A trip to the dark side – Chernobyl

(November 2019)

What do you think about so called ‘dark tourism’ – going to see things and places that have less than happy stories to tell? Chernobyl is one of those and despite its dark history – it is part of history and therefore something of interest to many – including me.

That said, is visiting an abandoned city really ‘dark’ tourism? Sure, we know why and how the city was abandoned but is it truly any different to visiting Machu Picchu or one of the great Mayan cities such as Tikal in Guatemala or Luxor in Egypt even?  Don’t get me wrong, I am not comparing the incredible Mayan or Egyptian architecture to that of the Soviet Union in the 70s but is the premise still the same – visiting an abandoned city 🤔🤔? Either way all are equally fascinating to me – a snapshot in time of a civilisation that lived there.

Since the recent TV show depicting the events of the Chernobyl disaster, it has become incredibly popular, though I had booked my trip before the programme came out. Learning about the world and it’s civilisations – good and bad – has always interested me.  Perhaps in the hope that we learn from the mistakes of those before us.

I had time to take a quick walk around the Kiev city centre before I headed to the meeting point for my tour – despite the -8c I was glad I did as it was beautiful with the sun coming up and the changing colours over the monuments.

I then heading to the meeting point for my day tour to Chernobyl. I was quickly allocated my group, guide and van.  There were probably 7-8 vans, each with 10-12 people heading off for the day – I can only imagine the mayhem in the height of the tourist season.

Before I go on, I had better give you a brief history of Chernobyl and the reason I and thousands of others visit (just in case you have been living under a rock).   On Sunday, April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant exploded during a safety test (oh the irony) and it is still considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.  The explosion and subsequent fire released vast amounts airborne radioactive contamination into the atmosphere which drifted over much of the USSR (as it was at the time) and into Western Europe.  USSR did not admit the accident until high levels of radiation were recorded in Sweden.   Ultimately up to 16,000 deaths can be attributed to the disaster across Europe however only 31 deaths have every been reported as a direct result of the disaster.

We were issued with our ‘Visa’ for the Chernobyl zone, which we were to show with our passport at the police check points and then given an initial run down of the health and safety rules:

  • Don’t eat in the open air
  • Don’t remove anything (and therefore spreading radiation) – you can be given 7 years in prison for this!
  • Don’t put anything on ground or sit on ground
  • Don’t go inside buildings – most are in bad condition and some falling down
  • Don’t pat stray dogs – they are very friendly but contaminated due to the ground and the water (this one was the hardest for me lol)  

We passed a fair few Ladas on the drive towards the Chernobyl zone (and if you have read my previous blogs of my trip around Central Asia you will know I am a fan of them) and when we reached the first check point, we were given our personal dosimeter to measure the dose of external ionising radiation we receive during the day.  During the day, we should receive less than 0.003 microsieverts – you would get more radiation on a flight between the New York and the Ukraine.  The dosimeters get returned at the end of the day and the statistics shown to the Government on a regular basis.

Did you know there are three types of radiation:

  • Alpha – the weakest
  • Beta – which is dangerous to the skin (this is the most difficult to manage in the summer when people don’t want to cover up)
  • Gamma – which destroys DNA and can be the cause of cancers for you and/or your future children.

Our Guide was biotechnologist and had a lot of information to share as the day went on.

Although then day started off at -8 in Kiev, it seemed even colder now we were in the country side it was absolutely bitter and the problem with wearing so many layers to keep warm outside, is rapidly get them off when you get inside the warm van! 

The Chernobyl Exclusion zone covers an area of almost 2,600km2 in the Ukraine with restricted zones marked at 10km and 30km.  Surprisingly a small number of people live within the 30km zone. It is also now considered a nature reserve as nature has fully recovered with many bear, lynx, moose and wolves living in the area.  In the initial years after the disaster, there were a lot of mutations as you would expect, but due to evolution and survival of the fitness, those died off and only the healthy animals remained.  Although it is expected that some of these still have less obvious internal mutations, the populations continue to thrive.

Our first stop after the check points in to the exclusion zone at the Kopachi village kindergarten and its small war memorial just a few kilometres from the power plant.  Here we were given the instruction to “break the rules carefully” as our guide let us go inside the building.  He could not join us as he had to wear a GPS tracker 🥴.  Obviously there has been much deterioration over time but it was clear it was left in a hurry with shoes, toys and books just left – all very eery.  All the other buildings in this and many other villages in the area were bulldozed and buried.  Sadly, this was not such a good idea as the ruins seeped radioactive isotopes into the groundwater!  They built new roads, with new asphalt which they refer to as “safety tunnels”.

There were 15 villages within the 10km zone, and all were destroyed and buried after the disaster.  Despite the explosion happening on April 26, the villages were not evacuated until May 3rd, nor were they given iodine pills.  The heavy particles in the atmosphere (e.g. plutonium) destroyed their immune system – as a result many who died of other things (due to their compromised immune systems) were not considered in the death toll.  There was also a lot of blindness (as eyes absorb radiation easily).  No one can live in this area today and no one can stay more than 6 hours at one time. 

The Chernobyl Nuclear power plant was planned to have 12 reactors in total.  The accident happened in No. 4, and all further building plans were abandoned leaving No. 5 unfinished and the other reactors were closed over the following years (No. 3 closing in 2000).   Not surprisingly, water in the runoffs in the area are still highly contaminated.

Reactor number 4 is now covered with a safety shield or Sarcophagus.  The current one was built in 2012 and was the biggest and heaviest structure moved in the world, as it was built 300m away and then moved into place – 36000 tonnes of steel in total.

In front of the sarcophagus there is a monument to the ‘liquidators’ with an inscription “To those who saved the world”.  “Liquidator” is a general term used to describe the civil and military personnel who dealt with the consequences of the disaster.  Liquidators roles varied greatly; power plant workers on duty at the time of the explosion, fire fighters, Soviet Armed forces who removed contaminated materials, female janitors who had to remove food from abandoned homes, hunters who exterminated domestic animals left behind, coal miners who dug a protective tunnel, helicopter pilots …  These people and many more (it is estimated that around 60,000 people were involved) are generally credited with limiting the immediate and long term damage from the disaster and those who still survive today finally have veteran status, even if they were civilians, having fought for many years to have their participation officially recognised.

Our guide had spoken to an engineer who was on duty the morning after the explosion.  He had said that no one could believe the core could or in fact did explode and for many hours they continued to work in disbelief.  They were initially evacuated but Kremlin engineers made them go back in to continue pumping water into the core – which was now non-existent!

Our next stop was in the town of Pripyat, the location of many of the eerie photos you see of the disaster aftermath.  Just outside the town we came across some puppies – all dogs are supposed to be sterilised but clearly not! A US organisation look after the stray animals in the area and thankfully we could play puppies 👍🏻 (as they are too young to be particularly contaminated) – they certainly looked chunky and healthy.

Prypriat was a good city, purpose built in 1970 by the best designers, with all the best infrastructure – Amusement park, Palace of culture, cinemas, schools etc, connections to railway, bus and boat stations and a massive medical complex.  Everything was provided – health care, housing, education etc.  On top of that, good jobs were available at the nearby Nuclear Power plant, just a few kilometres away.

Although there was an estimated 50,000 people living in the city, there were only 4000 cars as the city was so easy for people to walk around.

Gear from firefighters on first night still in the basement of the medical complex.  They had no radiation protection and people did not understand symptoms of radiation related illnesses.  Nurses, doctors, visitors were all contaminated as they touched exposed workers and their clothes with no protection.  Once the extend of the contamination was understood the Government issue a law that all pregnant women in the city had to have their babies aborted and many children from the city were sent to Cuba for rehab (a friend of the USSR with good medicine).

Next, we headed to the River boat station – there were boat connections to Kiev and Belarus, and the boats were a popular way of travel.  Much more popular than crowded Soviet buses with no AC!  The cafeteria here had beautiful stain glass windows, and apparently it served the best ice cream in the city.  An old vending machine remained – your choices were water, sparkling water and lemonade. 

It really is a snapshot of a moment in time and straight out of an episode of Abandoned Engineering – fascinating if you like that kind of thing, which I do lol.  The interesting thing is that the town was not damaged by the disaster, it was just abandoned, but of course age and environment (and apparently in some cases military training including live ammunition training leaving bullet holes in buildings) has worn it down over time.  I was particularly intrigued by the photos our guide showed of the buildings we were visiting pre-disaster, filled with happy people going about their normal lives.

Both the cinema and musical school was adorned with beautiful unique mosaics, made of aluminium.   This time the guide abandoned his GPS tracker and took us in to the music school 👍🏻 to see the crumbling auditorium where musical performances were once held.

As we wandered through the empty city, we passed a Government building (the centre for Nuclear Energy), the hotel where people brought in to clean up the explosion initially stayed, through the central square and across the football stadium.  Did you know the international nuclear symbol symbolises the 3 types of radiation coming from 1 core?

Our final stop in the city was probably the most famous site, the amusement park.  I think most people have seen photos of the abandoned Ferris wheel or dodgem cars.  Not many people know that the park was brand new and was due to have its grand opening on 1 May 1986, but this was cancelled after the explosion.  Some say it was opened briefly on April 27th, one day after the explosion as a distraction for the locals but before the town was evacuated but this has not been confirmed. 

The announcement to evacuate the city came on the afternoon of April 27th and the whole evacuation (of the almost 50,000) took only 36 hours. People were told that they were back in 3 days, so to pack light – of course they never were to return.

We left Pripyat and headed back to the Administration area to have lunch in Cafeteria No 19, built for Chernobyl workers to eat Soviet workers cuisine 🥴.  Some of the 6,000 people who still work on site (it was 15,000 people when in operation) still eat here.  To enter you had to pass through a radiation detection machine and then thoroughly wash your hands before reaching the dining room. (Good hand washing practice for the future COVID world – who knew!)

Our Soviet workers cuisine consisted of a small plate of salad with some kind of cold sausage and lots of cabbage.  A Boursk – a traditional soup, and some kind of grain with a chunk of pork!  The dining room was busy and by the time we go to eat there were no knives left so I just had to pick it up and bite it!  Thank goodness for my clean hands lol.  It was not amazingly flavoursome but ok 🥴. The coffee was not much better, but worth it for the cup lol.

Although Reactor number 4 and Pripyat were the main reasons for the visit, the next stop at the once top secret Soviet Cold War base fascinated me.  Hidden deep in the forest and after a short walk we arrived at the Duga radar – a Soviet over-the-horizon radar (Duga literally means “arc”), which was part of the Soviet missile early warning radar network (to spot ballistic missiles fired from the USA) and the last one left intact.

It operated from 1976 to 1989 and broadcast over shortwave radio bands.  Unfortunately, it often interfered with broadcasts on radio, tv and sometimes aviation communications with a clicking sounds gaining it the nickname the Russian Woodpecker.  That said, most people annoyed by the interference never actually knew where it was coming from!  Apparently even the Ukraine officials were not aware of it!

It is huge 700m long and 150m high structure made up of made up of hundreds of huge antennas and turbines and is hugely impressive when you stand at the base of it.

We exited the 10km zone with another radiation check and this time the minibus also got checked before we were free to head to the town of Chernobyl.  The town used to have a population of about 14,000 but today the town around 1,000 people live there and is often the overnight base for tourists who take a 2 day trip. 

At the entrance to the town, they have an exhibition of robots and vehicles assembled for the 25th anniversary of the disaster.  The vehicles were bought from various countries to use in the clean up on the roof of the reactor and in the surrounding area, including a copy of moon landing vehicle!  Unfortunately, none of the vehicles/robots could last longer than 13 hours on the roof in the extreme radiation before their circuitry died so they had to resort to using people – or biorobots as they were referred to!!!   More than 70% of those men are now dead.

By this time, it was 3pm but the sun had started to set already which made for some cool photos and a dropping temperature, dropping from the balmy -4 to -8!

Further into the town we came across the court where those blamed for the accident were tried.  In reality they were just scape goats of an attempted coverup of the entire event, and although initially convicted, they were soon released after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The courthouse is still overlooked by a large statue of Lenin – apparently the last remaining Lenin statute still standing in the Ukraine! 

Nearby there is a poignant memorial to all the villages which were destroyed after the disaster.  An ‘avenue’ of village signs, one for each abandoned and destroyed village in the exclusion zone both in the Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus.  Nearby is the “Monument of the Third Angel” – inspired by a Biblical passage, Revelations 8:10-11:

“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from Heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter”.

Some speculated that this passage predicted the disaster, as Chernobyl was named for the Ukrainian word for wormwood!

After one final check point to measure our radiation exposure (0.002, less than 0.003 allowed so all good 👍🏻) we were on our way back to Kiev after what was a fascinating yet sobering day.

Chicken Kiev in Kiev

(November 2019)

I set off on the 3 hr flight to Kiev (Kyiv) the capital of Ukraine  (what a joy living in the UK again, albeit briefly, to be able to take trips like this in just a weekend.)  Unfortunately, the trip did not start too well as the transfer I had booked did not show up and waiting for it for 20 minutes meant all the official taxis were gone!!   (A quick side note, the country used to the called “the Ukraine” but dropped the “the” after independence.)

It was late and cold, and I had no intention of hanging around any longer, so I got in what I could only describe as a dodgy ‘taxi’.  I was on edge the whole trip, we were going over 130km/hour (which turns out to be the speed limit on the highway but it seemed very fast) and I was messaging back and forward with my partner back in NZ so someone knew where I was lol!!  I also used the wonders of modern technology to follow along the route we were taking on my maps.me app (a godsend when you don’t have internet coverage on your phone) to ensure we were going in the right direction – which thankfully we were.  I was probably completely ripped off but it was less than I was going to pay for the transfer that did not turn up (which thankfully I had not paid for in advance) and I made it in to the city in one piece.

Next challenge was the dodgy alleyway leading to a dodgy looking hostel I had booked!  Thankfully they had sent me photos showing how to get in, otherwise I would not have been so bold as to walk down the dark alley into the dark courtyard!!   The hostel was nice enough inside and very quiet, probably because it was very small – just 4 rooms off a small main entrance area where you clearly hear everyone coming and going.  Thankfully it was not busy at this time of year, so it was ok.

I had an early start on my first day for my day trip to Chernobyl, but that is a whole other blog post (it was all going to be in this one but it was just going to be too long)!

Back in Kiev late afternoon and had a quick walk around my hostel to find somewhere to eat.  Despite its dodgy appearance, the hostel was pretty central, just of the main street of Khreshchaty, which was great as I did not have much energy so settled on somewhere close to my hostel for Chicken Kiev (it has to be done – didn’t it?) and it was delicious.  For dessert I kept it local with cottage cheese pancakes with sour cream and berry sauce 👍🏻.  All well deserved after such a busy day.

Day two and my last morning (the problem with such short trips), I could have a more relaxing start before packing up and heading out for another busy day.  I had enjoyed the cottage cheese pancakes so much the night before (they are way better than they sound) I went back to the same place again for breakfast – this time I had them with banana and toffee sauce!  Highly recommended.

Ready for a history lesson? Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe, bordering Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova.  Today it has a population of approximately 42 million and shares the same history as many of its neighbours’ including the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and of course the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.  It had independence briefly between 1917 and WWII as the Ukrainian People’s Republic and then again in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As with other former Soviet states, it has had its problems since independence.  Ukraine declared itself a neutral state, trying to establish relationships with Russia and NATO, however in 2013 the President tired to align more closely with Russia rather the European Union which resulted in escalating demonstrations and the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.  The President tried to end the protesting with violence, backed by Russia, whilst the EU and USA backed the protesters.

My first walking tour of the day was an Ancient Kiev walking tour which met in Independence square, otherwise know as Maidan Square in the heart of Kiev. It has been part of the landscape of the city since the 10th century.  It has also been the site of all major revolutions, including the 2014 Ukrainian or Maidan Revolution which resulted in around 130 deaths in clashes between protests, riot police and sharp shooters positioned in overlooking buildings. The revolution ultimately lead the removal of President Yanukovych who fled the country for exile in Russia before being sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison for treason.

This all lead in a round about way to Russia invading Crimea (then part of Ukraine) and the shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in July 17 2014 – but that is a whole other story!

Towering over Independence Square is the Independence Monument or Glory to Ukraine momument.– a victory column commerating the Independece of Ukraine, built on the 10th anniversary of independence in 2001.  It’s 61 m tall and is topped by a figurine of Berehynia (a Slavic goddess) holdings a guelder rose branch in her arms. 

We crossed the road to the other side of the square, to admire the reconstruction (built in 2001) of Lach Gate, topped with archangel Michael the spiritual patron of the city and who was believed to fight of evil and witches!  The gate was original located in the Polish quarter on the east side of the city and was one of three main gates of medieval Kiev – we will see one of the others (the Golden gate) later in the day.

As we left the square we passed a number of interesting art installations– “Street Lamp Lovers”, apparently if you meet here, your love will last for ever, and “tree with chairs”. It turned out these would be the first of many quirky art works we would see around the city.

A short walk later we arrived at the beautiful St Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral, a working Ukrainian orthodox church originally built in the 11 century.  After multiple Mongol attacks, the church rose from the ashes and it was repaired in the 15th century. In the 18th century, the exterior of the building was refurbished in baroque style, while the interior remained Byzantine.  Despite the beauty of the church, it was destroyed in the 1930s by the Soviets who opposed religion, so what we see today is a reconstruction based on old photos and the original foundations, built in the 15 +/- years after independence and is now one of the most impressive architectural monuments in the city.

Being Sunday, there was a service going on so we could not take photos inside, so you will just have to take my word that the interior was as beautiful as the exterior!  Worth noting that there are no seats in an orthodox church, the parishioners have to stand for the 2-3 hour service!

Not far from St Michaels was the columned Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, built in 1934 by the Soviets when the capital was moved to Kiev.  Despite it standard, imposing Russian design, it is built in a semi circle.  Apparently it is easier to protect from attack as bullets can’t shoot around corners!!

It was originally the Ukrainian Communist Party headquarters so it is adorned with a hammer and sickle but now proudly flies the independent Ukrainian flag – blue for sky and gold for fields of wheat.

Next was another beautiful baroque style church, sitting on a hill above the street – St Andrews.  Apparently, St Andrew the Apostle came to Kiev and walked to the top of the hill and proclaimed that “on the mountains of Kyiv, the grace of God will shine, a great city will grow, and God will put up many churches.”  

St Andrew’s was built in the 18th century by an Italian architect and is sometimes referred to as a cathedral.  Interesting the church has no bells, legend has it, their noise would cause flooding! 

The church towers over the historic district of “Andriyivsky Spusk” or “Andrew’s Descent” which it lent its name to.  It’s a 700m paved street dating back to 1711, running from the old part of the city to the more modern, lower part.  It is sometimes referred to as the Ukrainian Monmarte, after the area in Paris as it is normal filled with artesian stalls selling their arts and crafts.

Also just below St Andrew’s, is another quirky sculpture called “Chasing Two Hares”.  It is based on characters from a famous Soviet film, part of which was filmed in the area.  According to the story,  the lead character was going to marry a rich, but ugly women but he loves a beautiful girl who doesn’t like him – the moral of the story being that if you chase after two ‘hares’, you will not catch any!  Apparently depending on where you touch the statue, you will find money, or love … or both??

We continued on to Sofiyskaya or Sophia Square, a beautiful square surrounded by beautiful buildings, including the 11th century St Sophia Cathedral which was inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  It was one of the city’s best know landmarks and the first site in Ukraine to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage site. 

In the centre of the square there is a large statue of Bodhan Khmelnytsky, known as the leader of the Cossacks.  In December 1648 he lead his Cossack’s regiments in to the square, through the Golden Gate after they had defeated the Polish Army.  Interestingly the square was dominated by a large banner on one of the surrounding buildings #FREEMARKIV.  Our guide explained that it was protesting the imprisonment of Vitalii Markiv, a former Ukrainian solider who is in an Italian prison for allegedly be responsible for the death of a Russian and an Italian journalist in during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.  Many believe the conviction was unfounded and based on false testimony and are still fighting for his release.

On the way to our final sight for the walk we passed yet another quirky art work, and one of the city’s favourites – “Hedgehog in the Fog”, from a famous Soviet cartoon in the 1970s.  Apparently, it is dressed up depending on the seasons, so in November it was adorned with a ‘necklace’ of autumn leaves.

Finally we reached the Golden Gate, which has been referred to a few times during the walking tour.  Another key landmark of the city and a reminder of its medieval past, dating back to the 11th century.   It was original built by Kievan Prince Yaroslav the Wise, upon his victorious return from battle.  It was named the Golden Gate after the golden domes of the church on top on top of the gate.

As with so many places I have seen this year, the gate was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century and subsequent builds were reduced to dust until the 18th century when the ruins were excavated.  Full reconstruction took until 1970 though there is no real evidence that the current Golden Gate is the same or even similar to the original one!

Next to the Golden Gate is a statue of it’s founder – Yaroslav the Wise.  In his hands is the Sofia cathedral (which he was also responsible for building)– or is it?  Some say it is actually a statue of a waiter, holding a Kiev cake???

Just when I thought it was all over, there was yet another interesting statue – this time a cat, in a small park.  The cat, named Pantyusha, lived in a nearby Italian restaurant and was popular with all its customers.  One night in 1997 there was a fire in the restaurant and legend has it the cat saved the family before dying itself.  It was buried in the park and staff and customers donated money to erect the statue.  Apparently, it is lucky to touch his ears or tail.

I said goodbye to the guide and small group (only 5 of us) and walked back down towards Indepdence Square to get something to eat.  I had heard about a ‘hidden’ restaurant called Ostannya Barykada, or the “Last Barricade”.  It is fair to say, if you did not know it existed, you would not find it!

In the shopping centre under the square, there is a hidden level in the elevator.  Once you have found the floor, you head down what looks like a dead end, but when you utter the password (it would be cheating to tell you what it is), a secret door opens and you gain entrance to a corridor with a wall of hands, signifying the years Ukraine spent under Russian rule, before another door opens in to a huge cafe/restaurant!

The restaurant is dedicated to the revolutions – the Student Revolution in 1990, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan revolution in 2014.  That’s a lot of revolutions in a relatively short period of time!  The restaurant only serves Ukrainian food and while it is relatively expensive by Ukrainian standards it is totally worth it (and still cheap compared to similar places in central Paris for example).

For the last proper meal in Kiev, it was great to have such a selection of local food and drinks and after a discussion with the waitress I chose to have a Baked Cheese and a local sausage dish.   To accompany it I had a Sea buckthorn and ginger drink – sour but quite tasty.  I rounded it all off with a Kiev cake (layers of meringue with hazelnuts, butter cream and chocolate glaze) – just like the one Yaroslav the Wise is holding.  I had asked if having both the cheese and suasage dishes was too much (considering I also wanted cake) and the waitress had said no – she was wrong – they were both huge!

But never fear, I got through it all and it was all delicious but I was glad that I had plenty of time to eat them and that I was doing another walking tour in the afternoon.

The next tour was called a “modern Kiev” tour and again it started in Independence Square at 3pm.

We left the square by a different route, and our first stop was to see some street art – a small painting commemorating those who died in the 2014 revolution, known communally as Heaven’s Hundreds, and the one of the many art works in one of the pedestrian tunnels under the road.

It is always interesting when you have different guides on these tours in the same area, as you often get slightly different stories – this guide told us that the almost everything we were seeing in the city centre rebuilt after World War II as the Russian army destroyed it as they retreated so the approaching Nazis could not prosper from it!

Another one of the main symbols of the city is the People’s Friendship arch.  It was built in 1982 to commerorate the 60th anniversary of the USSR and more importantly the 1,500th anniversary of the city of Kiev, as a gift to the city from Moscow.  Its 50m in diameter, made of titanium with a bronze statue beneath it showing a Ukrainan and Russian (the burlier of the two) with their arms raised in solidarity!  Given Russian/Ukraine relationships this days, it is a surprise that it is still standing!  That said, in 2018 someone added a sticker that looks like a crack in the middle of the arch!  Oddly no one has tried to remove it.

As we continued our walk through Kreshchatiy Park, the sun started to set and the temperature dropped, it was getting so cold it was hard to stand in one place for too long so we quicken our pace!  This part held yet more quirky statues – the Tree of Wishes.  A forged iron tree where you dreams can come true if you leave a note in the hollow.  The sign says “Dream, and your life will be full of miracles!”. And secondly the Monument to the Frog, also know as the Money Toad – a 6 tonne bronze sculpture with faces in its mouth! As with many of the other sculptures, this too can bring you luck or fortune by rubbing its nose, or throwing a coin into the slot in his mouth.

Further on in the park is the Bridge of Lovers, in contrast it is also known as Bridge of Suicides!  I think you can probably guess the reasons for both names.  People who invested money to build the bridge could write whatever they wanted on the planks, apparently one of the sections says “I love soup”!  Now that is some commitment to soup lol.

The sunset from here was also beautiful over the city and the government buildings (built in 1936-39) – half circle again (so you can’t be shot from a corner)!

Through the park, we came to Mariyinsky Palace, built in 1744 by Russian Empress Elizaveta Petrovna.  Unfortunately she was dead before it was finished, and it was subsequently used by Empress Catherine II (you may know her as Catherine the Great), and has been the residences for numerous Governor Generals. 

By 1870 it was in ruins after a series of fires, and Alexander II of Russia commissioned the reconstruction of it, using old drawings as a guide – it was then renamed after Empress Maria Alexandrovna and it was used by visiting members of the Imperial family until the Russian revolution in 1917.  Damaged again in WWII it has been restored a number of times since then.  Today it is used by the Ukrainian President and visiting head’s of states

By the time we reached our final stop it was well below zero degrees and dark and I must admit my interest was waning – my note taking was definitely suffering as I could not type on my phone with my gloves on lol!  Our final stop was the “House with Chimaeras” or “Horodecki House”, an art nouveau building in the historic district of Lypky.    Built by a Polish architect in 1901 as an apartment for himself – it even had the first elevator in the Russian empire (apparently). 

The architect was a fan of safari hunting so the building was decorated with images of exotic animals and hunting scenes – hence the name, the “House of Chimaeras” – chimaera being an architecture style which has animal figures as decoration.

The architect fell on hard financial times (some say due to all the money he spent on hunting) and the house was rented out room by room and changed hands multiple times before being occupied by the Communist Party until the early 2000s.  Today it is used as a presidential residence for official and diplomatic ceremonies as it is just across the street from the Presidents office.

It had been a long and interesting day, but I was definitely ready to head home – although the Metro was cheap and really easy to use, I was far to exhausted to catch the metro and train to the airport – Uber it was!!! 


27 hours in Shanghai

After only 48 hours back in the UK, I had to make a quick dash back to New Zealand when my Mum became ill.  I had a shorter trip planned for a few week’s time so could thankfully use the same flights and just amend the dates.

On my return to the UK, rather than just transiting through Shanghai, a city I had never been to, I decided to spend a day having a look around.  I have been to Bejing and Xian many years ago, but never Shanghai.  I had a busy day planned to make the most of my short time, and it started a mere 3 hours after my plane was due to land (wishful thinking? Thankfully not)!

I was already calculating my plan B as I stood in the short but very slow immigration queue, but I finally made it through and found my way to the Shanghai Magnetic Levitation (or Maglev) train – only the third commercial maglev line and the oldest one still in commercial operation – having opened in 2004.  At a cruising speed of 430km/h it is the fastest commercial electric train in the world and it connects the Shanghai airport to Longyang Road Station, a distance of 30km, in less than 8 minutes.  My train only got up to about 300km/h and I was already worrying about making by 10am walking tour … I was certain those extra 100km/h would have made all the difference.

What is a Maglev train I hear you ask?  It’s a system where trains float over guidelines (rather than wheels on tracks) using the principles of magnets.  They rarely touch the tracks so there is far less noise and vibration and the lack of friction means they can travel at high speeds – lesson over lol.

After a quick stop off at my hotel, where I could thankfully get into my room to change and drop my bags, I set off at a trot to the meeting point, arriving just in time.  As it turns out I did not have to rush as we ended up waiting around for at least another 15 minutes – I could have got that coffee I was craving!

Shanghai is China’s largest city with a population of over 24 million (a staggering amount for my brain to comprehend).  What started off as a fishing village on the Huangpu river (a tributary of the Yangtze river), is now the busiest container port in the world.

I won’t bore you with the centuries long history of Shanghai but perhaps just a brief, more recent history which lead to the diverse city we see today – namely the Opium Wars.  The first was fought in 1839-1942, between the Qing dynasty and the British which started in part because of the dynasty’s campaign against the opium trade which was extremely lucrative for the British Empire (through the British East India Company). The second in 1856-1860 against Britain and France.  The Qing dynasty lost both due to their enemies more advanced military technology and they were forced to grant favourable tariffs, trade concessions and territories, not subject to Chinese laws.  (One of these territories was Hong Kong which ended up being a British territory from 1841 to 1997.)

The first stop on the walking tour was an odd ‘fake’ street 🤔 – a model of a 1930’s Shanghai street called Shanghai Old Days or 1930 Folk Street – underneath the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre.

 It is almost like something out of a Las Vegas hotel, where they have tried to make you feel like you are in Venice (the Venetian), Rome (Caesars Palace) or Morocco (the Aladdin) with false ceilings painted like skies and cobblestones floors.  There is also mannequins wearing the eras clothing and a life size street car (or tram).

We next stopped at the People’s Square – prior to 1949, it was home to the Shanghai Race club and it’s horse racing course.  Racing and gambling stopped during WWII and was never allowed to resume. 

The clubhouse buildings became the Shanghai Art Muesem, while part of the race track became People’s Park, a public park.  These buildings were soon joined by the Shanghai Museum (shaped like a Chinese cook pot with a beautiful floral display in front of it), the Shanghai Grand Theatre and the City Hall (celebrating the 70 year anniversary of the governing Communist Party).  Our guide told us that the new buildings built in the area were built big and heavy, in order to push down demons from graveyard that was next to racecourse!

People’s Park used to only be open to foreigners, but is now sometimes referred to as ‘Old People’ Park as there are many older people in the park exercising or taking their birds for a walk (in their cages of course lol).  Worth noting that people retire relatively early – men at 60 and women at 55, so these so called ‘old people’ are not necessarily that old!

One of the other major activities that now takes place in the park today is the Marriage Market.   Kind of like a Chinese tinder, but here it is parents trying to match make their children – by advertising their details on umbrella!  Hundreds of umbrellas advertising people and apparently, 99% of parents are doing this against their child’s knowledge or without the children knowing!!!!  They provide details about their child’s height, weight, education, job etc. but it is almost as important that the whole family gets on, not just the children!  The parents take this very seriously and they are there every weekend, all day, until they make a suitable match.

Through the park and we continued on East Nanjing Road pedestrian street.  The full street is 5.5 kilometres long with big western brand shops interspersed with local shops.  The east part of the road is the busiest commercial part of the city and apparently there is a saying that goes “’you have not ever been to Shanghai unless you go to the Nanjing Road’.

Constructed in 1851, the road ran from the racecourse to the Bund (by the river) and was widely called Great Horse Road or “Da Malu” in Chinese and it was the city’s first modern road.  A kilometre of the road was converted to a pedestrian street in 1999.

We turned off this modern, western street and we were immediate immersed in a something a little more traditional.  Narrow bustling streets, full of small local shops, lots of little food shops and full of mopeds and people and it was time to sample some real Chinese food in China – I had a couple of pork buns, only 2 yuan each (about NZ 45 cents) and they were amazing!  I also tried by first bubble tea – I may be a little late to jump on that band wagon.  Thankfully there were a couple of American girls on the walking tour who had been living in China and were familiar with how it all works as it was all in Chinese and there were a number of choices that had to be made – tea type, flavour, sugar level etc.  I tried the traditional one and I can say it certainly will not be the last time as it was good.  To date I have not really found one quite so good, I guess in NZ the concept has been westernised but I am still enjoying them.

Back on the main street, we stopped to admire a statue, taking pride of place along the pedestrian street – A woman carrying a small child and pushing a pram.  Looks pretty innocuous but it in fact was a propaganda statue for the Chinese one child policy!  This has now been changed to a two child policy, but in the past there were great penalties for having more than one e.g. the loss of their job and not being able to get another one.   It was also prohibited for people to know the gender of the baby until birth so they did not abort girls. 

A side note, in some jobs, people only get 5 days annual leave a year, although on the upside they do get to retire earlier.  Still, I definitely could not survive more than 40 years of one week holiday a year! Thank goodness I am not Chinese!!!  

Shanghai is such a city of contrasts – old and new, rich and poor, modern and traditional.  Our next stop was more on the traditional side, the Shikumen or stone gate houses.  These houses date back to the end of the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900’s and are made of thick wooden boards with stone door frames (hence the name).  These houses started off as largish European style apartments off narrow alleys, but subletting (sometimes several in the same apartment) meant often people had about 4.5 square metres per person, with public kitchens and bathrooms – resulting in crowded and disorderly living conditions.  Some people still live like this but many of these alleys are being demolished to build modern buildings whilst others have been completely refurbished for modern living whilst keeping the more traditional design.

We then made our way to The Bund (Waitan in Chinese meaning Outer Beach), one of the most popular tourist sites in the city and the waterfront area along the bank of the Huangpu River. 

The word ‘bund’ actually comes from the Persian word “band” which means embankment and was named as such by Baghdadi Jews who settled in Shanghai.  Today the area is a protected historical district and is within the former Shanghai International Settlement and there are 26 colonial buildings from the 1920’s-1930’s when it was the powerful centre of the foreign establishment in the city.  It has been known as the Oriental Wall street and in fact, even has a bull sculpture.  It was made by the same designer as the New York Wall Street bull, but they asked for it to be twice as big as its New York counterpart, but it is not quite!

All the colonial buildings that once flew the British flag, now fly the Chinese flag, every single building lol  😂

30 years ago, there was almost nothing on the other side of the river, today the area is filled with modern skyscrapers and is probably one of the most recognisable scenes of the city.  One of the skycrapers is the second tallest building in the world – it may only be the second tallest building, BUT, it does have the world’s fastest lift and the highest observation deck.  Unfortunately I did not have time to visit the other side of the river, but hopefully next time. 

Oddly, Google (the company) has 3 floors of the ‘Bottle opener’ building (at vast expensive) but the use of google is banned in China (even google maps!) – now that’s a head scratcher 🤔 Perhaps they are preparing for a change of law in the future I guess?

It is still an active river and port today and boats ploughing up and down – large Chinese barges, container ships and cruise ships alike.

After almost 5 hours of walking, I left the group and headed to my hotel which was just around the corner for a quick ‘nana nap’ before heading back to the Bund.  They was still the haze of pollution and even more people than earlier in the day. I guess that’s China for you 😂

As the sun went down, one by one the buildings across the river came to life and then the almost full moon rose over the buildings –  it was beautiful but I could not stay too long as I had to jump on the metro to meet up with my food tour guide.  The gardens were beautiful as well, with moving butterfly illuminations – photos do not do it justice.

By this time (around 5pm) there were soooooo many people and clearly I was going the wrong way – sometimes there where so many people going towards the Bund I could not fit on the footpath!

When I finally made it back the metro and realised there was a much more direct way to my meeting point so of course I was there 30 minutes early – I could have taken at least another 20 completely unnecessary photos of the Bund as it got darker 😂

Thankfully the metro system is an easy way to get around this vast city. I bought a ticket that included 1 maglev ride and 24 hours on the metro for 55 Yuan (around NZ$12).  That was a couple of hours short to be able to include my return to the airport but a single ticket on the metro was not expensive.  There was airport style security checks to get in to the metro stations but once in, the metro maps have English translations as does the announcements on the metros themselves saying which stops are which so that made life so much easier (at the same time taking away the challenge of working out in a completely foreign language) – and they are air conditioned 👍🏻.

The meeting point for my evening food tour was just outside the South Shaanxi Road metro station next to a large modern shopping mall full of design shops.  Sadly, given my short time in the city I did not get to see much of the old or traditional (hopefully another time) part. The one good thing about all the high end shopping centres is high end toilets!!  And I mean really fancy, so I took the opportunity to use the facilities before I meet up with the group.

The food tour was arranged through Lost Plate Food Tours.  They pride themselves in taking small groups (8 in my group) to local, family owned restaurants, off the normal tourist routes.  Many of them only specialise in one dish which means they are experts in it!  For US$65 you could have unlimited food and beer on this tour that took us through the former French concession.  The best thing was that if you were not finished your beer when we were ready to move on to the next restaurant, we could just take it with us.

We headed off to our first restaurant through a beautiful park, many people were out dancing and enjoying the balmy evening.  Historically, the park was only allowed to be used by French children!

We quickly reached Round one – Pot stickers and Shanghai soup dumplings and Suntory beer.  All delicious and quickly consumed. Of course we had to be reminded that we had numerous more courses to go so not to fill up at the first stop lol.

Round two was a small place that used to be a house (most of the places we visited were like this).  We were seated in a small upstairs room which used to be a bedroom and here we had Shallion (or Spring Onion) Oil noodles which are considered Shanghai comfort food and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Our noodles were washed down with a yellow wine made from wheat called Huangjiu and a Tsingtao beer.

Round 3 took us to a much larger restaurant and we had a massive private room –  room number 888 = rich rich rich in the Chinese culture.  Here the food was much more fine dining but unfortunately it is here my notes fail me – the first course I have described as “Fresh?  Shrimp, egg, bamboo – it’s so fresh I lose my eyebrows? 😂”  Now I have done a google search and all it brings up is beauty salons in Shanghai were I can get my eyebrows shaped!!  So I really have no idea what eyebrows had to do with this dish but it gave me a good laugh 10 months on lol.

Thankfully I had a little more detail noted about the next dish – “Moonlight shining on lotus pond” but not much and I assume it is a signature dish of the restaurant as again not find much about it lol. Judging by the photo it had Chinese yams, capisicum, lotus roots, snow peas and black fungus (probably nicer to say a type of mushroom lol).

We had a delicious ground pork and mushroom dish which you wrapped in a small flat bread, and then the final course was their famous braised Pork Belly, which not surprisingly was delicious.

Next up was dessert at a “hole in the wall” store, mango flavoured coconut milk with sago which we ate on the street and it was amazing!  All the food was great but this was probably my favourite.

Our final stop on the food tour was a roof top bar and craft beer brewery for our final beer – lots of different choices and some great fruity beers.  It was a great tour.  Not only tasting some amazing food but learning about the cultural idiosyncrasies of food and drink in Shanghai.

Not suprisingly, my final stop for the day was back at the Bund to check out the lights at night which of course were still pretty spectacular.  And so ended my 18kms of walking for the day! 

The following morning and I was ready to head back to the airport.  Clearly people in Shanghai are not early risers – my fears of getting caught up in their rush hour commute was unfounded. Even Starbucks was not open at 7.30am on a Monday and the metro was not rammed as I had imagined. I got a seat after a couple of stops and settled in for the 50 minute journey on the subway to the airport.

I need to be honest, in all that walking, I really did not see anything traditional. Shanghai was a real surprise to me – well certainly the part I spent the day in. Modern, clean and shiny – but next time I need to dig a little deeper for the traditional Chinese part of the city … or stay for 48 or even 72 hours!

Ashgabat – it’s hard to say goodbye

And so to my last day in Central Asia and the forecast for the day was a toasty 39c!!! As with everything else, the weather has been such a contrast from the cold steppes to the sweltering city of Ashgabat!  Thankfully it is not even the hottest time here – just imagine that!  Apparently, it can be 50+ at the gas crater and with the heat of the fire even hotter! 

Fun fact for the day, did you know what was once called the Caspian Sea, is now official called the “Caspian water body”.  The “water body” is incredibly valuable due to all the oil and gas and sturgeon (the fish that produces the most expensive caviar) and seas and lakes have formal rules as to how the resources are divided, which the surrounding countries didn’t want to follow. After a large forum, the outcome was to call the former sea a ‘water body’ and define their own rules  – 20 km from the coast line for oil and gas, another 10 km for fishing and then no mans ‘water’.

Our first stop of the day was the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque (Spiritual or Golden Mosque) – one of the biggest mosques in Central Asia.  The Mosque is just on the outskirts of the city in what was the village of Gypjak, the hometown of Niyazov’s (the first president) hometown and contains his family Mausoleum where he was buried after his death in 2006.  Tragically his father died when he was 3 years old and his mother and two brothers were killed in the 1948 earthquake when he was 8 years old. From then he was brought up in an orphanage.

The mosque was built in 2004, funded by rich businessmen from the Arabian Peninsula who wanted to get a leg up in the oil & gas industry in the Caspian region and it has been the centre of some controversy. Not only are scriptures written in Turkmen/Latin alphabet rather than Arabic (which is very rare), but scriptures from the Koran are interspersed with quotes from Ruhnama – many Muslims were upset as this seemed to imply that the Ruhnama is placed as an equal to the Koran!

This mosque, not surprisingly, is a Friday mosque that can accommodate up to 12,000 people and is one of the largest mosques in Central Asia.  It is the largest single domed (a dome that is completed covered in gold leaf) mosque in the world and has the largest eight pointed star, one piece carpet in the world!  (Another one of those interesting world records!)  This is particularly important to the Turkmen people as they are famous for their rug/carpet making – there is a Ministry of Carpets and the Turkmen carpet making techniques are included on the “Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” as of 2019.  Examples of rug patterns are even included on the country’s flag – one pattern for each region (5 in total).

But I digress, back to the mosque … numbers are always very important so here we see minarets that are 91m tall, representing the year of independence and 48 windows representing the year of the great earthquake!  It also has incredible acoustics and underground parking for 500 cars and 100 buses!

Despite the opulence of this mosque, Turkmenistan is officially a secular state.  The population are predominately Sunni Muslim or Christian but there are no religious schools to avoid extremism.  People can go out of the country to religious schools; however, they must receive government approval to do this.

Our next stop was Old Nisa, an ancient Parthian settlement on the outskirts of Ashgabat and it has been considered the residence of the Parthian Kings and the capital of the Parthian empire which dominated the region from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.  The fortress was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. 

Old Nisa was a major trading hub, situated at the crossroads of multiple trade routes of the Parthian empire, which was one of the most powerful and influential civilizations of the ancient world, rivalling Rome itself.

Excavations have revealed substantial buildings including temples and palaces, and walls 8m tall.  They have also found many Hellenistic art works as well as a large number of ivory rhytons, some encrusted in gems (we had seen some of these yesterday in the museum).  Apparently, this is the only place rhytons made of ivory have been found.

The Parthian’s were known for their very heavily armoured horses and strong mounted archers, have you heard of the Parthian shot (I think it is sometimes mistaken for a ‘parting shot’)?  A well-known military tactic where the riders would feign a retreat and whilst still galloping away, would turn their bodies and fire their arrows at the pursuing enemy!  Apparently, a Parthian smile is a smile that is not from the heart 🤔.  I think the key take away here is don’t trust a Parthian!

Our guide at the site was a historian and archaeologist, often referred to as the ‘last King of Nisa’. He regaled us with stories of Old Nisa in its prime.  The site covers over 14 hectares and only 35% has so far been excavated.  With wide corridors for aristocrats and narrow ones for servants, dried brick from the 3rd century BC and baked brick from the 2 century BC. 

When discovered in the 19th century, the Russian’s believed there was a royal necropolis here – as yet it has not be founded, however they have found an underground passage and are yet to explore it, so who knows what ancient treasures and secrets it holds.

From the ancient city we head back into the new city and the grand Memorial Complex – built as a memorial to the victims of great events in history e.g. Great Patriotic war (WWII to you and me) where approximately 90,000 Turkmen soldiers dies, the Russian invasion of Goek Tepe in 1880, the war in Afghanistan and the 1948 earthquake.

The complex is vast (650,000 Sq Metres) and has a different monument or memorial for each event.   One of the most striking is for the victims of the earthquake – known as Monument Ruhy Tagzym.  A 10 metres high bronze sculpture of a bull with a globe balanced on its horns.  Ancient Turkmens believed that the earth is held on the back of a giant bull.  The earth is heavy and every now and then the bull shifts it legs and moves it shoulders – hence earthquakes!  (A similar story is also known in Islam where the cosmic bull carries on its back the angel that shoulders the earth!)

Our final stop for the morning (yes, it was still morning!) was at the Wedding Palace, an oddly shaped building on a hill overlooking the city.  The building has 3 tiers (somewhat like a wedding cake), topped with a globe (with the image of Turkmenistan on it), surrounded by 8 pointed stars.  Symbolism is again important – the building has 4 entrances, symbolising the four directions and the 8 pointed stars symbolising the 8 gates of Islam and the nomadic 8 directions of the world.  Inside there are 6 rooms for marriage registration and 2 large wedding halls and 7 banquet rooms!

After lunch at a local restaurant we headed about an hour out of the city to Geokdepe to see the famous Turkmen horses called Akhal Teke.  These beautiful horses have long thin legs and very short silky hair which makes them look almost metallic – they are built for endurance.  They are one of the oldest horse breeds in the world and one of the major symbols of Turkmenistan.  There is a National Horse day and is even a Ministry of Turkmen horses in the government (the only country in the world to have this).

The stud farm we were visiting was over 300 years old but had been closed down during the Soviet period as people were not allowed to run private businesses.  Many of the horses were killed for food by the Soviets (totally against Turkmen beliefs who consider them holy and bury them like people when they die). Thankfully this family farm managed to keep a number of their horses hidden so they could keep the bloodline going.

I enjoyed my time watching the beautiful horses and feeding their two very cute baby camels. 😘

Back at our hotel in the city we had a lovely last dinner reminiscing on the amazing trip we have had. It has been truly been a surprising and eye opening experience.  It was so sad to say goodbye to Aijan who had been amazing guide throughout the 3 weeks, and I hope I will see her again.

My pickup was 12.15am for the depressing journey back to England but not before the final surprise Ashgabat had to offer – we had seen the airport on the way into the city, shaped like a hunting falcon.  Incredibly at night, the lights make it look like the wings are moving up and down in flight – incredible!  And when you get inside, the inside of the roof looks like the underside of the wing feathers.  They have really thought of everything lol.

And so, just over a year from the start of this incredible journey, I have finally managed to write about it all (I am thankful for my obsessive note taking 😂).  There are too many adjectives I could use to describe the trip and experiences – eye opening, interesting, educational, beautiful, spectacular, amazing, incredibly.  Truly a trip of a lifetime … but places I hope I can make it back to in the future.

If you are reading this and thinking about taking a trip to Central Asia (one day in the future when we can travel freely again), I would highly recommend getting in touch with Kalpak Travel (kalpak-travel.com) – you can join one of their scheduled small group tours, or Luca and Aijan can help arrange your personalised itinerary. Not a sponsored ad, just a recommendation based on my amazing personal experience.

Las Vegas + Pyongyang = Ashgabat

After a night’s sleep in a tent near the Darvaza Gas Crater, I got up early to watch the sunrise, with the company of the lovely Alabai dog who had just come off his nightshift lol.  (I forgot to mention that an Alabai was the mascot of the Asian Games held in Ashgabat in 2017!).

Too soon we were back on the road towards our final destination of Ashgabat, but not before a few stops on the way.  It is worth noting that the Darvaza crater is not the only crater in the region and there have been numerous other cave ins of drilling sites.  We stopped at a couple along the road, neither as large as the Darvaza, or burning.  One had a very distinct sulphur smell to it, and the second was full of water.  Apparently, they continue to get bigger.

This stretch of the road continued through the Karakum desert (80% of the country is desert) with many more camels along the road – and a road sign warning of them (I am loving this ❤️❤️❤️).   Most of the camels we are seeing are dromedary (one humped camel) despite them being native to Arabia.  The original camels of the region were Bactrian (double humped) but as Arabs moved into the region, following the Silk Road over 4,000 years they brought with them their camels.  The camels bred with the native Bactrian camels and their dominate genes meant the resulting offspring were predominately single humped, almost wiping out the local Bactrian population.

After a quick dune toilet stop (not always easy to find a bush big enough to hide behind in the desert lol) we stopped at a small semi-nomadic village.  Most of the people who live here still continue with their nomadic way of life and breed camels for wool, milk and meat.  Camels can be worth between $5-6000! That said, these semi-nomadic villages are pretty well set up these days with running water, gas and electricity, schools and medical centres.

Do you know why camels’ are always looking haughty??  Legend has it, Allah has 100 names, 99 are known by mortals, but the 100th name, a very scared and holy name, Mohammed told to his camel – so they are always looking down on us because they know something we don’t know!

Back on the road, passing more camels along the way (have I mentioned that I am loving all the camels lol), of course our next stop was the car wash – a large industrial place where all the vehicles entering the city could get washed.  As with Dushanbe, dirty cars were not allowed into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.  Clearly, they did not care so much about dirty people as we were all pretty dirty by this stage. 😂

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to our jeeps and drivers and the amazing time in the desert and move on to our final days in the incredible city of Ashgabat. 

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Turkmenistan has been populated since ancient times, being conquered by various armies and empires, including Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC, the Parthian Kingdom (who’s capital was Old Nisa where we visit later), Arabs (bringing Islam in the 7th century AD), the Seljuk Empire, Genghis Khan, Temur and many more until Tsarist Russia invaded in the 1880’s under the guise of freeing Russian slaves. 

After numerous bloody battles, Imperial Russia took control in 1894 and through to independence, Russia followed by the USSR exploited the countries mineral resources. Still today Russia has a monopoly over gas from Turkmenistan – allegedly they buy it for cheap and sell it on as Russian gas at a higher price.

There have also always been tribes of horse-breeding Turkmen who drifted into the area and whose ancestors remain today – again, more about these men and their horses later.

As with other USSR states, Turkmenistan declared its independence in 1991 and today the country is considered a sovereign state. It was ruled by ‘President for Life’ Saparmurat Niyazov until he died in 2006.  After his death, it was decided that his successor would be selected through public elections and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was elected (although apparently the election did not meet international standards).

The country remains with limited contact to the outside world, with most popular social media sites banned (e.g. Facebook, Instagram etc.) unless on a government sanctioned domain and the government has full control of all media outlets, however more recently the Government has started to rewrite its legislation with a goal of meeting international standards.

I also mentioned in my previous blog, farming is still managed along the Soviet lines of collective farming, as is most of the economy with industry almost entirely dominated by government-owned entities, including all the incredible construction we see in Ashgabat.

And so, to Ashgabat, were to start … today Ashgabat’s population is around 1 million people although how it got there was an interesting story.  Not so long ago, the population of the city was 400,000.  Apparently, they were awarded the Asian games, but then realised the city was supposed to have a population of over 1 million to host the games … so they just expanded the city borders almost overnight, so the population was big enough!

As we entered the city, we passed another area of government built housing (they all have green roofs so are easy to spot!) and then we were in to the beautiful wide (and almost car free) boulevards and white marble buildings.   Apparently, the president had wanted the ‘whitest’ city in the world – white marble buildings, white lamp posts, white cars (are preferred).  Apparently, Turkmenistan purchased so much white marble (from Turkey and Italy) during the construction, the world price went up by 30%.  The city even made it into the Guinness Book of World records in 2013 for having the highest concentration of white marble clad buildings!  Almost 600 in the city centre.  Lonely planet describes the city as Las Vegas meets Pyongyang and they are not far wrong though I think Dushanbe comes a close second 😂

Most of the city was destroyed in a massive 7.3 earthquake in October 1948, the extent of it was not widely reported by the USSR, but it is believed that more than 110,000 people were killed.  The USSR were also pretty cash poor at the time (due to the funds spent on WWII), because of this, they quickly built an area of cheap, temporary housing with the intention of replacing them when they had more money.  Not surprisingly this rebuild never happened!  This means it is really a city of two parts – the old (built in the 40s-50s) and the new (built in the 90s).   

These days, most people live in the older part of the city and don’t come out till after 6pm because of heat (today is only 33 and it is autumn!).   Although life may seem somewhat controlled based on our ‘western’ opinion it is worth noting  that their life is not so bad … they have very low taxes and cost of living, all forms of public transport is subsidised, free health care (mostly) and utilities (gas, electric and water) costs $16 per year!  Rustam explained that if you have 6 children or more you get given a free house!!! He was on child number two and had great hopes for the future lol.

We arrived at our beautiful hotel, right across the road from the Presidential palace – such a contrast from the night before, spent in a tent in the desert!  Unfortunately, photography of the presidential palace and some other key buildings, as well as uniformed police and or military is forbidden.

With very little time left of our trip, after a brief break for a much needed shower we headed out on some afternoon sightseeing, starting with the National Museum of History which showcases the concise history of the country back to BC3000!!

Here we were introduced to Rhytons – ancient drinking horns, often elegantly carved and sometimes made from ivory like those we see in the museum that were found in nearby Old Nisa (more about that later).

Just outside the museum is what is now the 5th highest flagpole in the world, proudly displaying the Turkmen flag.  It was once the tallest but has now been overtaken, even by the flagpole in Dushanbe which comes in in 3rd place!

Our next stop was at the Arch of Neutrality (not technically an arch lol).  When the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkmenistan was left without any support or protection and with Afghanistan and Iran just over the border (Ashgabat is only 15 minutes to the Iranian border) and people were scared.  So, in 1995, the government declared the country in a state of permanent neutrality to contribute to the “peace and security in the region”.  Ultimately the intent is that no other country can send troops into the country and if they do, it is expected that the UN will defend them, if they are attacked. 

The country is very proud of their neutrality and even prouder of their Arch of Neutrality.  A 75 metre tall rocket shaped tower topped with a gold statue of the first President – the icing on the cake is that the President’s statue rotates so his face always faces the sun.

Our final sightseeing stop for the day is Independence Park.   Beautifully manicured flower beds, marble stairs (of course there is marble), pathways lined by five headed eagles, fountains and statues of national heroes.  Of course, the centre piece is the Independence Monument – the lower part of the monument is shaped like a huge yurt and at the top of its 118m tower is a crescent moon with five stars representing the unity of five Turkmen tribes.

Also, in Independence Park we found a huge statue/model of a book – “Ruhnama (The Book of Soul)”.  This book was written by the first President and is apparently a combination of spiritual/moral guidance, stories and poems, information about Turkmen history and traditions and the definition of “moral, family, social and religious norms for modern Turkmens”.  

The book was initially rolled out in schools and libraries, but then its teaching actually became part of the driving test and potential government employees (FYI the government is the largest employer in the country) were tested on it at job interviews!!  In 2005, part of the book was launched in to orbit so that it could “conquer space” and it is expected to orbit the earth for 150 years

In 2013, the book was removed from the school curriculum and people were no longer tested on it and despite it having been translated in to many (depending on sources somewhere between 45-75) languages today you can’t find a copy anywhere 🤔🤔🤔

Despite the fact the wind brings sand and dust from the desert into the city, the city so sooooooo incredible clean (as of course you would expect from Central Asia lol.

We had dinner in a restaurant with an amazing view  of the sunset and then the neon lit monuments and buildings – it was a beautiful warm night and I would have loved to stay longer as it was technically the last night of my holiday but sadly as no one else wanted to so I had to head back to the hotel and was in bed by 9.30pm again!  One of the down sides of group tours – especially when everyone is so much older!  And apparently, I was also foiled by an 11pm curfew in place in the city (this is normal practice), but to be honest I would have been happy with 11 instead of 9 🥴😂

Stan No. 5 – Turkmenistan

Day 19 of our tour and the day started with immigration documents at the hotel in Khiva as it was only 1 hour drive to the border.  We were also given a briefing as to how to behave at the border!  Turkmenistan is still a fairly closed country and the only one on this trip that we had to get an ‘invitation’ prior to being allowed to request a visa at the border.  Apparently, people are often declined, including Aijan, our Krzygz guide – this was the first time she was given approval so it would be her first time in the country as well.  The instructions were “don’t get in trouble and act like a tourist”. 😂

The road to the Shavat-Dashoguz border crossing was not a good one but fringed by cotton fields being harvested – it looks like back breaking work 🥴. (I have probably mentioned before but cotton is an important commodity in Uzbekistan and we would go on to learn Turkmenistan.

At the border we had several procedures to go through to leave Uzbekistan.  Firstly, we had to hand in the accommodation slips we had been collecting to show where we stayed, followed by 3 passport checks and finally an immigration office to official exit us from the country.  We then caught shuttle bus (an old soviet bus) across the 1km no mans land to reach the Turkmen border.

Getting into Turkmenistan was a little more time consuming and it took about an hour to get our visas issued – thankfully our new local guide, Rustam, did most of the work and we just had to sit around waiting! 

Part of the process included what I wrote at the time as “some weird temperature test with a little gun pointed at our forehead 🤔🤔”.  Of course, writing this 10 months in the future and these ‘weird’ temperature guns are a regular part of our lives – how things change!

The final step was to pay our fee – I had to pay US$100 while all the Australians only paid US$70 – maybe I should have had my NZ passport 🤦🏻‍♀️.  As we passed through, the immigration officer was very cheerful and friendly despite the warnings we were given and all he said was ‘welcome to Turkmenistan’.   The final leg of this amazing trip.

  • Currency:  Turkmenistan New Manat (TMT) US$1 = TMT3.5 (but there is a big black market which has an exchange of more like US$1 to TMT 10 so we did not actually use any cash)
  • Language: Turkmen
  • Size: 491,000km2
  • Population:  6,031,000

Our local guide Rustam took us over to 6 jeeps which were going to be our transport for the next couple of days.  My driver was Dimitri, he looked very Russian (or what my image of what an Russian looks like) and his muscle bound body was completely decked out in desert camouflauge.  We found out later than he was a medal winning ex-Soviet decathlete – having represented the USSR in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  He clearly still worked out from time to time lol.  Luckily, he spoke good English which meant we could chat along the way.

Turkmenistan is still untouched by mass tourism, with only 25,000 tourists arriving annually – unlike it’s neighbour Uzbekistan who gets over 5 million a year!  Tourists cannot come to Turkmenistan without arranging a tour through one of the 5-6 tour companies who are closely monitored by the Government.   Of course, we need to bear in mind these numbers were all in a pre-covid world and who knows what impact that will have on future numbers given tourism was already less than 1% of Turkmenistan’s income!

Our first stop was in Dashoguz, a small town not far from the border where we stopped for lunch.  The first thing we noticed was all the school children in their matching traditional uniforms looking incredibly smart.   School children were wearing green whilst university students were wearing red.

Our lunch restaurant was clearly near a university as there were several students there having their lunch in their lovely uniforms.  We were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us and they were more than happy to chat and pose for photos.

Interestingly there were guards on the street in the small town, apparently to control the ‘order of the city’ 🤔

From Dashoguz we drove around 100km to Kunya Urgench, passing collective farms along the way.  Apparently the collective farming system still operates in Turkmenistan today.  The Government owns the farms and farmers rent the land for 49 years, apparently a similar but more liberal version of the communist collective farms.  The farmers struggle in the area as the fields have a lot of salt in them – a legacy of Aral Sea which is infamous for the fact that it has almost complete dried up!

Kunya-Urgench (of Konye-Urgench as it is also know) is home to two of Turkmenistan’s three  UNESCO World Heritage sites which were once part of the ancient town of Urgench, situated on one of the most important Silk Road cross roads between the east and the west. 

Dimitri (our driver) entertained us with his Russian music – initially I asked if it was Turkmen music and his reaction was ‘you can listen to Turkmen music on the tv – 7 channels, 24 hours per day, why listen to it in the car’ lol

The buildings we see today date between the 11th and 16th centuries but earliest records of the town are from an oasis town between the 5th and 4th centuries BC created by united Nomad tribes who made the most of the nearby river  … before it was conquered by the Arabs in 712.

Much money was spent on infrastructure in the 10th century and it was apparently a very beautiful city until 1220/1221, when the city was destroyed by the Mongols in what was considered one of the “bloodiest massacres in human history”.  Rustam told us that 360 holy men, many famous scholars were killed or taken captive. 

Despite the devastation the city was rebuilt to its previous glory, until Temur attacked in 1373.  Initially the ruler of the city, and the short lived Sufi Dynasty, Yusef Sufi surrendered to Temur, but 6 years later he rebelled which ultimately resulted in Temur razing the city, killing most of its population and destroying its advanced irrigation system and dam.  (Apparently, he did save the lives of the master architects, builders, stone masons etc and took them back to Samarkand with him.)

The city never really came back this second attack and it started to decline in importance until eventually the regional capital was moved to Khiva.

There is no real town layout left to see, just a few stand alone monuments around the area and our first stop was a small complex with 3 mausoleums – Najm-ad-Din al Kubra, Sultan Ali and Piryar Vali. The mausoleum’s range in age from 13th-16th centuries and are so different to the reconstructed beauty of Uzbekistan but no less fascinating 

One of the buildings (from the 14th century) was designed by an architect who was an astronomer and as such there are a number of special touches – 4 windows relating to the 4 seasons, 12 columns for the 12 months and 360 geometrical patterns, one for each day of the year.

Despite them being called mausoleums, this has been brought into question as there appear to be no on buried in them!  Another theory is that they called the buildings mausoleums so that the Mongols would not destroy them they as they worshiped ancestors.  Who knows what the truth really is.

There were more local visitors than there were tourists, and they were praying and walking around the buildings touching the bricks as the sites are now considered holy shrines where the women pray for good marriages (particularly at the one considered to be for a princess).  These old mausoleums appeared to have not had much recent restoration.  There we not many tiles remaining on the outside and many pigeons making homes on the inside – oh the smell 🤦🏻‍♀️!

In the second part of the site, there is much excavation still to happen (currently being done by a group of Italian archaeologists) and many of the structures are covered with 2-3 metres of sand!  What remains are excavated are far less reconstructed and fit in to three eras – ancient, pre-Mongol and post-Mongol.

One of the structures used to be the tallest ancient minaret in Central Asia.  It was 60-61 metres tall and had been covered in blue tiles and with a gold bell.  The bottom was built in the 10th century whilst the top is dated back to the 14th century – in its glory there was a bridge connecting it to a nearby mosque – incredibly 70% of what we see today is original!

It was interesting to see some of the pre-Mongol buildings have a conical dome, there are not many like it in Central Asia.  According to the archaeologists, they have discovered ancient inscriptions in some of the buildings but unfortunately there is not good enough technology in the country to work on them as yet.  It will be exciting to see what they discover in the future.

As this is also a site for local pilgrims and there were a number of beautifully dressed local women and families also visiting the site and Rustam taught us a few phrases in Turkmen to greet them – ‘Hello, let Allah receive your charity’ (phonetically “Salam Kabul balsoon”) and ‘thank you and goodbye’ (sagbol).

Did I mention it was hot!!  Hot, hot, hot – especially exploring around these ruins in the desert!

As we left the Kunya Urgench area, we set off on what is considered the worst road in Turkmenistan!  This continued for about 80 km, passing a brand new 6 lane bridge – it looks very out of place is it has no real road leading to or from it yet 🤦🏻‍♀️lol.

We passed a random 1st century BC fort on the side of the road (crazy how you can just pass something like this as if it is commonplace!), before finally reached a better road – with still 200km to drive it become clear that it was likely we would miss the sunset 😟 which was disappointing.

I took the opportunity of a quick toilet stop in the sand dunes of the Karakum Desert to explore the amazing patterns in the sand and lizard tracks but only saw 1 tiny lizard …. next up was a camel on the roadside but we could not stop to take photos as we were now in a dash to get to the camp before dark!!

We finally reached our destination and camp for the night – the Darvaza Gas Crater, probably the best known spot in the country.  Despite our doubts, we made it just in time for sunset and it was spectacular.

In 2019, mineral fuels (including oil) was 94.5% of Turkmenistan’s total exports and the country possesses the world’s 4th largest reserves of natural gas, along with substantial oil reserves.  This of course leads me to the background of the Darvaza crater that has been burning constantly since 1971!

The site was initially discovered by Soviet engineers as an oil field site and they set up operations to drill.  Unfortunately for them, they ended up finding a natural gas pocket, but it was not long until the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed into a wide crater, swallowing everything around it.  To avoid the release of any position gases, they decided to set the escaping gas from the massive crater on fire to burn it off, expecting it to burn out in a few weeks.  Almost 50 years later, the crater is still burning!

The sunset was lovely, but the darkness made the crater look even more spectacular.  And then the moon began to rise … just like the sun over the near by hill. Sitting in the campsite (which had already been set up for us) watching it was so special.  Being outside in nature is truly my peace!

We were kept company but a massive Turkmen sheep dog (a breed called Alabai or Polar Bear dog as I named him) named Tsar.  His job was to keep wolves and other predators away from livestock, and in Tsar’s case, also to protect us!  Apparently, their clip their ears and tails so they cannot be grabbed when fighting wolves!   – I would sneak him food as I decided he needed to build up his stamina for his night shift 🤦🏻‍♀️.

(Just an aside, did you know that Australia does not have hedgehogs???  I didn’t!!  The Australians in the group got so excited when a very cute hedgehog ran through our camp during dinner, they didn’t even know what it was??  Oh, the unexpected things you learn whilst travelling 😂)

Before arriving, Rustam had told us to expect a ‘lot’ of people (it is all relative!) at the crater as it is the most popular tourist site in the country but as it turns out there was hardly any really, just a hand full of people  – apparently he had expected 300 people not the 20 or so that were there.  Great for us to have such an incredible site almost to ourselves and after a few drinks we settled in to our tents for the night.

Khiva – saving the best for last

After a leisurely morning (not common on this trip so made the most of it) we boarded a bus for a 9am departure for our long day of driving to Khiva – around 8-9 hours.  Thankfully, it was a big 30 seater bus for only 14 people, so we had plenty of room to spread out and make ourselves comfortable.

Today’s drive took as through the Kyzylkum desert – Kyzylkum meaning ‘red sand’ in Turkic languages which covers an area of almost 300,000km2 over Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.  It sits between two rivers, Amu Barya and Syr Darya and for some time the road ran along the Amu Barya and we could see the border posts running along the Turkmen side of the river border.

Interestingly there is an autonomous region situated in the desert called Karakalpakstan, the capital of which is Nukus.  The Karakalpaks are closely related to the Kazaks but there is little written about their origins.  Despite being part of the Soviet Union during their occupation it was still considered an autonomous republic and because of this, and its remote location, very few Russians ever visited the region,. For these reasons, the area was apparently used to store ‘forbidden’ art during the Soviet period.  (Forbidden art being images that depicted sad people, cloudy skies, rich people 🤔 🤔 – because of course in the Soviet Union everyone was happy and equal, and the sun was always shining!)

The first 100km of the road was terrible but thankfully it improved after that when we reached the concrete part of the road.  A concrete road seemed odd at first but made a lot of sense as it does not melt in the high heat the desert can experience!  I was also surprised to find clean western toilets at roadside cafés/restaurants – basically in the middle of nowhere 🤔.  This was a very pleasant surprise. 

As with all good road trips in the region, we passed several Ladas, many stacked with so many heavy bags I was surprised they could move at all lol

The final hour took us back on a bad road as the desert turned into green fields as we approached the city of Khiva. 

When we arrived, we had some free time and I took the chance to start to explore.  Our hotel was close to the walls of the old or inner city (known as Itchan Kala) and the route in to the old city took me through a labyrinth of dirt streets with mud walls where people lived and were going about their normal business, children playing and people watering down the dust.  Many of the houses had chillies hanging outside the doors which apparently provide spiritual protection for those who live there.

Once through the houses, you arrive in the centre of the old city where you find the monuments, the traders and the paved streets and I was just in time for sunset so I stopped off for a beer to watch the setting sun – it was definitely worth the wait as it was spectacular behind the famous landmarks.

For dinner we were treated to a well-known Uzbek dish (and a speciality of Khiva) called Shivit Oshi.  Bright green noodles which have been infused with dill, giving them not only their colour but their tasty flavour.  (Clearly you can tell from the photo that I am more interested in eating the food than taking a photo of it!!  The photography is always an afterthought lol.)

The following day, the group walking tour was not starting until 10am so I jumped at another opportunity to get out early to explore on my own.  It was cool and peaceful and for me, the perfect time to be exploring, passing children going to school and street cleaners out and about sweeping the streets. And the best thing – virtually no tourists – I wish all day could be like this 😂🤦🏻‍♀️.  Apparently, the city receives less tourists than other Uzbek cities because of it’s out of the way location, but I think it is probably my favourite city we visited in Uzbekistan.

Khiva started life as a Silk Road caravan stop more than 2,500 years ago and the old city was the first site in the country to be listed by UNESCO on their World Heritage list. 

Legend has it, the city was founded by Shem, a son of Noah (of the Ark fame).  After the great flood, he was wandering in the desert and dreamt of 300 torches.   He believed this to be a good omen so he a dug well and built a fortress.  (Apparently, the well still exists today but it is in someone’s garden!) The name Khiva is said to have come from “Khey Vakh” – meaning “What a pleasure”, which is what people exclaimed when they tasted the water from Shem’s well!

Historically Khiva was ruled by a Genghisid dynasty (Huns who were descendants of Genghis Khan) and in the 17th century, it was home to a large slave market and it is thought that many of the slaves (mostly Persian) were used to construct the city walls we see today.

The current city walls sit around Itchan Kala (the inner city) and it is believed that the foundations were laid in the 10th century, however much of the current day walls (up to 10 metres in height and 6 metres thick in some places) date back to the 17th century.  Our local guide (Maxhfirat) told us that the width of the walls (at the top) was important as they allowed carriages to drive around them and deliver ammunition during battles.

There are 4 monumental gates into the Itchan Kala today – north, south, east and west.  People had to pay tax at the western gate to enter the inner city to sell the goods.  Oddly, this is still somewhat true today as tourists have to pay/purchase entrance tickets at the western gate to enter (though you can just walk through the others without a ticket check lol). 

Khiva was a centre for education so there are many madrassahs within the walls of the inner city, but there are no functioning Mosques or madrassahs today.    Our guide told us about the long process of education at the height of Khiva’s golden years.  It took 6 years of study to become a teacher and 10 years to be a judge!  During the final exam, the students had to ‘invent’ something – if they didn’t, they would have to study another 3 years.  Luckily all these years of education were free!

For our day of sightseeing, it was a pleasant 32c but it can get up to 50 and there is very little rain. (It can also get as low as -20C in the winter!) Most of the main monuments face north to catch a breeze for natural ventilation.

And so we started our guided tour of some of the 50+ historical monuments in the inner city and we started with what is the main symbol of Khiva – the beautiful, but unfinished blue tower (the fat one lol) – official name Kalta Minor (meaning Short Minaret).  It was supposed to be a great minaret, between 70-110m tall depending on your source, but when the Khan (Muhammad Amin Khan) died fighting in Iran in 1855, his brother who succeeded him, did not continue the build so it stayed at 29m and 14.5m diameter at the base.  It is also the only minaret in Central Asia completely covered in glazed tiles which is part of its beauty. 

There are many legends as to why it was not finished and the one our guide told us was that the Bukhara Khan was jealous of the Khiva Khan building the tallest minaret, so he asked the same master to build a taller one for him in Bukhara (in some stories he has already agreed to do this). The Khiva Khan heard about this and said he would kill the master when he was finished in Khiva so he could not build another one.  The master learnt of the threat and escaped the city – never to finish the Khiva minaret, nor to build one anywhere else.

The tiles are in 3 colours – Blue for the sky, white for the pure soul and turquoise for Islam and nature.  It is not a coincidence that these are the same colours on the Uzbek flag.  It was so beautiful and to be honest I don’t believe photos do it justice.  I kept finding myself drawn back to it to see it in different lights, from different actions.

Our next stop was one of the Khan palaces, the earliest one, built in the 17th century.  The palace effectively has 3 walls – the outer city walls, the inner city walls and then the palace walls. 

The grand reception hall was made up of several parts including an area where guests were reviewed and taught how to behave in front of the Khan who sat outside in the summer and inside in the winter.  It even has different entry doors depending on the status of the visitors.  Of course, the Khan had a special door just for him.  He even had a yurt in the outside area where he accepted people from nomadic tribes.

Our guide explained the incredible skill required to build and tile these rooms.  The tiles of these era were made by masters called ‘magicians’ – the tiles are not in line with each other to ensure the weight is equally dispersed but despite this the pattern appears as one – as if like magic!

Did you know that there are two types of mosques?  An everyday Mosque and a Friday Mosque – not surprisingly, the Friday Mosques tend to be bigger and grander as everyone prays together on the holy day, including the Khan. The Djuma (or Juma) Mosque is a unique example of a Friday mosque as it is one of the few Mosques without a domed roof and because it has 218 wooden columns supporting its roof.  As it lacks the domed roof, they used ceramic jars for acoustics so that capacity of 5,000 people could hear clearly!

The pillars are all different as they have been donated by different families/people over the years.  Apparently 4-5 pillars date back to the original 10th century structure, and 8 are from the 12th century.  One in particular (with a ying yang symbol) was donated in the 14th century by a Chinese Silk Road trader. 

There are several really interesting techniques used to maintain the columns throughout the years.   Firstly, the use of camel wool in middle between the column and the and pillar at the base.  Apparently, this not only helps protect the column in earthquakes as it absorbs some of the movement, but it also stops bugs getting into the wood as the camel wool has special smell that insects don’t like!  Secondly, a Mulberry tree is planted in the middle of the open area to help protect the pillars from humidity.

Unfortunately, the Mosque was used as a storage room during Soviet times and all the rice and wheat bought lots of termites so many of the columns have required replacement in more recent years.   That said, it was crazy to me, that wooden pillars from the 10th century are just left for people to touch … if something existed like this at home is would be inside an environmentally controlled barrier!!!

It really is a stunning and unique piece of ancient architecture and a perfect location of another pre wedding photo shoot with another stunning couple.   👍🏻

We next visited another palace and definitely the most elaborate.  Tash-Khauli, the main palace of the Khiva rulers, built between 1830-1838 for Allakuli-Khan.  Legend has it the Khan was not happy that it took 8 years to build as he wanted it finished in 2 years and numerous master builders lost their heads over the delay!

The whole palace is made up of a labyrinth of corridors making it difficult for any intruders to find their way in or out – thankfully, our guide knew her way around!  The corridors are cool, even in the heat due to the thickness of the walls and it was incredible as you keep walking out of the cool dark corridors into beautiful sun filled courtyards.  The Khan’s chambers and harem were reachable by just one secret corridor.  Not surprisingly, the Khan’s room is the largest and most elaborately decorated.

Speaking of the harem, did you know that the Khan could legally have only 4 wives, but of course he can supplement them with concubines (of which he had around 40).  Now that is certainly enough to keep a man busy, especially as he had to give all 4 of his legal wives equal attention as any of their children could be the future Khan!  Apparently, the Khan would choose his successor based on exam results!

The Concubines on the other hand had no rights and nor did their children, but they could study in madrassahs which is something they may not otherwise have been able to do.  Concubines, who were always very beautiful, were only ‘in service’ for 2-3 years on average.  They were very well paid, got expensive presents and in most cases could go on to have a good marriage with an upper class man.  For this reason, parents were often more than happy for their daughters to become Concubines to the Khan.  Concubines were also sourced from the slave market (which finished in 1873), these girls, often from Russia or other parts of Europe and upon the end of their ‘service’ were given their freedom.

From time to time, wives and concubines would get jealous and poison each other if they thought they were getting special treatment, hence why the Khan had a secret corridor to his room so they could not see who he was favouring.  If only the walls could talk in the Khan’s bedroom!

As with the first palace we visited, Tash-Hauli Palace had a large reception hall with separate small rooms for registering guests and teaching them how to stand and speak to the Khan.  Embedded around the interior walls of the courtyards are small green tiles.  These are pre-Islam, dating back to when Zoroastrianism was the state religion – apparently, they were original yellow, but the colour changed to green, so they were not destroyed by Muslims! 

Fun fact – the motto of the Zoroastrianism was “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” – you really cannot argue with that!  Despite being one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions, there are only around 120,000 followers of Zoroastrianism in the world today, mostly living in India, Iran and North America.  Did you know Freddy Mercury was a Zoroastrian?

I noticed that many of the doors were very low.  This not only helped moderate the temperature inside the room but as we had seen in the yurts in Kyrgyzstan, the low door frames also mean people must duck as they enter – a sign of respect.

We explored what was a city Mint and came across the Silk money of Korezm.   At the beginning of the 19th century there was a paper shortage and silk was a cheaper medium for printing money! It was also practical as it could be washed when it got dirty.  They also made coins from pure gold, silver and bronze as they did not know how to mix the metals!

In the Mint we also learnt about beard smuggling.  At the time, all men were expected to have beards, but it was found that some would steal gold powder smuggled in their beards!  When this was discovered, the mint workers were made to shave their beards off!  Funnily enough, this is clearly still a smuggling technical as when I googled it to try and find something more about it, a number of articles came up about people being caught trying to smuggle gold dust this way!

There are so many beautiful doors around the old city, and many were made at huge cost – our guide told us that some believe/believed that doors are the faces of the people.  I got a little obsessed with the doors, not just the fancy ones, but also the plainer ones around the small side streets 😂

All that sightseeing and learning, and it was only just lunch time!!  We had the afternoon free, but a couple of the group wanted to go to a particular carpet making shop/factory – one that was featured about in a book called “Carpet ride to Khiva” by Chris Alexander who had lived in the city for many years.  Now I have not read the book (though may have to do so in the future) but the visit was still very interesting.  Did you know it takes 6-8 months to make one rug?  No wonder they are expensive!

Fun-ish fact – Traditional khiva hats are made with sheep’s wool and are also worn in summer, despite them looking very warm (I guess they already knew of that great quality of sheep’s wool for keeping you warm in the winter and cool in the summer)!  Black and brown hats are for younger people and white for older people.   Only a Khan could wear a hat made from lamb’s wool!

And so, we arrived at another evening and another chance to see the sunset – this time from one of the watch towers on the city walls.  It was clearly the place to be as it was crowded and of course there was another pre wedding photo shoot!  The sunset was beautiful – and I took so many photos, there is no such thing as too many sunset photos right 🤔🤔😂😂😂??

Our last night in Uzbekistan was celebrated with another large meal, served in what was more of a family home than a restaurant, with traditional entertainment by a local family – children through to grandparents, singing and dancing.  What a great way to end what has been an amazing time in the country.

Beautiful Bukhara

After an easy and comfortable 1.5 hour train journey, we arrived in Bukhara and meet our new guide Tulkin, before transferring to the hotel for some sleep.

Oh how accustomed I am now to having the internet almost everywhere, so it was a bit of a shock to the system to find out that this hotel only had wifi available in the reception area!  So, instead of being able to catch up on news in bed when I woke up, I had to get up and shower early to get online – I actually enjoyed a quiet 20 minutes or so before the ‘crowds’ arrived with the company of the hotel kitten who quickly became my best friend 😂 and made it worth my while having to sit in the reception lol.

I also had time to take a quick walk around the local area before the crowds and first impressions where that the area looked like a newly built movie set🤔.  Far more Arabic – like something out of Arabian Nights, Aladdin and any other stereotypical Arabian movie you can think of 🤔.  I was interested to see how that impression changed throughout the day. 

As Tulkin introduced us to his city, he explained that Bukhara is a city surrounded by steppes and deserts which leads to it having 270 windy days in a year!  He also explained that it had been a super hot summer this year with temperatures reaching over 50C – I was so glad I had chosen to come in autumn rather than summer!

As with Samarkand, Bukhara has a long history.  In medieval times, it was the capital of the Samanid Empire and as an important Silk Road city was a centre for trade, culture and religion. The historical centre of the city is a UNESCO listed World Heritage site.

It was also the last capital of the Emirate of Bukhara before being overtaken by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.

Back with the group and we started on a walking tour which took us back through the market I had walked through earlier – before any of the shops had opened.  It was now bustling with activity and it was clear that a number of people in my group were very keen shoppers and it was a struggle for the guide to keep them moving (despite the promise of free time for shopping later in the day)!

As well as the shop lined streets, we were introduced to “Taks” or trading domes where shops were grouped together according to their guilds (something that is also seen in Europe).  In Bukhara, 3 trading domes remain from the 16th century (although heavily reconstructed) – the money changing dome, the hatmaker dome and the jewellers dome.  The stone work and design go a long way to keeping the interiors cool on the hottest of summer days.

Tulken knew most of the shop keepers so we took a little time to stop and chat as he told us about their wares before dragging the shoppers onwards to the next site.

Now, I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but again, this city was sooooooo clean! 

The first Madrasah we come to for the day was Ulugbek Madrasah, built not surprisingly, by Ulugbek (the great astronomer we met in Samarkand).  It was built in 1417 by the best architects of the time and although it does not have the most decorative of facades it is still pretty impressive.

At the top of the entrance “gate” there is an inscription from the Koran “the pursuit of knowledge is the responsibility of every Muslim man and woman” – this is often considered Ulugbek’s motto.  His love for astronomy is also clear by the astral designs used.

Opposite Ulugbek’s madrasah is the Abdul Aziz Madrasah, built in 1652 almost 250 years later than it’s neighbour.  It’s exterior gate is far more ornate but much of it’s interior has not been restored.

The next site being the Po-i-Kalyan complex which is the highlight of the city.

The complex is dominated by the Kalyan minaret which is believed to date back to 1127 and is apparently 90% original!  It is also known as the Tower of Death as legend say it was the site where criminals were executed by being through off the top!

Fun fact – the word minaret comes from the Arabic word ‘minara’ which means lighthouse.  It is believed that this may also be an adaption of the fire towers of the Zoroastrian era.  (I can’t remember if I have mentioned before but better twice than not at all right?)

On one side of the square there is the Kalan Mosque which dates back to 1514.  It is vast and can accommodate up to 12,000 people!!  This mosque is unique in that it has 288 monumental pylons supporting the multi domed roofs.

The final monument and youngest in the complex is the Mir-I Arab Madrasah, date which was built around 1535 and is one of the few that is not only still operating as a school today, but was one of the only ones that stayed open during the soviet period.

Just passed this complex and we find ourselves outside the “walls” at the Ark of Bukhara or Citadel, which is a massive fortress around part of the city that was original built around the 5th century AD (though what we see today dates back to the 17th century). That said, the Ark in Bukhara is referred to in texts from 960 and at it’s prime up to 3,000 people lived inside it’s walls.

The walls enclosed almost 4 hectares and range from 16-20 metres in height with the citadel once housing many rooms including store rooms, prison cells and once a great library which was sadly destroyed in one of the conquests for the city.

During the Russian civil war, the Ark was badly damaged by Soviet bombing – apparently only 20% survived.  Rumour also has it that the last Emir, as he escaped to Afghanistan with the royal treasure, ordered the Ark be blown up so it could not be desecrated by the Bolsheviks.

Just outside the fortress walls is the Boloi Haouz Mosque, another unique mosque in the city.  Built in 1712, it served as a Friday mosque right up until the Russian rule in the 1920’s.  The mosque has beautifully painted wooden columns lining the front and is again today a functioning mosque.

It is in Bukhara we met up with Ismail Somoni again, the man who is immortalised in all the giant statues around Tajikistan.  Sadly, we meet him in his mouseleum – which is a perfect example of early Islamic architecture (dating back to the 10th century) and one of the oldest mausoleums in Central Asia. It is completely different to all the other mausoleums we have seen which have been very grand – this one is small, completely symmetrical and made of plain fired bricks (as it was built prior to the invention of glazed tiles).  Despite it’s apparent plain appearance, it is actually a complex combination of numerous (16) intricate decorative traditions e.g. Sogidan, Persian and even classical and was innovative use of the dome support. 

Tulkin told us that at that time, people were not allowed to have mausoleums, however Somoni had this built for him to show that he was not under the rule of the Persian/Arab kings.

Also in this small ancient cemetery we visited Chashma-Ayub mausoleum, built during Temur’s reign.  The name translates as “Job’s Spring”, based on the legend that tells of Job (from the bible) visiting the place and making a well by striking the ground with his staff.  Water from the well is still considered healing.  The mausoleum is unique in having a Khwarazm style conical dome.

After a long morning of working we finally made it to lunch a little out of the centre of town at a “noodle centre” – very similar to the Plov centre we ate at in Tashkent.  Here they sell laghman noodles which originated from China, served with Samsa which were delicious meat pies.  It was incredibly busy, filled with locals and I could see why – it was delicious.  As we left, we passed the small area which they made the samsa in massive quantities – cooked stuck to the sides of a stone oven.  

Our final site for the very hectic day was the Bukhara Synagogue – a synagogue I hear you ask?  Yes, indeed – I too was surprised to see a synagogue here Uzbekistan.  Bukharan Jews have a long history in the city and apparently used to pray with Muslims in a mosque before the synagogue we visited was built in the 16th century.

Even up until the 1920’s, 10% of the population of the city were Jewish and there were 13 synagogues but today, there are less than 300 Jews left in the city with two synagogues.  Many left the city over the years whilst some converted to Islam as they did not have equal rights to trade.  (A similar story of conversion that I had heard in Bosnia where non-Muslims had to pay more tax!)

We had already lost some of the group by this time, either to the shops or their rooms but we finally had some free time (👍🏻👍🏻) to wander around before dinner and then a couple of us went for a a drink in a bar overlooking the Po-i-Kalyan complex which was beautifully lit up (as all good Central Asian monuments are lol).

Just a quick side note – I have mentioned before that Uzbekistan has so many more tourists that the other countries we have visited so far on this trip, but what was odd, is that 80% of tourists and tour groups are over 60 🤔🤔🤔!  I know many of those in my group (all of which were in that same age group) said they had come because they saw a programme where Joanna Lumley (a UK actress in that same age group) travelled along the Silk Road.  Is it possible that all of these tourists had seen the same show??

Swooning over Samarkand

Our Tashkent hotel was lovely but unfortunately, we had no time to enjoy it after arriving at 9pm and leaving the next morning at 6.30am when we set off to the train station.

Everything was so clean and efficient – I saw at least 10 ladies cleaning the streets between the hotel and the station which was only a 15 minute drive! 

The cleanliness and efficiency continued when we got to the train station to catch the wonderful high speed Afrosiyob train.  The train has a high speed of 344 kilometres per hour, but on this leg of the journey it only made it up to about 250km. The seats were huge, with lots of leg room and incredibly comfortable, made even more so on the 2 hour journey by the availability of food and barista coffee!  Really very luxurious.

Samarkand is another clean, beautiful train station and it was easy enough to get everything and everyone off the train and onwards to meet our new guide – Hanifa.  Unlike the other countries where we had one guide throughout the country, in Uzbekistan we have a different guide in each city. Apparently, they need to get qualified as a guide in each city so most just specialise in one.   It was a bit of a shame really as we don’t get the chance to get to know them that well as we did in the other countries, though it does mean they know their stuff (not that the others didn’t lol).

So, to start with a brief history of Samarkand (though I am not sure it is possible to write a brief history of a city so old!!) …  along with Bukhara (which is our next stop), Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia and it was the capital of the Timurid Empire during the 14-15th centuries.  Tamerlane ruled his vast empire with an iron fist, but at the same time he was a patron of the arts and literature and he oversaw the rebuild of much of the city to make it a grand and beautiful city. Luckily, much of his architectural heritage (dating back to the 14/15th centuries) has been persevered (thankfully the Russian’s left it alone) for us to see today – and it is spectacular!

As with many cities and towns along the Silk Road, the city has been the scene of much history and has played an important role in many dynastys with the earliest excavations finding evidence of human activity dating back to 40,000 years! Alexander the Great conquered the city in 329 BC, sparking the beginning of the Hellenistic period which came to an end when it was conquered by the Persian Sassanians around 260 CE.

The early Islamic era started after the Arab conquest of Iran which lead to Turks taking over the city but when their empire collapsed due to wars with the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the city became a diverse religious community for a period of time. Even today there is evidence of Zorastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity religions among others. This period of religious calm came to an end when an Arab garrison and administration centre was established.  Much of the population converted to Islam and the city started it’s development as a centre for Islamic learning.

The Mongols conquered Samarkand in 1220 and pillaged the population of the city, taking with them 30,000 young men and 30,000 craftsmen. Clearly they did not do much damage as Marco Polo described the city in this records from the late 13th century as “a very large and splendid city …”.

The Timurid Empire came to an end in 1500 when Uzbek soliders took control of the city. The capital was moved to Bukhara, leaving Samarkand to fall in to decline but when the Imperial Russian empire turned up in 1868, they started to build their own section of the city which again became a capital city, this time of the Smarakand Oblast of Russian Turkestan (bit of a mouthful!). It became even more important when the Trans-Caspian railway reached it in 1888.

All of that leaves us with the city of three parts we see today – the new town (founded in the 19th century by the Russian empire), the old town (founded around the end of the 13th century after the Mongol attack) and the ancient town (founded 2750 years ago).  With so much to see, we started our sightseeing straight away with our first stop being the Gur-Emir mausoleum, just around the corner from the hotel.  

The mausoleum was completed in 1404 and is the resting place of Mongol conqueror Tamerlane.  It was originally intended to be the tomb of his grandson, Muhammad Shah so it is not as grand as one may expect, but he (after the died unexpectedly), his grandson and a number of other family members were interned there and to be fair it is still pretty grand with the interior walls covered in beautiful tiles with gold inscriptions.  As with most of the sites in Uzbekistan, the mausoleum has been heavily restored, the adjacent madrasa and other buildings have not been rebuilt or restored.

A grand portrait of Tamerlane hangs in the mausoleum.  Nobody really knows what he looked like it, and legend has it, his skull was exhumed so they could try and recreate his appearance – now that is dedication to your art!

We have been lucky enough to have two weeks of very few tourists and almost no crowds – but this all changed in Samarkand!!  We probably saw more tourists in one day than we had in the rest of the trip – still, the crowds were nothing compared to Dubrovnik or other European cities I had visited. 🥴 

The next stop was Registan Square, one of Samarkand’s and in fact Uzbekistan’s most famous landmarks.   The area was a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and it was the hub of the Timurid Renaissance.  (Of course, people are still gathering there today). The square is framed by 3 beautiful madrassas (built between 1417 and 1636) which were Muslim schools up until the revolution in 1917 but these days they are mostly souvenir shops and it has been beautifully restored inside and out.  Photos really do not do it justice.

After a short break for some food, we headed to the Bibi-Khanum Mosque – legend says this building was a gift to Tamerlane by his Chinese wife (he apparently had 9 wives, plus concubines!).  This mosque is one of the most important monuments in Samarkand, built in the 15th century it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world.  Sadly, much of the mosque was destroyed in a large earthquake in 1897 but we are lucky today to be able to see much of it reconstructed (as are most of the famous monuments in Uzbekistan). 

Some parts of this mosque were not completed restored, but you can still see some of the original decoration.  I was interested to learn that they only restore areas where they have part of the original decoration to work from i.e., they won’t just make things up. If they do not know what the original decoration was, they will often leave it blank. 

After another long day I had an early night – after two weeks in of intense travel, I was craving a little more solo time so was missing a few dinners to get it!  And finally, the following morning we were not meeting until 10am.  As I always awake early, I took the opportunity to go for a short walk around before joining the group.

I did not miss the opportunity to see the Gur-Emir mausoleum at night, and then again in the morning, as the sun came up from the roof of our hotel – my early morning rising was definitely rewarded.

The second morning in Samarkand started at Shahi Zinda, or the Alley or Avenue of Mausoleums.  It is an ancient cemetery and is one of the longest-running examples of continually constructed buildings in the world, with tombs and buildings ranging from 9th century through to the 19th century.  Legend has it, that one of the prophets cousins, Kusam ibn Abbas, is buried in the complex after he came to the area in the 7th century to preach Islam.

 The alley of stunningly beautiful buildings, most covered in vibrant turquoise tiles and intricate wood carvings was just stunning, particularly in the morning light.   The visit was made even more special when inside one of the small rooms, a man started praying, with the beautiful musical prayers echoing around the small room. 

Next stop was Ulgubek’s Observatory.  Ulgubek (sometimes know as Ulugh Beg) was the grandson of Tamerlane and was a great astronomer and mathematician.  He became ruler of the Timurid Empire in the 15th century and between 1424 and 1429 he built this incredible observatory which was considered to have been the biggest in Central Asia, and one of the finest in the Islamic world.

The original observatory was lost in 1449 (it was a round structure, 3 story’s high outside and 3 stories deep) and its remains were rediscovered in 1908. The original part that we can see today is the underground trench, with the lower section of the meridian arc. When originally built, the walls of the trench was lined with polished marble.

Ulgubek was way ahead of Europeans in understanding the stars, and it is said that  Europeans used his catalogue of stars until the telescope was invented in 17th century.   The observatory was even written about by Babur in his memoirs (a descent of both Temurlane and Genghis Khan), one of the first royals to write with ‘#nofilter’ (so he certainly annoyed some people 😂).

After exploring the museum at the observatory, we headed out of the city a little to visit a mulberry paper factory.   Even today, this paper manufacturer follows the ancient process brought from China in the 7th century (apprently from Chinese prisoners) and Samarkand became famous for paper marking, having the first paper mill in the Islamic world.  Even the infamous Babur memoirs, he also wrote about the very strong paper that came from the city.

The ancient manufacturing process was lost during the Soviet times and but was revived in 1995 by this small manufacturing business.   It was a very interesting, but completely manual process that took days to produce only the smallest amount of paper so not sure how lucrative it would be without the tourists.

In summary you cut the wood, wet it, remove the bark, dry it, boil it (for 5 hours), crush it using the water wheel (the process requires a lot of water), then wet it again, collect the bits from the water and press (with stones) between two sheets of cotton and final rub with a stone to make it smooth.  Just a few steps lol.

The drive back to the city was crazy, the traffic was reminiscent of India or Vietnam, not the easy going Central Asia we had grown used to!

After a late lunch we had out final stop in Samarkand was to see the remains of the ancient part of the city – Afrasiyab.   Afrasiyab was occupied from 500 BC (the Sogidan culture) to 1220 AD but today is just a hilly grass mound on an elevated area.  The site was discovered in the 1920’s but was actively excavated in the 1960’s, and this uncovered some amazing frescoes which are now housed in the Afrasiyab Museum of Samarkand and I can only describe them as wow!  Incredible to see some these arts works from so long ago. 

The best part about them for me, was the insight they give in to the lives of those who lived there and the people who visited, mostly during the 7th century and the Unash dynasty.  One depicts a procession of a king and princess (perhaps the arrival of a royal bride) with camels and birds, and links to the Zoroastrian religion – possibly the main Sogdiana religion (before the Arab invasion).

In another fresco, there is a reception of ambassadors.  Unfortunately, it was not well preserved, but you can still pick out the Koreas (apparently it was restored by Korean restorers who took special care with the restoration of the Korean ambassadors in the image??).  Others than can be identified are described as “Iranian Europoids” and “Turkic Mongoloids” and it describes a confusing time (certainly for me) as the Varkhuman dynasty was Turkic and the local Iranian elite was gradually replaced by the Turkic!

There are images of what looks like Chinese women, floating in boats and another fresco depicts hunters on a great hunt.  There are also images of running dogs (possibly dachshunds), a sacred animal of Zoroastrianism.

I had a brief opportunity to wander around the souvenir shops and market, before an early dinner (though it truly felt like we had just had lunch) and a quick stop to see Registan square at night before we headed back to the train station to get back on the Afrosiyob train to our next destination.

Whirlwind touring of Tashkent

Day 13 of my tour and we set off towards Stan #4 – Uzbekistan. 

The final stretch of Tajikistan was through the Ferma Valley, once home to a Soviet uranium mine. When it was closed, they left behind large amounts of radioactive waste which has cause many radiation issues for the local nomadic population.

Upon reaching the Oybek border we said goodbye to Farhodbek and had two passport checks before we even reached the actual Tajik border, then just one check to get into Uzbekistan.

  • Currency:  Uzbek s’om (UZS) US$1 = UZS10,180
  • Language: Uzbek
  • Size: 448,978km2
  • Population:  33,000,000

We met Surat our guide at the border and his first introduction to the country was to proudly declare that everyone in Uzbekistan is a million!  Easily done when US$100 is the equivalent to over a million s’om.

Uzbekistan is the most populated country in Central Asia, with almost twice the population of the entire area and the capital, Tashkent has a population of 2.5 million.  There was clearly a bit of a baby boom after the end of the Soviet era, as there is a very young population with 65% of the population under 35 lol.

Until recently, the country has had turbulent relationships with its neighbours – a bit of an issue considering it borders on most of the other Stans!  Thankfully, the situation has improved greatly since the death of the first president in 2016.  One of the first things the new president did was to abolish visa requirements for 100 countries and improve relationships with their neighbours.  Apparently, he even hosted a meeting between Taliban and Afghani leaders.

Fun fact:  Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly landlocked countries (Liechtenstein is the other).

Cotton is Uzbekistan’s main crop (and one of its main exports) with 60% of the land used to grow it.  They are also now diversifying into other crops such as apples, peaches and pears.  In what seems like a throw back to Soviet times, farmers can only rent land for 55 years from the government.  They can’t own the land nor is renewal guaranteed!  The government do help with the provision of fertilisers, but in return, the farmers must sell all their cotton to them – not sure if they get a fair deal or not??

Did you know Uzbekistan is the world’s seventh biggest exporter of gold?  They also have a healthy export of cooper, uranium and gas and significant untapped reserves of oil making it a relatively wealthy country on paper.

Uzbekistan was an early adopter of a change in alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin, starting the process in 1993 with the expectation that all the population would have learnt it by 2000. However this didn’t happen and the alphabet has undergone numerous changes since the one introduced in 1993.  Now days you can see the Latin and Cyrillic languages side by side, or sometimes one or the other – often it depends on the intended audience.  Thankfully, for me, having signs in the Latin alphabet makes them possible to understand and definitely less foreign to me.

Our first stop in Uzbekistan was in the capital, Tashkent, only 100km from the Tajik border. It is one of Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road cities which sat on a major caravan crossroads – it dates back to the first century BC and it celebrated its 2200 anniversary in 2009.  Tashkent means stony settlement, and it was surrounded by stone walls until at least the 12th century.

In contrast to the other Stans I had visited, the Uzbek’s are historically settled people, rather than nomads, living in oasis towns and cities through the country.  Tashkent is one of those cities and despite only have 400mm of rain per year, it is incredibly green.

First impressions were overrun with the masses of traffic as we entered the city, so much more than we had seen in other countries but I guess that comes with the massive increase in population.  Chevrolet cars are manufactured in Uzbekistan and for these reasons, most of the cars on the road are that brand – that, and Ladas – again way more than I had seen elsewhere. (I must admit I was beginning to get a little obsessed with the good old Lada’s that certainly seem to have stood the test of time lol.)

Before lunch we had a quick stop in in a small park with a large memorial to the last large earthquake that struck the city – on April 26, 1966.  It was only a magnitude of 5.1 but it was very shallow, so the impact was immense.  According to the ruling Soviet Union, only 14 people died but the true number is believed to be closer to 200, with over 300,000 left homeless.

As with my hometown of Christchurch that was devasted by earthquakes in 2010/2011, it took over 10 years for the city to rebuilt, but it was an opportunity to redesign it.  Based loosely on St Petersburg, it was rebuilt with wide streets and lots of parks.

The memorial, known as the Monument to Courage, is dedicated to the men and women who rebuilt the city and has a clock showing the time of the first tremor (5.22am) and a man, shielding a woman and child from the earth opening up.

We were definitely ready for lunch by the time we made our way to the famous Tashkent Plov Centre at the bottom of the very tall TV tower (which has a rotating restaurant at the top and is lit up like the Eiffel Tower at night). Plov (very similar to Pilaf or Biryani you find in other countries) is the national dish of Uzbekistan and is a rice dish cooked in broth with vegetables and most commonly served with meat.  Apparently, plov dates back to the time of Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC who spread the dish around his territories.

Unsurprisingly, the Tashkent Plov Centre only sells plov, cooked in massive Kazans (cast iron pot) in front of the two-story dining room which was packed so it was clearly good plov.

Due to its strategic location the old city of Tashkent has had a turbulent history. It was taken by the Arabs in the 8th century and then by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, before Tamerlane (who we met in Tajikistan) moved in in the 14th century.  In the 1860’s, the Russian Empire army invaded and started building a new town, though today the old and new parts have blended in to one.  Incredibly the old buildings (many of them dating back to the 16th century) have survived over 66 major earthquakes!

Our guide Surat, explained to us that we have to remember 5 M words when travelling around Uzbekistan: Madrasa (college for Islamic instruction), Mausoleum (a stately or impressive building housing a tomb or group of tombs), Minaret (a slender tower, typically part of a mosque, with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer), market and money (I assume the last two need no explanation).

We started our afternoon of exploration in the Old City at the central of Muslim Tashkent – the Khast Imom Complex.  The complex houses various buildings include the Madrasa of Barak-Kahn, the Tilla Sheikh Mosque and the mausoleum of Saint Abu Bakr Kaffal Shashi (3 of those 5 ‘M’s).  Moreover, the complex as a library of original manuscripts which includes the world famous Quran of Caliph Usman Ottoman.

It was written in the middle of the 7th Century (not long after the death of the prophet Mohammed) and is written on over 350 pages. It was kept in the treasury of the Caliphs until it was moved from Baghdad to Uzbekistan during the time of Tamerlane.

Our next stop was the Chor-Su Bazaar or “4 streets” bazaar– one of the biggest and oldest markets in Central Asia and it is thought that the site has been home to a market for 2000 years.  More than just a market, it has been the location of public announcements and public executions over the years.  Thankfully these days there are no executions, just plenty of spices, nuts, fruit etc.

Given the masses of traffic, the clean and efficient metro is the easiest way to get around the city.  Built in the 1970’s by the Soviets, Tashkent is known to have some of the most beautiful and ornately decorated metro stations in the world. 

We exited the metro at Amir Temur Square Station and headed to the Museum of Applied Arts.  The museum houses over 7,000 pieces of art including carpets, textiles, ceramics, an exquisite building that was once the home of the Russian ambassador.  As seems to be a theme of the trip, we came across a young couple having their pre-wedding photos taken in front of the building – they were so beautiful.

The final stop on our whirlwind tour of Tashkent was Memory Park and Independence Square in the centre of the modern city.  Within Memory Park, we visited the Glory and Memory Alley in honour of 400,000 soldiers died in World War II. Along both sides of the alley are nocks decorated with wooden carved columns and Memory Books where the names of Uzbek people who died for the “Motherland” in the Second World War are written.  At the end of the alley is the statue of a mourning mother with an eternal flame.  

Independence Square has had numerous lives, in the 1800’s, it used to be the gardens of the General-Governors house and then during Soviet times, it was named Lenin Square with the mandatory large Lenin statue.  Finally, after independence in 1991, it became Independence Square and Lenin was replaced with the Independence Monument – a globe with Uzbekistan’s borders outlined on it.

That said, the Independence monument is somewhat over shadowed by the Arch of Goodwill, a huge archway, supported by 16 marble columns. Topped with sculptures of storks, symbolising peace.

Of course, we must not forget the large statue of Amir Temur (there will be more about him later) and also the lovely wide pedestrian streets filled with stalls and lights (sadly we were too early to see them in their glory).

Finally, our 13 hour day of travel and sight seeing was over and it was time for dinner at a western café.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the food so far had been amazing and always way too much, but it was nice to be able to make our own selection – I had a really good steak!

Day 1 of Uzbekistan over and we have only just scratched the surface.