A Journey Along a Tantalising Slice of the Legendary Silk Road
Where: Almaty, Kazakhstan. Bishkek, Son-Kul & Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Tashkent, Samarkand & Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Khujand, Tajikistan. Central Asia.
When: July and August 2014
What: The Registan, Tashkent TV Tower, Zizkov Cathedral, Central Asian Bazaars, Soviet-era architecture, Uzbekistan Railways, Ala-Too Square, Yurt Stay on Mountain Plateau, Horse Riding, Mud Brick Houses, Rug Making, Gur-e Complex, The Ark, Char-Minar, Lenin statues and portraits, Silk Road sweets.
Country counter: Country No. 57, 58, 59 and 60.
How: International flights, Domestic flights, tour guide, tour bus, taxi, walking, horse riding.
Illnesses or mishaps: A major bout of Kyrgyzstan belly which had me projectile vomiting just hours before an early morning flight to Uzbekistan; dealing with the early onset of altitude sickness from sleeping in a yurt at 3000 metres leading to heart palpitations, a crushing headache and a terrible night's sleep.
Central Asia is made up of five 'Stan countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It's a region of the world which remains untouched by many travellers - but the word is spreading. It remains a region for the hardy traveller only. Indeed, Simon Reeve the TV traveller journeyed through the 'Stans for his series ominously entitled Holidays in the Danger Zone. Afghanistan, which straddles Tajikistan's eastern border, is sufficiently distinct from the other five to not be considered part of the Central Asia region. It is rumoured that Stalin himself drew the lines on the map which now make up the five 'Stan countries. Despite being in the same region, and having a shared communist past, there are rivalries and conflicts which gently simmer, resulting in some borders opening and closing unpredictably and some even still being decided. Since independence, each 'Stan has tried to carve out its own national identity, consolidating cultural practices, looking to the past for national heroes - all with mixed results. The fact remains that none of these countries even existed less than a century ago. Among all of the Soviet republics, those in Central Asia were, perhaps, the least ready for independence when the communist system unravelled in 1991. Indeed, many of the people in charge at the time of the collapse still hold power to this day. One major concern keeping the West awake at night is who will replace the current ageing presidents of these countries - many of whom have stifled political opposition and potential presidential challengers. It is also a region concerned about the possible 'spill-over' effects from more unstable countries bordering the region - namely Afghanistan. Despite Muslims making up a sizeable percentage of the population in many of these countries, you will not hear the call to prayer anywhere: countries in Central Asia are anxious about the potential Islamisation of the region, a fear which serves to enhance their 'police state' approach to security which, in my opinion, blights any tourist's experience of this part of the world. The number of checks and the need to fill in and collect silly slips of paper are annoying at best, invasive and sinister at worst.
This was a four-country adventure which excluded Turkmenistan, the most extreme of all of the 'Stans. Visas are very difficult to obtain and it is also suggested that hotel rooms are bugged. So, we thought we'd pass on Turkmenistan - we did not have time for all five, anyway, and applying for three visas was certainly enough to contend with (at time of travel Kyrgyzstan is visa-free for UK passport holders). Travelling between countries required a mixture of land and air travel owing to the region's mountainous landscapes and vast distances. I would never normally agree to flying domestic airlines in second world countries but having thoroughly researched all other methods of travelling, flying Kazakhstan's Air Astana and Uzbekistan's Uzbekistan Airways was the only way to get from A to B practicably. Flying into Kazakhstan, we travelled overland into the Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek and further south into the mountains at Son-Kul before flying from Bishkek to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan Railways gave us easy and reasonably-priced access to key cities along the famed Silk Road, namely Samarkand and Bukhara, before we headed back to Tashkent for a trip across the border by land to Tajikistan's second city Khujand. Central Asia threw up a few surprises along the way, too; the fact that the manager of the hotel I stayed in in Bishkek had lived, not just in the same town in London I had grown up in, but on the same street. What a small world.
My journey around Central Asia took in a region of the world comprised of seemingly contradictory ingredients. These are lands of revered Lenin statues and a communist past, mosques and Muslims, police states and Turkish tea - all mixed together with a strong Korean, Russian or Chinese influence. This really is a crossroads part of the world where cultures, religions and ways of life seep across country borders drawn by a cynical Soviet hand. These borders were deliberately etched across populations of Kazakhs, Tajiks, Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks - Stalin's divide and conquer strategy. Central Asia was a key location as part of the Great Silk Road, where traders and pilgrims travelled from China, through Central Asia, into Turkey and on to Mediterranean Europe. Experiencing my small slice of the legendary Silk Road meant that I got to see a region of the world many disregard and will never see, as well as adding four fascinating countries to my travel counter.
The Stans Giant
Kazakhstan is by far the largest and richest of the Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to admit defeat when the Soviet Union collapsed and declare its independence. It is not the first place which springs to most people's minds when they're considering a holiday but regular readers of this site know I like something a little more off the beaten track. Its oil and mineral wealth means that Kazakhstan, and Central Asia more generally, has a crucial international role to play in the future - with the West and China both jockeying for dominance in the region. Everyone wants to be Kazakhstan's friend and the Kazakhs know it.
Kazakhstan is an interesting crossroads country - its history is written in the faces of the people who, more often than not, look Korean in appearance yet speak something that sounds like Russian. Indeed, the USSR's Korean population in its far east was forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan during the communist era. Having paid £60 for my Kazakh visa, the country waived the requirement for citizens of the United Kingdom to have one a fortnight before we left. Typical. It is, however, all part of the government's strategy to turn the trickle of tourists from the West into a flood (first they struck a deal with BA for flights directly from London, and now the relaxation of visa restrictions). This doesn't mean that the authorities are tourist-friendly - you still need to be very much on your guard. If, for instance, you are in the country for more than five days and you fail to 'register' at a government office, you could face imprisonment. As it was, Kazakhstan was my first taste of Central Asia and my 57th country .
Almaty, up until recently, was Kazakhstan's capital. The government has relocated the capital hundreds of kilometres north to Astana to be geographically closer to Russia and to steer clear from the country's earthquake hotspot. Almaty is characterised by baking hot boulevards, communist-era tenements and some more peculiar sights. It has character in abundance. Its new underground Metro system opened to much fanfare. Taking twenty three years to build, it has an impressive... seven stations. Surprisingly, it was almost always deserted when we used it. Its cool tunnels, the design of which mimic other Soviet-era Metros I have been on in the former Eastern Bloc, offered quick transport and respite from the July heat for just 30p a ride. I would argue travelling on the Metro is infinitely safer than taking a taxi - driving standards are not high in this part of the world. Indeed, en-route to the hotel from the airport, our driver nearly crashed into a car and, a few minutes later, was just one metre away from knocking down a pedestrian at the zebra crossing. The car was so old that there was no seatbelt for me to wear. The hotel was not much better offering, as it did, only cold, brown water to wash in. I was later to discover that, in Almaty, many older Soviet hotels use hot water pumped from the municipality centrally with hot water available in the summer months only on Tuesdays! Welcome to Kazakhstan.
Almaty has very few landmarks to speak of, but this doesn't make for a dull visit as it is the intriguing fusion of Asian and communist influences which is evocative and striking. The Zenkov Cathedral is a quirky and reminiscent of the colourful Saint Basil's in Moscow, and the golden domes of the Central Mosque are impressive enough. Other sights become tourist attractions without even meaning to, like the gangs of blue khaki-wearing soldiers you will see everywhere you go - a little unnerving but all part of the experience of being in the authoritarian Kazakhstan. Paradoxically, communist era apartment blocks are so ugly they're actually rather interesting. A large chunk of our second day was taken up by a trip up the Kok-Tobe - a cable car ride to Green Hill from which you can take in a stunning vista of the snow capped mountain range which surrounds Almaty, as well as Almaty itself, nestled, as it is, in the valley below. Interrupting the view is the Almaty Tower - a 371 metre tall relic of the country's Soviet past. It is the tallest steel tubular structure in the world and has been built to withstand all but the most powerful of earthquakes. At the top of the hill is a small zoo, some fairground attractions and, incongruously, a life-size bronze statue of The Beatles. Apparently The Beatles are as popular in Kazakhstan as Norman Wisdom is in Albania. Our stay in Almaty was made all the more special by a wonderful little Korean café along the main shopping street. The Kangnam Café had some of the friendliest waitresses I have ever had the privilege of being served by and is the only café I have been to in the world where they give you free coffee as a welcome!
A geometric concrete fascia - a relic of Kazakhstan's Soviet times. I love the combination of shape, colour and Cyrillic script.
The golden domes and white tiles of Almaty's Central Mosque.
I love this photograph: apartments and artist canvases are juxtaposed along Almaty's main Panfilov Street.
Outside the Palace of the Republic.
No post-Soviet nation would be complete without an uncompromising TV tower.
The Rugged Silk Road Land
Kyrgyzstan is famous for its horse riding, its yurts and its stunning landscapes. It was our second 'Stan and relatively easy to get to from Almaty. Our journey to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, started at Sairan Bus Station on the edge of Almaty. Minibuses run regularly when they are full and, for 1800KZT (around £5), you get to travel the 200 kilometres in a minibus with a bunch of locals. It's about as authentic a travel experience as you can get. Kyrgyzstan has over a million tourists visiting every year, mainly attracting those interested in outdoor experiences like hiking, yurt stays or horse riding. It has a rich heritage rooted in a nomadic tribal culture - and horses play a central part of this tradition: "Horses are our wings" goes the Kyrgyz saying. Any traveller worth their passport stamps heads straight out into the mountains to get among the yaks and the shepherds, the yurts and the goats because this is the true beating heart of Kyrgyzstan.
As with many countries of the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991 and, after several revolutions since where the president has been overthrown (the last was in 2010), the country is a fair way along the road to becoming a sort-of-stable and increasingly democratic country. Kyrgyzstan's Soviet history means that anyone with an interest in Soviet architecture and design will have plenty to enjoy here. Many Soviet hallmarks, culturally and physically, are alive and well in Kyrgyzstan. The capital, Bishkek, is an interesting open air Soviet museum, a great city to explore if you have an interest in Soviet design, symbolism and architecture. There are, of course, horror stories which run parallel to this optimistic narrative: bride kidnappings, reports of plague, deadly plants and ticks and corrupt police officers shaking down tourists for a bribe are the main ones you will come across in any research you do on the country. These tales of potential woe are not exactly unfounded, and it would be unwise to ignore them, but do not let them put you off visiting a country with so much to offer as Kyrgyzstan.
Having been crammed into hot, sweaty queues at the Kazakh border, we walked around a small slice of no-man's land before getting to the Kyrgyzstan border entry point. With a stamp in my passport, we entered into the land of the Kyrgyzstanis - my 58th country. Our entry was made all the more quicker by a driver who kept bursting into fits of laughter with his little sister as they endeavoured, with the help of a cheap sat-nav, battered car and regular miscommunications, to get us to our hotel in the capital. Which they did. But only just.
The Kyrgyz capital Bishkek sits close to the country's northern border. It would be safe to say that it does not get a good write-up online. Online forums are awash with cautionary tales and stories of muggings and corrupt police officers targeting tourists. All reviews almost without exception advise against going anywhere at night as it is just not safe. Others warn of mugging hotspots to be avoided if possible. Feeling a little bit rattled by all this, we decided to proceed with caution by booking a cultural tour of Bishkek with a guide from the company Kyrgyz Concept, a well-known travel agency with several offices in the city. For $100 we spent the day zooming around the city with Bek, an English speaking guide who'd spent time living in Idaho in the United States. Having a guide meant we were confident enough to head into the infamous but characterful Osh Bazaar - a wonderful place packed to the rafters with culture and atmosphere - and one of the aforementioned mugging hotspots. After a few hours it became clear that Bishkek was reasonably safe and that we'd probably been a bit over-cautious. Having said that, having a guide and a car meant that we did get to see, and learn about, a whole host of stuff we would have been oblivious to. Unlike many Central Asian countries, it is perfectly okay to take photos of anyone or anything as the Kyrgyz are quite laid back in this respect and thus was a welcome relief from Kazakhstan.
Bishkek's Ala-Too square is a sombre, deserted affair. Old Ala-Too Square has a large, imposing statue of Lenin. So often relegated to museums, low-profile locations or even dismantled entirely in countries of the former Soviet Union, this one stands proudly in roughly the same place. Other symbols of communism can be seen all over the city, from crests above doorways and embellishing the tops of buildings. Expect Lenin mosaics, hammer and sickles and large painted monuments from the country's Soviet days to be completely in-tact - cherished, almost. In a burgeoning capitalist democracy with an increasingly Western outlook, this is quite unusual. There has been no race to consign this tuff to the dustbin of history as in other countries - making Bishkek a sort of open air Soviet museum. We also visited Bishkek's central mosque, entering into the heart of the prayer area, we were invited back the following day to see the end of Ramadan celebrations when there would be hundreds of Muslims in attendance. Indeed, this was one reason why Osh Bazaar was so busy - thronging, as it was, with people buying in provisions for their big celebratory feasts. We would have taken up the offer but our plans were to travel out to Son-Kul the next day to sample the rural side of Kyrgyzstani life. Still, we appreciated their warmth and hospitality nonetheless. Luckily for us, Bishkek had a smattering of Western-style coffee shops. I was glad that Bishkek had embraced the Western love of a decent filter coffee as I was beginning to flag after five hours of non-stop Bishkek citysploring.
Ala-Too Square with its intense and evocative arched buildings.
A woman gazes out of her window in a dilapidated communist-era tenement block so characteristic of former USSR countries.
The oppressive Kyrgyz State Historical Museum in Ala Too Square.
Bishkek is a great city to explore if you have an interest in Soviet design, symbolism and architecture. Left to right: a cosmic-geometric street decoration; the hammer and sickle is rendered in neon light on the top of the former House of Political Education; the medical faculty building of Bishkek University evokes Stalinist architectural designs.
Traditional felt slippers and Ak-kalpak hats for sale in the Osh Bazaar.
We did what everyone must do when in Kyrgyzstan - sleep in a yurt on a mountaintop. Our destination was Son-Kul. Son Kul is a large mountain lake on the top of a plateau 3016 metres above sea level - and, after a couple of hours, I began to feel a little compressed as if my head was in a vice, such was the air pressure at this altitude. Indeed, the plastic ball on my roll-on deodorant popped out and flew across the yurt. An ongoing headache soon kicked in and, to be honest, I was glad of the descent down the mountain slopes the next day. Weather can be unpredictable at this high altitude and we soon found ourselves donning all the clothes we had to keep warm. Son-Kul is also the location of a community-based tourism project offering yurtstays to foreign tourists. Not ones to pass up the chance of doing something out of the ordinary, we booked an overnight stay on the mountain, roughing it in a yurt as well as doing some horse riding. We ate with the shepherd and his family - they had to prepare us special vegetarian meals which we'd assisted our guide with purchasing back in the town of Kochkor. The Kyrgyzstanis do not understand vegetarianism. Our hostess, the shepherd's wife, looked dumbfounded when our words were translated to her by our interpreter ("How do they live?" she said in Kyrgyz, looking at us as if we had just landed from Mars).
The Son-Kul plateau is surrounded by snow-capped mountains - a dramatic landscape in which to go horse riding with the shepherd. He spoke very limited English, only saying "cold, cold!" when referring to the change in weather and "lunch!" when one of our horses would stop to eat grass. He had one of the most characterful faces I have ever seen; deeply cut wrinkles a feature of high-altitude and a life spent outdoors, all of his bottom teeth were missing (apart from two) and his upper teeth were all gold - a feature I found to be quite common across Central Asia. Indeed, seeing mouths full of golden teeth was a frequent sight on my journey around this region. Occasionally our shepherd would stop to pick plants and vegetation, stuffing it under the saddle of his horse to take back to camp. Having ridden horses, camels and elephants before, I took to riding this latest beast easily. A couple of hours later it was too cold on the mountain to go any further and, with our horses dragging us into the lake for a quick drink, and with the two dogs which had been play-fighting around the feet of our horses the whole trip finally tiring of their exertions, we headed for dinner with the family. Thankfully the shepherd's wife had prepared the fire during our horse ride adventures and so we returned to a warm and cosy yurt. Brushing our teeth took place with the help of a bottle of mineral water and a makeshift sink sticking out of the ground in the middle of the plateau. The toilet was a metal shack with a hole in the ground. It stank to high heaven. I decided to hold everything in until we reached our hotel back in the Kyrgyz capital rather than use the thing. I wasn't to know then that I would be spending a little more time in the loo back in Bishkek than I had originally anticipated - more of this later. The second day started with a bump - up early, a shepherdess-cooked pancake for breakfast and then a quick descent down the mountain - the views to and from to Son-Kul are truly stunning and were, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of this leg of the journey.
The long winding road to the mountain plateau Son-Kul. Incredible.
On the Son Kul plateau. One of the yurts and our 'sink'.
Son-Kul yurt life and laundry.
A mountain nomad's life is made possible by horses.
Our guide and host pose on the final morning.
On Son-Kul with the mountain lake behind. This is 3016 metres above sea level. At 3500 metres, you can expect to develop serious altitude sickness. As it was, my head felt like it was in a vice. I was glad to descend the mountain the following day.
tokmok & kochkor
Our journey back to Bishkek was punctuated by a trip to a rug-making co-operative in Kochkor where we watched traditional Kyrgyz rugs being made (involving dancing and music), lunch in a yurt and a trip to Burana Tower. We also stopped at Tokmok - a city with a fantastic name and some very communist monuments. It was back in Bishkek where everything started to go wrong. I'll keep it brief: vomiting, diarrhoea - sometimes at the same time. We were both ill and had a flight early the next morning to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Clearly there was something very wrong with the food we ate at the Kochkor co-operative. Twelve hours later, and having been up most of the night, we were on a flight to Uzbekistan - trying desperately to hold our composure on the flight which, luckily, was only an hour long. We arrived in Tashkent in one piece, but very, very ill.
Tokmok's Soviet memorial celebrating sixty nine years of the USSR - backgrounded by apartment blocks from the same era. The flags are made of concrete. There has been no real rush to shuffle this kind out of the present and into the past. Kyrgyzstan is one big open air Soviet museum.
The Jewel in the Crown of Central Asia
Uzbekistan is probably the reason why most people travel to this region of the world being, as it is, home to ancient cities, mausoleums and madrasah. This is a pivotal stop for anyone wanting to travel along the old Silk Road route. Uzbekistan is, however, a strictly governed police state. President Karimov has ruled the country since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Elections have been declared farcical by international observers. The presence of over-zealous security police at any place of strategic importance (metro, railway, TV Tower) and the forbidding of photography in these locations is a reminder to all visitors that you are travelling in dictatorland. Journey with your traveller radar well and truly switched on and do think of the "what if" scenarios. Ironically, the people you need to watch are the police themselves.
Particular to Uzbekistan is the airport-style security at railway stations (scanners, bag and passport checks), the need to declare everything you are bringing into the country to customs (including any foreign currency) and the need to collect registration slips wherever you are staying as evidence of where you have been. The registrations let the government know where you are and when you're there. Orwellian indeed. Then there's the burden of carrying the currency of the Som - a virtually worthless currency which comes in 1000 notes. For £35's worth of Som, expect to have to carry 137 notes in your wallet. Part of your preparations for Uzbekistan, therefore, should be to bring an extra wallet or two with you! None of this should deter you from visiting - although I can't say I wasn't glad to leave by the end. Too many officers checking my papers and passport too often. It all became a little wearing. I can only imagine how the population must feel. However, if you stay within the rules and remain polite, you should be fine. There are, conversely, benefits to being in a police state; there is very little crime. The country is trying to attract more tourists and police have been instructed by the president to stop 'shaking down' tourists for bribes. In one incident, a taxi driver tried charging us double the fare (the old "that was the fare per person" routine) as we approached our hotel but just behind us a squad car pulled in full of police. He panicked and shooed us out of the car as I began shouting "Police, police!" The squad car moved away, giving the taxi driver a chance to resume his antics. He barely got going when a green military van full of soldiers pulled up and started asking where we were from. The driver returned to his cab defeated and frustrated - and we made our way to the hotel slightly perturbed, having survived the Uzbek baptism of fire.
Tashkent is the Uzbek capital. The first thing which strikes you is that it is immaculate. There are squads of women in overalls working for the "Gardening Department" sweeping every speck of dust and leaf from the ground. It is a manly, rugged-looking city, too, with wide, long boulevards and boxy white buildings - many of which appeared new and, if they weren't, were nevertheless extremely-well maintained. Even Soviet-era apartment blocks seemed to rank higher in the design stakes, with creative geometric embellishments or mosaic patterns down their sides. Tashkent also has a stunning Metro system dating back to the days when Uzbekistan was within the Soviet yolk, of which I have not a single photograph because photography is strictly forbidden by the authorities. The Tashkent Metro is considered to be of significant strategic importance - as is Tashkent's Sci-Fi-style Television Tower with its tripod legs and mosaic-style band mixing modern and Uzbek designs. At 375 metres high it is the tallest construction in Central Asia and the 8th tallest in the world. We chose not to go in and see the views from its observation deck; we would have had to register with the authorities, leave our passport plus our camera would have been confiscated during our time inside. We opted for hassle-free exterior photos only ("but don't take a photo of the Metro over there" our guide warned of the Metro station at the foot of the tower). The mausoleum complex of Khast Imam is possibly Tashkent's most stunning sight - Uzbek-style turquoise mosaic domes house a mausoleum, medrasah and mosque. It is also home to the oldest known copy of the Quran - written in ash and oil on deer skins.
As I just mentioned, we had a guide for our sightseeing trip around Tashkent. This was a means to an end as our first day in Tashkent was spent in our hotel sleeping and running to the toilet. We were really not well and so, with the second day practically the only day left to see the capital, we hired a guide and a driver for four hours from the company Advantours. I managed the four hours - but only just. Temperatures were around 35 degrees - bearable normally but no mean feat when you have sickness and diarrhoea to contend with and all the dehydration this implies. What do you do when you're ill and are in a foreign land? Throw money at it, of course - anything to make your life more comfortable. Which is exactly what we did.
The gargantuan Hotel Uzbekistan - our hotel for two nights. Its huge bulk dominates the Tashkent skyline and is a relic from Tashkent's Soviet days. The hotel has tried to re-invent itself from a old-style communist hotel into a four star ready for the modern traveller. Having stayed there, I would say they've a way to go yet.
Tashkent's Russian Orthodox Church.
Tashkent's awesome television tower looks like it has just landed from Mars.
Samarkand is a two-hour train journey from Tashkent using Uzbekistan Railways. For around £30 you can get yourself a seat in business class on the railway's impressive and slick Afrosiyob bullet train. Staff wear smart and professional uniforms and beckon you onto the train at the entrance to each of the carriages. This felt more like air travel. Travelling by train into the heart of Uzbekistan allows you to see the real country outside of the manicured capital city. Expect to see Soviet-era combine harvesters working the fields, thousands of mud brick single storey dwellings, fields of sunflowers and farmers herding their flocks on horseback. There are also some stunning birds to see if you're lucky and avoid the temptation of falling asleep in the comfortable seats.
Samarkand is the reason why so many people brave Central Asia. It was once at the heart of the Silk Road route which linked China to India and Persia. It is famous as being the home of the Registan, a large ensemble of three azure-coloured mosaic entranceways topped gloriously with bulbous turquoise domes. It is quite a sight to behold and easily rivals, if not betters, in my opinion, other world sights such as the Taj Mahal in India. The Registan has some of the world's oldest madrasahs (old Islamic education centres) dating back, as they do, to the fourteenth century. Minarets and entrances tilt at dizzying angles thanks to the earthquakes they have endured over the centuries. It takes a lot to impress me but, I don't mind admitting, The Registan ensemble is one of the few which make me spontaneously utter "wow" under my breath. Having travelled so far to see her, the Registan was an incredible reward for our efforts.
The incredibleRegistan Ensemble in full view.
A group of women, wearing characteristically Central Asian bright coloured dresses, walk through The Registan.
The incredible Registan Ensemble with its mosaic domes, archways and minarets. This photograph was later published in Lonely Planet magazine in 2015. See it here.
The Registan: detailed arches, azure domes and exquisite mosaics.
The wonderful Gur-e Amir complex of mausoleums - an important example of Turkic-Persian architecture.
Gur-e Amir complex ornate entranceway.
Gur-e Amir Mausoleum Of Timur.
A further three hours westward from Samarkand is the city of Bukhara. We travelled on Uzbekistan Railways' Sharq train - a relic of the country's communist days and a completely disappointing experience having previously travelled on the Afrosiyob. It was certainly more of an authentic experience: three people to each cabin, traditional rugs running down the gangway and a man who carries refreshments in a bucket for your delectation. It isn't until you get into the old city that you finally begin to hope that you've left Russia and the Soviet Union firmly behind. Islamic and Turkic influences are so strong here that they, thankfully, dominate your Bukhara experience with its minarets, medressahs and mosaics.
The soft undulations of The Arc fortress.
The Char-Minar Mosque - a stunning, but petite, gate house with four minarets.
The incredible Kalyan Minaret in the Po-i-Kalyan mosque complex.
The sun sets over the domes of Bukhara's Bazaar.
The Mountainous Persian Land
Tajikistan is the smallest of the Central Asian countries, clinging to the south eastern corner of the region. Tajikistan borders China to the east, Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to its north. Indeed, some parts of the border with Afghanistan and China are still being decided. Around 80% of the country is mountainous. Obviously, when the Soviets were carving up Central Asia, Tajikistan appears to have got what was left. It also lost Samarkand and Bukhara to Uzbekistan - the source of ongoing bad blood between the two countries. Emasculated from some of its most treasured sites, Tajikistan is considering waiving the need for a visa to try to push hiking and other outdoor activities in the mountains to foreign visitors. As it is, my visa cost £60. I couldn't help thinking that we should have scheduled more time in Tajikistan and felt a sense of longing when the time came to leave.
We crossed the Uzbek-Tajik border for our trip into Tajikistan. On the Uzbek side expect inefficient staff stopping for a smoke and a chat whilst you are waiting to be processed; expect a frosty reception and to have your bag rifled through for no apparent reason. You also have to fill out pointless forms - twice. Total time to go through Uzbek shenanigans? One hour. After crossing a few hundred metres of no man's land in the blistering heat we arrived at large gates, guarded by a soldier with a machine gun - the Tajik border. We proceeded to a small window hatch where we had our visas stamped and then on towards another soldier with the obligatory machine gun. All the while, quite absurdly, chickens clucked around our feet. Total time to get through the Tajik border process: ten minutes. We were in Tajikistan! Sound unimportant to you? Well, this little-known country happened to be my 60th country - and so somewhat of a special milestone for me. I was also to discover later that Tajikistan was home to some rather special people too.
Our destination in Tajikistan was Khujand - not the Tajik capital, but its second city. Its previous name was Leninabad but was renamed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Khujand is not exactly going to give your camera much wear and tear - actual attractions are few and far between. However, going to Khujand was rewarding enough to have been more than worthwhile. The main square, Ploshchad Pobedy, is flanked by two mosques on one side, the train station and the wonderful Panchshanbe Bazaar, an indoor market crammed to the rafters with the weird and wonderful. There was also a large fountain in the centre which came complete with a tramp splashing around in it. Whether he was drowning or washing I cannot be sure. I put on my best British "stiff upper lip" and pressed calmly onward.
Having been accosted by a gypsy in the square, who took to hitting me on the shoulder and waving her bag at me with her hand outstretched for money, I was a little anxious about going in to the bazaar itself. Within minutes of being in the bazaar people were asking our guide where we were from. "Anglea", "Anglea" she bellowed back to seemingly a dozen different stallholders who'd asked the question. Stallholders were genuinely pleased to see us. Two in particular begged to be photographed posing at their stalls with their breads and spices ("he wants you to take a photo of him and his stall", our guide said on two occasions). I did what you should always do when, as a tourist, you've taken a photograph of someone - show them what they look like! Our guide popped into a sausage shop inside the bazaar to collect an order she'd made ("she wants to speak with you", said our guide about the shopkeeper). We were made to feel rather special by the people in the bazaar. It's amazing how you find friendliness and warmth in the most unexpected of places - often from people with so very little. Panchshanbe was the undisputed highlight of our trip to Khujand and a special moment I will never forget: genuine warmth and openness from complete strangers who were simply thrilled by your visit. So often in travel these days, travellers and tourists (there is a difference) are resented or despised by locals. Experiences like the one I had in this little-known bazaar in this little-known city in this little-known country is precisely the reason why I travel.
Khujand is also home to Central Asia's tallest Lenin statue, complete with a large red hammer and sickle motif alongside. "Do Tajiks look back positively on their Soviet days?" I asked our guide. "Yes, of course" she said, like I'd asked a silly question.
For sale: spices and seeds in the wonderful bazaar.
Panchshanbe Bazaar people (1): a man asks if I would like to take a photograph of him and his bread stall. We were made to feel rather special by the people in the bazaar.
Panchshanbe Bazaar people (2): "She wants to speak with you", said our guide about the shopkeeper.
The Lenin statue in central Khujand: the largest in Central Asia.
The tessellated emerald dome of the Bofanda Mosque.
travel tips, links & resources
- Things will go wrong in Central Asia - particularly if, like me, your itinerary is an independent one. Try to build a bit of flexibility into your plans. Have a Plan B in case Plan A ends up being a no-go.
- Make sure you comply with all administrative requirements - a plea of ignorance will not wash in these countries. Non-compliance can result in imprisonment and deportation. In Uzbekistan, make sure you collect and keep hold of all registration slips issued by your accommodation provider. If they forget, make sure you remind them. We needed ours to leave Uzbekistan at the land border with Tajikistan.
- Entry requirements to Central Asian countries change regularly. During the planning and visiting of Tajikistan we went from requiring a Letter of Invitation (LoI) to not needing one. Also, Kazakhstan went from us requiring an expensive £50 visa - to not needing one at all.
- You may wish to reconsider carrying your passport on your person. It's a tricky one because in a number of Central Asian countries it is a legal requirement for tourists to carry their passports. However, stories of police officers shaking down tourists to get at their passports may convince you to leave it back at your hotel. Take a laminated copy out with you instead.
- Advantours booked our Uzbekistan railway tickets. Their nifty little website meant we could put in our order and, one month before departure, they were purchased on our behalf. Really straightforward and a fantastic service.
- If you are planning on trying local food, staying in yurts and eating local delicacies (it would be rude to refuse), it might be an idea to take some general antibiotics with you. I was glad I did.
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