen (see picture). Luckily I’m good at climbing, even with my bad knees and fear of heights, so neither I nor any of my companions wiped out crossing it.

I also lucked out and met up with Eugenette, the girl from Quebec I’d Couchsurfed with in Shymkent, Kaz., and we stayed at the same hostel for a few days and shared great conversations, walks around, and I was treated once again to her great cooking. We also stopped at the ultimate expat hangout, Sierra Coffee, where all the English teachers have meetings, and the Kyrgyz cool kids stop by for lattes and frappes. I went there so much that half the staff knew my name, and I theirs. I could’ve settled in that city for a bit and taught English, but fate gave me an opportunity in Turkey that made too much sense to refuse, and so I finally left Central Asia for Turkey, and got back on the more beaten track…

Central Asia Part Four: Central Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan  Bukhara Old Town 14

Out of the three main Silk Road towns in Uzbekistan, it’s hard to choose a favourite. The three are all impressive, but in different ways. Khiva, described in the last post, is a tightly packed site with a lot to offer. Bukhara is similar in that it has a distinctive old town, but Samarkand’s sites are bigger but more spread out through the modern city.

Bukhara’s attractions are centred around Lyabi Hauz, a small pool of water surrounded by medrassahs. The whole town is easily walkable, although its attractions are more spread out than those of Khiva.

The city has long been an important focal point, both on the Silk Road and as the centre of Islamic studies. This part of Uzbekistan was history part of the Persian empire, and to this day there is a strong Tajik population, whose language is related to Farsi. 

The other interesting thing about Bukhara is its Jewish history. Although it’s unclear what brought the Jewish population to Central Asia, their presence can be traced back in some writings from the 4th century CE.

Some theories point to movement through Babylon, Persia, and even into what is now northern Afghanistan. They spoke a dialect of Tajik/Persian with Hebrew influence. The population flourished for many years, but declined under the pressure of Islam around the 18th century, at least officially. Some Jews converted to Islam for show, and covertly kept their Jewish traditions. They were 

Very little remains now, but I stopped in a small synagogue tucked away with a few ancient items, including a torah scroll, which I was able to see. I was given a very enthusiastic tour by an old man, though it was in Russian so I couldn’t understand everything. Still, to see a trace of Jewish history in the area was quite something. A little connection to my upbringing, if you will.

800px Jewish Children with their Teacher in Samarkand

The above picture is from 1910 and is of Jewish children with a teacher in Samarkand. Side note: the pattern of the kid’s coat on the far right is actually a trademark Uzbek pattern. Bukhara is not the only Central Asian region historically home to Jews; evidence of Jewish populations has been found in Merv, Turkmenistan, for example, although they were mostly clustered around the Bukhara region. Additionally, most of Central Asia saw an influx of Jews during Soviet times, including during World War II when many Jews fled from Europe. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the majority of the Jewish population in Central Asia emigrated to Israel and the US, New York City in particular. 

Uzbekistan  Ismail Samani Mausoleum Bukhara 1

Another highlight of Bukhara for me was the small but intricately detailed Ismail Samani Mausoleum, pictured above, which is the resting place of the Samanid emir who held Bukhara in the 9th century and supported the rise of Islam. Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz currency are named after Samani. This tiny jewel was worth the walk in the heat, hidden in the middle of a big park. The brickwork is impossibly put together and perfect; it’s just astounding.

Uzbekistan  The Ark Fortress 15

On the flip side, Bukhara’s Ark fortress is huge and hard to miss. Impressive and interesting from the outside, it has just a few museums inside its walls, with some lovely little spaces to sit down and enjoy the surroundings. In the evening, Bukhara came alive around Lyabi Hauz, with a bunch of Bukhara locals and Uzbek tourists crowding into the restaurants at the edge of the pond. Little kids running around with sparklers and toys, and some backpackers winding through the square observing. Overall it was a great stop, absolutely worth the time.

Uzbekistan  Samarkand Registan Complex First Day 22

Finally, we get to Samarkand. The Registon, pictured above, is probably the most famous site in all of Central Asia, and sees busloads of tourists during peak and off-peak season alike. The Registon is actually a square consisting of three large medrassahs, including Sher Doh Medrassah, the one in the picture above. Interestingly, according to Islam you’re not supposed to depict living beings on religious buildings, so the pictures of tigers are highly unusual.

Uzbekistan  Samarkand Registan Complex First Day 13The medrassahs of the Registon are highly restored, including the insanely gold interior of Tilya-Kori medrassah, shown here. Each has an elaborate facade at its entrance, which leads back into a courtyard flanked by dormitories for the students. Being touristy as it is, these niches are completely filled with vendors selling anything and everything you could possible imagine.

While in Samarkand, I met up with someone I knew from back in Philadelphia: Sam, as I’ve know him for years, was one of the cleaning staff at the store I worked at. I remember being very curious to find out he was from Uzbekistan, which I already had on my list to visit. At the time he didn’t speak much English, but learned more over the years. His wife and cousin also worked at the store, and we considered them a part of the team.

As it turns out, Sam and his wife were back visiting their family in Samarkand around the same time I was coming in to visit Uzbekistan. We actually managed to meet up, over a year since we’d last seen each other in Philadelphia. They happily took me on a whirlwind tour of some of Samarkand’s main sites during my first day there, and we reminisced about people from work, and their two sons, who I remember when they were a bit smaller!

It was really lovely to see them again, especially since the best way to get to know a culture is by the people whose it is. Sam and his wife spoke more English than they did the last time, and it was really special to have two Uzbeks show and explain the sights to me with such enthusiasm and pride. We started at the Registon, which is a big site to have as an intro, and sets the bar very high for big and glamorous.

Uzbekistan  Samarkand Ulugbek Observatory 5

One of the highlights of Samarkand for me was the Ulug Bek Observatory. Built in the 15th century by Timurid ruler Ulug Bek, the grandson of conqueror Timur, it is a testament to the scientific pursuits in the region; Islam has a reputation for math and science that stretches all over the world. Only rediscovered about 100 years ago, there is only a small part left: a trench used to study the sun, the moon and the stars. It’s now decorated with a traditional facade, above.

Uzbekistan  Shah i Zinda Complex Samarkand 61

Ulug Bek himself was actually a mathematician and astronomer, and pushed for Samarkand to become a city of intellectual and scientific pursuit. His astronomical and mathematical discoveries are almost completely accurate even according to modern science.

The other sites of Samarkand are numerous, museums plentiful, and the whole city is worthy of more than just a few days. It’s a big, modern city, second in size only to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. I spent a lot of time there, although I was sick for some of it and missed out on a few things. It was also the place where I had to make effort to take money out: ATMs are not common in Uzbekistan, so getting money is a long process at the bank, full of annoyances and long waits.

The hostel I stayed at was packed with other travellers. It didn’t have the best facilities, but I got my own room for very cheap and it had a nice bathroom. I spent most evenings watching World Cup games with all different nationalities, including the painful Germany – Brasil game.

I caught up again with Jan and Roger, who I’d been traveling with on and off in and since Turkmenistan, and since this was the strongest trail yet, met up with a number of people I’d seen before.

The last of Samarkand I saw was a full day’s walk from the Registon up north to Shah-i-Zinda, a collection of absolutely jaw-droopingly detailed mausoleums next to an Islamic cemetery. The photo is of one of those mausoleums, which are mostly built for female relatives of famous ruler Timur (Tamerlane).

Walking up a narrow pathway, the small mausoleums are side by side, each more impressive than the next. The last bit, basically a dead end, has the most detailed work: glazed, carved tiles that beg to be photographed. See below! 

Uzbekistan  Shah i Zinda Complex Samarkand 45

This was a  great place to stop and sit for a while, just reflecting on the sheer craftsmanship of the place. Definitely a highlight of Samarkand, and all of Uzbekistan. This was essentially the reason I’d been attracted to Central Asia: Islamic architecture at its best!

Another side trip from Samarkand was over the mountains to a place called Shakrisabz. Although this place doesn’t have much in the way of impressive ruins, it was the hometown of Turko-Mongul ruler Timur (Tamerlane), who founded the Timurid dynasty. Fun fact: the name Tamerlane is said to come from the fact that he was lame in one leg, which you can try to spot in the many Timur statues all over Uzbekistan. The trip was very enjoyable, mainly for the great companions, the scenery, and general relaxed vibe of the whole day. Our taxi driver was a cheerful guy who spoke a little English, and took us to a nice, cheap local place for lunch instead of a big tourist spot. 

IMG 0329

After what seemed like a lifetime in Samarkand, I finally made it back to Tashkent, which I’d come through before en route from Kyrgyzstan to Turkmenistan. Tashkent is a big city, and home to Central Asia’s biggest metro system (one of maybe two, that is). It’s a big and mostly modern capital, with big, glitzy buildings similar to those in Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan, although not as… pointless.

I visited the National Museum, which was surprisingly nice compared to other museums I’d seen in the area. It had a number of signs in English, and was organised, although toward the modern era it kind of fell apart.

Another cool spot was the Railway Museum, essentially a collection of old Soviet-era trains lined up, one after another, on tracks just across the street from the modern train station. Though they looked recently repainted, it was interesting to see the big train cars of the era.

In one central part of town I found a coffeeshop which served a very delicious cappuccino, so I frequently stopped in to bask in the air conditioning and get my espresso fix, which I hadn’t had for a while. It was also a nice place to hang out and read, and occasionally be approached by local university students trying to practice their English before exams.

After almost four weeks in the country, I said goodbye to Uzebkistan and crossed the border to Kazakhstan, which had recently dropped its visa requirement for US citizens. This meant that I could check out parts of the country for 15 days before heading back into Kyrgyzstan to start planning the next stage.

Central Asia Part Three: Western Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan  Tosh Hauli Palace Khiva 9

For anyone that knows about the history of region, Uzbekistan’s impressive cities are synonymous with the Silk Road, and for good reason. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are the gems of Central Asia’s trading trail, and worth every minute of the time spent in them. 

I did Uzbekistan in two stages. After the Pamir Highway, I ended in Kyrgyzstan and then went through three cities in Uzbekistan to meet my Turkmen tour. The tour ended at the Turkmen/Uzbek border near Nukus, in the far west, so I backtracked from there.

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in post-Soviet Central Asia, and has a mix of ethnic groups including the Uzbek majority, some Tajiks, Russians, and Karakalpaks, amongst others. Interestingly, it’s also doubly landlocked: landlocked by landlocked countries.

Like neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan was once conquered by the Turks and thus its language is Turkic. In the south it borders Tajikistan and a small part of Afghanistan, so there are large Tajik populations in that region. The government is one of the most repressive in the region and the world, but for travelling purposes it wasn’t very noticeable, especially after having traveled through Turkmenistan!

In the west, I arrived from Turkmenistan back to Uzbekistan at Nukus, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. This small city in the middle of the desert is mainly known for two things: an art museum, and as a base for getting to the Aral Sea.

The museum, The Savitsky Collection (also known as the Nukus Museum of Art), is famous for its massive collective of banned Soviet-era artwork. The museum’s founder and curator, Igor Savitsky (pictured), went out of his way to collect Russian avant-garde works that were banned by Stalin’s Soviet Union, along with many other items relating to Karakalpak culture. I and the Brit I’d been on the Turkmen tour with spent some time wandering around with occasional commentary on the various pieces.

The pieces were definitely interesting, but mostly because I knew they had been banned; I’m not a knowledgeable critic of art, but I can appreciate the historical importance of it. Some of it was downright bizarre, and a number of works could be viewed as critical to the regime of the time.

Since we’d just come over from Turkmenistan, the three of us took it easy for a few days and enjoyed the freedom that we didn’t really have in Turkmenistan, and the friendly openness of the people. I stayed at a nice hotel, which was run by a Canadian Uzbek family and which had a big party on Canada day. They even had a variety of vegetarian food options on the menu. Though expensive for Uzbekistan, it was well worth it. We ate good dinners, watched some World Cup games, and planned how to get out to the Aral Sea, finally settling on renting a nice car with air conditioning and driver. In the end we also gained a fourth person last-minute to split the cost, and after a few days of doing almost nothing in Nukus, were happy to be going on a small adventure.

Uzbekistan  Aral Sea 117

Formerly the source of a prosperous fishing industry, the Aral Sea has lost most of its native fish population due to the increase of salt concentration in the remaining water. This has led to the economic decline of towns like Moynaq, which is now many kilometres away from the sea that used to be at its edge. In Moynaq now you can see the “ship graveyard” (pictured), a collection of rusted ships that were abandoned, leaving a depressing, but photogenic, reminder of the tragedy.The Aral Sea has a tragic history and is a truly strange place to consider a tourist attraction. Soviet irrigation projects diverted the rivers that fed this once-large lake, and it’s been shrinking since the 1960’s, with devastating consequences. It is now less than 10% of its original size. No, that’s not a typo.

Uzbekistan  Aral Sea 43

Political difficulties have hampered the success of the attempted Aral Sea Basin Program, set up in 1994 with the goal of stabilising and rehabilitating the Aral Sea region. The Aral Sea is shared between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and while the Uzbek government has been less than passionate about restoring the sea, Kazakhstan embarked on several projects to improve the situation. They actually succeeded in replenishing some of the North Aral sea, while Uzbekistan’s part keeps shrinking.

Our tour was basically a long drive through wasteland that used to be the sea, with scenes of the dead riverbed below, and a stop at a small lake which is still a source of fish. At the end of day one, we reached the shore of the current sea, with a bizarrely muddy “beach”. My three companions swam in the sea, but I decided to spend the time taking pictures instead (like the picture above, of someone’s flip flops). Later we set up camp up the hill, had a nice dinner, and attempted to sleep through the whistling wind. It was actually cold, a refreshing change from the oppressive heat of Central Asia.

Uzbekistan  Aral Sea 3

Day two’s highlight was Moynaq and the Ship Graveyard, which is actually one of many, but it the easiest to get to and most notable. The other attraction was a small museum about Moynaq’s fishing village history, with a film tracing the history of the Aral Sea’s demise. From there, we drove back through the wasteland to Nukus.

Uzbekistan  Kalta Minor Minaret Khiva 3Our next stop was Khiva, a small town further east with an enclosed old city brimming to the top with beautiful mosques and medrassahs (educational institutions). This was the first big Silk Road site for my companions, and actually wound up being my favourite of the three cities. The old city, called Itchan Kala, is in its entirely a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is well worth the distinction. It’s surrounded by brick walls 10 metres high (30 ft), and contains a dizzying array of beautiful things to see, some around 600 years old. Most distinctive is the unfinished minaret, Kalta Minor, pictured.

Uzbekistan  Djuma Mosque Khiva 15

While full of things to see, Itchan Kala is actually pretty small and if you have an entire day to spare, you can see pretty much everything without too much stress. Out of all the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, it also is the best set up for tourists: you buy one ticket, which grants you access inside almost all of Khiva’s attractions.

Islamic architecture in this region has its own distinctive features, particularly the detailed blue and white tile-work. Images of blue mosaics on the domes of mosques decorate the covers of Central Asian guidebooks, and any postcard you might get from someone travelling the area. Although I know much of the sites in the area have been restored, they are no less impressive.

Mosques in general have always attracted me, but here they have some incredibly design elements, and details that are unmatchable. The wooden carved pillars are a favourite of mine; I can only admire the craftsmanship and hard labor that must have gone into making them.

Khiva’s Djuma Mosque (Friday Mosque, pictured) was amazing to walk into: a serene room of carved pillars, some obviously much older than others, with several skylights letting the sun illuminate the trees planted underneath. It’s a place you could really imagine praying or meditating in, and luckily I did get some time alone before the tour groups descended.

Walking around Khiva was like walking through history, if you just pretended not to see modern clothes, cellphones, and the occasional car, not to mention gaping tourists with cameras. Luckily, late June was the end of tourist season, so the only people left were locals, backpackers, and some stragglers. Oftentimes I found myself alone in the expansive interiors of mosques, medrassahs, and sometimes palaces like Tosh Hauli, pictured below. Not a bad place to live, for sure. Thick walls made natural air conditioning, and the colour scheme can’t be beat.

Uzbekistan  Tosh Hauli Palace Khiva 22Arriving in Khiva, I had to be budget-conscious and couldn’t stay at the nicer hotel that the others had taken a room in, so instead I found a dorm bed at the cheaper hostel. There, I met plenty of backpackers that I’d inevitably meet again later, as the Central Asian backpacker trail guarantees. Still, I popped over to the other place for a beer with some great company on the rooftop terrace that overlooked Khiva, while the sun went down.

Central Asia Part Two: Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan  Ancient Merv 6

Turkmenistan is mostly unknown to world, except by those interested in strange topics such as controlled states, crazy leaders, burning gas craters, and occasionally more normal people versed in Silk Road ruins or the history of the world.

Turkmenistan shares borders with Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and is often traversed by backpackers headed from Europe to Southeast Asia, either via Azerbaijian’s ferry across the black sea, or those lucky enough to get Iranian visas. Many travellers in the region that I’d met before had been through it, and every single one of them had stories about how strange it was, especially the white-marbled capital of Ashgabat. But Turkmenistan offers some of the oldest and biggest known cities, important stops on trade routes.

Since I was not eligible for a 5-day transit visa, the only option for independent travel, I wound up taking a 6-day tour that covered the highlights, albeit in some of the most intense heat I’ve ever been through (think Mars, or every movie you’re seen where someone’s lost in the desert).

I was picked up at the Uzbek border near Bukhara, and taken to Mary, a city close to Ancient Merv (pictured twice), which was an important point of the Silk Road established around the 6th century BCE. From Mary, we took a day trip to the oldest and least preserved archaeological site of the trip, Gonur Depe.

The expansive area around this site, called Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex, encompasses sites from northern Afghanistan, western Tajikistan, southern Uzbekistan, and of course eastern Turkmenistan. Throughout the region is a long history of civilisations and various religious practices including Zoroastrianism. Before that, in Gonur Depe, there is evidence of practices of consuming hallucinogenic beverages, and temples to fire and water dieties. What’s uncovered at this site now looks like a bunch of mud that happens to look like walls, but walking around the site you can appreciate the profound history and importance if you have the imagination and knowledge to do so. There were many interesting parts, like kilns where pottery was fired, marked by the streaks of leftover glaze. Pieces of broken pottery scattered the ground, and our guide even found a completely preserved pot partially sticking out from the ground. There was also a small shed which protected the remains of a horse and chariot found in a King’s tomb, by far the most impressive part of this site. 

Unfortunately, Gonur Depe has fallen into disrepair, especially since the recent death of archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, who led its discovery and preservation. The site is barely cared for and most of it is left to the elements, harsh winds and rain. If no one works to preserve the site it will be buried again after a few more years. Our guide said that it had gotten much worse since the last year when he visited with a group, so I’m glad to have seen it when I did, and sad that there isn’t more being done to preserve this part of ancient history. Read more here.

Turkmenistan  Ancient Merv 7

The next day, we went to Merv (pictured twice). It is claimed that Merv was the biggest city in the world in the 12th century, which you can imagine by looking at the remnants of the walls (one pictured) in the distance. Merv is also part of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex, like Gonur Depe, although it was prominent hundreds of years after Gonur Depe. It was a major stop on the Silk Road, linking modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan with the more famous Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. It’s quite something to see the little bit that remains of something once of such importance, although unlike Gonur Depe it is actively being uncovered and restored. The site itself is huge, but since only small pieces are discovered, it took several short rides to go between the various parts.

Turkmenistan  Mary 3

Mary itself is a modern town for the most part, with many new trademark white marble buildings (like the wedding palace, pictured above) going up. Though Turkmenistan requires you to have a guide present most places you go, we were allowed to walk around Mary unattended in our spare time. We had dinners out and walked about, even having a few encounters with the local people, including a girl who practised her English with us and then sadly said that she would love to travel but doesn’t have the money. It’s especially strange when you realise how much oil money the country has, and that it’s spending all that money on white marble buildings.

One of the two guys on the tour, the Brit, had been to North Korea on a tour, and commented that we got much more freedom in Turkmenistan than he’d gotten in North Korea (which was none). Not bad for second most closed country, I suppose. Now, having been to Turkmenistan, I’m intensely curious about North Korea.

The next day the Belgian guy and I were walking around Mary and were invited to tea by a lady who spoke almost no English, but still was able to communicate and share her experiences hosting random transiting travellers. She listed their nationalities and told us how she had a guy from Japan who was at her place watching the news of the Tsunami. Her ability to communicate without words was quite something, and she was selfless in her hospitality. In many countries it’s a scam that someone will invite you for tea and then make you pay for it, but there are so few travellers in Turkmenistan that they don’t have that kind of mentality. They’re just friendly and curious. At least, outside of Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan  Ashgabat New City 10

Ashgabat is a city of the future, with its New City of massive hotels and government buildings, residential skyscrapers, museums and monuments, all in white marble with accents of gold and blue. The only problem is, there’s almost no one living in the New City. The old city has a reasonable amount of people, but the new city’s hotels and apartment complexes are all empty or almost-empty. Its air conditioned bus stops (pictured above) are usually empty. The only people you do see are people cleaning the streets, or soldiers who are quick to tell you not to photograph certain buildings. I walked around for hours in the heat, finding just a few trees to hide behind and avoid the 40+ degree heat.

Turkmenistan  Ashgabat New City 51I realised after talking to my two companions, who’d been in the country for two days before I arrived, that I wasn’t as freaked out by the abandoned white marble city as they were. Then it hit me – I just thought of science fiction. Star Trek, in particular. This could be Starfleet, or a city of some other orderly civilisation. It really felt like it; everything was bright, new and clean. It’s also a law that cars must be completely washed before entering Ashgabat. This was not a city to be a rebel in, though at least we could walk around by ourselves. University students and civil servants wear uniforms (lovely red and green dresses for the ladies, actually), most others are professional or traditional, and the police ever-present. The people repeat what the government tells them.

This is the land of the personality cult, and everywhere you look the president’s portrait hangs on government buildings, on billboards, in shops. For example, the National Museum starts with an entire room about president Berdimuhamedow, complete with clearly photoshopped pictures of him doing “normal” things, and laughing at the pictures is not a good idea. This president, at least, isn’t nearly as authoritarian and self-obsessed as president-for-life Niyazov, who died unexpectedly in 2006. The new president actually reversed some of Niyazov’s crazier policies, like naming the months of the year and days of the week after his family members, and generally moved to improve the quality of life of average Turkmen people. Still, it is very much an authoritarian government, and progress should be viewed only comparatively.

The three of us ate dinner one night at a restaurant on top of the pyramid-shaped mall, the only people in the entire place aside from a couple that come up later. You get used to being the only people in a restaurant, museum, or at tourist site. Somehow it becomes normal, along with the strange concepts of service, the way things are never quite complete but just built for show. There weren’t many opportunities for encounters with the normal people of Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan  Erbent 19

Finally we left Ashgabat and went through the Karakum desert, with a stop at a windy little village in something like 42 degrees (107 fahrenheit) to talk about desert life and take pictures of camels and sand. From there we drove through more desert, stopped at a smaller crater, then drove more, broke down, and had a nice dinner on the side of the road while awaiting another car. It was dark once the other car arrived, so when we approached the infamous gas crater, Darwaza, we could see the light of its fire reaching into the sky.

Turkmenistan  Darwaza Gas Crater 46

Darwaza, also nicknamed the Door to Hell, is a crater that was apparently created while the Soviets were drilling for oil in the 70’s. It was set on fire to ‘burn off’ the gas, but instead it kept burning, and is burning to this day. When we got there it was the only light around aside from the stars, and crickets were flying all around in a massive frenzy. It was a very cool experience to walk around this giant fire pit; not normal sightseeing, but epic and utterly unique.

Turkmenistan  Konya Urgench 16

The next day we headed for the Uzbek border and stopped at Konya Urgench on the way, another Silk Road city that was the capital of Khorezm. It was prominent around the 12th-14th centuries CE, with better restored ruins that included one of the tallest brick minarets of Central Asia, though its attached mosque no longer exists. Most of the old city of Konye Urgench is actually still underground, and a quick glance over at a mud hill near the minaret raises all kinds of speculation about what could be found underneath. This is also a rare site in that it had a number of tourists and patrons, presumably Turkmen, who circled around the minaret and prayed. I could feel we were getting closer to Uzbekistan, which, even though on the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, is comparatively normal.

After some time at the site, we finally made our way to the border and were able to get through the Turkmen side before lunch. Unfortunately, we were stuck between the two sides for the lunch hour, after which some very chipper Uzbek border officials took their time examining my companions’ medicines and other belongings.

I’m not exactly sure why, but I always manage to get through quickly. I think spending 3 months in Russia might be why: I’m not exactly exuberant and friendly with officials, and don’t offer any information they don’t directly ask for. Usually I show them a bottle of pills when they ask about medications, explain what it is, and then look uninterested when they poke at my bag. They zip it open, look inside, see how crammed in everything is, and then walk away since I don’t seem to be interested in explaining what’s in it. Works like a charm.

Finally, we got a ride to Nukus, in the west of Uzbekistan, and I got a nice hotel room after a night in the heat of the desert. And took a long, luxurious shower. You have to appreciate the little things in life, you know? You appreciate hot showers, comfortable beds, having all your limbs, being able to travel safely around the world, and of course a nice, cold beer with new friends from the road.