A Journey on the Silk Road: Uzbekistan

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.

Ayoz Kala, built 2000 years ago

Khiva

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.

Chris And Deah, in Khiva

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).

Poi Kalon Complex

Bukhara

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.

Silk production with natural dyes

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.

Site of Ayoub’s (Job’s) well
Artisan knife makers, Bukhara
Masjid Kalon

Samarkand

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.

Registan Square

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.

Timur the Lame
Chris And Deah in Samarkand

Tashkent

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.

Uthman Koran, Tashkent. No photos allowed on site, so this pic is from Wikipedia. CC by SA3.0

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.

Chorsu Market
Cosmonaut Metro Station
A local dish called “plov”- rice, vegetables, mutton, with raisins and chickpeas

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.

Turkmenistan: Across the sands of the Karakum Desert

turkmenistan Mosque

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.

The flag shows the symbols of the five regions

Ashgabat

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.

The White City
Ashgabat at night. Don’t worry- the state pays everyone’s electric bills

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.

A city planned by a megalomaniac

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).

The Carpet Museum

Mary

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.

Chris at Abiverd ruins
Bronze Age cart wheel

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.

Khan Khala, built by Timur’s son 15th c
A life-saving oasis in the desert

Darvaza Crater

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!

Chris And Deah at Darvaza Crater

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.

Turkmen women climbing a sand dune, wearing their traditional scarves

Georgia 🇬🇪

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?

“Tamada”, or toastmaster statue

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.

View of Tbilisi from the hill-top fortress

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.

Pro Tip: stab these khinkali by the neck with your fork and take a bite while holding them aloft to keep the steaming hot broth from getting all over you

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!

Dinner with Maia at G. Vino

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).

At the Museum of Soviet Occupation
Memorial to the Great Patriotic War
Fabrika Hostel

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.

The wine is strong here and the chacha is even stronger

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.

Sighnagi

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.

The confluence, with the cathedral visible in the old town

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.

Uplistsikhe Caves, 15 km from Gori

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.

Trinity Cathedral at night

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!

Country costs:

Flight from Dubai on FlyDubai: $200

Visa: none

Daily cost: $75 for two people

Armenia 🇦🇲

Armenia Zoravor Church Yerevan

We’ve just passed the nine-month mark of our trip, and our travels have brought us to Armenia. Did you know there’s over 4000 monasteries in Armenia? That’s a lot! As the first country in the world to formally adopt Christianity, much of Armenia’s identity is tied to St Gregory the Illuminator, and his conversion of the king and the nation in 301 AD- as well as conflicts with empires of other faiths ever since.

The Armenian Cross is a symbol found all over the country

Yerevan

We caught a minibus out of Tbilisi to come to Yerevan (one of those few occasions where we walk right up, and we’re the last two passengers the driver was needing for the run, so we left immediately- usually we wind up waiting ages and ages for the van to fill up). The van left from the Avlabari metro station and cost 35 Georgian Lari ($13 USD). Six hours later we were in Yerevan, with just a 20 minute stop at the border. American citizens do not need a visa for Armenia. As we passed through the mountains surrounding Yerevan, a light snow was falling, and our first few days in the city were a bit chilly and rainy- I was glad I had purchased a warm woolen scarf at a second-hand shop.

“Mother Armenia”

We went on a walking tour with Vako, one of the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever had. Art, architecture, history, politics- he was a font of information as we traversed the capital city and then had drinks at a bar afterward. If you’re ever in Yerevan, be sure to sign up for his tour, which is free (you tip at the end however much you thought it was worth).

Yerevan Opera House
King Gagik of Armenia

We got an apartment in Yerevan, and it was really nice to have some space to spread out and relax a bit. We spent more time wandering down smaller side streets, eating at basement tavernas and having coffee and sweets at cafes. We also visited the Cafesjian Center for the Arts twice, for a look at the beautiful art there, as well as the fantastic view of Yerevan from the hillside.

Top floor of the “Cascade”, or Cafesjian Center for the Arts
Looking out over Yerevan

Garni and Geghard

We took a public bus out to the small village of Garni, to see the Greco-Roman temple there. Dedicated to the god Mhir, it is the only temple remaining from that time period (1st c AD) in Armenia. Partially reconstructed, it has nonetheless withstood fires, earthquakes, and dozens of invading empires. From the Merecdes Benz bus station, just take matruyshka 226 to visit (250 dirhams, about 50¢, takes one hour).

Temple at Garni

From Garni, we shared an old Lada taxi with two other travelers to go further up the mountain to visit Geghardavank Monastery, a beautiful 4th century church that claims to have a piece of Noah’s Ark (which landed at nearby Mt Ararat) as well as a piece of the spear that the Romans used in the crucifixion of Christ. I didn’t see either of these relics, so I can’t say for sure that they are there, but I can say that it is a beautiful church carved into a rocky cave, and I’m glad we went. Our shared taxi to get us up there and back down to Garni was 3000 dirhams, split four ways ($1.50 USD each).

Geghardavank Monastery (“Monastery of the Spear”)

Nagorno-Karabakh

Historically an Armenian region, in the time of the Soviets this province was added to Azerbaijan on the maps, which caused big problems once the USSR broke down. In 1988, Soviet Armenia demanded the area be transferred to them, away from Soviet Azerbaijan. Over the next six years, roughly 35,000 people were killed as both sides fought it out. In 1994 there was a cease-fire, which remains to this day. Azerbaijan says the regions is theirs, and visitors are not allowed; but it’s quite easy to catch a bus from Yerevan in Armenia and visit (7 hours, 4500 dirhams – $9 USD from Kilikia Bus Station). When leaving Armenia and entering the “Republic of Artsokh” (which is defended by the Armenian army), visitors receive a slip of paper with the address of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where for 3000 dirhams you can get a visa (they won’t put it inside your passport, so as not to cause problems with Azerbaijan or their allies).

“We Are Our Mountains” monument

Did we visit? Well, I’m not saying, but here are some photos. It’s a beautiful region and some of Armenia’s oldest churches are there, as well as rolling hills, meadows, mountains, and picturesque villages.

Armenian Cathedral at Shoushi, reliquary of the right arm of Grigoris, and symbol of the fight for independence from Azerbaijan
Gandzasar Monastery, home to thousands of manuscripts and supposedly also the resting place of John the Baptist’s head
Triganakert, a city named for King Tigran the Great 95 BC
People used to live in these villages but fled during the war

And that was Armenia for us. We will enter Georgia one more time, spend a few days there, then head for Turkmenistan. I’ll be posting about Georgia in just a couple of days, so if you haven’t already, click the “Follow” button below to get a notification when I post a new one!

Country costs:

Bus ride to: $13

Visa: free

Per day costs: $75 for two people