There’s a saying where I come from that “everything is bigger in Texas” but I’m betting that most Texans have never been to Kazakhstan. The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is quite large, and a large proportion of that is gently rolling steppes that Continue reading “Kazakhstan”
A trip through Central Asia would not be complete without a drive through the Pamir Mountains on the M41, one of the highest roadways in the world. Winding its way from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan, the Pamir Highway is a must-do for travelers who want to see the best of the ‘Stans.
Chris and I flew direct from Tashkent to Dushanbe for $75 on Air Uzbek, and immediately upon arrival, the airport ATM machine ate my debit card. Luckily we have another one, so we got a cab and got settled in to the Green House Hostel for the next few days. Happily, we contacted the bank, and were able to pick up my ATM card two days later at their main office in town.
Our friend Christian was in Dushanbe on business, so while we waited to link up with a driver and/or other riders for the Pamir Highway, we hung out with him at his fancy hotel, enjoying the wine and snacks there while swapping expat stories. We also spent a couple of days walking around town and seeing the monuments in the capital city. Dushanbe is small as far as capital cities go, but with lots of parks and the native tulips were blooming everywhere.
Using some travel forums (Carivanistan is a good one), we linked up with a driver who was available for the week-long trip. Mid-April is still a bit early for the high season on the Pamir Highway- summer is more popular due to warmer temps in the high mountains- but the roads were clear so we were good to go. We spent the first day driving from Dushanbe to Qalai Khumb, a cute little town at the junction of the Khumb and Punj Rivers.
From Qalai Khumb, we followed the Punj River southeast, through the Whakan Valley, with Tajikistan on one side and Afghanistan on the other. All day we could see farmers working in their fields on both sides, shepherds watching over flocks of sheep and goats, and small settlements dotted every so often along the river.
As we gained elevation into the mountains, we continued to parallel the Afghanistan border for the next two days. We stoped at a 3rd century mud fortress, and two hot springs for a soak in the hot waters. The days were cooler and the nights were crisp when we stayed at Khorugh and Ishkashim.
On the fifth day, we left the Afghanistan border and turned north, getting into the really high mountains. Here the lakes were frozen and there was snow on the peaks and slopes of the mountains. We were very grateful for the guest house owners at Langar and Murghab who had electric space heaters for us- and sad when we had to brave the freezing nights to go to the outhouse!
The last two days of the drive were at very high elevations. The Pamir Highway is often called the “Rooftop of the World” and it requires going over the Ak-Baital (White Horse) Pass at 4655 meters (15,272 feet). We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan at 4200 meters- the 2nd highest border crossing in the world. Yay for free visas for many nationalities! It snowed the night we stayed at Sary-Tash- our tiny, one-element heater could not stave off the cold- and we awoke to a white wonderland. Thankfully we descended 1500 meters that day, and suddenly the hills were green again, and filled with herds of horses and new ponies eating the spring grasses.
The Pamir Highway ends in Osh, and after our driver Nuraly got us situated at a guest house there, we said our goodbyes. He was a great driver- very safe- and super knowledgeable about the whole area. We were lucky to have him.
It was Orthodox Easter weekend in Osh, and the first truly warm weekend they’d had all year, so everybody was out and about the town. We walked through a spring carnival (and rode the old Soviet-era Ferris wheel), and hiked Suleiman Too, the small mountain that overlooks the city. Via Twitter, we hooked up with a local who wanted to show us around town- we had a delicious shashlik (kebab) lunch and a walk through the bazaar. He also explained the fascinating tradition of bride-kidnapping here!
After a 12 hour shared-taxi minivan ride up and over a mountain pass, we arrived in the capital city, Bishkek. Originally a fortress established in 1825 to control trade caravans, by 1868 it had grown into a medium-sized Russian settlement named Pishpek. In 1925 it was declared an autonomous oblast in Russian Turkestan, then as the capital of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic was renamed Frunze after a Bolshevik leader, and finally in 1991, it became Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. Got all that?
We met up with two friends-of-our-friend Sharon, and they took us hiking for May Day our in the Ala-Archa National Park. With lots of rain in the past few weeks, it was a muddy and fairly challenging hike (for me at least). There were tons of Kyrgyz people out, celebrating the holiday and a rare day of sun (this month has apparently been way more rainy than usual). At last we finished hiking and went to eat a delicious shashlik dinner, combined with Georgian khachapuri bread- a personal favorite of mine. It was a great reward after several hours of hiking!
The next day, we went on a city walk with a guide we found on IndyGuide. She showed us all around the city, all the monuments, theaters, universities, and governmental buildings. We met up with our two friends for dinner again, eating at a great steak restaurant named Obama’s- a fantastic steak and red wine. Thanks Chris and Brian for such a great dinner!
Next up for us: Kazakhstan 🇰🇿!
While we were planning our trip to Turkmenistan (where you need to either be with a tour company or limit your stay to a transit visa), our tour company offered us an option that combined both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It was a great itinerary and a pretty good deal, so we decided to take the package for both countries and really travel down the Silk Road in style.
After a week in Turkmenistan, we walked across the border into Uzbekistan and met our new driver. We passed through the city of Nukus, stopping at the Savitskey art museum en route, as well as an old mud fortress in what used to be called Karakalpakstan. Along a very bumpy road, we made our way to Khiva, and settled in at Meros Guesthouse inside the fortress city.
Khiva is billed as Central Asia’s only open-air museum city- the entire town inside the reconstructed fortress walls is a living museum. Originally an independent khanate, Khiva was a literal oasis in the desert, the next stop along the Silk Road for traders buying and selling silk, spices, slaves, and cotton. The beginnings of the city date back to the beginning of the Christian Era. One legend states that it was Shem, a son of Noah, who found the city of Khiva when he was digging for a well and was pleasantly surprised at the sweet taste of the water there. Using original 10th century foundations, the city was rebuilt in the 16th century after being conquered and destroyed by Persians.
Inside the fortress walls, the minarets, mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums have all been restored, with brilliant blue, green, and white tiles and delicate alabaster etchings. Dozens of small buildings, living quarters and courtyards are renovated and accessible, and inside are old photos and artifacts from days gone by. Visitors can purchase a ticket that allows entry to all sites (100,000 soms/$12 or 150,000 soms/$18 if you want to add a few minarets and towers).
Bukhara is in the middle of three deserts, yet green mulberry trees are planted everywhere throughout the city. That’s because Bukhara was one of the centers of silk production in the Middle Ages. Even today, silk scarves, tunics, even silk paper are for sale here in the domed trading bazaars, to tourists and to wholesalers. Dozens of families in the area still make their living from silk production, using centuries-old techniques.
Like Khiva, Bukhara has a legend associated with a well- it is said that Job discovered a well in this spot and founded the city. The city later fell under the control of Alexander the Great, and later still it was said that Bukhara was second only to Baghdad for its beauty and its intellectual scholars. Genghis Khan sacked the city in 1221. Over 100 years later, Ibn Battutu passed through in his travels, and the city was still in ruins. Eventually the city became a colony of the Russian empire on the 18th century. Later, as an independent Soviet Republic, then absorbed into the Uzbek Soviet Republic, the city was reconstructed to an approximation of its former glory.
The fast train only takes 90 minutes to reach Samarkand from Bukhara, where we met our next guide. Samarkand is the pearl of the Silk Road, and Registan Square is majestic in its beauty. The heart of the Timurid dynasty, the square is framed by three madrasas, forming a square where royal proclamations were read, visitors were received, and executions were carried out. In 1924, women burned their traditional face-covering veils here in the square, as Islamic traditions were forbidden by the Soviets.
Timur, or Tamarlane as he was known in the West, was born here, and he and his grandson Ulugbek expanded and ruled the empire for nearly 100 years. Fascinated with both Islam and with science, Timur built mosques and madrasas for learning knowledge, while Ulugbek built an observatory that measured and named over 1,000 stars.
Largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, Tashkent was completely rebuilt by the Soviets, who had moved the capital of Uzbekistan here in 1918 in an effort to secure the Fergana Valley as part of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. The city is a fairly modern one, with upscale hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, and a metro. One of the ancient highlights of the city is the Khazrati-Imam, an architectural monument named after a 10th century imam (later a saint). Here visitors can see one of the first written copies of the Koran, in ancient Kufic script, dating to the 8th century- it was penned less than 100 years after Mohammed’s death.
We visited the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, a huge market where absolutely everything from horse meat to underwear is for sale. We explored the underground metro- very 1970s Soviet style- and enjoyed lunch with our driver at a local working man’s restaurant- total price $5 for the three of us.
And then our tour was done and it was time to head to Tajikistan. We really enjoyed our trip to Uzbekistan- we learned so much history, ate delicious food, and had great weather the whole time we were there. The people who live there are very welcoming, and curious about foreigners and excited to meet Americans. A surprising (to me) number of European and Asian tourists travel there- I hope in the future more North Americans will find their way along the Silk Road as well.
We started working on planning our Turkmenistan trip back in December, knowing that we’d need a Letter of Invite from a tour company, a package tour, and a visa before arrival- all of which takes time. After receiving our LOI by email, we took it to the Turkmenistan embassy in Tbilisi, where for $55 they issued us a visa (you can also get it done at Ashgabat airport for $87). We let Travel Notoria plan our tour, and we just showed up with a load of cash (no ATMs in Turkmenistan!) after catching a flight on AirDubai.
We spent the first two days in Ashgabat, which, aside from Pyongyang, might be the strangest capital city we’ve visited. Called the “White (Marble) City”, it has the most marble buildings- 543- monuments, statues, parks, etc. Yes, certified by Guinness Book of World Records and everything. There’s a lot you can’t take pictures of, but we got enough shots that you’ll get the basic idea. Blindingly white and eerily empty by day, the city is transformed into a kind of “neon-Vegas-in-the-desert” vibe by night. Only white or silver cars are allowed in Ashgabat; you can get a ticket for having a dirty car; and smoking is illegal in any outdoor public space.
Most of the city was planned by the first President of Turkmenistan, who not only renamed himself “Father of the Turkmen”, but he also renamed the month of January for himself, the month of April for his mother, the word for “bread” for his mom, and had himself declared “President for Life”. He even wrote a book called the Runahma, which was basically a spiritual guidebook, and required civil servants to be tested on it- and even students to answer questions on it during their driving exam! Turkmenbashi ruled from 1991-2006, when he died, and the second (and current) President was elected.
One highlight of Ashgabat was the carpet museum. From rare double-sided carpets, to carpets using over 270 colors in them, to the world’s largest handmade carpet (it was supposed to be the curtain to the Moscow theater but it was too heavy)- it was all really fascinating. They had examples from the five regions of the country, with each region’s distinctive motifs. The guide was really knowledgeable, but each photo cost 11 manats! In the official exchange rate, that’s $3.14, but at the black market rate, only 75¢. (We exchanged our USD at the black market rate of course).
We left Ashgabat to go see some very old settlements out in the desert. An ancient Silk Road settlement named Abiverd was a particularly pretty stop due to the red poppy field spread out all around. Closer to Mary, we toured Gonur Depe, a city that existed 7000 years ago and was noted in an inscription by Darius I of Persia. A tomb was found here a few years ago that includes four bronze-rimmed cart wheels, evidence of Bronze Age civilization. Both of these settlements have been excavated by archaeologists, but now just sit out untended in the desert, and visitors can walk around them at will. Turkmenistan doesn’t get many tourist visitors per year, which is probably a good thing, because these ancient mud walls which have stood for centuries won’t last long once the Instagram crowd geo-tags them and the tourists start arriving in droves.
After Gonur Depe, we spent a day driving out to another old city, Merv. It was an oasis that was part of Alexander the Great’s empire. Sacked by the Mongols in 1221, the mud fortresses, mosques, and battlements can still be seen today. We even watched a whole herd of wild camels arrive at the oasis for their daily watering, with baby camels just a couple of days old.
Our final stop in Turkmenistan was the Darvaza gas crater. From Mary, we took a quick 40 minute flight back to the capital, spent the night, and then met our driver the next day. We loaded up with dinner and breakfast supplies at the huge Tolkuchka bazaar, and headed out towards the Uzbekistan border. After a lot of sand dunes and some bumpy four-wheel driving, we arrived at the gas crater. In 1971, an oil rig hit a pocket of natural gas and caused a collapse, losing all the equipment. Geologists decided to burn off the gas, thinking it would just take a week or two. 47 years later…. it’s still going, and it’s quite a sight to see! We stayed in a yurt just a few hundred meters from the crater. It was definitely a highlight of our trip there!
Turkmenistan was a fascinating place to visit. Secluded for so long from much of the outside world, they have only recently made their visa requirements a bit easier. Turkmen people still wear traditional hats, scarves, and dresses, and drive around in old Lada cars or in carts pulled by donkeys. Proud of their heritage, but with an eye to the future, change is coming to Turkmenistan, so I’m glad we got it see it when we did.
Geographically in Asia, politically in Europe, Georgia is the perfect base for exploring the Caucasus. We visited Georgia before, between, and after visiting Azerbaijan and Armenia (Americans can enter Georgia without a visa for up to one year). Each time we visited, we explored a different part. We both really liked Georgia and hope to visit again one day. It’s beautiful, it has a rich history, and it has nice weather. And they are the oldest makers of wine in the world. What’s not to like?
Old Town Tbilisi
As usual, we hit the ground running with an Old City walking tour. It helps us get oriented, and the guides usually suggest some good spots for drinks and dinner. We visited old churches, a rare mosque that welcomes both Sunni and Shiite worshippers, and a fortress up on a hill. We saw the Mother Georgia, the ancient sulfur baths, and the ultra-modern Peace Bridge.
Afterwards, we had khinkali, khachapuri, and traditionally-made red wine with our new friend Miranda, and wound up pretty much drinking the night away at a jazz cafe called Singer, where the shelving was made from the parts of an old Singer sewing machine table.
On another night, we were able to catch up with our friend Maia, who we last saw in Myanmar on our visit there, and previously in Khartoum. It’s fun catching up with old friends in new cities!
Tbilisi: Opera House area
On our next visit in town (after going to Azerbaijan), we visited the Opera House area, where we rented a small apartment from a woman who only spoke Russian and Armenian. It was small but cozy, and we were able to do our laundry there. It was near both the Opera House, and the History Museum, which had several good exhibits, including one on Soviet oppression. We also took the funicular up to Turtle Lake over in Vake Park, overlooking the Memorial to the Great Patriotic War. We did a walking tour on the north side of old Tbilisi, which focused more on old Soviet art and architecture. The walking tour meets at Fabrika Hostel, which is a really cool old Soviet sewing factory building that’s been turned into a hostel, featuring an amazing breakfast spread (open to visitors for 19 lari/$7).
Signaghi and Khakheti Wine Region
Along with Miranda, we took a day tour out to the wine-making region of Kakheti. Unfortunately most of the wine tasting of the day went to waste due to our debauchery of the night before- we could barely look at the stuff. Still, it was interesting to learn about how they make the wine, which is fermented in huge clay pots, with the seeds and skins still on the grapes.
We stopped for a visit at a church and nunnery at Signaghi, an old city. The town is lovely, with the picturesque wall of mountains in the distance separating this region of Georgia from Dagestan in Russia. The old church, Bodbe Monastery, is dedicated to St Nino, a young woman who brought Christianity into Georgia in the early 4th century. She made a cross out of two bent grape vines, tied together with her hair, which is why the Georgian cross is usually shown with bent arms. The church here houses a reliquary of St Nino and is a popular pilgrimage spot for Georgians and visitors from around the world.
Mtskheta and Gori
Chris and I took another day trip to visit several sites northwest of Tbilisi. We stopped at the Church of the Holy Cross, perched atop a high plateau overlooking the confluence of two rivers, where the nation of Georgia was baptized in 337. Inside the nearby city of Mtskheta, we walked through the Old Town to the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli (Church of the Living Pillar), a World Heritage Site and the burial place of Christ’s mantle. The current building has been in place since 1029, but sadly lost many of its priceless antiques, such as Middle Ages frescoes that were white-washed by Russian Imperialists.
We also visited the caves at Uplistsikhe, where people lived all the way from the Bronze Age up to the late Middle Ages. It was an important capital city of the Kartli empire, long before the Georgian state. Worshippers from the Iberian peninsula came here to worship their pagan gods, and thrived until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. A bakery, prison, apothecary, living quarters, and a church are still visible there today, carved out from the rocky caves.
From there, our day tour went to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. We visited a museum about the man, which also featured the bulletproof train car he rode in to go to the Yalta conference and to Potsdam. It was an interesting visit, which prompted a discussion about how much a nation should memorialize a public figure who figured so prominently into history but also caused so many deaths.
The many faces of Stalin
Tbilisi: Cathedral area
After taking a minibus down to Armenia for a visit, we returned to Tbilisi to get ready for our flights out. We rented an apartment in the Trinity Catherdral area of town, which is across the river from Old Town and near the Avlabari metro station (where you can catch the bus to Armenia). Our two bedroom, two-story apartment was just $31 a night and literally across the street from the beautiful cathedral, which is the largest one in the Caucasus. We really enjoyed being able to spread out a bit, work on my blog, work on taxes, and kind of take a rest from traveling for a few days. The views of the Cathedral were amazing.
So now we’re rested, researched, and ready for the next leg of our adventure: two weeks’ tour in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Follow along with us as we head down the Silk Road!
Flight from Dubai on FlyDubai: $200
Daily cost: $75 for two people