Our Stans part of the Silk Road has almost come to an end. With two days delay this Tuesday we hope to fly to Iran, a country especially Roel has been looking forward to for many years. Because of the strict dress code Eugénie took some more time to embrace the idea of visiting Iran. But first our last week in the Stans, week 2 in Uzbekistan.
We ended our last blog in Samarkand and Shakhrisabz. From Samarkand we took the Afrosoiyob high speed train to Bukhara which covered the 250 kilometers in a little over 1,5 hour. Like the rest of Uzbekistan this Spanish Talgo train was ridiculously cheap; a little bit more than 4 euro. Other examples: Eating out cost us about 7-8 euro for two at tourist restaurants, 3-5 euro for two at more local eateries. By far the most expensive entrance fee was the 3,25 euro we had to pay for the Registan and the 5 euro combo ticket for most of the sights in Khiva.
Medressa city Bukhara
Bukhara is the holiest city of Central Asia, exemplified by the large number of ancient medressas (koran schools) in the city. The facades of many of them are covered in beautiful blue tilework. In fact the Ulugbek Medressa from 1417 (making it the oldest medressa in Asia) stood model for many other medressas.
Like in Samarkand and Shakhrisabz (and later Khiva) the old center of the city sometimes looked a little bit too much restored, some structures almost looking brand new (they probably are). A bit of a surprise since all these places are Unesco World Heritage listed. What we also found annoying was that too many historic sites in Bukhara and other cities we visited were filled with souvenir shops.
The package tour crowd seemed to like it though, they’re probably another kind of travel species than us. After being really off the regular tourist trail in the other Stans, we had to get used to seeing coaches filled with tour groups again. We heard a lot of Spanish, Italian and French spoken, also by the souvenir sellers. Luckily the high season was over so they didn’t get too much in the way of individual travelers.
The 2,5 days we spent in Bukhara were enough to visit the many medressas and some of the other sights in the city. Among them was the small and delicate Char Minar that features on the cover of the Lonely Planet Central Asia. We’d seen the picture of this gatehouse of a long gone medressa staring back at us for two months before we could finally lay our eyes on it ourselves. Although they’ve been doing a bad job renovating it, it still was a picturesque sight.
Our guesthouse in Bukhara was one of the most scenic ones we stayed at in Uzbekistan and during our trip along the Silk Road. The Khurjin Hotel was located in a former ruined caravanserai (roadside inn) in the city center that had been beautifully renovated. Because of its historic character the rooms were rather small, but we were happy to pay a little bit more for the experience.
From Bukhara we took a shared taxi to Khiva. We had to pay for an extra back seat because it was impossible to pack our backpacks into the trunk of the car since most cars in Uzbekistan don’t ride on petrol (hard to get, poor quality and more expensive) and have a natural gas tank built into the trunk. Something else we noted: In Uzbekistan more than 60% of the cars are Daewoo/Chevrolet, while Tajikistan was Opel Astra country. We can’t remember seeing Opel Astra’s in Uzbekistan.
After having had amazing weather during our first 1,5 week in Uzbekistan – clear blue skies and afternoon temperatures between 23 and 28 degrees Celsius – this changed dramatically as we drove the 500 kilometer westward by shared taxi from Samarkand to Khiva. Driving for 6,5 hour through mostly desert landscape we first had to deal with a sand storm. Later we were treated to rain. Meanwhile temperatures dropped to a little over 10 degrees Celsius. Brrrr.
The walled city of Khiva
During our stay in Khiva the weather mostly stayed cold and grey, but we did have some short spells of sun as well. So not all pics look gloomy (although we think that some dark brooding skies can be beautiful too). We think we were able to capture the beauty of the Ichon-Qala, the walled old city center, quite well.
Again we had the feeling that we were walking around in a reconstructed – but very pretty – museum town instead of a historic sight. In Khiva the parts of the Ichon-Qala that you’re supposed to visit as a tourist were paved, whereas in the rest of the walled city the streets and alleyways were unpaved. And sure enough we hardly saw any other tourists there.
Views from above
The nice thing about Khiva is that it is possible to climb on top of some of the buildings to get a view from above. Being there at the right time was a race against time sometimes. After a first visit to the visually attractive Islom-Hoja minaret I raced up the 120 narrow, dark steps to the top of the minaret again as the sun broke out to get a shot with sunlight just to arrive in time to take some pics before the clouds returned.
The same happened when we took pictures from the viewing platform at the Kuhna Ark, the walled city’s citadel. We’d already given up hope of seeing the Ichon-Qala aglow in the setting sun. On our first visit it was cloudy and grey (making for great shots though) and seeing only grey skies around 5 PM we decided to head over to the city walls to at least have been there too.
Then suddenly the dark cloud cover gave way to the setting sun. We quickly realized that the city walls were not the right place to be and made our way as fast as we could to the Kuhna Ark, which boasts the best late afternoon views of the city. We just got there in time to take some pictures of the city and the city walls before clouds moved in front of the sun again before it finally set. Apart from some great pics we took of the city wall we found the cloudy pictures actually better…..
The long road to Iran
After a last (sunny!) morning in Khiva we started our long trip to get to Iran. Since our Turkmenistan visa had been denied we had to look for some alternative route. This was not easy. Most countries in this part of the world are not each other’s best friends so flying between countries can be something of a hassle. Most options from Tashkent required 25-35 hours with a minimum of two flight transfers.
After some research our original plan B, flying out of Aktau – a gas and oil boom town on the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan –, seemed to be the best option. Still time-consuming, but by far the friendliest on the budget. First we took a 2,5 hour taxi ride to the middle of nowhere city of Nukus. Heading further west we got our first glimpse of the scenery for the next 1.000 kilometers and 26 hours on the overnight train from Nukus to Aktau: empty and desolate desert and steppe as far as the eye can see.
As a geographer making a side trip to the receding Aral Sea (one of the biggest ecological disasters of modern time) sounded interesting but with limited time and a hefty price tag of about US$ 500,- for a two day trip we decided there are more worthwhile things to do to spend that kind of money on.
The train ride was an adventure in itself. It left at 6 AM and as soon as we entered the train we were hit by the stifling heat inside. With no opportunity to open a window it stayed that way most of the ride. We even saw Uzbeks stripping down to t-shirts, which says a lot. On the Uzbekistan side of the ride the train turned into a moving bazaar. The items we saw passing us:
Toiletries (toothpaste, tooth brushes, razors, toilet paper), food (manty, pelmeni, shashlick, bread, samsa, smelly smoked fish, sausages, instant noodles, boiled eggs, sun seed, fruit), drinks (soft drinks, water, tea, milk), clothing (children’s clothes, t-shirts, body warmers, socks, jogging outfits, house tunics, panties), plastic toys, pens, cigarettes, magazines, plastic bags, brooms and sim cards.
And there were money changers. Something of a little miracle happened here. We’d left Tajikistan with over 40 euros in Tajik Somoni. Money changers at the Tajik-Uzbek border gave such a bad exchange rate (one even tried to con us by offering 500 Uzbek Som (5 eurocent) for our 426 Tajik Somoni, as if we didn’t know) that we decided to change at a bank in Uzbekistan.
What we didn’t know is that Uzbek banks don’t take Tajik Somoni. Ooops. We thought we were stuck with worthless Somoni but then this money changer on the train to Kazakhstan came along. He agreed to change our Somoni to Kazakh Tenge at almost the market rate. Sweeeet.
Hassle-free border crossing
The border crossing from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan also went without problems. Despite our run-in with the authorities in Tashkent last week we could leave the country hassle-free. We’d heard of people having to show their pictures when leaving Uzbekistan but nobody asked us. The border guards checking the train weren’t even interested in looking into our backpacks nor in the hotel registration cards you’re supposed to turn in. Maybe they were too preoccupied with all the traders trying to take too many articles across the border, like the woman across from us who had her goods stashed all through the railcar.
During the night Eugénie suffered some stomach problems, so when we arrived in Aktau in the morning we decided to stay in our hotel, me writing this blog while Eugénie could take some extra rest. Through the course of the day, however, she started to feel worse and couldn’t hold any food or fluids inside.
We ordered a doctor through the hotel reception and before we knew it we had some kind of medical swat team in our hotel room. Communicating through Google translate and with what we think was a cleaning lady and the dezhurnaya (floor lady) giving their two pennies worth of advice (and the trained medic actually taking it serious) she got some medication prescribed (banned years ago at home of course) which we hope will help.
We had to cancel our flight and hope to get up in the middle of the night in two days time to catch the next available affordable flight from Aktau to Tehran via Baku. After more than two months of manty (stuffed dumplings), plov (rice pulau, pilav), kebab (meat skewer), samsa (baked meat bun), laghman (central Asian style noodles) and incredibly hard and dry bread we’re really curious about what Iran’s kitchen has in store for us.
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