The In-Transit Report

central asia

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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! 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Central Asia Part One: Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway

Tajikistan  Pamir Highway Fortress Dushanbe 7

I was ready for a change. Getting to Tajikistan was a nice change of pace after practically living in Moscow for 3 weeks, and having spent 3 months in Russia. Different atmosphere, different culture. Much less developed, but with friendly people and beautiful scenery. It’s the land of naan bread and cucumber & tomato salad, headscarves, traditional culture, and the famous Pamir Highway, a route carved out through dramatic mountains leading from Tajikistan to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

I spent five days in Dushanbe, a comparatively underdeveloped but nice capital with just one real hostel that was recently established. There, all the travellers gathered in the common room and swapped stories and tips, which I appreciated, having just arrived.

There’s a strong “trail” in the region, meaning that people you meet in one city you’re likely to meet in another. There are comparatively few travellers in the region, but also few backpacker-style hostels, so everyone winds up at the same places. I often walked around the city with other travellers, ate food, including a vegetarian national dish called Qurutob, and learned more about the local culture.

Since Tajikistan, and all the other “stans” are Muslim countries, you see a wide variety of headscarves, and the traditional Tajik dress of the women, which consists of a colourful patterned gown worn over (usually) matching trousers (pictured). Almost all the women had long, long hair, since apparently it’s bad luck for a women to cut her hair. One of my best friends is known for her really long hair, but she’d be just another girl in Tajikistan!

Unlike those of the rest of the ‘stans, the Tajik language is actually related to Farsi. The other languages in the region are Turkic. In Dushanbe I met a number of people who were studying Farsi there because the Iranian visa is so difficult to get. Tajik culture also shares similarities to neighbouring Afghanistan, and to Iran.

Tajikistan  Pamir Highway Close to Dushanbe 5

The most-travelled section of the Pamir Highway, by backpackers anyway, leads from Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, to the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, mostly following the M41. The scenery changes along the way, from green hills (pictured) to dramatically steep cliffs surrounding the river that runs along the Tajik/Afghan border, vast, flat desert, and multicoloured mountains nearing the Kyrgyz border. My tour took the slow route, with many stops and an overnight at beautiful Karakol lake. The first day was the green hills, ending with a home stay/guesthouse with delicious food. My two travel companions were a Russian women who loved mountains, and a Spanish guy living and working in Belgium. None of us knew each other beforehand, we just connected through the internet to share the cost of the tour. We got along fine, though we did have some very opinionated political debates. Luckily we had a very comfortable Land Cruiser for the tour, and since there were only three of us there was plenty of space to spread out.

Tajikistan  Traditional Pamir House 3

Most of the homestays we slept in were traditional Pamiri houses, the design of which incorporates Islamic and Zoroastrian elements. A skylight (pictured) represents all the natural elements, with fire being the highest, touched by the sun. There are 5 pillars in the room itself that represent the five members of Ali’s family in Islam. Knowing what the architecture represents makes sleeping under the skylight a very interesting experience. The Pamir people are mostly Ismaili, a very relaxed branch of Islam, but before that there was Zoroastrian, still a very important part of the culture.

The homestays were family-run, and by family-run I mean by the entire family. Many generations, children running around, and some of the friendliest, most welcoming people in the world. Since we were on a tour, our guide did all the translation necessary, and took us for walks around some of the villages. Often we were followed by curious children, which was more annoying to me than cute, though luckily the children at the homestays were used to foreigners and were much less impressed by our foreign-ness.

Tajikistan  Sufi Museum 11

Other sites along the Pamir Highway were Zoroastrian shrines, characterised by the presence of Ibex horns and other important symbols of purity. I wish I’d had more time to learn about Zoroastrianism and see more of the shrines. These predate Islam, conjuring images of sacred fire rituals, and make for great photography! We also got to stop at the museum of Mubarak Kadam Wakhani, who was a Sufi / Ismaili mystic, and whose house museum was a great exhibit of Pamiri culture, with traditional house elements, textiles and households objects. He was also an astronomer, and outside the museum is a stone solar calendar.

Tajikistan  Kalaikumb to Khorog 95

For part of the Pamir Highway, we followed the river that divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Valley. The above picture is of a bridge that connects Tajikistan and Afghanistan. This river, at some parts only a few metres wide, is an arbitrary border that cut in half the Pamiri people, so the Afghans on the other side are not the same culturally as their compatriots from Kabul or other parts of Afghanistan. What you can see is the difference in development on either side of the river: power lines, running water and mostly paved (if not in great condition) roads on the Tajik side, and almost nothing on the Afghan but mud huts and gravel/dirt roads. Power mostly comes from portable batteries and generators.

On the Tajik side the infrastructure isn’t that great. Sometimes that means that there’s only electricity in the evening from a generator or solar panels, and that you wouldn’t want to drink the water, but if you’re coming from the Afghan side, being in Tajikistan is like 5-star luxury. Squat toilets are common, but if you’ve been travelling long enough you just get used to them and are quite happy to see a sit-down toilet whenever you get back to the city.

Tajikistan  Murghab to Karakul 10

Gradually the population changed. As we got closer to the Kyrgyz border, we stayed in places where the population was mostly ethnically Kyrgyz, to the point where our guide said that if they needed to visit a doctor, they’d cross the border into Kyrgyzstan rather than go to the capital of Tajikistan… because they don’t even speak Tajik in these towns. The borders in Central Asia are some of the most messed-up you can find, almost arbitrarily drawn to divide cultures and keep people fighting each other inside of uniting. There are a number of enclaves around, e.g. a small Uzbek enclave inside neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Go look at a map and you’ll see what I mean.

Murghab, a dusty town over halfway through our trip, was almost entirely Kyrgyz, and was also where the majority of the Pamir tour guides were from. When we were there, our guide was stopped and greeted by many of the people on the street, and while we stayed in our homestay he was visiting his family. Unfortunately, my companions at this point were sick from the day before, and then our poor guide got sick as well that night. That day, and the next, were lazy and uneventful because of that.

After Murghab, we crossed over the highest mountain pass, at 4655 metres (pictured above), which is high, but not the highest I’ve been (that’s somewhere around 6,000 metres in Bolivia). Above 3,000 metres is when I get sick from the altitude, and that was about 3-4 days into the trip. After I finally acclimatised, being at around 4,000 at Karakol was the same as 3,000.

Tajikistan  Karakul 25

Our last stop before hitting the border was Karakol, meaning “black lake”. Very creative name, to go along with the equally creative names of “white lake”, “fish lake” and “smelly lake” that we’d already passed. The town of Karakol was very small and flat, with the mountains in the distance and a bright turquoise lake. We spent two nights here, a nice change of pace from relocating every evening. The second day, we walked around for hours in the fierce wind and took pictures, chased donkeys, and otherwise enjoyed the freedom of having nothing to do for the day. Various bones were scattered around the shore, along with some rusted car parts that I thoroughly enjoyed photographing. I also took a long walk alone and came back refreshed.

Finally, we took off for the Kyrgyz border, which was actually over another mountain pass. It’s here that we noticed the biggest concentration of cyclists, those crazy people who physically tax themselves cycling up muddy slopes of mountains in the bright hot sun, and then the icy cold altitude over 3,000, all while carrying kilos of personal items and gear on their bicycles. I have a lot of admiration for them, and absolutely no jealousy. The motorcyclists, well, I could see myself doing that someday.

As soon as we left the Tajik side, the scenery changed again, to an incredible combination of red clay, multicoloured mountains, and white snow that looked like icing on cake. Once in Kyrgyzstan, everything changed to rolling green hills and red clay with the high mountains in the distant background, before flattening out once we got into Osh, our final destination.

The Ibex says goodbye to Tajikistan, and welcome to Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan  Karakul to the Kyrgyz Border 2