Tajikistan … you had me at assalomu alaykum (hello)

After a significant writing hiatus and a move back across the world to New Zealand, I have finally got back in to writing about my trips and have to go way back to September and my wonderful trip to Central Asia … welcome to Stan No. 3 – Tajikistan

  • Currency:  Somoni (TJS)  US$1 = TJS 9.7
  • Language: Tajik, Russian
  • Size: 143,100km2
  • Population:

Accordingly to our guide, ‘a drunk Russian divided up the countries as random shapes” and that’s why the central Asian countries have sure odd shapes – believe it or not??

We arrived in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan to a bit of an immigration queue – people pushing in, immigration offices just up and leaving their desks.  Once through that it was on to the customs area where they were scanning everyone’s bags – unfortunately people were not picking them up fast enough and the bags were backing up on the machine and then falling all over the floor  🤦🏻‍♀️ Finally through the formalities and we met our local guide Farhodbek – or Farhod for short. 

Farhod explained to us that the Tajik language and culture are based on Persian rather than Turkic that we see in the other Central Asian countries and they are very proud of their Persian heritage.

Despite its population of 9 million people, Tajikistan is the smallest of the Central Asia countries by landmass and the capital Dushanbe (interesting Dushanbe means Monday which is the day the bazaar used to be held)  has a population of around 1 million.  It was appointed the capital in 1924 by the Russian Tzar (when it was named Stalinabad), but the area has been settled as far back as 5000BC.

Farhod starting weaving his magic early on in my Tajikistan visit as he had arranged for the Museum of Antiquities to stay open beyond it’s normal closing time just for our group so we were the only people there.  It was a great introduction to the incredible history of the country.  From Alexander the Great, through the Hellenistic period and the land of Bactria (where the two humped Bactrian camels originated from).

The country (or it is probably more accurate to say region) has been ruled by Oxus, Andronovo, Buddists (the museum houses the largest surviving clay Buddha in Central Asia), Nestorian Christains, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Islam.  On top of that it has been part of the Achaemenid Empire, Sasanian Empire, Hephthalite, Empire, Samind Empire, Mongol Empire (and I sure we have all heard of the mighty Genghis Khan who killed all the people in his way, destroying animals and crops so any survivors of his marauding could not survive), Timurid dynasty, Khanate of Bukhara, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union before it finally gained independence in 1991.

It was also in the museum, where we met Somoni (or Ismail Samani) for the first time.  This is the man the money is named after and the same one who stands on large plinths around the country (he has replaced Lenin who once stood on the same plinths) and he is considered the father of the Tajik nation. 

Somoni ruled in the region between 892 – 907 and was the first ruler in the region to embrace Islam.  Science and literature also flourished under his rule.  A local scholar wrote he “was extremely just, and his good qualities were many.  He had pure faith in God (to Him be power and glory) and he was generous to the poor – to name only one of his notable virtues”.

I am not sure quite how to describe out next stop but let me start with wow – the over the top opulence of the Navruz Palace would not have been out of place in Dubai or somewhere similar!!!

The ‘palace’ was privately funded by local business people (at the ‘suggestion’ of the president).  As with the museum, it was closed today but our guide had worked his magic for us to be allowed in.

Each room was more wow then the next – massive ‘tea’ rooms, meeting rooms ending in a mirror room! All made my local artisans in traditional style and colours from natural products. I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite like it and the photos definitely do not do it justice!

The gardens were just as stunning, overlooking the lake and clearly a popular place for wedding photos as there were at least 3 couples getting their photos taken.

We had a quick break in the luxurious Hilton hotel (which had a bomb check of vehicles entering the gates!) before heading out again. Oddly I turned on the TV and ended up watching a Kiwi programme – no idea what it was but it was set in Wellington and had Julian Denison in it!!! How bizarre lol

To end the day we joined locals in a late afternoon stroll around a large park which housed a very tall flag pole – notable because it was the highest flagpole in the world until 2015!!   We then moved into another park where there was live local music and many people and families dancing.  (Apparently Dushanbe has 27 parks so is considered a ‘green’ city.)

As darkness fell, the lights came and again, wow!!  It was almost a little like Las Vegas and the grand National Library looked like a casino!  This city is insane 🥴🥴🥴

Already around the central city, there were a lot of people out for an Sunday evening walk, women in beautiful traditional outfits, walking along wonderful lit boulevards – it is like Christmas all year round it seems and I love it.

After an overwhelming buffet breakfast at the hotel we headed out of the city towards the Fan Mountains , which seemed to start right on the outskirts of the city.  It was Tajikistan’s Independence Day (September 9th) and therefore a public holiday so the streets were quiet and lined with flags.  Large pictures of the president also adorned the city  – oddly they all seemed to be the same photo, photoshopped on different backgrounds – one surrounded by children, one in a poppy field, one in front of one of their large hydro power plants lol

A few random but interesting facts about Tajikistan:

  • Tour guides pay no tax till 2021 to help promote tourism in the country
  • 100% of the countries power is hydro power (and on this day they were opening another huge turbine)
  • In Central Asia, Tajik roads are the best (that may be a matter of opinion)
  • It is illegal to take dirty cars in to the city and you can get fined for doing so! This means the road side on the out skirts of the city is lined with car washes

Tajik’s are very proud of their language, culture and heritage which they managed to keep alive during the Soviet period.  So much so, the wall around a large cement factory we passed on the way out of town was decorated with pictures of famous people and places around the country.  It went on and on and on and was really something quite special.

The roads in the mountains were pretty good and there were lots of snow tunnels, including one that is 5km long and worryingly has a reputation of being one of the world’s most dangerous tunnels (and is also referred as the Tunnel of Death)! Obviously I made it through alive despite the fact that is no drainage or ventilation and the road was full of pot holes!

It was a relief when we arrived at Iskander Kul (Alexander Lake – named after Alexander the Great) as this was definitely not my favourite travel day!!!  The views were amazing views through the mountains but the windy roads, stuck in the back of the small van with no air gave me a terrible headache 😟.

After a small issue at the entrance to the park (as the guard wanted our guide to pay in cash, but his company paid a by bank transfer so much ‘discussion’ was required both on the way in and out!!!) before we were able to head down to the lake. 

From the view point on the road,  the lake looked an incredible blue – from close up it not quite so blue but still beautiful with all the mountains surrounding it.  The blue tint is because it is feed from glaciers and ice in the mountains surrounding it.  Just a few minutes walk away, there was a spring feed lake (called Snake Lake) which was a completely different colour.  Such a contrast and equally as beautiful.

I managed to get a seat in the front of the vehicle for the next part of the journey and felt much better for it, so much so I managed to take a nap for some of the journey 👍🏻 before we had a toilet stop at a petrol station and sampling one of the local delacacies – a ‘Facebook’ ice cream 👍🏻👍🏻 (it was a local ice cream so no idea if facebook know anything about tit 🤔😂) – it was tasty enough though.

As we continued through the mountains it was really interesting to see the everyday life of the people living in the mountains.  Small towns with road side stalls keeping there drinks cool in the small water falls running down the rocks, people walking their cows or goats closer to town at the end of the day – some with just 1, other small children trying to rangel 2 or 3. Men riding donkeys or women carrying hay on their heads and other people tending to their fields.

Our stop for the night was in a lush valley and in the town of Penjikent – very different to the landscape we had driven through today and in stark contrast to Dushanbe yesterday.  We were staying in what was described as the nicest hotel in town, but being a small town, it was very ‘local’ in style but still comfortable enough.

Keeping it local, we had dinner in a very local spot where we had the most amazing lamb kebabs – thankfully it was actually the first day I was hungry for dinner!  Many of the local diners stopped by and were interested to know about us.  Not sure if they get many tourists there so it was lovely to be able to interact with them – albeit briefly. 👍

Return to Kazakhstan

What a surprisingly country Kyrgyzstan was.  I am not really sure what I expected but I guess it was the barren mountains and camels etc but not the other wonderful landscapes that would not have looked out of place in Switzerland or even New Zealand. The people were warm and welcoming – many cultures and nationalities all living harmoniously together (well at least from my perspective).  The food – well all I can say is boorsuk 😂😂😂 and of course I must give credit to all the other wonderful soups and stews we had and the incredible hospitality.  I am sure I left the country at least a couple of kg heavier than when I entered 🤦🏻‍♀️ .

We started the drive to the Kazakh border on a sealed road and then the final 20km on unsealed road as we got closer to the border, passing (and in some cases driving through) herds of sheep, cattle, horses and passed lush green grassy land as we drove in to the mountains.  Then more sheep, cows, horses, sheep, cows 😂 – there were very few cars on the road, but soooo many animals as it was the start of the autumn migration.

As we climbed into the mist, the temperature dropped and the roads got worse and it was clear we were heading to a border crossing that is not used often – I was so glad I did not pack my big coat in my bag like some others did!

The border crossing in the mountains was bitterly cold and apparently it closes in October as it is then too cold and I was not surprised! We crossed out of Kyrgyzstan and walked 100m or so in what felt like arctic conditions at around 2000 m above sea level to reach the Kazakh side – such a contrast to yesterday’s beautiful weather.

I was the first in the group to go through and the border soldiers took ages over my passport before finally stamping me in and the only customs question was ‘do I have any guns or ammunition’! A quick no and I was back in Kazakhstan. 

Our Kazakh guide Gau was there to meet us and we headed off in on the terrible road in to Kazakhstan (apparently it was under construction and definitely not a road that is used often.) 

Our first stop was in the small town of Kegen for a toilet stop and tea served with fresh pastries with cheese (which were amazing).  The café did not have a toilet so we had to walk through a small local market for a toilet which turned out to be hole in the concrete with rebar across … and better yet, two holes in the same little nook (I do wish I had a photo but sadly I did not have my phone with me)! Not the nicest but toilets have been hit and miss the last few days – with a few road side nature stops thrown in which to be honest are often nicer than the inside stinky options!

We are now in the northern part of the Tian Shan mountains (the same range as we were in in Kyrgyzstan).  These mountains are considered one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, even the name means Celestial or Heavenly Mountains in Chinese. 

It is here that we find the Charyn River, that over time has carved out the colourful and impressive Charyn Canyon – some say the Grand Canyon of Central Asia.  Unfortunately, the weather was against us and we could not take a walk to the bottom of the canyon, but the rain eased up enough for us to walk around the top for a shortly while.  Turns out it had lulled us in to a false sense of security and we got caught out when the heavens opened again so had to set a quick pace back to the van for our ‘picnic’ lunch.

The canyon was incredible and took me completely by surprise (again – I clearly had not done enough research in to where I was going on this trip as so many places took me by surprise lol).   The area was full of rocks with colourful striations, lots of different rock formations (some looking like castles – some of the canyon is known as the Valley of Castles) and we could just spot through the rain a river oasis at the bottom.

From the canyon, we drove through vast plains, where big battles took place during the Kazak – Dzungar (from Mongolia) wars in the 1600-1700s.  A more recent reference is that, along with the canyon, it was also the location for part of the music video for the singer ‘Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s’ song Skin.

By late afternoon we finally arrived in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population of just over 2 million.  It was the capital of the country until 1997 (when it was moved to Astana/Nur-Sultan) but it is often still considered the main city and is the education centre of the country.

The next morning we finally got a sleep in, a little time to recharge before our walking tour around Almaty.  Unfortunately, our guide Gau was sick, so today we had Dimi, a Kazakh of Russian origin.  Despite missing Gau, it was really interesting to get different insights that he had in to the country and its culture.

The city itself was founded in 1850s when a Russian fort was built and nomads were displaced from their territory moved in to the area, but there are remnants of other settlements in the area dating back to 1000-900 BC – in fact one of the Saka Golden Warriors we saw in the museum in Nur-Sultan was found in this area.   Sadly,  most of that early town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1887.

Alma-ata literally translates to ‘Father of Apples’ and it is said that Kazakhstan is the birth place of the apple.  Vast numbers of wild apple trees use to grow around the foothills of the mountains and apples were transported from here along the silk road trading routes and beyond.  (As well as apples, apparently Dutch tulips can trace their origins back to Central Asia and a number of varieties still grow wild today – another reason to return in the spring!)

The greenery of Almaty was in stark contrast to Nur- Sultan and in the centre of the city was the beautiful Panfilov Park.  It was designed by a French architect and has wide walk ways which were originally designed for carriages.

The park has a number of worthwhile sites, starting with the candy coloured Zenkov Cathedral – apparently the tallest wooden Orthodox cathedrals and in fact one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.  Built in 1907, it is considered one of the earliest earthquake proof buildings as it was designed (by the architect Zenkov) with a sand pillow foundation.  That along with the flexibility of the wood and the use of metal staples rather than nails, saw it safely through the 1911 earthquake, though the priests would prefer people to believe it was divine intervention!

Apparently, many religious icons were destroyed during the Soviet period, so false walls had been created inside the church to keep these precious items safe from harm.  We were fortunate that internal restorations had just been completed 2 weeks prior to our visit and got to enjoy the interior in its true gold leafed glory. 

The park gets it name from the Panfilov Hero’s.  28 soliders from Almaty who died (or did they??) fighting the Nazis tanks in the small village near Moscow in 1941.  Their efforts delayed the Nazis march on Moscow sufficiently to allow the soldiers there to prepare for the invasion attempt.  Subsequently the park is also home to a massive and somewhat confronting Soviet war memorial to the Panfilov heros and all the others who fought in the Great Patriotic War (known to most as WWII).

The momument shows 15 soliders, one for each of the member states of the Soviet Union and if you look closely you can see the different ethnicities and nationalities in their faces and clothes.  They also make up the shape of the USSR (which takes a little imagination to see). 

In total, over 1.2m Kazakh soldiers fought in war and at least half did not return home.

Next up was a visit to the Green Market filled with stalls piled high with fruit (dried and fresh) and nuts, milk and meat products, honey and pollen (which you stuck a honey covered stick in to and that ate it) and much much more. 

I was the only one who wanted to try anything so Dimi, and I headed in to the stalls to try camel milk (a little fermented and like natural drinking yogurt but much better than horse milk), really tasty dried milk product with or without honey, then on to meat – horse, caribou (imported from Russia) and camel (not common) – mostly cured so like salami and pretty tasty.

Following on with the Russian theme of the day, we had a Russian lunch in a restaurant decorated like a house from Tsarist Russia – salads, Shchi Soup (basically a Russian style cabbage soup), peppers stuffed with meat, little dumplings and ‘famous’ Almaty apple for dessert.  All in all pretty tasty. 

Finally, after lunch we had some free time – the only downside of trips like this is that there is so much to see and do in such a short space of time each day is packed full!  Because of that, I probably did not make the most of the free time but I enjoyed an iced coffee and a nanna nap 😂!

That said, I did brave the short walk to the big modern mall and despite all the traffic lights and clearly marked crossing, crossing the busy roads still seems to be somewhat risky!  This probably goes back to something our guide told us in the market where there was a sign saying no photos – he said, in this country signs don’t really mean anything 🤔🤔🤔😂 good to know!

After a refreshing break we took the gondola/cable car to Kok tobe (blue or green mountains) for a beautiful view over city as the sun started to set.  It seemed a popular location for locals with its small stalls and fun fair atmosphere.  The weirdest thing was a life size statue of the Beatles!!  Apparently they were/are very popular in Kazakhstan – who knew???

We finished off our last day in Kazakhstan by visiting the Palace of the Republic  (once the Lenin Palace of Culture), built in 1992 as a large meeting and concert venue. It looked particularly pretty with the setting sun reflecting in its glass façade and having yet another lovely dinner listening to a band playing modern music on traditional instruments (Sean Mendez seemed to be a big favourite 😂😂)

An interesting point worth noting is that Kazakhstan is currently in the process of changing its alphabet from the Russia-like Cyrillic to the English-like Latin alphabet.  The change was announced in 2017 with a 7-year plan introduced to have the transfer complete by 2025.  Some say this change was to help people drop any remnants of their Russian culture and reaffirms that Russia is no longer a partner.

This is not the first time a language change has been forced upon the Kazakhs (and others in the area) as most of the Central Asian Turkic states used Arab script for over 1000 years before being invaded by the Russians.  In fact, communist Russian introduced a Latin alphabet for the Turkic language initially, before switching to Cyrillic in the 1940s!  The language changes helped disassociated people with their cultural roots as they could no longer read the literature from that time.  Of course, another alphabet change means history is going to repeat itself as now all the literature is in Cyrillic!

As of this year, this new written language is to be taught in kindergartens and primary schools and only time will tell how successful it is.  Interesting, Uzbekistan started to implemented the same change in 1993 but even today, although young Uzbek’s grew up reading books in Latin script, most publications are still in Cyrillic.  The attempt to switch in Turkmenistan has also stalled!

All things Kyrgyz 101

Our day in the yurt camp was one of my favourites, with the quiet simplicity of life in the mountains.  But with such a busy schedule we had to head off the next morning.  Thankfully we had time to walk down towards the lake in the crisp mountain morning air before getting in the vans and getting back on the dusty road to travel the 290 km from Song Kul to Issyk Kul – the second largest alpine lake in the world (after Lake Titicaca).

Before setting off, we of course had to have a huge breakfast, this time with delicious Rice porridge (more like rice pudding to me) and all the breads again!  And of course tea.

How to poor a cup of tea – when pouring tea for someone, you should only fill the cup halfway as a sign of respect.  A half-filled cup means the host wants you to stay longer and have more. If get given a full cup, it means they want you to drink your tea and go … once I learnt this, I was always asking for a cup of tea with ‘no respect’ so I could get a full one lol.

How to make felt – We stopped in the same village as the day before for lunch and this time to also visit the ladies cooperative to see how their felt matting is made.   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people lost their jobs, so a group of women created this felt making cooperative which now has 200 women in it.  Felt is important in the Kyrgyz culture as it is used not only for clothing (in particular hats) but also for the walls of yurt and mats for floors. 

Unbeknown to us, this was an audience participation stop and we were not just shown how they make the felt, but we had to join in.  We started by making a pattern with fresh (and pretty dirty) wool – the wool was piled high and in the end it was probably about 10cm high.  Next step was to roll it in reed mat and add boiling water and soap and wash it numerous times.  Then the fun part started which involved us all taking turns ‘dancing’ on the reed mat, compressing the wool within it – it was lots of fun and the whole the family joined in 😂.  During this process, the lanolin in the wool becomes like glue and sticks all the wool together and we ended up with a flat piece of ‘felt’ with some sort of pattern on it!!  Not sure we would make much money from it but it was a fun way to learn about the process.

How to spot a camel – This is easy, just look out the window of your vehicle lol!! Our next (and unplanned) stop was a very exciting one for me, we had spotted some camels on the side of the road.  They were Bactrian (or two humped) camels, the first I had ever seen.  Bactrian camels are native to the steppes of Central Asia, exactly where we were seeing them and they are can withstand the incredible range of their habitat from -40C in the winter to 40C in the summer! What an incredible animal and I was so happy to have seen them in the wild (even though they probably were a domesticated herd grazing).

How to make a yurt – Next up was a visit to a Yurt master.  Yurts have been the main habitation for Central Asia nomads for thousands of years and even today are used by nomadic farmers during the summer months (like those we stayed with the day before).  They are easy to assemble and dismantle and are strategically designed for good air circulation, heating and cooling and wind resistance. 

Our Yurt master was a 3rd generation Yurt maker and apparently 90% of the village he lives in are involved in yurt building even today. A good yurt takes around 2 months to make just the wood part (which is what he does) and he makes 5-6 per year (to order only). Incredibly, a well-made  yurt can last over 100 years!!!   Sadly, many of the yurts you see today are Chinese made with metal/plastic frames rather than these wonderful local wooden hand crafted ones.

Interestingly there is symbolism in each part of the yurt as the yurt is considered more than just a house.  The wooden circle at the top of the yurt is called a tunduk and it symbolises 4 seasons, each of 3 months – this is such important symbol in the Kyrgyz culture (as it is in the other nomad cultures) you also see it reflected in the Kyrgyz flag. 

How to train an eagle – Eagle hunting is an age-old Kyrgyz tradition (as it is in other the other countries of Central Asia) and is a popular sport in the World Nomad Games (in which our eagle hunter had come 3rd last year!).  Many nomadic traditions were almost wiped out during the Soviet era, but there has been a resurgence of interest since independence.  Training hunting eagles is a skill that is typically passed on from generation to generation and is now more for tourism and rather than hunting for necessity like their ancestors did.   

The Golden Eagles are taken them from nest at 2 months old and are trained for 20 years, after which they are returned back in to the mountains where they live as wild birds up to an age of about 50 years.  During their time in captivity, the hunters and their birds create a strong bonds which was obvious to see during their demonstration. There are only about 50 eagle hunters left in Kyrgyzstan and love it or hate it, it is part of the unique cultural heritage of the Kyrgyz people.   

Of course, the eagle hunters not only expect their birds to hunt but are also great shots with a bow and arrow too!  As I learnt that day, I am NOT!!!

As we finally reached Issyk Kul lake, we were treated to a lovely sunset and we ended our action packed day in another yurt camp.   These yurts were definitely more designed for tourists and were beautiful (apparently made by the master yurt master we had met earlier in the day) and we even had our own toilet and shower. Despite the step up in luxury from the night before, I think I slept better in the peace of the mountains rather than at this camp which was situated by the road !!

How to have an impressive lake – It is important to note at this point that Issyk Kul is no ordinary lake.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, not only is it the second largest alpine lake, it is also the second largest saline lake in the world (though the saline level is very low compared to sea level) and the tenth largest lake in the world (by volume)!  Issyk Kul basically means ‘warm lake’ and although it is often surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it never actually freezes. 

It is also a favourite summer holiday destination for Krygyz people and during Soviet times was a ‘popular’ location for Sanatoriums.  These have now been replaced with resorts and holiday homes, particularly on the northern shores of the lake.

How to have impressive rock formations – As we headed around the shore of the lake the following morning, our first stop was the ‘Fairy Tale Canyon’.  Here rocks full of iron and magnesium have been carved over the years by wind and rain to form various formations with colourful striations ranging through various shades of yellow, orange and red. People flock to the ‘Rainbow mountain’ in Peru, maybe this is the next big thing lol

Next stop was the Jeti-Ögüz Rocks, better known as the Broken Heart and Seven Bull rock formation, we had left the Central Asian steppes well behind us and at 2,000m above sea level, we could have been in Switzerland as the area was so green compared to Song Kul.  Formations have been ‘carved’ out of red sandstone cliffs and tower over the village that was once a high altitude training ground for Russian cosmonauts and Soviet athletes and was apparently the site of the first meeting between Presidents Akaev and Yeltzin in 1991. The rocks themselves are famous in the country and feature in numerous poems and paintings.

There are many legends about the rocks but the one our guide Rifat told us one about a beautiful lady who died of a broken heart after her two potential suitors killed each other fighting over her!!  So not a happy legend then!   Others talk about the two potential suitors killing seven bulls, one each day and on the last day killing the lady! Not sure any of them have a happy ending.

Our final stop here was a small stall selling honey and honey products (which unsurprisingly was surrounded by bees!).  We sampled some of the honey before buying some ‘mead’ to share for dinner.

How to set a table like a Kyrgyz – I have previously mentioned the insane amount of food that we were being served at each meal.  But it is the way a table is set that shows an important culture etiquette and our lunch in the town of Karakol was a perfect example of this.

Standard hosting etiquette in Kyrgyzstan is to ensure the table is full before your guests even sit down and our tables on most days are full of salads, breads, nuts and raisins, dried fruit, sweets, biscuits, fruits etc.  Then the actual meal (often 2-3 courses) is served!  It is very disrespectful if this is not done! 

Our lunch in Karakol was at the home of a Uighur (or Uyghur) family.  Uigurs are a minority Turkic ethnic group who can be found all over Central and East Asia and are considered native of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region of  China.   It was a nice surprise to hear that the family was actually the aunt and grandmother of Rifat (our guide).

His grandmother had handmade the wonderful dumplings which were served with soup and stew and potatoes.  Apparently they often make the dumplings to sell in the town.  Dessert was apples picked straight off the trees in their garden. 

I love learning about the local people I meet on my travels and was really interested to learn that despite being from Kyrgyzstan (with roots in Azerbaijan and China) our guide and his immediate family live just over the border in Kazakhstan!  Of course, when his parents settled there, there were no borders!! They are lucky that there is still freedom of movement across the borders that now exist, not like other times in history where people have been stuck after borders change overnight such as in East Berlin when the wall went up!

How to visit Karakol – Karakol (once know as Przhevalsk after the Russian explorer Przhevalsky) is Kyrgzstan’s 4th largest city despite having a population of only 70,000 (approximately) and sits on the shores of Issyk Kul.  Given its proximity to China (which is only 150kms away) it is ethnically diverse with Uighurs (as mentioned above), Dungans (Chinese muslims who fled persecution in China in the 1800’s), Uzbeks, Russians (it once housed a large Soviet military base) and of course Kyrgyz people and this diversity is reflected in the architecture of the town.

First stop is the beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox Church built in 1895 (replacing a stone one that was destroyed in an earthquake).  During Soviet times, when religion was forbidden, the church was used as a school, a sports hall, a theatre, offices during the war and even a coal store.  After independence in 1992 it was returned to the church.

Next stop is the Dungan mosque – which is like no other mosque I have ever seen as it is built in very much Chinese style, having been designed by a famous Chinese architect and sponsored by a rich Dungan.  In fact it looks more like a Chinese Buddist temple with dragons on the corners.  The mosque was completed in 1910 and is built with NO nails, using only interlocking pieces of wood and was undamaged by a large earthquake in 1911!!  

It is worth noting, that Islam here is much more relaxed than in other places.  Many followers are relatively new to it as a religion as of course if was not allowed in Soviet times.  Rifat told us it is ok if you don’t pray 5 times a day if you are working (God knows you are busy) and women often don’t wear head covers of any kind.  Despite that, women are given long hooded robes to wear before entering the mosque compound.

Following the lake around, you can drive down the long tree lined ‘highways’ to reach the Przhevalsky (or Prjevalski) Museum which is set in a beautiful park like gardens.   If you are lucky (like us) you may pass the filming of a local tv show 🤔🤔 with traditional singing and dancing.

I must admit I was not filled with enthusiasm to visit a museum after such a busy day, but my interest peaked when I discovered that this was a museum dedicated to a man after whom the Przewalski’s Horse was named after!   I have no idea why these horses fascinate me, but I must have learnt about them at school and they can now only be found in the wild in Mongolia. (perhaps a trip for another time).  They are considered the only true wild horse in the world today as they have never been domesticated.

Przhevalsky was a Russian explorer who died of typhoid in Karakol in 1888. He was one of the first people to detail studies of geography, flora and fauna of Central Asia and he mapped many of the paths through the mountain ranges.  When he died he was on the eve of his 5th expedition, but apparently he ‘won’ the money for his first expedition in a card game.

How to stay on a Kyrgyz farm – 30km north of Karakol is the village of Tepke and it here we found are home for our last night in Kyrgyzstan – Reina Kench Guesthouse.

The guest house was on a farm which spans approximately 300 hectares where they raise horses (for racing), merino mix sheep, angus beef and yaks in the higher areas.  The owner of the farm was once the head of Agronomics during soviet times and upon independence, people were given small pieces of land.  On his land there were no trees and no water but with his expert know how, he planted every tree and built every building and purchased (or rented) the surrounding lands to build what they have today. 

As well as the farm, the family now run a successful guest house and help other local farmers make the most of their land.  The guest house side of the business is helped by having his children work at 5 star hotels in Kyrgyzstan and beyond to learn the business of 5 star service before returning home to the family business.  And they have learnt well, dinner in particular was amazing with the star of the meal being Angus beef straight off the farm, washed down with our mead purchased earlier in the day.

They gave us a demonstration of their horses and how they train them and we had a opportunity to wander around the farm – I must be honest, the view from the main guest house area could have been in New Zealand, it was so lush and green with the mountains in the distance.

How to make boorsuks – The last and most important lesson on Kyrgyz culture was the making of my kryptonite – boorsuks!  Those fried puffy dough balls I love! We helped roll out the dough made of flour, water, oil, yeast, salt and sugar (nothing special there), cut and cook them where they puff up into the beautiful golden squares of joy (this is of course where the magic happens lol).  The final step in the process is to eat them hot with a selection of different homemade Jams – goosebury, raspberry, apricot.  Of course, I ate way too many just before dinner but what a wonderful way to spend our last night in Kyrgyzstan.

Nomad life …

This morning we set off to drive 400km – we were in two vans so had plenty of room as we headed down the ‘Chinese’ road (all money invested from China and actually goes to China I believe).  Of course the great thing about this is the road was pretty good quality. 

We stopped at a small road side market – a definite indication that we are in the middle of melon season (water and other), lots of peppers and amazing looking tomatoes and fresh local bread. 

Our first official stop for the day was at Burana tower.  The tower is a 24m high stump of what was a huge brick minaret and is all that remains of the ancient cityof Balasagun.  Balasagun was founded by the Sogdians (an ancient Irainan civilization that one ruled parts of present day Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). It thrived between the 10-14th century and was closely associated with the Silk Road.  What you can see today is part of a 1970’s Russian reconstruction.

Some say the city was abandoned after a plague and the top of the minaret (once 40m tall) collapsed during an earthquake in the 15th century.  In it’s prime, it was the main economic centre of the Chuy Valley and this was seen in it’s developed structures – including water pipes, piping water from the nearby Tien Shan mountains, parts of which can now be seen in the small museum on site.

You could go up the tower but I (or my ankle) decided the steep narrow dark staircase was not worth the trouble and I was quite satisfied with the views from the top of the small mound.

Near the tower there is a field of ancient balbals.  Balbals are gravestones used by the nomadic Turkic tribes who used to roam the area.  Some are people (those holding a wine glass are thought to be a representation of the Nestorians, a group of early Christians), others are more like the headstones we would expect with text on them.  Some were carved by the greatest stone carvers of their time and some are incredibly well preserved.  As well as being gravestones, it is also thought that the stones were used to depict places of residence of the nomadic Turks of Tien Shan.

As we continued on our way we passed a field laid out for a game that is part of the World Nomad Games – a very important sporting event in the area.  The game is called Kok boru (Grey Wolf in English) as the games origin was the need for the nomads to chase wolf packs (whilst on horseback) to keep them away from their livestock.  The riders have to lift a running wolf from the ground and throw it to each other whilst the other team fight to get it from the riders!  Today the game is played with a dead goat but it still shows the strength and horseman skills of the brave riders.

Toilet stops while travelling are always interesting as you never know what you are going to find.  Our next stop provided us with relatively clean and modern toilets but with a sign that I found highly amusing 😂.  The oddest part about this is that it wasn’t even a western toilet – it was a squat toilet 🤔.

It was at this stop I was also introduced to Kurut – rather stinky, sour, salty chalk like yoghurt/cheese balls.  You can probably guess from my description that I was not a fan but they are very popular in the region.  They last for months and months and be can mixed with water to make a drink like we had the day before in Bishkek.

Our route in to the Tien Shan mountains took us through vast barren landscapes, dotted with green oasese (apparently this is the plural of oasis) along the banks of the river and reservoir (although it was almost empty as it is the end of summer) and we had lunch in a guest house in the small village of Kochkor which was surrounded by lots of apple covered trees. 

The further into the mountains we went, the worst the roads became and we continued to wind up to the highest pass at 3446m.  As we finally reached Song Kul, we turned on to an unpaved road  which quickly turned in to a dirt track.  We passed people making hay, grazing sheep and horses, yaks hanging out on the side of the road.  Oh, and don’t forget the stunning views. 

After driving 12 kms along the lake, we finally reached our Yurt camp at 3100m above sea level.  Song Kul is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and is surrounded by summer grazing grounds for the now semi nomadic people of the area.  They stay in the area with their livestock from the beginning of June till September 15th (if the weather allows).   

We quickly dropped off our bags in our allocated yurts before walking a short distance to visit a local nomad yurt.  As there are no trees at this altitude so they pack down cow manure in to bricks to use as fuel in their fires.  Apparently, it is slow burning and kepts the heat well.  We then tried fermented horse milk – like fermented fizzy very sour milk but it was not as bad as it sounds and definitely not as bad as the kurut (oh but they make that too and that is what is in the hanging bag in the photo below).

As the sun was about to set, three of us joined a local in a sunset horse ride.  It was lovely and peaceful and the sunset over the lake was beautiful.  I love these peaceful moments – time to unwind and take in the incredible world around you.

Back at the yurts and we barely had time to wash our hands before it was time for dinner – sitting cross legged on the floor (not ideal for some of the older members of the group) again, there was way too much food!!  4 different kinds of bread, soup, main with meat and potatoes, wonderful home made pulled noddles and sweets.   Unfortunately some of the group was suffering – from the altitude and/or maybe stomach issues so the numbers were not so many to enjoy the huge spread.

After dinner it was a rush to get ready for bed before the power went off at 9pm! 

Time for a little Yurt etiquette  … firstly shoes must always be taken off when entering the yurt (also important in most Kyrgyzstan homes).  You should bow your head and your right hand on your heart as you enter as a sign of respect.  This is made easy when the door frame is purposely made low 😂.  The most important/ elders sit straight ahead as you enter and then males one side and women on the other in declining order of importance.  So much to remember for upcoming parts of the trip! 

Welcome to Stan No. 2 – Kyrgyzstan

After only one very busy day in Kazakhstan, we head to the airport at 5am with a packed breakfast from the hotel for our flight to Bishkek – the capital of Kyrgyzstan.  (Never fear though, we would be returning to Kazakhstan in a few days time.

Nur-Sultan airport was modern and efficient (for some reason I did not expect such efficiency from Kazakhstan, or Central Asia for that matter!) It was also really quiet, so everything went very smoothly and we were soon on board the Air Astana flight to ‘Stan’ number 2.

  • Currency:  Kyrgyz Som (US$1 = 70 KGS)
  • Language: Kyrgyz, Russian
  • Size: 199,900 sq km
  • Population: 6 million

Bishkek airport was far less modern but no less efficient and I was out with my bag in no time. Oddly immigration asked no questions – not how long we’ll be here or where we are staying (lucky as I am already in group tour mode and my brain has completely switched off as someone else just tells me where to be and when 🥴).

At the airport we were met by our local guide Rifat before driving into the city.  Kyrgyzstan (or maybe just Bishkek seems much greener that Nur Sultan, with fields of crops including corn and watermelon’s lining the road. We could see the mountains  through the haze in the distant. (Apparently much of the ‘haze’ was from farmers burning stubble in fields.)  The country is actually 93% mountains and proudly has Issyk Kul (Issyk Kul literally translates to Warm Lake), the second highest Alpine lake (after Titicaca), the 7th deepest lake, the 10th largest lake and the second largest saline lake (after the Caspian ‘sea’ – more about this in a later blog if I remember).  What a record holder lol and one we will visit in a couple of day’s time.

The hotel we were staying at was celebrating it’s 5 anniversary so we were greeted with  sparkling wine and nibbles (actually fairly substantial nibbles) which was nice way to start our time here. 

One of the things I find most interesting about the region (and this rang true throughout the trip) was the huge range of people we meet.  As I mentioned previously, Aijan, the co-founder of Kalpak Travel who was travelling with us was from Kyrgyzstan, but had a very nomadic heritage and was very Asian in appearance.  On the other hand our local guide, Rifat, had roots in Azerbaijan and his grandparents from one side were forced to move to what is now Kyrgyzstan during soviet times.  Another way the countries and people interact in the post-soviet era is that Rifat actually lives about 25km away from Bishkek … in Kazakhstan!!  His family had lived there before the countries borders were created and just continued to live there, but he can cross the border each day for work!

We started our time in Bishkek with a walking tour around the city, which in stark contrast to the glitz of Nur-Sultan, seemed to have many more Soviet era buildings and wide tree lines avenues.  Our first stop being outside the ‘Palace of Sports’ to admire the statue of national hero Baatyr Kaba Uulu Kozhomkul.  Now, I am sure we have all seen plenty of statues of men riding horses, but have you ever seen one of a man carrying a horse???

Kozhomkul was born in 1889 and lived until 1955 and it is said that he was 2.3 metres tall and weighed 164kg!  He exceled at sports, but became ‘infamous’ because of a legend which tells of him carrying his horse through snow!  He is revered by the Kyrgyz people and symbolises ‘power, ambition and humanism’. 

We walked past the very Soviet looking University of Mining and past the Philharmonic Hall which is surrounded by beautiful fountains and flowers gardens.  Another theme through the trip is the beautiful public gardens, even down to hanging baskets lining roads.  When you look closely at the detail, many of the buildings still show the Soviet star and/or hammer and sickle in their architecture. 

Of course, as with the other ‘stans’ I will visit on this trip, Kyrgyzstan has a more recent history filled with Russians – Tsars, Bolsheviks and Soviets and even today, they have a good relationship with Russia.   In fact, many of the older generation still believe life under Soviet rule was better – a time when everyone had jobs, food, health care and a good education.  

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which many thought could never happen, meant the loss of most of those things for many. Most of the factories closed from one day to the next as they lost their markets and what were once free ‘borders’, suddenly were closed resulting in many people losing their jobs.  Our guide Aijan’s parents were well educated chemist and engineer but neither could get jobs after independence. Still today her mother believes life under Soviet rule was much better.  (To me, one of the best parts of travelling is having opportunities to speak to local people and get to learn about their life and it is such a privilege that there are so many people who are willing to share their stories with me.)    

This nostalgia also means that they have kept their Lenin statues – he has been moved to less prominent locations but if you look around the city you can find him as tall and proud as ever.  (Of course Stalin is not remembered with such fondness so does not remain!)

Today the Kyrgyz flag flies proudly over the Soviet buildings, bright red (a legacy to Soviet times) with a sun with 40 sunbeams (representing the 40 tribes).  In middle of the sun is a tunduc – I will talk more about this important symbol in the nomad cultures later but it is basically the ‘window to sky of yurt’.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Kyrgyzstan has had a troubled political history with what really must be a record breaking 22 prime ministers and 5 presidents!  There was also much corruption resulting in coups and revolutions in 2005 and 2010.  Apparently, there are tunnels under the Parliament buildings which president/s used to escape to the airport! 

There is a beautiful monument to those who died for freedom during both revolutions which symbols people pushing the darkness away.  Records show over 2,000 lost their lives in the 2010 revolution alone and 400,000 displaced (mostly due to ethnic tensions during the revolution).

These days, 80% of the population are Sunni Muslims (though not so many are practicing) who are a legacy of the first Muslims that came to the region in the 8th century. 

Let’s take a break from history to discuss something almost as important – food!!  Lol It’s only day two and I am already addicted to borsok (same as the Baursak in Kazakhstan).  They became know as my kryptonite as I lost all power (will power that is) when they were on the table, normally in very large bowls filled with them!!   

Another similarity between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was the language.  Both are languages of Turkic origins and even today are similar – this made it a little easier on those of us who could not speak either language or Russian!!  In Kazak, thank you is Рақмет, pronounced raqmet and in Kyrgyz it is рахмат, pronounced rahmat – certainly similar to make it easy enough to remember.

We also sampled some traditional road side drinks, sold from big barrels on street corners – one was cows milk with sparkling water, tasted similar to sour yogurt, one was a mix of grain and corn and the last was a mixture of bread and yeast which smelt a little like beer.  None were that great 🥴 but I am always up to give things a try.

As we walked around the city we could see the snow capped mountains in the back ground – forming part of the Tian Shan (the Celestial Mountains).  Apparently, they are home of over 50 glaciers and some of the best skiing in the country.  Sadly, it was a little cloudy to see them clearly but we would be in them soon enough.

To break up the Soviets buildings, Bishkek has some beautiful tree lined avenues and parks filled with mature trees.  One of the large ones is also filled with statues of Kyrgyz royalty and legend. 

The final stop on another long day of sightseeing was at Victory Square, in memory for those who died in the Great Patriotic War (more commonly known in the west as World War II).  Every man over 20 had to go to war for mother Russia, who fought against the Nazis on the Eastern front.  Of course, as in the west, may of these did not come return.  The Bishkek monument is in the shape of a yurt with a female figure (either mother or wife) in the centre.

Of course the day would not be complete without more food – there is definitely no shortage of food! This evening we had a cultural show during dinner with traditional singing, instruments and dancing.  The performers wore beautiful costumes and the music was unique.  One of the instruments had strings made of horse hair and a body made of camel skin – they definitely use all the horse!

Again, I ate way too many borsoks 🤦🏻‍♀️, seriously I will be a dough ball by the time I get back to England 🥴.  To add to this, there was lots of fried meat, peppers and our first taste of plov, a fried rice dish we see again throughout the region and I will talk more about in a later blog. 

First impressions are that Kyrgyzstan has a fairly similar culture and ornamentation to Kazakhstan and I can not wait to explore more.

Into Central Asia

Wow – what a whirl wind of a trip from towering mountains to vast steppes, from ancient cities and fairy tale cities straight out of a movie file set, to modern cities of gold, glitz and lights!! I am not sure words will be sufficient to describe the amazing things I have seen and experienced over the last 3 weeks but thankfully I have 100s of photos too 😂

I meet incredibly warm, welcoming and respectful people from all races and backgrounds, with incredible stories of oppression and independence, people living in yurts high in the mountains and those living in modern high rise ‘smart’ apartments.  I like to think of some of them now as friends whom I plan to stay in touch with and hopefully meet again. To say this is a region of contrasts is almost most definitely an understatement.

I think many people, including myself, come to the region for the Silk Road history but by the time I left, I had been mesmerised by more ancient history, as well as a much better understanding of more recent soviet times and independence.  Again, I was reminded that you cannot make assumptions about what you think people should think and feel about the past, based on want you have been taught about history

I am not quite sure how many blogs I will write – by country or by region as there is so much to tell 🤦🏻‍♀️

The region became known as Central Asia, not because it is the centre of Asia (as it clearly is not!) but because it was the central of the Silk Road (though to be honest this was a term given to the route in the 19th century) – the central of the ancient trade routes between Asia and Europe.  The meeting place of the most dominated and enlighten civilisations which all lead to the wonderful expanse of people, culture and architecture we see today.

History throughout the region is similar yet varied and throughout the 3 weeks we often came across the same characters.  So be prepared for history lessons dating back as far as 3500 BC, stories of conquers and defeats and those who history has declared ‘great’, such as the Persian Cyrus, the Macedonian Alexander, Genghis Khan and Timur.  I will try my best not to repeat too much and will try even harder not to bore you with it, but it is part of what makes this region so fascinating so can not be ignored or left out!

My incredible journey started with a not so incredible 4.20am taxi to train station and I was fortunate that there is a train that goes straight through from Cambridge to Gatwick – it takes two hours but at least I did not have to change trains so I could settle in.  As the trained passed through London, the sun was rising, and it was beautiful as we crossed the Thames.  5 minutes later the train was shrouded in morning fog!

 

My first flight took me to Istanbul, followed by a very swift march to the next gate in time for my connecting flight.  The airport in Istanbul is brand new, having opened in April this year- it is bright and shiny and modern will lots of western shops and restaurants, but it is lacking things that are now expected, such as taps to fill water bottles forcing people to buy plastic bottles 😡 and only 15 minutes of free wifi – on top of that you need a working mobile number to even access the free 15 minutes which I am sure some people don’t have!

I wonder if everyone understands the joy I feel as you watch everyone walk past the 2 free seats next to you … and they announce boarding is complete💃🏻 (time for a happy dance) 👏🏻👏🏻 .  Unfortunately on this occasion, the happy dance was a little premature happy dance as they moved someone to sit in one of the spare seats 😟 thankfully not both of them.

My first stop on this whirlwind tour of Central Asia was Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Quick Kazakhstan facts:

Currency:        Tenge (US$1 = T385) 

Language:       Kazakh, Russian

Size:                 2.7 million sq. km

Population:     18.5 million

After a few hours’ sleep (as I arrived at 3am), I meet with the group and Aijan, our guide who will be with us for the whole trip. She is from Kyrgyzstan and together with her Swiss husband (who she met whilst he was studying in Bishkek) are the founders of Kalpak Travel, the company who is running the trip.  They specialise in Central Asia tours and compared to other tour companies, it has been refreshing to get such a personal service from their small company.  Writing this after my trip, I can say they were exceptional and Aijan became like the little sister I never had.   

Many of the group had arrived the day before, so had already had time to get to know each all – incredibly out of 12 people there are 3 Elaine’s!!! We will see how that goes 😂

Nur-Sultan is the new name for the capital city of Kazakhstan, which before March this year, was known as Astana (which basically means capital) and it has been the shiny new capital since 1997.  FYI Nursultan is the name of the first president of Kazakhstan, who held power from 1990 when the country gained independence until March this year!! The renaming of the city aligned with him stepping down from power in recognition of his service – that said, according to the ‘west’ no election has held in the country since independence has been free and fair!

Speaking to the girl who picked me up from the airport, the city’s name literally changed overnight – she said, ‘we went to bed in Astana and woke up in Nur-sultan’. Many people still refer to it as Astana, as it was not their decision.  The name change must definitely be causing some confusion as my Boarding pass said Astana, but the gate and the boarding announcements said Nur-Sultan, I wonder how many people have missed their flights 🤔

Did you know that Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th largest country??  I certainly didn’t!  It is also economically advanced thanks to its oil and minerals (as are some of the other ‘Stans’).  My first impressions were that it was a weird combination of tree lined avenues and futuristic monuments.  They like to consider the city the ‘Singapore of the steppes’ 👍🏻.

That said, Kazakhstan (as with its ‘stan’ neighbours) only got defined borders in the 1920s and before that, the region was home to nomadic animal herders who travelled right across the Eurasian steppes.  In fact, the term Kazakh, comes from a Turkic word meaning ‘free rider’ or ‘adventurer’. I love that. 👍🏻 Perhaps I was a nomadic Kazakh in a previous life??

Between 1929 and 1993, the Soviet government started enforced ‘denomadisation’, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people dying of famine and disease.  On a more positive note, the Soviet Union are also responsible for the multi-ethnic country Kazakhstan is today, primarily because of the sheer diversity of those deported there by Stalin! 

Day 1 was cold with a bitter wind blowing off the steppes and I was glad for the thick jacket I had packed at the last minute with some hesitation as we set off to explore the city with our first stop being the 97m high Bayterek Monument. (The 97m corresponds to 1997 when the city became the capital.)  This white lattice tower, topped with a large glass orb is based on a Kazakh legend about the mythical Samruk bird, who lays a golden egg containing secrets to human happiness.  Apparently, the first President (Nursultan Nazarbayev) drew the concept on the back of a napkin (though I am not sure how much truth there was in that)!

When it was built in 2002 there was nothing else around it and even today you can look past the buildings and out to the steppes, just beyond the city boundary.  My first impressions are that it reminds me a little of Dubai, with flashy futurist buildings that seem to rise out of the desert!

Nur-Sultan is definitely a city built for the future with room to expand.  The old Soviet part of the city is on one side of the river and the 21st century part on the other side.  A Japanese architecture (Kisho Kurokawa) won a competition to design the new city layout and it is very much a planned city, growing all the time.  They even have a huge 3D plan of Nur-Sultan 2030 in the Palace of Independence which we visited.

Of course, the original nomadic civilisation of the region now known as Kazakhstan had no cities, they only built mausoleums to bury their dead.  We learnt more about this as we moved on to the National Museum, which is housed in another modern building, opened in 2014.  It is actually one of the largest museums in the world and upon entering, you are greatly by a large gold eagle that ‘flies’ on the hour.

One of it’s best collections are found in the Hall of Gold and it was here we first met the ‘Golden Man’, who has become a symbol of the countries national heritage.  It is believed that the Golden Man was a Saka warrior, part of the broader Scythian nomadic people who lived in the region in 2nd-3rd century BC.  He was found near Almaty in 1969 and his golden outfit shows the incredible use of gold in the early years of civilization.  It was also interesting to learn that things such as the traditional knowledge and skills in making yurts (Turkic nomadic dwellings) are listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  I was excited to learn more about them in the coming weeks.

The National Museum borders on the city’s Independence Square, in the centre of which is the Kazakh Eli Monument – a large stellar with a sculpture of the Samruk bird (the same one that ‘laid’ the orb at the top of the Bayterek Monument.  The square is also home to the Palace of Independence (which houses the 2030 city plan) – a blue building with white beams which are said to represent the beams of a yurt, and the beautiful Peace Wall, a monument to those affected by the Soviet nuclear testing that took place in the country between 1949 and 1989. 

Oddly, the large square was completely empty! Perhaps it was something to do with the weather?  Our local Kazakh guide (Gaukhar) said it was a cold day, but I am sure it gets much colder in the winter with the cold wind blowing off the steppe.

At the far end of Independence Square, our next stop was the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Central Asia (some sources say the largest??).  70% of the population of Kazakhstan are Muslim but many are not practicing.  Religion was encouraged in the years of early Russian occupation in the 19th century and in fact they built mosques in rural areas to encourage the nomads to settle down, however in complete contrast, all religion was banned during the communist years of the Soviet Union.  The mosque can accommodate up to 10,000 people on holy holidays!!

After a busy morning, we were all ready for lunch – which turned out to be a banquet (as did almost every other meal we had).  It was my first chance to sample some of the local ‘delicacies’, including samsa (pastries with mutton or cheese), beef dumplings and a stew with horse meat and potatoes.  All were pretty good, even the horse meat – which is very popular in the region.

After lunch we visited Khan Shatyr, a giant tent like shopping mall, often said to be the most extraordinary building in the city so far (which is no easy feat).  It is 150m high and is made from heat absorbing material so it maintains summer temperatures even throughout the winter when it can be -30C outside.  While others went to look around the shops, I went straight to Starbucks to enjoy a dose of caffeine to get me through the rest of the day.

Our final stop on our busy day around Nur-Sultan was the Expo 2017 area.  We started in the post office of all places.  But it was no ordinary post office but a post office of the future.  With Robert the Robot who could help you post a letter (sadly he did not speak English) and a virtual dressing room.  A prototype where you could try on clothes and then have them printed on a 3D printer.

Our final stop on our busy day around Nur-Sultan was the Expo 2017 area.  We started in the post office of all places.  But it was no ordinary post office but a post office of the future.  With Robert the Robot who could help you post a letter (sadly he did not speak English) and a virtual dressing room.  A prototype where you could try on clothes and then have them printed on a 3D printer.

The piece de resistance is the Kazakh pavilion – a unique spherical building, apparently the biggest spherical building in the world, which now houses a Museum of Energy.   We did not have long to look around the museum, but what we saw was incredible.  To be honest, you probably need a whole day to give it justice.  It had loads of interactive exhibits, with each floor dedicated to a different type of energy – future, solar, space, wind, biomass etc.

Outside the complex we bumped into same couple having their wedding photos that we had seen at the mosque.  They looked beautiful and some of the group joined them for one of their photos – for the first of what turned out to be numerous times during the trip.

I found it odd that I came to the ‘Stans’ for a glimpse in to the past but even on day one, I got a glimpse in to the future.  Nur-Sultan was truly surprising.

We had dinner in a fabulous restaurant with a view over the city.  Again, we had a mass spread of food – salads, samsa and horse again 🤦🏻‍♀️.  This time I was introduced to would quickly become my favourite – baursak (or borsok in Kyrgyzstan).  Basically, they are just fried dough so had can you go wrong lol.  They became known as my kryptonite, as I lost all my power – will power that is – when they were around.

And so, Day 1 came to an end and I was already enchanted by the region and was excited for the following 3 weeks.

The land of beer, waffles and Smurfs

I had initially been quite excited about catching the Eurostar to Brussels but that soon dissolved when all the passport control gates failed and I ended up standing in the queue for more than 30 minutes going nowhere – sometimes technology sucks!!  It was hot and crowded given it was the Friday afternoon of a long weekend.

All I wanted to do was to get on the train and enjoy my classy Pina Colada in a can (thank you M&S😂) and finally I got through the passport line to join the throng of people waiting for the train … where there were not enough seats, people sitting in the middle of the floor, bags everywhere.  Oh the joy of travelling.

I think I had completely over romanticized the train journey in my head – imagining relaxing in comfortable large seats with a large table … but instead it was just as cramped as a plane with a small child behind me kicking my seat and whinging most of the way!  When I think back, I have a feeling the only other time I have been on the Eurostar (to Paris) many moons ago, it was in first class (we got a good deal)… with a group of friends … drinking champagne on the way!  How the mighty have fallen.

The next issue I had was upon arriving in Brussels.  Firstly I had to find my way from Garde Midi to Garde Central … lots of trains were supposed to go there frequently but the main board only showed the final destination so I had to walk along every platform to find one that went there … thankfully I only had to wait 5 minutes and then only 3 minutes to the stop … but the train smelt so I was glad to get off it after 3 minutes 😩

Taxis, even Uber’s were expensive in Brussels (as was the accommodation. – over £35 a night for a bed in a dorm room) so I was not keen on getting a one!  Because of this I had picked my hostel due to its proximity to the station that I would get to at around 11pm … however the day before I was informed that I actually had to go to another hostel 10minutes further away to check in and get my key … even though I had already check in online!!  So, I had to walk 10 minutes past my hostel to get the key … then 10 minutes back at 11.30 at night with my bag!!  Now, I discovered that it was hidden in the small print that you had to check in somewhere else but still it basically also sucked!!!

The 15 minute walk to the hostel I had not booked seemed very long and the 10 minute walk back to the hostel I had booked even longer -when I finally got in my room it was stifling hot despite the supposed air con.  The room was cramped and the only free bed was a top bunk that had someone’s towel was draped over the railing and a suitcase blocking the ladder!  Then I had to try and make the bed!! What a joke.

First world problems I know, but this place was really not well thought out and very disappointing for the price ( oh and they have no left luggage place, if I want to leave by bag somewhere when I check out I have to walk back to the other place again – so all in all it is pointless booking it because it is close to the station!).

The only good thing that happened that evening was to see the Central Plaza at night – it was a little gaudy but pretty awesome and the hostel turned out to be just around the corner from it so I could take a better look when I was in a better mood tomorrow after a night’s sleep.

Saturday was a new day, with a new attitude and except for the person who left at 6am, no one else was up in the hostel so again I had to try and sort out my stuff in the dark.  Despite it already being 8am, the area was pretty much deserted except for the street cleaners! Great for some photos with no people but I ended up having to walk back up to the station for coffee before heading to the meeting point for my tour.

The group was a large one, 32 people but thankfully all English speaking so not one of the bilingual tours I had in Montenegro!  All on board the bus and we were off to the north of the country.

As we drove the guide filled us in on some of the facts and figures of the country – nerd alert ahead lol.  Belgium is a secular country, and although 85% of the population are catholic (due to the year of Spanish occupation) only about 5-6% are practicing.  Speaking of the Spanish, did you know the Spanish King Charles V was actually Belgium?  He was born in Ghent (though this is not something they are proud of).

Because the state and church separate, many of the churches rent out space to get money.  In some cases, they are used for art exhibitions and others as restaurants (one has a Moulin Rouge themed restaurant, with dancers and drag queens – inside the church!)

Belgium only became its own country in 1830 and its mixed heritage is still visible in its 3 national languages French, Flemish (which is a dialect of Dutch) and German.  Flanders is the region in the north of the country, where Flemish is spoken, in some instances, only Flemish and not French!

Flanders is also where you find two of the finest medieval cities in the country, if not in Europe – Ghent and Bruges.   The first stop for the day was Ghent, which started as an Abbey in the 7th century.

In the 15th century it was one of the most important cities in Europe due to its textile industry – that famous Belgian tapestry and lace!  Of course, one of the other things Belgium is famous for is beer.  There are over 1250 brands of Belgium beer and it dates back to the 12th century.  The water was unhygienic and undrinkable so the  monks started brewing beer and people (including children) drank that instead of water.  In fact, right up until the 70s children got beer when they went to school – all part of the culture apparently.  This was the original Trappest beers.  (More about beer later.)

As we walked around the central square, we learnt about the medieval market activities – markets on Fridays, executions on Wednesdays … the markets continue on Fridays today, not surprisingly, the executions do not!  The statue in the square is over Jacob van Artevelde who was an anti-French Flemish patriot – our guide told us that he is pointing towards England, the source of much of his family’s wealth due to the textile trade.  He is surrounded by the symbols of many of the city guilds around the bottom of his statue.

Many of the buildings that lined the square and the streets surrounding it are guild halls.  Many are elaborately decorated and it began trying to guess the guild by the decoration – can you guess which these belong to?  Musicians, Charities, the fish market, sailors (which is coincidentally next to the brothel … which is now a Marriott hotel lol)?

A cute story about the street lights around the city … they are linked in to the Maternity Hospital and each time a baby is born, the parents are given the option to push a button connected to the street lamps which causes the street lights to flash sharing their joy with those in the street.

We then moved on to churches, St Michael’s, St Nicholas’ and St Bavo’s, all within a stone’s throw from each other.  I went inside a couple to escape the rising temperature and it is always interesting to see the difference in style from inside to out – St Nicholas was a perfect example of this with its late Gothic exterior and its rich baroque interior.

The Town Hall was another perfect example of 2 different styles but this time both styles on the outside.  They started building in 15th century gothic style but before they finished it the fashions changed renaissance so they just built the other half in the new style!!

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Back on the bus to travel the hour to Bruges, the Venice of the north and the home of the best artisan chocolate in the world.  It does not normally take an hour, but we were caught in the all the traffic headed to the coast to enjoy the sunshine and beat the heat.

These days Bruges is basically a tourist hotspot (a medieval Disneyland as our guide described it) and it is illegal to guide more than 25 people around the city without the use of radio headphones.  Although a little odd, it was good as you did not have to worry about being close to the guide to be able to hear her, on the other hand I would get distracted and almost loose the group – oops lol

Back to beginning, Bruges was settled at the end of the 9th century by Vikings who took advantage of inland canals created by a Tsunami and it was an important port for the Hanseatic League that I learnt about in Stockholm.   By the 15 century it was a cosmopolitan business hub where merchants regularly met to discuss the value of the money and prices of commodities – they actually claim fame to the founding of the stock exchange concept!

At the end of the 15th century vicious storms damaged the port and trade diminished, putting the city in to centuries of decline leaving it one of the poorest cities in Europe by the end of the 19th century.  With a population of only 2000 it was basically forgotten until Georges Rodenbach wrote a book  called Bruges-la-Morte (They Dead Bruges) which was published in 1892 – the first fiction book illustrated with photos.  The story was dark and ghostly, based in the city and it unintentionally became a great marketing campaign and suddenly people started to visit again, it was truly the start of the renaissance of the city.

I fell for the tourist trap restaurant recommended by the guide, it was very expensive 🤦🏻‍♀️🤦🏻‍♀️ for not a lot of food, but on the plus side was the good company of a Kiwi girl and an Aussie girl who were also travelling solo.  Us antipodeans always seem to find each other were ever we are in the world.  It was also my first opportunity to try a Belgian beer which was very refreshing in the heat.

Belgians love, and are of course very proud of their beer culture.  One of the craziest beer stories must be about the “Madman of Bruges”.  They dreamed of building a beer pipeline under the city, from the brewery in the centre of the city, to the bottling plant outside of town.  To realise this dream, they turned to CrowdFunding.  Those who invested Eur7,500, they were rewarded with a bottle of Brugse Zot every day for the rest of their lives!  The ultimate goal is to provide a personal beer tap in the houses of those who invested the most!!

We continued through the city and down a narrow street called ‘Stoofstrat’ (Stove Street).   The street was once home to a notorious bathhouse where weary, wealthy, medieval travels could come and freshen up after long journeys.  Normally this mean a bath (often shared with others), a meal (often whilst in the bath) and a ‘happy ending’ …. Enough said!

From raunchy bathhouses to Chocolate shops with royal warrants!  The best artisanal chocolatiers in the world (or so the Belgians say and who I am to disagree)! Unfortunately, it would break the bank to buy more than three pieces and with the heat, I don’t think they would have made it back to Brussels!

It was mid-afternoon by this time and it the city centre was hot and crowed – these were the crowds I had been dreading in European cities in the summer!!!  To escape the heats and the crowds I joined by new friends at a waffle shop during our free time to enjoy another of the most famous Belgian institutions – waffles!  Apparently, Belgians will typically have them plain or with a dusting of icing sugar, but we went full tourist on them and had fruit, cream and ice cream … and it was good!

Unfortunately, by this time my ankle was throbbing!  I had thought that my sprain (from my Lithuanian weekend) had healed but clearly it was still not up to a day’s walking which does not bode well for my next big adventure in just a week’s time!

It was a relief that the last activity of the day was a boat trip along one of the canals.  It was lovely to see the city from a different perspective and it was a little cooler and less crowded too so it was a great way to end our time in Bruges before the 1.5 hour drive back to Brussels.

Apparently, till the middle of the 19th century, Brussels also had canals like Bruges as well as a rive flowing through the city, but a cholera plague mean they covered it up to stop the spread of the disease.  So, it is now one of the few European cities without a river!

When I finally got back to my hostel and back up in my bunk bed, I thought I would never move again as my ankle seized up, but I did manage to walk the few minutes to Delirium, a famous beer bar with over 2000 types of beer. I was recommended a Chimay Doree – a Trappist beer.  Trappist beers are only brewed by Trappist monks and dates back to the 1600s and must follow strict rules – it must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist Monastery and it is not allowed to be a profit-making venture with any profits going to charity.  So, drinking Trappist beer can be considered an act of charity lol. 😂😂😂

As it turned out, I wish I had given more to charity that evening as the night in the dorm turned in to a bit of a nightmare.   A girl came in drunk which was not too much of an issue until her alarm started going off at 3.20 and she just kept putting it on snooze (when I finally woke her up after more than a minute of it going off)!  So, it continued to go off for almost an hour before she worked out how to turn it off!!  Of course, getting louder each time and ending with loud rooster crowing!  What a drama!

The following morning, I was packing again in the dark – even though it was 8.30am!  I then walked the few minutes to the station to drop my luggage in the storage lockers there (as I refused to walk all the way back to the other hostel especially as now my ankle is killing me again 🤦🏻‍♀️).

I was sat in the Grand Plaza enjoying a coffee when I received an email to say the walking tour I had booked was cancelled at the last minute but luckily I was in right by the meeting place for all the walking tours anyway so just jumped on another one – I am sure they are all much of a muchness but the guide for the tour I did was exceptional so I certainly did not lose out.  (He was also Belgian, which appeared to be a realty when I heard many of the guides waiting in the square speaking Spanish.)

As with all the stories so far, they are histories of the individual cities rather than the country (which did not exist for many centuries later).  In the 7th century, a swampy spot in the middle of western Europe seemed to be a good place to set up a trading town with it’s grandest guild halls surrounding the Grand Plaza.   Some hugely elaborate as they were always trying to out decorate their neighbour.

The biggest building is the Town Hall with its grand bell tower.  The guide pointer out that it is not symmetrical as most buildings are.  Apparently when it was built in the early 1400’s it was initial built as it was designed without a tower but the powers that be decided it needed to be bigger!  So, they added the tower, and then the other end of the building but ran out of space before they could make it symmetrical with the other part!!  Today it is still the biggest gothic non-religious building in the world.

Many of the guildhalls were built in 1697 and 1698 thanks to Louis XIV who wanted to rule the world!  In pursuit of this goal the French bombed the Medieval state of Brussels for 2 days in 1695 destroying more than 1/3 of the city.  The only two remaining buildings were the two stone gothic buildings.  Apparently, they were aiming for the bell tower of the tower and hit pretty much every but!  It was during the rebuilt that the ‘out-blinging’ the neighbour became popular!  Despite all the glitz, in more recent years and right up until early 1980s the plaza was used as a parking lot!

Carl Marx and Victor Hugo both lived in the Plaza at one time.  Marx wrote much or his communist manifesto whilst living here, whilst Hugo wrote Les Misérables!  Clearly a place of much inspiration!   Both of them were both lushes and would often get drunk on a regular basis.  Marx would throw wild parties whilst Hugo would wander the Plaza harassing people – both ended up being exiled to Paris!

Our next stop was the famous Manneken Pis fountain (literally translated as little man piss)!  Now I say it is famous as there were a lot people taking photos and everyone seems to know about it, but I will put my hand up and say I had never heard of it!  There are many legends about it but the one our guide told us was that the area was leather tanning area, and to tan the leather you need ammonium – at that time the only source of that was pee!  So, the poorest families would send children to the corner to sell the only thing they had to sell  – their pee!!  Believe it or not!  Of course, the country now has a great tourist market selling miniature statues or varying sizes!  I had to pass on that lol.  (And yes it is pretty small.)

Our guide was clearly very passionate about beer and proudly told that the Belgian beer culture has been UNESCO World Heritage status and a big part of the beer culture is diversity.  We stopped off at a café and enjoyed another of the great local beers – this was a fruity craft beer called Jungle Joy, with hints of mango and passion fruit.  Really tasty and refreshing as it was already 28 degrees.

69151320_484302685723275_5749197970650169344_nNext stop was the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert.  One of the oldest shopping arcades In Europe (the famous ones in Milan were based on this one).  It was built for the Bourgeoisie, so they could enjoy shopping without being bother by riff raff (you use to have to pay to get in).  Unfortunately to build it, they had to kick out all the people who live there – some refused to leave and hung themselves in their home.  Not a great start to the project but it still went on to be very popular and was one of the places Victor Hugo came to get drunk!

We walked up the hill to stroll through the beautiful royal gardens, a nice shady respect from the heat of the city before reaching the Royal Palace.  This palace is an ‘office’ these days, where the King meets foreign visitors as they live in a palace on the outskirts of the city (that we passed the day before on the way back into the city).

These days the Belgian Royal Family are figure heads and how no real power.  This is probably a welcome change after many less than desirable Kings the country has had in the past.  This royal palace being a key remind of one of the worst – King Leopold II who used blood money from his exploitation of the Congo to build it.

As the popularity of the motor car grew, so did the need for rubber (for the tyres) and King Leopold got very rich, very quickly by enslaving Congolese people for the harvesting of rubber.  Many atrocities were carried out and 10m Congolese died during this period either directly or in directly as a result of Belgian rule.  The guide normally animated guide was very sombre as he told us about this and that he considered it his duty as a guide and a Belgian share these stories.

The tour ended at big church on hill, Saint Jacques-Sur-Coudenberg, a grand neoclassical Roman Catholic church with view of old city and where the royals are baptised.  From here I wandered back down the hill to the train station for my train journey home and a much-needed rest!

Just a side note – did you know the Smurfs were Belgian??  I certainly didn’t but there is a large statue of one and many shops selling them so they are clearly very proud of the fact. lol

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