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.

Kicking it around Khujand …

Khujand (or Khojand as it is also known and once called Leninabad) is situated in the Fergana Valley, in the north of Tajikistan and is the country’s second largest city. Before the 13th century, it was a grand city built by Komil Khojandi filled with palaces, mosques and citadels until those pesky Mongols destroyed almost all trace of the city. In more recent times, it remains the wealthiest part of the country and escaped the worst of the post-soviet civil war (more about that later).

There is still plenty of interest to see in the city, and we started our day at the Arbob Cultural Palace, showcasing the amazing Tajik artisans work.  Built in the 1950s as the headquarters of the Soviet collective farms it was modelled on the winter gardens of St Petersburg.  The Chairman of the collective at that time was a man called Urukhojaev (sometimes referred to as the Tajik gaint due to his size – 170kg!!) who was a personal friend of Stalin and therefore had no issues with money for funding the build!

The interior was stunning and the paint colours are all natural, dating back to the building’s construction!  Apparently, it has a 100 year guarantee 👍

Probably the most important claim to fame for the building is that it was the site where, in 1992, Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union and where the current Tajik flag was chosen.  It was also the location for the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1997.  For these reasons, it was the perfect place for a history lesson – a more recent history (before we dove back into the ancient history).  I do hope you are sitting comfortably! 😊

Towards the end of Soviet Union, there was a lot of corruption, many people got lazy and unmotivated as everyone got the same salary regards of their work ethics!   “People pretended to work and the Government pretended to pay them!” By this point Russia had also started stock piling goods from all the states to ensure for her own solo future, leaving the people of Tajikistan unprepared to be independent! 

Farhod also explained that  University students were forced to do 70 days work on farms each year, compromising their studies – this was actually still the case until 2009!

Fundamental Islamics saw Tajikistan as an easy place to take control and started giving weapons and funding to create an Islamic state. This lead to a devestating civil war.  The war paralysed the economy, there was no heath care or education and many Tajik’s were starving with little or no food.  This went on for 5 years, during which time, over 60,000 lives were lost and neighbours like Uzbekistan, stopped providing resources such as natural gas.

The northern part of the country (where Khujand is located), avoided the worst of the war as fighters did not want to cross the Fann mountains – given our journey the day before, I understand why as I can’t imagine what a journey it would have been without the modern roads and tunnels.  In the south, in the Pamir ranges, there was severe famine and the Aga Khan foundation provided much aid.

The current President, Emomali Rahmon, who has held that position since 1994 is considered by many outside of the country as a dictator. However within the country he is considered by many as a peace maker as he was instrumental in ending the civil war after negotiating peace with the opposition.  He was even given the title of “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” – though I am not sure how much he had to do with the gifting of this title 😂.  He was also ‘given’ lifelong immunity from prosecution, veto powers over all state decisions and the ability to be the President for as long as many terms he wants!

It is worth noting that his son, Rustam is the Mayor of Dushanbe and it is rumoured that this is the reason why so much money is being spent in the city. He is still in his 30s but it is expected that he will be succeed his father as president at some point.

We also learnt about the ‘lucky’ number 16 in the Tajik culture.  16th November is Presidents Day celebrating that on the 16th of November, 1991 in the Arbob Palace (where we were sitting), at the 16th session of the Supreme Council of Tajikistan, the constitutional order was put in place.  Apparently, that session lasted 16 days, and the President sat in seat 16, row 16 of the grand auditorium where we sat. 

The President comes from a peasant family and still tries to be a ‘man of the people’ but has not always made ‘friends’ amongst other leaders.  In particular there was a long time distrust and rivalry with the neighbouring Uzbek President (who was also in power since independence).  The animosity escalated to the point that borders were closed and the flow of gas, water and food suppliers were stopped – some called it an ‘undeclared cold war”.

That Uzbek President died in 2018 and the new President allegedly resolved the conflicts diplomatically in 2 days which opened up the border we would shortly be crossing in to Uzbekistan.

On the way out of the building we stopped to admire a large and intricately embroidered carpet, depicting some of the ‘hero’s of socialistic labour from the Soviet famers collective (see above). 

Our next stop was a silk factory which was established in the city in 1932.  After independence it became family owned and the same family continue to run it today.  We were given a tour of the factory and told about the incredible process off turning silk in to the fabrics – a process that can take up to 2 months with 80% of the work being done by hand!  We were all surprised about how much access we had to the factory and we could wander between the machines and the workers to take photos.

Not surprisingly, they had a small shop where they sold some of their wears and those ‘shoppers’ amongst us (and there were a few) went a little crazy 😂 with all the beautiful silks (though I found some of the patterns a little hard on the eye!).

On the way back in to town we stopped at Somoni Park – well known for it’s large Somoni statue (where Lenin once stood) and large fountains (which were not going as they are normally only turned on at night). It is also a favourite spot for visits due to the beautiful mosaics flanking the steps which tell the history of the region.

Back in town, one of the most popular places to visit is the Panchshanbe (Thursday) Bazaar and the nearby Shiekh Massal ad-Din Mosque complex.  The complex is fairly liberal and even some local women were not wearing head covers but we wore our scarfs out of respect as we wandered around the site.  The oldest mausoleum dates back to 1394 but there are also much more modern buildings in the site including one with a beautiful metallic emerald green dome and another much older one with a blue lapis dome. Part of the mosque was still under construction with women doing painstaking hand painting and applying gold leaf.  Our guide knew the ladies so we had to stop for a chat and a photo.

We continued to be ‘popular’ as we walked around with locals coming up to chat and wanting to take photos with us – others just wanting us to take photos of them 😂😂

The best view of the mosque complex is actually from the first floor of the market – apparently is it the largest market in Central Asia.  Built in 1964 it is overly elegant for a market and is very well stocked with dried fruit and nuts (as we have come to expect)!

Our final official stop for the day was the Historial Museum of Sughd Province which is built in to the reconstructed city walls.  It is the national museum of the northern province and has a whole room dedicated to Alexander the Great (356BC – 323BC).  Some fun facts about Alexander: by the age of 30 he had created one of the largest empires in the ancient world; there are apparently 20 cities in the world named after him (Alexandria), and as a young man, he was tutored by Aristotle So he really must have been pretty ‘great’, right? 🤔

In his funeral procession, his hands hung open and empty at his sides – symbolising that although he had conquered half of the world, he still went to the grave with nothing i.e. don’t be greedy!

We were also introduced to a number of other historic Central Asian/Silk Road movers and shakers – some of whom we would hear more of in the coming days:

Spitamenes (370BC-328BC)– a Sogdian warlord who lead the local uprising against Alexander the Great.  Sadly it did not end well as after losing to Alexander’s army (329BC), he was killed by his own wife and his head sent to Alexander as a peace offering.  His daughter then went on to marry one of Alexander’s key generals!

Timur Malik – A Tajik national hero who is known for his defense (though ultimately unsuccessful) of Khujand during attack from the Mongol invasions (1219-1220).  Apparently, the museum is on the site of his fort.

Timur (1336-1405) (also know as Amir Timur, Tamerlane or literally Timur the Lame due to an injury in his 20s) is generally known as a gruesome Turco-Mongol ruler and one of the most powerful rulers of  the 14th century Islamic world!  Despite being responsible for the deaths of 10s of 1000s of people, he is also responsible for building of the beautiful silk road city of Samarkand where he was buried.  It is also worth noting that his great great grandson founded the Mughal dynasty in India, the family responsible for Timurid inspired buildings like the Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Red Fort.

After an morning of information overload, most of the group wanted to go back to the hotel for a relaxing afternoon but I decided to stay in town and join Farhod and Rosemary (another member of the group) visting an orphanage.  Rosemary had brought a large bag of hand knitted baby hats with her and had been giving them out to guides and people we met with small children and she had asked if there was somewhere in the city to drop of some of the little hats.  They were happy to welcome us to the home and the manager took us around and introduced us to some of the staff and children.  The children were excited to receive the hats and chocolates that Farhod had bought and it was lovely to see their smiling faces. 

We also took the opportunity to take the funicular which runs almost a kilometre across the river (back to Somoni Park) where the fountains were now working before wandering through one of the other beautiful parks (which contained some of the original, not restored city walls) filled with a carcophony of myna birds coming in to roost for the evening.

Our final and perhaps most intriguing spot of our ‘exclusive’ tour was to see a large Lenin statue (24 metres high and believed to be the biggest in Central Asia) in a small, nondescript park on the outskirts of town. It had once stood in Somoni Park, where of course Somoni now stands and in fact was only moved in to this new location in 2011!  It was moved overnight and no one knew it was happening and either due to respect to mother Russia or due to a number of still loyal communists (who had protested about its removal) it was decided to move it rather than destroy it (a similar story to other Central Asian cities we had visited so far)! 

By this time the sun was setting and the lighting was lovely in his new setting, a small but beautiful park with stalls playing western music – Rita Ora I think was paying at the time 😂😂.  As we headed back to our lakeside hotel for our last night we were greeted by a large number of beautiful lights again – Tajikistan you’ve done it again 😂😂😂

Touring Tajikistan

We will blame COVID 19 for the last writing hiatus! Working from home does not seem to give me any extra time and certainly does not give me any more motivation, but reliving my wonderful trips from last year is always a great way to reignite my wanderlust – even if I can not go anywhere or really even plan a trip at the moment.

Back to Tajikistan, Penjikent was a bustling little town in the morning with many people out and about in traditional dress doing their morning shopping or drinking tea.  Lots of car horns honking and barrow boys waiting for people in the market. 

Today’s destination was the “Seven Lakes” in the Fann mountains not far from Penjikent. Unfortunately most of the journey was on some pretty bad roads (more about that later) so the journey took most of the day.  We drove out of the town through small communities and into the mountains – nature amazed me again today!

Although some take the opportunity to hike the full distance (and avoid the worst of the roads when travelling by vehicle) we were short on time so drove most of the way, stopping for photo opportunities along the road.

Each lake was a slightly different colour as we climbed higher into the mountains.  Passing by wildlife including a committee of vultures (yes, that is the collective noun for a group of vultures) and goats eating on the side of the rocks.

As we continued to drive further into the mountains and around lake number 4, the roads got narrower and we were all grateful to be having a break for lunch at a local home stay.  The tour company we were travelling with through Tajikistan were working in conjunction with the Government to help local people set up home stays in the region and were teaching them how to manage tourism.  It is a great initiative and was nice to be able to be part of the training. 

Unfortunately, there was a power cut just as we arrived so a cooked lunch turned in to luncheon meat sandwiches followed by hot chips (when they finally got the fire going to cook them lol).  We were supposed to be having “bush legs” – in 1990, President Bush (USA) signed a trade agreement with Gorbachev (USSR) for the delivery of frozen chicken quarters to the USSR who were experiencing food shortages at the time.  These began referred to as “bush legs” and the phrase is still used to this day.

We were all happy to wait as the 13-year-old daughter of the family was glad to have the opportunity to show us the braclets and other things she had made for sale and it meant we had time to walk around the lovely gardens.  As we got to the 5th lake, we were approached by some other ladies who came out to sell their wares so they are clearly getting used to tourists come up in to the mountains.

The road to the 6th lake was nothing like I had seen before – barely wide enough for 1 car as it winds around the edge of the lake with a drop of about 10m into the lake on one side and a sheer cliff side going up on the other side!!  Not too bad until we came across another vehicle coming in the other direction!  At first there was a bit of an argument between the drivers – which our driver appeared to  win as the other vehicle started to reverse to a small area where you could just squeeze 2 cars passed each other right on the edge!!  Sometimes it was better just to close your eyes and hold on! 🤢

Unfortunately by the time we got to the end of the 6th lake we were running late and there was no time to walk up to the 7th lake. I was disappointed as I had been looking forward to the walk after such a long drive.  Instead we drove up to the final lake which was beautiful and we meet a lovely local family out for a walk and made friends with some local wildlife (cows and donkeys)  before walking back down to the 6th lake (obviously taking much less time that walking up!). 👍

We stopped at a small village on the way back down the mountain and walked through it for a short time  – it is always so interesting to see the locals way of life, people going about their everyday business – doing washing things in the river, herding livestock, kids playing in the streets.

Back in town and I decided to take a night off from the group dinner and just watch Netflix and chill with a snickers and a Diet Coke – just what I needed as although group tours are a great way to see as much as possible in a short space of time, spending 16 hours a day with the group can get a bit much!

Next morning I had time to visit the local market before we set off to our next destination. Another great opportunity to see the local people going about their normal morning routines.   Walking around I was often greeted with the Arabic greeting Salaam Alaikum, said with a bow of the head and your right hand in your heart.  It makes sense here as Tajik is a Persian language but the greeting  was also used in the other stans we have already visited but I guess more because of the Muslim connection.

Today was another long driving day – approximately 6-7 hours which started off through the mountains and through another 5km long tunnel – this time built by China (and it was much better than the Iranian built one we had driven through a couple of days before.)   We had a couple of road side stops for toilets and snacks,. First in a small town, where water running off the mountain side was used to keep drinks cool and then another stop on the side of the mountain where small stalls were set up selling local snacks stop – lots of dried apricots, almonds, apricot kernels etc.

If we were lucky enough to have Farhodbek in our vehicle (our Tajik guide), we would be entertained with local stories and fun facts e.g. Tajik weddings used to be huge and last a full week but to keep costs down, the Government took it upon themselves to put a law in place to cut this down to only one wedding party which can last only 3 hours with a maximum of 150 guests! 

Our next stop was in the town of Istaravshan, allegedly founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century.  As far back as the 14th century the city was renown in Central Asia for its artisans and was a regular stop on the Silk Road caravan route.  Even today it is still famous for its blacksmiths and in particular it’s hand-crafted knives.   Another claim to fame is that Alexander the Great (allegedly) married a girl from Istaravshan.

Different crafts were in different neighbourhoods and we visited the blacksmith neighbourhood where they were making knives and sickles etc.

As is now common when we stop in small towns, people come up to us wanting to practice their English and it is a nice way to interact with them.  On this stop we met an older gentleman, who, after a brief conversation, revealed a couple of cloth bags over this shoulder and under his arm … in these bags he had quails – fighting quails 🤔🤔.  Apparently, there is a long tradition of quail fighting in the city but I had never heard of it!!  Even Aijan, our guide from Kyrgyz had never seen such a thing. 

As we got back on the road, we were now out of the mountains and back to the wide open plains and it was not too much longer before we arrived in Khujand, our final destination for the day. 

Our hotel in Khujand was right on the water front of the Kayrakkum Reservoir, otherwise known as the ‘Tajik Sea’ as it is the largest body of water they have! It had a real resort feel to it and it was extremely peaceful – I actually felt like I was on holiday for our two nights there 😂 .

Tajikistan … you had me at assalomu alaykum (hello)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few random but interesting facts about Tajikistan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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