Sunday, March 30, 2008

I can’t believe I am leaving Tajikistan today. I feel as though I am going on a 1 week vacation and will be back. I am packed, moved out of my apartment, and just came to work for the morning. I will leave after lunch to head to the Tashkent airport in Uzbekistan.

My time in Tajikistan was a great experience. I met many wonderful people and had a lot of good times. I also met some not so nice people (mainly Tajik men thinking I was a Russian prostitute because of my fair complexion and no other reason…) and had some challenging times as well (such as the coldest winter in 40 years coupled with an energy crisis).

Working at MEDA was also a wonderful time, I was very happy to have the opportunity to apply my food science knowledge to help fruit and vegetable processors over here. I also visited many projects in the field, and had the chance to see much of northern Tajikistan and the meet people from several different regions. I will miss the beautiful drives through the mountains and meeting very friendly, hospitable clients.

All in all I have learned a lot about living and working overseas, mixing into a different culture and the most difficult part was learning not to compare the new culture with the values I had as a Canadian. I tried not to make judgments, and understand why some traditions are acceptable when back home they would not be. It was challenging, but in the end when my best friend here said “Kelly, you really understand our culture, most foreigners don’t” it really made me happy.

Well, I think it’s too soon to know how this experience will really affect me, but I know for sure it has changed me. I am looking forward to spending time in Nepal so I can reflect on my experience here, and digest it a little before going back to Canada. I know it will be overwhelming when I get back, being exposed to everyone and everything that I have gone so long without now. But I know I will adjust again, and hopefully before I know it I will be on another adventure shortly!

Thank you for reading and following my experiences. I don’t know if I will post at all when I am in Nepal, but surely I will when I arrive back in Canada in May.

Goodbye for now!
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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

whirlwind tour of uzbekistan: 5 cities, 10 days

Well I have now made it to 3/5 Central Asian stans… Uzbekistan being the latest conquest. There was so much to see, and so little time, but I managed to fit a lot in. I started by driving from Khujand (Tajikistan) to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), then flew to Nukus, then traveled by land to Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. I really wanted to see Nukus for the art museum that captured banned art from Soviet times. I was also excited to be visiting places that were on the Silk Road route (all of the cities except Nukus), this was a trade route that went from China to Europe, caravan’s of camel’s and men would bring silk, gold, and many other luxurious things from Asia. Khujand is one of the cities on the Silk Road, but there is little evidence or memories left from that time, so I was looking forward to see these cities where the history was captured and turned into tourist sites. I also wanted to see Bukhara and Samarkand because these cities were formally Tajik, and much of Tajikistan’s history is found here.

Tashkent is a very up-and-coming city that offered many of the luxuries I have done without for quite some time now. It had everything that was craving, such as sunshine and hot temperatures, a great diversity of multi-cultural vegetarian food, outdoor patios serving cold, imported (not from Russia only) beer, and life after dark (theatre, opera, ballet). So I enjoyed every minute of my weekend there, spending two nights before flying to the other end of the country to Nukus.

In Nukus I stayed at a very old house turned into a B&B. They had a traditional yurt in the courtyard, as well as a very old donkey cart. The reason I wanted to go there was to see the Savitsky Museum. During Soviet times all art had to represent Soviet Realism, any other art was forbidden. This museum now show cases thousands of pieces of art that were illegal to posses or produce, many of the artists were caught and sent to Siberia to serve in the labour camps. The artwork was amazing, it was worth the trip.

The next day I took a taxi to Khiva, where an ancient walled city is the draw for many tourists. The whole city is now a show piece, many of the buildings have turned into museums, some you just tour as-is, and many are filled with souvenir shops. The bright turquoise tile that accented the sand-coloured buildings really made them quite beautiful. I tool a million pictures because in real life everywhere you turned was another “perfect picture”, however the weather was very overcast and the bright white clouds made for lousy photos unfortunately. I was also lucky and when I checked into a guesthouse the first night I met a friendly couple from England who were planning to visit all the same cities. So the three of us toured Khiva together then hopped in a taxi to make our way to Bukhara.

The taxi drive turned out to be a life-threatening experience where are driver enjoyed going 170 km/hr and passing everyone in sight, usually when there was a challenge of oncoming traffic. He pretended not to understand us when we yelled at him and told him to slow down and drive properly. However it all caught up to him when he was caught at a police checkpoint and didn’t have the papers to be a “taxi” and was fined for acting as one. Just our luck! This took over an hour to wait around for them to solve this issue… during this time we were hoping a proper bus or REAL taxi would drive through and we would jump ship, but no luck, we were stuck with him. I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now, but we made it the rest of the way alive at least!

We arrived in Bukhara and were famished, the driver had stopped for lunch, but we were not daring enough to eat anything that this “Food Poisoning R’us Café” served. So we found the guest house I had picked out and headed out for dinner. It was great to find a little Italian restaurant that was upscale, clean, cheap, and even had an English menu! The other cities were so small it was like eating in a café in Khujand, ordering the only vegetarian salad available (diced tomatoes and cucumber) and a side of buckwheat as a meal. So it was nice to eat an actual entrée. The next day we hit the city up touring around to find these ginormous architectural masterpieces among a sprawling Soviet city. There was so much history it’s hard to describe it in a paragraph, and the people were so friendly it was a very pleasant city to visit. I should also expand upon our guest house, “Mubinjon’s Bukhara House”; the owner is a former Tajik Olympic sprinter! After he retired from racing and coaching he opened the guesthouse for something to do, and graciously only charges $5 a night! The house was amazing; it was built in 1766 and had a lot of character. You basically walk into a courtyard where there is patio furniture for relaxing (great for breakfast and star-gazing at night), and it’s surrounded by rooms opening into the courtyard. All of the doors were hand-carved wooden doors, and the rooms had so much personality, I never wanted to leave! It did seem too good to be true, and when we went to the kitchen and saw some cock roaches among the dirty dishes it kind of burst our bubble (along with the food poisoning a couple of us got from eating some bread and cheese that was served before we witnessed this).

I said goodbye to my friends and left for Samarkand after only 2 nights because I had less time. Of course the journey never goes as planned… there were no life-threatening taxi drivers, but there was a whole lot of confusion about how to get from one city to another. They told me that I would have to go part way and transfer in another town, then that taxi would take me the rest of the way. Well, every driver told me this, so 4 taxi drivers later I arrived in Samarkand… good thing I’m used to Central Asia and don’t stress about these things or else I’d have white hair by the time I got there!

I made my way to another guest house I had picked out, Antica, but this time I was more concerned about the cleanliness then the character. But I was lucky and this place was both clean and had lots of character! It was more expensive then my Lonely Planet said… by a lot. But I decided to suck it up and pay $25/night for a single room because it was so nice. However the next day when my friends joined up with me, they were offered a back-packers room that I was told wasn’t available! And also as I was leaving they were showing my room to another couple, but I heard them double the price for them! So I learned to always bargain and don’t settle for the first price, whether it’s at a market or a hotel, the prices are never fixed and their goal is to get as much money as they can get for what they are offering.

Samarkand was similar to Bukhara, but was more spread out and there wasn’t quite as much to see. I was still very busy trying to fit everything in that I possibly could, including visiting the Samarkand-Bukhara Silk Carpet Factory. This factory makes carpets from scratch all by hand. They actually get the silk cocoons, spin it into thread, dye it with natural dyes (such as dried pomegranate rind = red, onion skin leaves = yellow, indigo = blue) before hand tying every tiny knot to make a carpet that they design from the heart. There is no child labour, they follow Western labour standards, and the products are unbelievably beautiful. If I had $700 to spare I would have picked up a little 3’x2’ carpet, but that definitely wasn’t in my budget! Another destination I would like to highlight is the Tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel; legend has it that his body grows ½” a year, so the sarcophagus is 18m long!

After visiting Samarkand I headed back to Khujand. It was another eventful, unpredictable journey but I made it through customs and back to my house before dark without running out of money, which were my main goals. It was a great trip and I hope to visit these cities again in the future when I have more time to fit in things I did not see, such as a visit to the disappearing Areal Sea, one of human kind’s worst environmental catastrophes.

I have updated my Google photo’s… my blog is too brief to capture it all, and a photo is worth a thousand words! Check them out!
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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

i heart kyrgyzstan

I couldn’t think of a better way to bring in spring then in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan!
The first official day of spring is March 1st, here is how I celebrated:

I decided to take a little trip to see more of Central Asia because time is quickly flying by and I want to get as much out of my time here as possible. I was in possession of a multi-entry visa to Kyrgyzstan (as my evacuation plan) so I decided to finally use it!

In my trusty “Lonely Planet” it recommended catching a very historical city, Osh, which is over 3000 years old (similar to Khujand). The best part is that Osh is only a day’s drive from Khujand and for us Canadians that’s nothing… so I decided to give it a try. Luckily I had great timing when planning my trip and a car from MEDA was going to Osh to attend an Agro-Expo, and there just happened to be a seat in the truck for me.

The drive was long, but armed with my faithful “sea-bands” to prevent motion sickness it was quite enjoyable. The country was beautiful, and I enjoyed driving through little villages to see what life was like outside of a city. We met up with a truck load of Agro-Expo participants from CESI, and made a few pit stops to stretch our legs and do a little tailgating. We made it to Osh before dark (they are an hour ahead… I did not know this!) and I managed to find a nice guest house after many unsuccessful attempts (either too grungy or too nice $$). Finally goldilocks found one that was just right. I was also pleasantly surprised when I went to a nearby café for dinner and found LETTUCE on the menu! First of all they had English on the menu, which you don’t find in Khujand; second of all they had VEGETABLES!!! My love affair with Kyrgyzstan had begun.

The next day when I woke up I heard this unfamiliar sound… it was raining! In all of my 6 months in Khujand I have never seen it rain, I know it has rained because I have seen puddles but I think it only happens when I’m sleeping, and it’s very light as I never hear it. Needless to say I was unprepared, so my first mission was to buy an umbrella. Looking up how to say “umbrella” in my little Russian phrasebook I took to the streets. This mission was quite unsuccessful; I had found many little shops, but no umbrellas. I decided it wasn’t raining THAT bad, and I could probably due without. However the snow was melting and turning into thick slush, so I was afraid my feet would be the most wet and an umbrella wouldn’t help that. My next mission was to find the gang at the Agro Expo to say goodbye and tell them I would be off to Bishkek later that day. I thought it might be a problem finding them in this huge building, but thanks to Akbar being unusually tall for a Tajik I found them no problem. Next I went to buy my plane tickets… I sat there with my phrase book studying what I wanted to say so I wouldn’t feel silly, and next thing I know the man behind the counter says in perfect English “Excuse me mam, can I help you?” It turned out that most people who worked at restaurants/hotels/stores all spoke a fair bit of English, so much for getting lots of practice!

After I had my tickets I only had a couple of hours to explore… which turned out to be plenty. I walked by the famous mountain, “Salomon’s Throne”, saw a bunch of statues, and attempted to go to the market but gave up after it being so crowded and pushy. My feet were soaked and I was deciding Osh wasn’t really what I expected, it may as well have been Khujand, I didn’t see anything that resembled their culture or heritage… guess I would have to go to a museum in Bishkek for that. So off I went, hopefully leaving the rain behind!

I arrived in Bishkek mid-afternoon and managed to be called “cheap” by a taxi driver as I took the bus to the city. When I arrived I just wanted to check in to my B&B and take off my wet shoes, but this turned out to be quite the process! The B&B I had circled in my book was under renovations, so I was off to check out other options. I decided to stay in an old soviet hotel, not because it was nice or cheap (it was neither) but it was getting dark, I was hungry, and it was located by a restaurant that my book said offered “excellent” vegetarian meals. Well my book was right! And the best part was they took MasterCard… so I ate almost everything on the menu, including a SPINACH salad!

The next morning my first mission was to find a new place to stay; other then the great view and a shower with great water pressure I wasn’t too impressed with what I got for my money at this place. Finding another option was nearly impossible it seemed, but after and hour and a half of walking around I finally found a place I was happy to call home for the next couple of days. I checked in, had some breakfast, ditched my backpack and finally was ready to see Bishkek.

I spent the day walking around the streets, looking at fancy buildings, statues, exploring INDOOR SHOPPING MALLS!! Honestly, there was a little culture shock; I couldn’t believe this was part of Central Asia. I wasn’t tempted to spend much time in these places, I kind of felt like they were alienating the Central Asia I had grown to love. I did love the wide, cobble stone streets though, there was no pushing and shoving like is so common in Khujand. But unfortunetly men still had the disgusting habit of spitting all over the streets just like in Khujand, I would be happy if I never heard that sound again or had to watch where I step to avoid it… I will never understand how people find spitting an acceptable behaviour in Central Asia. To end the day of aimlessly wandering I ate at another western style place, this time it was a sports bar. I loved it, it felt like back home with all of the wood, big screen TV’s showing sports (in English!) and beer on tap. This was also the home of an excellent veggie burger with mushrooms and Swiss cheese… a little slice of heaven!

The next day I wanted to explore the Ala-Archa Canyon; Kyrgyzstan is known for its beautiful scenery and I wanted to see it! I hired a driver from the hotel and off we went, I finally got to see some country side that I was expecting to see. We passed by fields, hills, and mountains with sheep, goats, cows, and horses grazing. Horses were everywhere, and if I would have come in another couple of months I could have gone trail riding through the mountains, riding horses, sleeping in yurts, cooking on an open fire… I have to come back!

When we got to the park, we started up one of the mountains for a view of the canyon and a waterfall if it wasn’t frozen. Unfortunately it was frozen, but the view was still so spectacular I couldn’t imagine it being any better. All of the mountains were snow covered, but it was warm enough we had to take off our jackets when we rested. The sun was shining, the air was warm and fresh, and the view was breath-taking. I never wanted to leave! I could hear rushing water, but did not see any water flowing… my driver who ended up coming along for the hike said that it was water from a melting glacier on the other side of the mountain, if I had a couple of days I could have hiked there and slept at the base camp. Yup, I definetly knew I had to come back! After we enjoyed the view for a while, we hiked back down and went into the canyon where the river was flowing. This was quite a refreshing day, after breathing in coal-burning fumes all winter my lungs didn’t know what to do with the fresh air!

After I made it back to town I set my shoes by the heater to dry and took a quick nap… then it was time to hit the museum and grab some souvenirs. I had attempted to go to the museum the day before but it closed early because the police blocked the area in front of it to have some kind of very official looking announcement, but I’m still not sure what it was about. The museum was interesting, finally glimpses of culture that I was expecting such as a yurt (a portable circular room made of felt, like a fancy tent), a loom, and even a mummy! (which I wasn’t expecting!) Then I found a bunch of souvenirs, in Tajikistan this is a chore because they really lack in typical souvenir type apparel, but in Kyrgyzstan there was soo much to chose from but so little money (no MasterCard’s accepted…yet!). I also really enjoy the paintings, so many of them depict their love for horses, I really wish I could have bought one, they were so beautiful. To end the day I found a great pizza place (also lacking in Khujand) and enjoyed a nice veggie pizza and mango milkshake! What a great way to end my time in Bishkek.

The next morning I set off for my journey home, I flew from Bishkek to Batken (near the Tajikistan border). The flight was spectacular; as we came below the clouds the view of the mountains was amazing. And as we approached Batken the scenery changed drastically from the usual snow-capped mountains to mountains made of the red/purple rocks that are unique to the Isfara area in Tajikistan. Then I took a taxi to Tajikistan (Isfara, across the border) with a group of friendly men I met on the plane. We then switched taxis in Isfara and took another one to Khujand. I was back in no time, ready to unpack and check my email to see if my Uzbekistan visa came through… which it did!!! I will be leaving Friday for another journey, but this time desserts and camels instead of mountains and horses!

*check out google photo's for new pics!

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