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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