We’ve already shown you our favourite panoramas of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and below are the author’s selection from the remaining Stans on our trip. They are all very different, so the contrast between the panoramas of these neighbouring countries might surprise you as much as it did us.
Tajikistan is a country of rugged mountains, deserted valleys and roads, snow-covered peaks, crystal-clear raging mountain streams and incredible, often overwhelming hospitality.
Uzbekistan stands out with its famous trio of ancient silk road towns full of mosques, minarets, medrassas and mausoleums decorated with beautiful blue mosaic tiles. It also stood out with consistently serving the the worst food of the trip (somebody had to say it) even though we had our best breakfasts here, pretty decent drops of wine, fantastic handicrafts and is unfortunately the home of the biggest recent environmental disaster in the world. It was also the only country where we stayed in hotels more than we camped due to the old USSR registration rules.
Turkmenistan of all the former USSR states retains the strongest feel of a police state. You are not allowed to take photos of the brand new white marbled buildings in the capital and people are forced to leave their homes to make space for shiny, new apartment buildings, all of white marble of course. It is also home to the biggest campfire in the world, one of the world’s biggest deserts, the forefathers of the thoroughbreds of today and some seriously amazing carpets. It also knows how to make people feel incredibly welcome and people are genuinely friendly, generous and helpful.
Enjoy the contrasts!
A beautiful lake created by a meteor impact 10 million years ago, situated at 4000m altitude just across the border from Kyrgyzstan. Whilst we had beautiful weather everything froze overnight.
As it was a beautiful, sunny and wind still day at Lake Kara-kul, we couldn’t resist going out for a quick paddle enjoying the silence and snow capped peaks.
Another beautiful lake along the Pamir Highway. The snow covered peaks in the distance are in China. We set up camp right on its shores, amazed to see mosquitos at 3,750m. Later we were treated to a spectacular moon rise.
Yashil-Kul means ‘green lake’ and the contrast with the desert of the central Pamirs is striking. An exciting 4WD track leads to two ancient stone circles, estimated to be 4000 years old, where we had morning tea for Jude’s birthday.
After hiking up the hill to see the fortress (built in the 12th century to guard this branch of the Silk Road from Afghan and Chinese invaders) we were rewarded with this view across the Wakhan Valley. The mountains on the far side of the river are in Afghanistan.
The track to the impressive Khaaka Fortress went through this apricot orchard in beautiful autumn colours.
View upriver from the pulley bridge where we crossed to start our hike up the Gisev Valley, visible on the far right of the panorama. The clear waters of the Gisev stream are still visible before they mix in with the milky white waters in the Bartang Valley.
Our host village was hard at work in preparation for the coming winter months.
We sat on this tiny beach for a few hours, enjoying our lunch, the views, a wash and a good book. The President’s dacha (holiday house) is just along the shoreline.
This is ancient Penjakent, which made for an atmospheric campsite. New Penjakent, where we had Lara’s fuel tank welded, is located at the foot of this hill, invisible from the historic site.
This is the 7th lake of the chain of seven lakes in the eastern Fan Mountains, located furthest up the valley at the end of the steep 4WD track. From here only a small walking trail continues past the lake and into the next stunning valley.
The stunning blue Alauddin Lakes in the Fan Mountains are just visible from the pass (3850m) located a 1000m above. We had lunch at the pass before descending into the Kulikalon Valley.
The stunning Gur-e-Amir mausoleum in Samarkand is the final resting place of Timur the Great (also kown as Tamerlane), whose empire stretched from India to Turkey. He died in 1405 whilst invading China. This was our first blue mosaic tiled building and we fell in love with it.
The famous Registan in Samarkand, a beautiful square with 3 medrassas (Islamic schools) built around it between 1400 and 1600. The proportions of the buildings and overload of beautiful blue tiles make for a fitting centerpiece for such a famous city.
We only visited 5 or 6 of the 50 forts. Ayaz Qala, from the 6th century was one of the most impressive ones. Amazing that, after 1500 years, the mud brick walls are still standing.
This historic silk road town, completely surrounded by fortified mud brick walls, reached its heyday in the 16th century. It was a delight to walk around in the inner area of the town filled with old houses, mosques, medrassas, museums and shops.
The Juma mosque in Khiva is unusual because its roof is supported by 218 wooden pillars, in a design more often seen in the Middle East, but not in Central Asia. Around 7 or so original wooden pillars are still standing after 1000 years.
Cows now venture into what once was a sea to find their food.
The wrong kind of ships of the desert…
Unfortunately we didn’t take many panoramas in Turkmenistan, but this one shows the new grandiose style of Ashgabat. Taken from the front steps of an enormous mosque, which can hold 10.000 people, you can see the tomb of Turkmenbasi (self-proclaimed father of the Turkmens) on the left. He was a mad dictator whose priority appeared to be renaming the months of the year and days of the week after members of his family. He built much of extravagant white marbled Ashgabat using precious gas revenues. Fortunately, his successor appears slightly less flamboyant.
Uzbekistan has more to offer than ancient mud-built houses, mosques, mausoleums, minarets and medrassas covered with the typical blue mosaics. There is more to do besides strolling on the bazaars and buying (or just looking at) silk carpets, fur hats, hand-painted ceramics, carved wooden boxes and puppets, scarves, woodcarvings and suzani (silk or cotton cloths with intricate hand-stitched patterns).
There is something else, something that would make the heart of any disaster tourist beat a little faster. In fact, it’s probably one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters in modern history. The disappearance of the Aral Sea.
Imagine an inland sea so large it would be able to support a healthy fishing industry with a fleet of more than 500 vessels, bringing in 25 million kilograms of fish every year. It was the 4th largest lake in the world, over 400km long with a surface area of more than 66000 km2 and an average depth of 16m.
Now fast-forward 50 years to 2013 and this lake is gone. Vanished, disappeared, dried up, evaporated, sucked dry. It’s remaining fishing boats resting and rusting on a bed of sand where once waves lapped the little beach, complete with little beach huts at the bottom of small, sandy cliffs.
The small town of Moynaq in the northwest of Uzbekistan transformed into a ghost town where people suffer from the toxic sand and dust storms that now plague the area after its dramatic change in climate. Instead of 30-35 days without rain, the area now has 130-140 days without a drop coming out of the sky every year. They now have a desert at the edge of town instead of a little harbor on the edge of an inland sea.
How could all this happen, is this the dreaded result of global warming? Nope. This is the obvious result of human greed (and stupidity). Many years ago Uzbekistan grew some cotton. Maybe not the best crop for a country which is essentially a desert (as cotton needs a lot of water to grow), but as this cotton grew on fertile soil it worked. Then the good ol’ USSR wanted to increase the cotton harvest. One of the biggest rivers of Central Asia flows into this desert country, we can use that to irrigate the new fields, right? (Similarities with the Murray River may be painfully obvious for those living in Australia.)
This, of course, was utterly unsustainable. But still, to this day, Uzbekistan produces cotton. Lots and lots of cotton. In fact it remains one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world. And the only reason Uzbekistan can still maintain this inefficient mono-culture is slave labour. Every autumn people are summoned to work in the fields, picking the cotton by hand until their area’s quota has been reached. The workforce includes office workers, housewives, students and kids, although an agreement was reached some years ago that forbids any child under 16 to pick cotton…
The Amu-Darya, flowing from the mountains in Tajikistan, now peters out somewhere in the desert without reaching the once beautiful Aral Sea. And a monument stands tall on top of the cliffs, overlooking the Aral Desert instead of the Aral Sea with the rusting ships at its base in the sand. It gives ‘ships of the desert’ a rather eerie meaning.
We drove up to Monyaq as we had managed to buy some diesel on the black market. Even with our 2 vegetable oil drums filled with diesel from Tajikistan, we wouldn’t have made it without buying some more in Uzbekistan. But, especially during cotton harvest time when we were there, it is not easy to find petrol or diesel in this country. Proof was in the many queues at petrol stations that had some supply. There were also long queues at petrol stations where the gates were shut, no doubt drivers hoping for a re-supply soon. Other petrol stations were simply deserted, sometimes with a few cars that had obviously run empty patiently waiting inside. We paid black-market prices for our diesel which came from a collection of jerry cans stashed at the back of a workshop. The vendor was obviously pleased with the price as he invited us home for tea…
We felt a bit awkward driving into Moynaq, as we had obviously come for one reason only. To have a look at their misery, at their environmental disaster that had happened in the last half century. Whilst it felt wrong, we really wanted to see this first-hand. A stark demonstration of what we are doing to this wonderful planet that provides us with everything we need to live, including one of its most precious resources: water. What was especially saddening to learn was that the warning signs had been ignored – the scientists had accurately predictive models that predicted these results. All this could have been prevented!
We camped on the Aral Sea bed that night, surrounded by sand and desert life instead of needing a snorkel to breath. And when digging our holes for our toilet needs, we were digging in the shells of the sea, now left as a reminder of what once was.
Let’s hope we learn a lesson from this disaster, that we can see the urgency with which (for example) the problems surrounding the Murray River in Australia need to be dealt with. Let’s learn from history and our mistakes. Let’s wake up our politicians who allow these things to happen, who don’t want to wake up to reality and who refuse to take the right steps.
Let’s prevent things like this happening again. Ever.
After a long period in the emptiness of Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it was time for a dose of culture. The ancient cities of Uzbekistan were at the heart of the Silk Roads of ancient times. Most people have heard of Samarkand because of this connection, which was to be our first stop. Samarkand is located in the Zarafshon Valley and is only 50-60km west of Penjakent in Tajikistan, located in the same valley. But due to the unfriendly relation between the 2 countries, the border was closed for all traffic in November 2010 and remains closed up until this day, a wall has even been built where the border facilities once were. This meant a 2 day drive for us to get from the Fan Mountains to Samarkand instead of a 2 hour drive, via the border near Khojand further north.
Another novelty for Uzbekistan was the necessity to stay in hotels. The country is still holding on to the red tape of Soviet times, requiring foreigners to register every night. Each hotel gives you a little registration slip, without which we would encounter trouble on exiting the country, something we preferred to avoid. It is possible to obtain those pesky bits of paper for a small fee for any nights you might have ‘missed’, or you can try to argue at the border that you don’t need to register if you stayed somewhere shorter than 3 days. We used a combination of both, allowing us to camp occasionally.
Arriving in Samarkand in the late afternoon we bumped into no less than 18 Land Rovers, parked just outside the hotel we were planning to stay. They were all from the Hong Kong Land Rover Owners club and were racing across Central Asia in 3 weeks, unbelievable. Our enthusiastic chatting was cut short as they were leaving, so we agreed we’d try to hook up with them in Bukhara a couple of days later. We ended up joining them for dinner there and talked all evening about our trips, and of course Land Rovers. The club has arranged an annual trip like this for the last fifteen years! Their 2 official Land Rover mechanics had a quick look at Lara and told Jon the small leak we had noticed was from the intercooler and tightening a hose would solve the issue. This saved us a trip to another garage.
We had explored the ancient mosques, mausoleums, medrassas and minarets with the blue mosaics of Samarkand on our trusty (and a bit rusty) bikes, loving the ability to zoom effortlessly from one site to the next which are spread all over the city. The bikes were holding up remarkably well, although the dust does make the brakes rather squeaky. There must be a shortage of bikes in central Asia as we generally receive 2-3 offers to buy them daily.
We soaked up the history whilst admiring the blue mosaic tiles of the stunning Registan, Tamerlane’s mausoleum, Shah-i-Zinda (a spectacular alley full of mausoleums) and numerous other mausoleums, mosques and medrassas. The majority of Samarkand’s monuments date from 600 – 700 years ago, and have endured several earthquakes since. They are all in fantastic condition, thanks to Russian led restoration efforts.
As we had hit mass tourism here (although in October there are hardly any tourists left), we were even able to buy postcards, something we hadn’t seen for many weeks and countries. We also enjoyed the creature comforts of wifi in the hotel, daily hot showers, getting our laundry done (we were running out of clean knickers) and the sensational breakfast of hotel Antica in Samarkand.
Every morning was a surprise, and we were staggered by the number of plates brought out to us each breakfast. A whole range of fruit, porridge, eggs, deep-fried things, cheeses, yoghurts, jams and other undefined goodies were delivered to our groaning table. What a treat. But unfortunately the edible-ness of the food of Uzbekistan stops there. We struggled to find a decent meal in Samarkand, Buchara, Khiva and Nukus. Our dinners ranged from appalling to barely edible with one exception. We ordered dinner in the same Hotel Antica one night and were led into the neighbour’s living room together with a few other tourists. There we enjoyed the only decent dinner in Uzbekistan (washed down with quite-drinkable Uzbek red wine), the conventional restaurants didn’t even come close.
On the other hand, juices continue to pleasantly surprise us and we try new flavours all the time, or fall back to some of our favourites: cherry or grapefruit juice. Delicious.
Whilst staying in Samarkand, one of the neighbours’ daughters was getting married and we just happened to be at the hotel when the groom arrived. His arrival was announced by lots of clapping and drums being played. We were gently pushed into the courtyard and the adjacent room where some ceremonial rituals were taking place. They looked at each other for the ‘first time’ with the help of a mirror, gave each other a watch to symbolise the time they will spent together and a candle was passed over the threshold several times to ward off any evil spirits. Instead of the bride tossing her bouquet of flowers to determine who gets married next, the groom passes on the traditional coat he was wearing to a friend. He’ll be next. Her new outfits and household necessities were displayed in the room, bought by the groom’s parents. And a lot more presents were given to the 17-old bride right after the ceremony. All very extravagant.
For us the next stops were Bukhara and Khiva. These cities were particularly enjoyable to stroll around as the sights were concentrated in the old town, connected by alleys lined with tea houses and carpet shops. It seems each Emir would try to outdo the others, resulting in 50m tall minarets with earthquake proof foundations dating from 1000 years ago. Quite a sight. We spent many hours walking around, reading about the history and the people living here many years ago, enjoying more blue tiles and sensational buildings. Especially memorable were sundowners on a roof terrace in Khiva watching the sunset over the beautiful old town surrounded by mud walls.
We saw lots more mud walls in Uzbekistan as there are many forts too, dating back more than 2000 years, easily pre-dating the Silk Road cities. Incredibly they are still standing, or at least some of their walls remain silent testaments of the passing time. If only walls could speak! We even climbed an ancient Zoroastrian dahma, or tower of silence from 100 BC, where the fire worshipping people used to leave their dead to be picked clean by the vultures.
The depth of history in Uzbekistan is impressive, and the people friendly. If they could just work on the cuisine…