It was a two hour high speed train that took us from Samarkand to Bukhara – the historic city center is another UNESCO World Heritage site.
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Early morning bread delivery to the train station
Different from Samarkand Bukhara hasn’t changed much since it’s inception. No big shiny, new buildings and restorations haven’t changed much from its original form.
The Bukhara Fortress, the Ark, is an intact magnificent walled (up to 66’ tall) city full of madrassas, mosques and markets. It was occupied without interruption from 4 BC to 1920 when the last Emir was removed by the Bolsheviks.
Through out our time in Central Asia people asked if would pose with them in a photo. In a sea of dark hair my white hair stood out like Rudolph’s red nose. Bill often is referred to as 007.
Cotton is a major resource exporting to Eastern Europe. Handwoven rugs and embroidered items hang from railings hawked to persons apparently traveling with trunks and not carry-on luggage.
Outside Bukhara is the summer palace of the Emirs – Sitora-I Mokhi Khosa.
Back streets encounters find children kicking soccer balls, bikes, markets and doors with treasures.
We stumbled upon a group of men playing cards and backgammon. After asking if I could take a photo they kindly invited us in to share chai tea. Again, we did not share the same language but sat like old friends.
Three generations – grandma, mom and grandson were picking apples in their front yard. They flagged us down and insisted upon sharing a handful of tart and tasty, small green apples. I think they would have given us a box full had we not insisted that a handful was enough.
Evening roof top dinners, cocktails and sunsets were the icing on the top of each day.
Venturing into a train station to buy tickets where no one speaks English can be a bit tricky. Lucky for us a kind gentleman offered to assist in translating. The Uzbek people have to be the kindest that we’ve encountered on this trip.
Men put their right hand across their heart and bow ever so slightly to greet or thank one another. This is especially true toward women since men do not shake a woman’s hand. It feels so kind.
The same kindness is granted on the road. In either direction no matter how many lanes one car pulls over slightly so another may pass. The same is true with oncoming traffic – cars move slightly aside to allow passage. It gets a little tenuous when 4 cars share 2 lanes but somehow it works. No road rage!
Back to the train station. Our new friend walked us to the counter and asked for two tickets to Samarkand. The ticket lady told him there were only upper seats available and perhaps we could ask for a lower one once we got on the train. Ok – that seems simple.
After helping us John (his English name) gave us his name, phone number and email address offering to help us in any way while we’re in his country. Wow.
It’s a four plus hour train ride to Samarkand. Founded in the 7th century BC. Hugely popular on the Silk Road trail making it the most crowded tourist spot so far. The Registan (UNESCO), Gur-e-Amir, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Shah-i-Zinda were so full of people that it took away from its peacefulness but not its majestic beauty.
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Samarkand, the navel of the vast empire held by Timur aka Tamerlane (1300’s) one of history’s greatest and cruelest conquers. It was built by architects, artists and craftsmen abducted by Tamerlane and his his descendants from away conquered territories for 2,000 year it was one of the most important stops on the Silk Road, it’s bazaars thronged with merchants and shoppers.
Controversial and frowned upon by some it is believed that the government has “over-restored” these once falling down sites making them appear more like “Disneyland”. However to stand the test of time one must restore – right?
Back to the train – I had pictured a double decker train since our seats were upstairs. HA! Talk about lost in translation. Upstairs is a small bunk. Bill and I discovered we both had these and also were in separate parts of the compartment. Our carry-on luggage now seemed huge as there was virtually no place to store them. The lack of air circulation had me in melting. I must have looked a wreck.
Two sweet women noted the confusion on our faces and the sweat on my brow while we tried to figure out our seats, luggage, etc. Moments later one of the women came up to me and motioned for me to follow. She pointed to the top bunk and the seat below. Don’t know how she arranged that but it worked out perfect. Bill would have never fit in the bunk. The seat offered no room for his legs since his suitcase filled that space but he was extremely grateful for the seat. Bill sat like a yogi pretzel and I was able to recline and nap. Fortunately there was a tiny window above the bunk that allowed fresh air during the journey. It worked out perfect.
Across the way a beautiful young woman snapped a photo of me in the bunk and then motioned for me to hand her my phone where she opened my Instagram account, shared the photo and the followed my account. From her account I learned she’s a doctor finishing her medical degree and gymnast coach. She was traveling with three young gymnasts for a competition.
The history and the architecture in each location are stunning but it’s these little life events with others with whom we can not conversant but still manage to communicate that make exploring new cultures so worthwhile.
We saw this stunning white building with its door ajar. An invitation to sneak in – right? We stumbled upon this ornate room that was set up for a wedding. Wowza. The worker was sitting on the floor in the corner on his phone. He had no idea we were there.
An open door in another alleyway showcased a collection of old treasures for sale. While I snapped some photos Bill visited with the owner.
Now having been to several cities in Uzbekistan we’ve learned that kiddie parks are part of the landscape.
My camera has been giving me grief. The shutter button at times stops working. I can reset it by removing the battery and reinserting it only to have it happen after a few shots. UGH! Thank goodness I’m not photographing a wedding.
Japanese tourist was wearing these!
These punching machines are scattered around the town.
On our adventure to follow the Silk Road Uzbekistan might be the crown jewel.
The land of storks, white Chevrolets (were told Chevy has a factory here) and 3,000 mosques in Tashkent alone, ping pong and two Russian cosmonauts (one-upping Kazakhstan from where Sputnik was launched).
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We walked our legs off in the capital and largest city –Tashkent – which means city of stone or stone city. Founded over 2,218 years ago. Part old beautiful Soviet buildings (yes – they do exist), part mud houses and then the shiny new which are popping up like freshly planted seeds.Like Beijing, the hutongs are being razed and replaced with square high rises.
Hideous, run down and beautiful was the Uzbekistan Hotel.Built in 1974 and had to have been the cat’s meow. Now a beacon on the horizon, photo op and a place where Bill got a hair cut.
The are large flood irrigated parks and open irrigation ditches and drains. A kiddie sized carnival embedded in the heart of the city park where mini-me sized rides and games entertain all year round.
From Bishkek we followed the Silk Road to Tashkent, Uzbekistan via Shymkent, Kazakhstan. Another crossroad conquered and destroyed by all the great invaders. It lies in the foothills above a great valley. Noteworthy because Timurlane the Great died here, and the city’s forges produced millions of lead bullets for Russia’s WWII fight against Germany.
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The train left the station at 11:22 pm and lasted 14 hours. We paidfor all 4 berths in one compartment assuring us some privacy (approx. $32.00 total). Unfortunately that compartment was only a door away from the WC (water closet/toilet). Thick pads and down pillows were rolled up on the top berth and to my horror there were no linens.
The ticket collector showed up and plopped down next to Bill and we tried to communicate while he looked to make sure our paperwork was in order.Russian is the “common” language amongst the Caucuses and we can’t speak a word of it. He spoke no English. Overall it worked out well and we had a jolly time. Bill offered him a tip and he walked away happy.
About 10 minutes later he returned with two sealed bag of clean sheets. Yes!
Bill and I snacked on red wine and potato chips and quickly fell asleep.
Near the Kyrgyzstan border the steward woke us up and told us to wait….. a half hour later young military men showed up at our door speed talking.We said something in English to which they asked back “Do you speak Russian?”Yeah right.
Passport. Check.Then the young man pointed to my suitcase and grunted.I opened my suitcase and he was satisfied after a portion of it was emptied.He motioned to close it, did an about face and left.
Off to sleep again…
At the Kazakhstan border it was a repeat of the whole language barrier, passport scenario…….It’s now 3:20 am and this time the young military man, holding a small 3”x 3” video camera, demanded that we empty our entire backpacks on the bed and then demanded we open our suitcases and empty them.The backpack contents were mounded next to us and left no room for the suitcase contents. So like good passive aggressive people we moved things around and didn’t unload. He dug into Bill’s suitcase – grunting.He didn’t put his hands in my bag and gave up after I moved a few things around. Next the immigration man stepped in and did the passport ritual of photos and stamping our books while the first showed back up with the drug sniffing dog. Geez.
Bill thought he’d be exempt from being hassled at borders because he’s an old guy. Apparently that was just another case of MSU.
By 4 am we were fast asleep again. The fumes from the bathroom had thoroughly permeated our cabin. Nothing like the smell of urine in the morning to make you hop out of bed.
We stood in the hallway in front of the small open window waiting to pull into Shymkent.
We hired their equivalent to Uber to take us to the border so we could do the easy peasy walk through and then grabbed another in Uzbekistan to take us the the capital city of Tashkent.
Uzbekistan is another landlocked country surround by 5 landlocked countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
By luck of the draw we ended up in a hotel with a great location. Surrounded by tasty restaurants and walking distance (albeit long) to the happening places.
We left Uzbekistan for a day trip to Tajikistan. Brand new cities were being built outside Tashkent much like China.
We ran into the same Road Scholar group from Kazakhstan in the immigration line at the Tajikistan border! Crazy.
Tajikistan – has a slight different feel of remoteness and less homogeneity, having 2 lengthy borders with China and Afghanistan and serious mountain ranges. This remoteness seems to have slowed its movement toward the west, but not the desire.
Many residents migrate to Russia and work summers harvesting crops. The local swimming pool is open for men only 6 days a week and women! About 50% of the city dwellers own car.
Khujand is another 2500 year old city founded by Alexander the Great and built on an 8th century BC fortress and is the eastern most point of his empire. During the Russian era it was known as Leninbad. The army of Genghis Khan later destroyed the town and razed it to the ground. The revival of the city was aided by its geographical position on the Silk Road.
Portion of the original wall built by Alexander the Great
It has a fabulous Alexander the Great fortress, museum and caravanserai.
On a side note – the capital of Dushanbe is home of the famous Buddha in Nirvana or Sleeping Buddha statue founded in 1959 and dating back to the 5th or 6th century. It is the largest clay Buddha statue in the world. America contributed $30,000 toward its restoration.
p.s. The blog is pretty much caught up. As of May 26th we’re still in Uzbekistan. Tomorrow is Bill’s birthday!
We contacted a company (all done by What’sApp) to arrange a driver from Almaty, Kazakhstan to the border of Kyrgyzstan and then another driver on the Kyrgyzstan side to take us to the capital city of Bishkek.
Our first non-English speaking driver had a black Camry that was huge (unlike American Camrys) with leather seats and more bells and whistles than typical – the back seats had electronic reclining adjustments. Very unusual and especially for the price we paid. His mission was to get us there in half the time it should take. Time is money! Poor Bill had to ask him to slow down to help curb my fear of crashing.
The two driver system is genius because the line of cars at the border was insanely long. We just walked on through easy peasy.
The driver on the other side surprisingly spoke English. He had taken it in school 20 years ago and said he was rusty for lack of using it. It was the first time in many, many countries that a driver/cabbie could communicate with us.
Kyrgyzstan is another landlocked country in Central Asia. It borders Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China.
Bishkek is another spread-out city with virtually no beautiful historical buildings. It looked and felt like a throwback to Soviet times. The one thing it did have was a long walking park with tall trees and gorgeous roses in full bloom. It included a vast carnival and kiddie park, selling cotton candy at 10 am.
Groups of old men gather in the squares around the old soviet buildings – squatting on their heels ala Viet Nam.
Adorable are the older women with colorful scarves wrapped around their hair. Usually contrasting the colors of their dress to make it visually interesting and beautiful.
Zhang Qian crossed near here and documented his travels in 138 B.C.
Numerous Buddhist and Muslim rock inscriptions surround mosques, temples and Christian churches from the 800s through the 1600s.
The natural light hit this painting perfectly
In town a vast and bustling market remains. Outside the city nomadic tribes live in their yurts and move, livestock among the foothills and steppes.
We’re wearing out the treads on our shoes as we explore.
Officially known as the Republic of Kazakhstan. It borders Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea – phew that’s a lot of borders. It’s the world’s largest landlocked country.
We fly into Almaty, the former capital. Expansive and not so easy to navigate all the highlights on foot unless you’re masochists like us. Most people travel to Kazakhstan to play in the mountains.
Almaty is not a picturesque architecture wise but the stunning snow filled Alatau mountains that nearly surround the city are breathtaking.
Our mission was to follow as much of the Silk Road as possible so we headed east toward China.
The Silk Road spread to fundamental products – commerce and religion.
We have followed the road in China to Xi’an and Chengdu, but we are missing the vast west of China which we hope to fill in next year. The missing portion is replete with ancient Buddhist art.
But lo and behold near the Chinese border we saw a Buddhist temple which is a Mosque. It was strange to behold. As we wondered around seeing obvious physical evidence to each religion. It also included a small museum of Silk Road artifacts.
As we left the border the sky darkened and near the Big Tree called Ulken Agash we were inundated by a beautiful thunder storm with rain and hail rendering us soaked to the bone. This tree was frequented by Silk Road businessmen who believed that walking around it seven times would bring them luck.
Aisan and Iden. Aisan worked at the reception desk and joined us. Iden was the brother of a friend who drove.
We returned west across the Altyn Emel National Park which scenery was spectacular, with wide lush valleys dotted with Silk Road cemeteries, cattle, horses, sheep, goats, donkeys and red poppies. It reminded us of Northwestern Elko County.
Gas lines are run above ground.
Our walking journey in Almaty took us to the Russian Othrodox Ascension Cathedral where we ran into a Road Scholar tour. The first Americans we’ve seen since leaving Dubai.
Bill continues to whoop me playing rummy 500. We’re having a blast exploring with the best of the Silk Road yet to come…
Azerbaijan is in the South Caucasus region and is surrounded by Russia, Georgia, Türkiye, Iran and the Caspian Sea.
After being warned in Armenia and subsequently reading online, we were prepared to be hassled upon arrival since we have an Armenian stamp in our passports.You’re either with us or against us in our continuing border war. Immigration was supposed to grill us, inventory our medicine with prescriptions, count our money, prove our hotel AND flight out of the country and perhaps deny us entry.
Fake news – I say!Immigration and customs was a breeze.No questions asked.Welcome to Azerbaijan!
As we flew over the capital city of Baku it looked parched and dry but the city couldn’t have been more different on the ground.
Not sure if it had anything to do with it being a week after the Formula 1 race but the city is stunning!Baku rests 92 feet below sea level.The lowest national city in the world and the largest city below sea level.
Lonely Planets describes it as “the architectural love child of Paris and Dubai”,andone of the fastest changing cities in the world. It’s a great combination of old and new architecture.
We stayed within the ancient walled city – an UNESCO World Heritage site.A wonderful place to get lost in its narrowing winding alleyways. Sandstone buildings and cobblestone roads make for warm, nostalgic feelings.