Thursday, October 31, 2019

Dushanbe and Bishkek

Dushanbe is a very pleasant city. It felt like we could be somewhere in Europe.  The Plane trees, parks and roads all contributed to that feeling.  It was also very hot in mid-September, so walking in the shade of the trees was a relief.  

We referred to the Lonely Planet, and headed off to see the recommended Ethnographic museum.  Only problem was -  it wasn’t where the Lonely Planet map said it was and was actually on the other side of town.  I then remembered someone’s comment in pre-trip research, that they were unsure if the Lonely Planet writer had actually even visited the city, so huge were the errors.  

So unintentionally having visited the outside of some university building, we backtracked and headed for the large Rudaki Park.  There were lanes and lanes of roses, and they were scented roses.  That and the smell of freshly cut grass was a pleasant change for us.  Nearby, was the 2nd largest flagpole in the world, and the ‘Whitehouse’, parliamentary buildings.  

Leaving the park, it was a relief to get inside the National museum and its lovely air-con.  As with anywhere, the exhibits on stones/geology were a bit dull (we are not really into them), but the rest of the collection was quite good.  Quite a lot of effort seemed to have been put into the displays and descriptions.  It was good to see more of the wall murals from Panjakent.  We had seen some lesser quality pieces in our visit to the museum in Panjakent.  But the best bits are in Dushanbe and the Hermitage in St Petersburg.  The room displaying the gifts from visiting nations, was not a winner for me, bowl from Pakistan, pen from India etc.  The top floor had a nice collection of art works by Tajik artists.

For lunch we walked a reasonable distance in the heat to go to the popular Turkish restaurant,  Merve.  The cold drink was particularly good, and food was great.   There were constant pictures of the President wherever we went 

Dinner was next door to our hotel in a nice modern cafĂ©.  At that time we didn’t know it was a chain and ended up at another one when we got to Bishkek.  Two meals, 2 beers and a coke = $12

The next morning it was out to the airport for our flight to Bishek, via Almaty.  There were great views of the snow capped mountains along the route.  Unfortunately the scheduled 2 hour stopover ended up being 6 hours and included boarding the plane and being made to disembark while they swapped out the plane for technical reasons.  And no internet in the terminal unless you have a local number to which the joining code could be sent to.  In the end it was a 4 hours delay for a 30 minute hop flight.  Luckily the driver the apartment arranged to meet us at the apartment was still waiting for us @10:30pm. No local money, no chance to walk the neighborhood but hey...we are in Kyrgyzstan.

Our 1st goal in Kyrgyzstan was finding an ATM and getting some money.  Beside our apartment was a popular called Bublika.  Coffee, and plates of pancakes and omelettes: we were ready to hit Bishkek.  It turned out to be another lovely city.  Not because of any particular sights, but rather for the parks and public spaces, kind people in cafes and it just had a good positive vibe.  At one point we were sitting in Oak Park, it wasn’t silent looking at the changing colour on the leaves of the trees, instead there was a constant thrum of acorns falling, rustling  through the trees and bouncing off the ground underneath.

USAid had been very active in helping the tourism industry progress and one of their initiatives was preparing walking routes, with supporting stories of the places you were seeing.  It was very well done and helped get us around the city point we wanted to see. There were a lot of parks, squares and sculptures and we didn’t visited them all.  

We had lunch in modern cafe which we had also been to in Dushanbe.  It was only after we sat down and recognized some of the decor did we realize this was a Russian chain called Shokoladnitsa.  The dumplings and local beer were well appreciated.  

Over the road was the Tsum, central department store.  Again the most useful shops were on the very top floor.  Here were a lot of same-same tourist souvenirs but there were a couple of shops with unique items.  The best selling the most delightful silk scarves with merino wool felted into them.  

We visited the Fine Arts museum, which had quite a large space but only a few really good pieces.  The good pieces, were very good, though.  It was particularly noticeable that the dominant colour in all the paintings was brown, reflecting the terrain and harsh environment.  But when it came to the textiles, they were unabashed riots of colour. 

In the way home we stopped in the supermarket.  It is always interesting to see the different  things in supermarkets giving a small insight into local life.  The one thing we both noticed was that bulk biscuits are a major thing here with a aisle devoted to scooping up all the freeflow biscuits you could want. We instead found chocolate marshmallow biscuits that we had had on the airplane - and they served us well as meal supplements over the next few days.  

In the evening we walked to a Georgian Restaurant.  "Pur Pur" has constant good ratings from a number of sources.  It was a good choice, and it lived up to expectations with lamb that melted in your mouth!  The freshly prepared Khachapuri bread and a carafe of Georgian wine made it well worth the walk. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Seven Lakes & Iskanderkul, Tajikistan

Breakfast was more toned down-selection compared to the excessive breakfasts that had been served up to us so far, but still had multiple small dishes.  Our driver for the next 2 days picked us up from outside the hotel.  Rohib spoke good English and had spent time in Germany and Russia.  

The lakes were each a slightly different colour and the people living along the way were certainly living basic lives.  At the 6th lake we stopped and walked to the 7th lake.  

The journey thus far had taken a couple of hours on gravel roads that became progressively narrower and rougher.  The 7th lake was lovely and worth the 150-250 flights of stairs our 2 phones told us we had climbed.  Along the way we had met multiple donkeys carrying firewood, working hard under heavy loads, and their owners encouraging them along.  

It was a bit dubious that the driver’s Opel Vectra was going to be able to handle the roads all the way to the 6th or 7th lake as we had read of other people switching to 4wd cars for the journey.  We made it, but there were a few places where the car struggled badly and we ended up rolling backwards down a hill to try again...not entirely confidence inspiring.

We did the long journey back to the main road.  On reaching the paved road our driver morphed into a racing-car driver.  Speeds were constantly high, and he was overtaking everything at every opportunity.  In one way it was good to turn off the main road and get back on gravel.  Because there, he was infinitely more cautious.  On the negative side it was another hour on gravel roads and the last part done in darkness.  The last portion from Iskanderkul to Sarytag was in pitch dark, on dirt roads that were not in good condition, climbing up highs hills and there was dust everywhere leaving next to zero visibility at times in the headlights of the car.  It was a real relief to get to our home stay, eat a simple meal and fall into bed.

The next morning, we had a got up early and had a brief walk near the property.  We watched groups of older people herding cows to different pasture.  Generally, there was not a lot of grazing, and where the cows ended up didn’t look much better. The stones buildings they were living in had no obvious electricity and smoke suggested open fire cooking

A quick breakfast of eggs and not-so-fresh bread, and we were back in the car jolting along a different road back to the Iskanderkul lake.  This was a newer, better road built because of the Chinese gold & antimony mining camp which we passed through on the drive.  I assume they also paid for the electricity pylons and all other new infrastructure we could see on the way.  Production from the mine was expected to be 2ton of gold per year and 16000 ton of antimony (used in batteries). Various conversations with people during the larger Stans trips had plenty of negative comment about these foreign investors. 

Iskanderkul lake was a beautiful sight.  We also walked alongside the river in order to see the roaring rapids/waterfall.  I was less keen on the cantilevered viewing platform...well anchored, but it had seen better days.

Back in the car and a 1 hour trip back to the main road, then racing car mode again.  We did go through the infamous Anzob tunnel – previously known as ‘the tunnel of death’.  These days, it has lights and a reasonable surface.  But the 5km tunnel (@ 2700m) was built by Iranian engineers and it was handed over unfinished for nearly 10 years with no lighting, there was water flowing through it and eventually major potholes.  Work started again in 2017 and it is dramatically better.  There is still no ventilation and Tajik vehicles have a tendency to have bad fumes, so visibility is still not great.  Everyone, including the driver , was very relieved to see light on the other side.  

The road had plenty of avalanche shelters and even at the end of summer there were patches of snow on the roadside due to the altitude we were at.  Our driver had to stop once after the tunnel because he was feeling tired after a broken night’s sleep in Sarytag.  He wasn’t totally unsafe but it was good to hit the outskirts of Dushanbe and we were not going to argue about transferring to a taxi for the drive into the city.  

The driver helped us arrange that new taxi journey.  The only problem was that the taxi driver he got for us - had no idea where the street of our hotel was (and it wasn’t a small street).  He asked us to put it on a map for him.  It was just lucky we had some internet and could do that otherwise it would have been a long journey with him stopping every 2 minutes to ask people for directions.  

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Panjakent, Tajikistan

After breakfast it was into the old Russian car driven by a little old man for our journey to the border – a trip of less than an hour.  

The border crossing was again so easy, with a scan of the bags, show the passports, and we were out of Uzbekistan. A short walk across paved no-man’s land and the same process plus presenting a copy of our e-Visa, and it was welcome to Tajikistan.  

Past the gates we met a taxi driver who helped us change money and quoted a decent price to the nearby town of Panjakent.  We said we just wanted to buy a SIM card from the porta-cabin office at the border.  Just buying a sim took 40 long minutes to do.  Issuing a sim to foreigners is relatively new in Tajikistan, but should it really have taken this long? 

While this was happening we talked more to Rohan the taxi driver, and we agreed on a plan to drive to 7 Lakes, Iskanderkul and on to Dushanbe. Tajikistan logistics were planned in a booth beside the border, that was a good use of our waiting time. 

Arriving at our hotel in Panjakent the 1st thing the receptionist said was “we need to cancel your website booking”.  OK, the 2nd booking change today, as our lady in Samarkand also wanted to cancel our booking and both gave us discounts.  They were obviously avoiding paying commissions...but this one suited us perfectly because we had booked for 2 nights and with our new driving plan we only wanted to stay one... so no cancellation fee for us.  

While Panjakent is only 100km or so from Samarkand, it had a different feel to it than anywhere we had been in Uzbekistan.  This is also a little unusual as high percentages of the people in Uzbekistan are ethnically Tajik.  Due to political reasons the Panjakent border had been closed for many years and only in late 2018 had it reopened following the death of the old Uzbek president. 

Anyway, Panjakent had a small city feel.  People wanted to say hello ...all. the. time.  They were all keen to try out their English.  We saw a few tourists in town, but not high numbers. 

We eventually found a great restaurant for lunch after the recommended 1st options in the Lonely Planet wasn’t open.  The cafe opposite the Rudakai museum was a very good alternative.  They had no English, we had no Tajik, but we managed to get bread and beers which were quickly followed by meat skewers- about $4 total.  It turned out to the a quite busy restaurant, but didn’t look it because everyone was in private dining rooms.  They edged the courtyard and everyone else was in those, while we sat out int covered courtyard. 

Tummys full, we walked across to the museum where we were made to put plastic shoe covers over our sandals, to walk on the carpet. The locals just took off their shoes, which we would have done if we had realised that was an option.  IT was a low key museum, but they had made an effort to include English description on displays, and it was a nice collection of local items.  

Educated we then walked down to the other end of town to visit the market, which was quite large and still bustling at mid-afternoon.  At one point, in the potato aisle, we were asked where we were from and then New Zealand was shouted up and down the line.  One group were very keen to have their picture taken with Andrew.

After the market we navigated our way out of town and up a hill to look at the nearby archeological ruins.  It was a hot and dusty walk, and we decided not to go the full distance and instead just enjoyed the views from the hills we had climbed.  

In the evening we found the Cafe Safina, not where google said it was, but a little further up the street on the opposite side.  A couple of guys wanted us to come and sit with them but we politely declined.  It would have long meal as we couldn’t communicate and they were quite well fueled on their alcoholic drinks – but we had some friendly banter across the courtyard during the meal.  At the end we made farewells to them and Andrew spent a few minutes admiring the large marrows/pumpkins they had bought in town.  And the meal was good, the place was popular with a lot of locals going into the inside dining room.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Samarkand - Uzbekistan

On arriving at Samarkand station we had pre-arranged a taxi from the BnB and soon we were wending our way through traffic and buses and big city paraphernalia.  No idea where we were, or going, but it didn't matter.

Our host at Antica BnB was a bit run off her feet with three sets of guests arriving off the same train.  Bags deposited, we decided to go out for a walk to find something for dinner.  

For the 1st time in a long time we had not checked out what restaurants were near us.  So after walking about for a bit, we found there were not a lot of options nearby so we chose "Labi Gor". Near to the Registan, it looked ok and there were a number of people seated...but it turned out to be the worst meal in a very, very long time.  The staff appeared friendly, but basically couldn't care less.  The food (after 2 of our 1st choices were not available) was basically a whole chicken each, partially warmed through.  We picked at it a bit, finished our (not very tasty) beers and paid more than the meal was worth.  On looking on and google later, there was review after review of low star reviews, with words like "avoid" and "tourist trap".  Lesson learned, moving on.

The next morning the Registan was the 1st destination of the day.  40,000 som to enter  and it was without question a stunning complex.  

The highlight was the smaller mosque, with its breathtaking ceilings.    

We went over to the Siyob market where we bought some candied peanuts and wandered around the covered market and the fruit and veg offerings.

Then it was on to Bibi Khanym mosque.  This was also impressive and decorated slightly differently from other Mosques and Madrassas we have visited.  We sat for a while off the main square and watched people move about.  This included some local school kids who started climbing the side of the building.  They had one eye on the climb, and the other watching the guard near the ticket office, hoping he didn't see them.

Lunch was in a restaurant on the edge of the market, a few tourists and a lot of locals we were lucky to get a seat.  Good soup and somsa (again).  Andrew experienced drinking beer out of bowl - Uzbek glass said our waitress :-)

We walked through the park to the "Street of Mausoleums".  We liked the sign outside that requested people didn't leave money on the alters or sacrifice animals there among other edicts.  We saw plenty of instances of money on tombs, but luckily there were no sacrifices the day we visited.  We returned through the cemetery  where the recent  headstones all had sandblasted (or a similar technique) photo realistic images of the people on them. 

The cemetery finished at the tomb of former President,  Islam Nabokov, who died in 2016.  It was a MAJOR pilgrimage site for locals, with people seated around the tomb and praying.

Dinner was in the BnB. The plates of food just kept coming, starters, salads, mains, fruits.... It was a good option to have good local food,  and not to have to walk miles 

The next day we visited Gul Amir mausoleum located next to the BnB.  Timur and his grandson Ulgubek (gave his name to algebra) are buried here.  

We walked through the neighbourhood streets.  The local kids wanted to talkand we were mobbed by a group of under 7s wanting to try out their English.

We walked up the Winery building, but it didn't open until 18:00.  The we had selected a burger bar for lunch, but when we got there it wasn't open either, nor was the recommended coffee shop nearby.  We saw a couple of locals go into a restaurant, so we followed them in.  We managed to get fried chicken and chips (breakout from local fare for one.meal) and 2 beers with some good pointing at pictures and other people's plates

Dinner at the BnB, dolma yum!  Not so yum was the local wine.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Bukhara - Uzbekistan

It was a relatively early start for a basically a day's drive through the desert from Khiva to Bukhara.  We had an early breakfast alongside a large German tour group.  Early on in the trip we were asked by the taxi driver where we come from, and his automatic suggestion was Germany? or Italy?, so a high proportion of non-Central Asian tourists must come from there.

After breakfast it was into the car for the 6 hour drive to Bukhara.  The start, and the end hours, were in green fertile country with cotton being hand-harvested, corn and other green crops.  The roads in these proportions were not great.  Our driver weaved from one side of the road to the other to try avoid potholes.  However, the middle 4 hours was through desert, nothing to see bar the occasional small town, donkey carts, camels.  But the road through that portion was fantastic.

When stopping at fuel stations all passenger had to get out while the driver filled up and you were picked up again after he had finished the fill.  These were gas cylinders refills, and it was obviously a safety measure.

We didn’t stop for lunch, but we had a toilet break where we both used the squat toilets in the ladies, because the men’s wasn't working, according to the old crone who guarded the slightly smelly facility
When we reached Bukhara, our room wasn't ready so we walked to the nearby park where we had a beer and a "lemonade"  only it wasn't lemonade rather a pear drink, which was super sweet and tasted like ice cream soda lemonade we used to have when we were kids.  That, and a couple of small samosas tided us over until dinner. 

We tried Ayvan restaurant, arriving at 6:00pm without a reservation and we took a table on the balcony. We saw throughout the meal a number people turned away without reservations.  It was one of the best meals so far, soups breads and lamb for 145000 som.

The next day after an extensive breakfast ritual it was time to explore.  We walked the 1st 10 minutes in totally the wrong direction. But finally realizing our error, we left the suburban back-streets, literally clambered up a huge dirt pile on a construction site, to emerge directly back into tourist central. 

We finally found the Kolon Mosque and minaret.  I like the detail I read, that the minaret has foundations that are 10 meters deep and there were reeds at the bottom of the tower as an early earthquake mechanism.

Then it was off to the Ark.  While described as a highlight in the Lonely Planet  - it was a major blah!  The outer defensive walls were impressive, but it was not much to see inside, it was hot and there were a million tour groups.  Not much positive comment on this destination from us.

We headed back to the centre to have a cold drink in the same cafe as yesterday, in the park by the pond, before returning to Kurjin hotel  for some quiet time in the cool

In the evening we returned to Ayvan restaurant which we had so enjoyed last night.  It was yet another very nice meal.  Bread ovens, tandoor style, are everywhere.  

Breakfasts throughout our stay in Uzbekistan were all outstanding.  Little plates, nicely presented,  cover the table with delights, so every day we started our walks well-fed!

On our last day we went to the nearby Chor Minor, with it's Indian influences.  There is only a gift shop inside, and the opportunity to climb to the roof (about the level of a 2nd story  so that was not compelling)  so it is all about the exterior.  Pictures taken, and a look about the flea market nearby, we head back to town to have a coffee and cake.

Instead of having a beer by the pond for lunch, we decided to have a seat at the nearby restaurant and a menu variation from the beer and Somsas we had eaten each day so far. When the waiter returned 10 minutes later after taking our order, he said there was no pizza available, so we ended up having Somsa AGAIN.  We might as well have been sitting by the pond next door.  

After some time in the park,  we picked up our bags and had a 15 minute ride to the railway station.  In the waiting room there is no board telling you what platform your train goes from.  Given there are a limited number of trains each day, they really aren't needed, but it is quite hard to hear the tiny voice over the loud speaker telling you where you do need to go.  However the staff are lovely, if you look lost and show them your ticket, they point you in the right direction.

Train and seat located we had a 4 person apartment to ourselves for the 1st half of the trip! 2 older ladies joined us in Navoi and they spoke no English, we no Uzbek or Russian so we all smiled and were quite content

Stayed Khurjin Boutique