Monday, July 22, 2019

Central Asia - Tajikistan

After two unique experiences in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan would offer up something very different again, giving us a first real glimpse of Central Asia's natural scenery. As I mentioned in the previous post, I had a vague idea about some of the other Stans before starting this trip, but the Tajikistan file was very much empty. So, we gave ourselves plenty of time to put that right, with a couple of days in the nation's capital, Dushanbe, before setting off on a week-long drive through the mountains on the rocky Pamir Highway; hugging the borders of Afghanistan and China, before crossing over into Kyrgyzstan.

Will it be tragic, will it be magic? Only one way to find out, let's get Tajik!

After a flight from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, we landed in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe (which means Monday in Persian, fun fact!). As we were arriving late at night, we had arranged for a collection from our hotel, but as we exited the airport, nobody was there to greet us, except the usual horde of taxi drivers. We brushed their advances aside and waited for our man, but as time passed by, there was still no sign, and we started to become worried. At this stage, the rest of the taxi drivers had lost interest in us, but one guy (who only looked about 16) kept buzzing around, telling us our driver had already left and that he'd help us out. The more we travel, the less we trust anyone, and obviously, we had heard this routine a million times before, so we politely declined and walked up and down the airport looking for a solution. But he wouldn't let up! Every few minutes, there he was again, chiming in, offering to help, until we had to quite sternly tell him to leave us alone. He walked off with his tail between his legs... only to return a few minutes later with our driver! It turns out he was telling the truth and actually was trying to help us all along! We felt kinda bad about that one... but that's what travelling does to you! You often have to assume the worst of people, but we'll hold our hands up and admit we got this one all wrong. An early +1 for the Tajik people.

We had two days in Dushanbe, but we were only really here to get ourselves ready for the Pamir Highway. As a city, it was fine. Similar in many ways to Tashkent - very Soviet, wide roads, big concrete buildings, lots of parks - but a decent place to spend a day or two.

I mentioned in the Turkmenistan blog that Ashgabat is home to the world's fifth tallest flagpole, well, if you were impressed by that, hold onto your hats as Dushanbe has the world's second tallest! What a holiday this is turning out to be! We're really seeing all of the contenders in this international dick-compensation contest!

As I'm sure you're dying to know, the tallest is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and if the Dublin Spire had a flag on top, it would only be 11th on the list. Learning is fun! 

On our last day in town, we got our supplies in order for the Pamir Highway. As we would be going through the mountains, we went into a pharmacy to get altitude sickness tablets. No one in there had any English, but after much miming, they got the general message and we got the goods. The box even had a little airplane on it, which seemed like the kind of thing you'd find on altitude sickness medicine. Back at the hotel, a quick Google translate revealed that they were actually motion sickness tablets. Ok, attempt number two. This time, Aisling went out to the hotel reception, explained the situation, got them to write out the prescription in Russian, and off she went to the pharmacy. She returned with more tablets, but again all in Russian, so we were back onto Google translate once more.

"Take only one tablet per day". Alright, makes sense. 

"Take one hour before sexual intercourse". That's a strange cure for altitude sickness...

It turns out we had bought Tajik Viagra! It's funny looking back on it now, but what must they all have thought of me?! And even worse, there were only four tablets in the box, and so Aisling innocently said to the pharmacist, "You'll have to give me another pack, four isn't going to be enough!".

Imagine if we hadn't realised? High in the mountains, suffering with the altitude and knocking back a fistful of these! I would have been competing myself for the world's largest flagpole!

The next morning, off we set on our week long excursion. We were joined by a lovely couple from Sweden and Spain, and our Kyrgyz driver, Amit, who didn't really have much English, but he was lovely too! On day one, it was very much a case of getting to know one another and getting to know the landscape as we skirted alongside the Panj River which separates Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There was little activity on the Afghan side, but every so often we'd have the excitement of a motorbike, or outpost, or even a small village. If it was most other countries, I doubt we'd care, but the fact that it was Afghanistan, made anything we did see a lot more interesting!

Having said all of that, there wasn't much happening on the Tajik side either, so it came as a surprise when we pulled into the lovely little village of Kalaikhum for our first night. It had shops, a little park, a town hall; it was really nice! And I don't mean to sound patronising saying all of that, it's just, we passed very few towns of note all day, so this place came very much out of the blue.

It was more of the same scenery-wise for the next couple of days, lots of mountains, lots of bumpy roads, and hot hot heat in the back of the car. On a negative note, one of our party got quite sick and so we had to make a stop off at a hospital in a small town in the middle of nowhere. A bad time, but on the plus side, I guess it all adds to the experience and it gave us a different view of the country, and of the people who, on the whole, have been really, really nice and helpful. She was back on her feet in no time, and we were on the road again, finishing up day 3 in a town that I presume is twinned with Cork.

On day 4, we reached our highest point (geographically), while I reached my own low point (physically). We had been gradually climbing for the past few days and broke 4,000 metres as we drove through the Kargush Pass. That was high enough, but we had a hike arranged for that afternoon that would take us up to an altitude of over 4,800 m. Even just a few steps in and I was feeling the effects, but we kept moving forwards (and upwards). It was quite a tough hike too, not only because of the altitude, but the terrain was also quite steep, with loose rocks underfoot. But we eventually made it to the top where I could slowly regain my breath.

We made a little Tajik video diary at the top too:

The descent was almost as tough, as we had to skate down mini rock slides of loose rubble, resulting in a few tumbles along the way. I even scratched my poor wedding ring!

We made it back to the car in one piece though, and off we drove once more. However, if I thought climbing that mountain would be my biggest obstacle of the day, my body had other news for me. The altitude was still causing me serious problems, with my head and stomach both in agony, until it got to the stage where I had to stop the car, run out into the desert, and redecorate the landscape with a stream of stomach bile and dried apricots. (There's a food I'll never be eating again!) The bumpy roads didn't help either as I spent the rest of the day counting down the hours and minutes until we would arrive at our next homestay and I could just go to bed.

But again, the bad moments are good opportunities, and the local family that we were staying with couldn't have been nicer. Even though they had no English, they were still checking up on me, making sure I was alright and even taking my blood pressure with one of those pumpy machines.

Onto day 5, and I was starting to feel a bit better, however, the rocky roads were doing me no favours. It was a good day for unusual sights though, starting off with a trip to an abandoned Soviet observatory, before stopping off at Murghab Bazaar, which was indeed very bizarre! It was like something from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with market stalls built out of shipping containers, caravans and scrap metal. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me though, I loved it!

We were back up to a height of 4,655 m that afternoon on the Akbaital Pass, and my health plummeted right back down that evening, with bad stomach cramps all through to the following morning. And this was the worst possible place to get it too as our homestay only had an outhouse, so during the night, any time I needed to make a deposit, I would have to get up, get dressed, walk out into the freezing cold, squat over a hole in the ground, and shit into the abyss. It was a long, long night, and the second ring I've damaged in as many days.

The town was quite nice though!

The next day would see us cross the border into Kyrgyzstan, so I'll pick things up from there the next time. And so, I suppose that was Tajikistan. It's hard to have a completely unbiased view of the place as I was sick for large parts of our time here, but it's hard not to let that affect your lasting memory. I can say that the people were really great, and the scenery was beautiful (though it doesn't come close to somewhere like Mongolia). I feel bad for Tajikistan now, as it didn't do anything wrong, but it was probably the least noteworthy of the countries so far. We still have a day and a half to go on our Pamir Highway tour though, so let's see if Kyrgyzstan can raise the bar.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Central Asia - Uzbekistan

Turkmenistan may have wowed us with its absurdities, but it didn't have very much in the way of authenticity. Any genuine history seemed to lie in crumbling desert ruins, and any remnants of ancient culture was far out of focus. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, couldn't have been more different and gave us our first real taste of what Central Asia is all about. There's no escaping the footprints of history here, with Alexander the Great, Marco Polo and Genghis Khan all contributing to the rise and fall of this Silk Road cornerstone. We had 10 days in the country, passing down through the ancient cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, before finishing up with a day in the capital, Tashkent. If you want more gold statues and idol worship, you've come to the wrong place. However, if you're into blue tiled domes, strap yourself in for the time of your life!

First up on our list was the hidden gem of Khiva. Now, most tourists into the country would enter through the Eastern cities of Tashkent or Samarkand, and so a half-day, cross-country train ride would put many off adding Khiva to their itinerary. Luckily for us, as we were crossing in from the other side, this was the obvious first stop on Uzbek soil. And even better, as it's just off the tourist trail, we could enjoy it all in relative peace.

Our first task, upon arrival in town, was to get some local currency, and this time we didn't have to do it through illegal means! And it seems the Gods smiled down on us for our lawful nature as, within minutes, we were millionaires!

Uzbek millionaires... 

We had three days in Khiva overall, and although it's somewhere you could easily get covered in half a day, it's sometimes nice just to go at a slower pace, especially in such laid back surroundings. As we were staying in the heart of the old walled city, which is a UNESCO heritage site, it was lovely just to walk the streets, snap some pics and do very little.

In terms of history, Khiva's past is very much a mixed bag. It seems unbelievable now as you walk down its quiet, cobbled streets, but this sleepy town was once the capital of Central Asia's slave trade. On a brighter note, it was also the birthplace of Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the creator of Algebra. (Which is the greater crime, says you!) There's even a statue of him by the West Gate of the walled city, but I only found out about it after we had left Khiva, and so I missed the ultimate photo op! I'm actually gutted about it!

Some man though, al-Khwarizmi. Solving equations and causing sensations since 780 AD.

The main sight and symbol of Khiva is the Kalta Minor Minaret. It was designed to be a full sized tower, and ordered to be tall enough to see as far as Bukhara, 400km away, but it was never finished. It still looks deadly though, and besides, there are loads of minarets in the world. There isn't anything that looks like this.

They really like the colour blue here!

Our main hangout spot while we were in town was Terrassa Cafe, which is the perfect place to watch the world go by. We also got chatting to the owner who told us about his life, about Uzbekistan, and his family. His two young nieces even asked to take a photo with us!

One memorable point he mentioned was the swing in temperatures over the course of the year in Uzbekistan, ranging from 50 degrees in the summer, to as low as -20 degrees in the winter! And we think Irish weather is changeable!

After our three days in town, we finally had to bid farewell to Khiva, a place that's in the perfect sweet spot of being incredibly tourist-worthy, but not overrun with many tourists. A really lovely little nook to spend a few days.

Emotionally, leaving Khiva was tough. Physically, it was a whole lot tougher as we had to endure a sweaty, sweaty 8 hour train ride down to Bukhara. And the worst part? We were dying of dehydration, so at one of the stations, I jumped off the train, bought 4 litres of water and sprinted back on just before the train pulled away... only to realise that it was sparkling water! There is really nothing worse in life. Think of anything. It is a distant second to sparkling water.

Next up was Bukhara, which was... fine, but that's about the best I can say for it. I think if we had visited this place in isolation, we would have been very impressed, but it kind of felt like Uzbekistan's middle child. It wasn't small and quaint like Khiva. It wasn't big and impressive like Samarkand. It just kind of got lost somewhere in between. (Sorry to all the middle children out there!)

I feel bad for Bukhara now, so here are some nice pics and we'll move swiftly along. At least the train to Samarkand was only an hour and a half. And they had TVs that played life hack videos! Handy!

Side note: lots of people in Uzbekistan have gold teeth. It's a real thing here. And I don't mean single gold teeth. I mean a mouth full of them!

And so to Samarkand which is very much the jewel in the crown of Uzbek history and tourism. It's a lot more spread out than Khiva or Bukhara, and so you would need a few days here, but they'll be a few days well spent.

Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, with Alexander the Great once remarking, "Everything I have read about Samarkand is the truth, except that it is much more beautiful than I could imagine". Now, I wouldn't go that far, (take it easy, Alexander) but it was very pretty.

The main attraction in Samarkand is Registan. This is the central square of the old city, flanked on three sides by centuries old, ornate buildings and minarets. It also seems to just be a general hangout spot for the locals and we even saw a fair few couples getting wedding photos taken on the grounds. At 9pm, there is a light show which we had read online to be pretty lame, but I liked it! It's not in English, but it's nice just to follow the pictures.

It also acts as a kind of gateway to many of the other main attractions in the city, such as the Bibi Khanym Mosque, the Siab Bazaar and the Shah-i-Zinda.

Where does the tiling end and the sky begin?

We made a little video diary in a quiet spot around the back of the Shah-i-Zinda:

As mentioned previously, our buddy Genghis Khan also paid a visit to Samarkand, which at the time was the capital of the Khwarazmian Empire. (Since our visit to Mongolia a few years ago, we're big Genghis fans, so we're totally on his side here). So, here's the story. It's the 13th century. The Mongols have conquered pretty much everything in their path and so Genghis decides to hang up his furry boots, and instead, create a trade network with neighbouring empires, so that the Mongols can prosper without any of the work. Anyway, he sends a 500 man caravan to the Khwarazmian Empire to establish trade ties. They were all killed. Bad move lads. Now, the Khan is not a man to be trifled with, but he says 'fair enough, maybe it was a mistake', and he sends three ambassadors to the Shah himself to make peace. One is killed while the other two are shaved and sent back to Mongolia as a message. Oh no you didn't! So, what does a now-retired Genghis do? Well, he gets back in the saddle, raises the largest army Asia had ever seen, and literally burns the entire Khwarazmian Empire to the ground, killing an estimated 1.7 million people in the process, before continuing on into Persia and Eastern Europe.

He was retired lads! You should have let him be!

Only one more stop left now, as we hopped on a train for the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. There isn't a whole lot to see here, but as we had to catch a flight, we said we'd spend a day in town. The train journey was a nice one as well, three and a half hours long, and the cabin we were in was empty! The AC was working too! Double bonus!

In case you didn't know, Uzbekistan (in fact, all of the countries we're visiting) was formerly part of the USSR. You wouldn't know it from the architecture and way of life in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, but Tashkent, on the other hand, was very Soviet. I don't even mean that in a bad way. I kinda liked Tashkent, but it's clearly of a very different era.

Russian is quite widely spoken in these countries too, which was a help as Aisling has a small bit herself. Most people had at least a little English, but when they didn't, Russian offered a much better plan B than Uzbek!

We spent the day going around the ultra-Soviet metro system (which was only 12 cent for any journey), and made a couple of stop-offs, but as I said, one day is more than enough.

It seems Tesco have opened up a branch here too!

And that was Uzbekistan! We had a really nice 10 days here, and don't have any real negatives to report - we saw some amazing places, the people are nice, we never felt unsafe, it's quite easy and cheap to travel around, and not very touristy at all. I can easily see Central Asia becoming the next big tourist hotspot over the coming years, and when it does, Uzbekistan will certainly be at the centre of things. At least we got to enjoy the place while it was still relatively quiet.

Before we set off on this journey, I could have probably told you a couple of things about Turkmenistan and Uzbeksitan, but now we're about to really step into the unknown - next stop, Tajikistan!