Central Asia Overland – Au revoir, Uzbekistan?

Well, I can’t say Uzbekistan has really lived up to expectations, but perhaps that’s the cumulative effects of a four week tour talking… together with rather rose-tinted expectations in the first place.

Although modern Tashkent was a welcome change, and the overnight train to Urgench a very pleasant way to cross the Kyzyl Kum desert, the main historical sights – Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand – were each disappointing in their own ways.

Khiva can only be a ghost of its former self – the whole of the old town has been conserved and restored into a shadow of a city, resembling EuroDisney on a quiet Tuesday. No one really lives there anymore, and we wandered around the sanitised streets avoiding end of season souvenir sellers rather than the genuine detritus of daily life. Hard to believe it was once the capital of the Khanate of Khiva.

Moving onto Bukhara at least offered a slightly more living experience of an ancient Silk Road city, but here too many of the main sights – the domed bazaars, the magnificent Medressas and the potentially lovely Lyab-i Hauz (this is a good map of Bukhara) – were given over to souvenir stalls and tourist troughs. Oh, and there really really isn’t anything worth the 2000 sum photo fee at the Ark citadel.

Samarkand should probably have been the highlight – I’ve wanted to see the Registan for years. It might be the heart of old Samarkand, but I found it sadly soulless – the central area was taken up by a temporary wooden stage and the mosques and medressas that make up the ‘ensemble’ entirely given over to souvenir shops. I much preferred Russian Samarkand, probably because I had no rose-hued expectations. As for the other main sights – the Bibi Khanum mosque, the Gur-e Amir and the Shah-i-Zinda – these have been almost entirely rebuilt, such that not so much as a whiff of romance or history remains. I like my sites served up in a rather more realistic state, and if that means ruins rather than restoration, so be it. I don’t mind maintenance, but not restoration requiring (or resulting in) a complete rebuild with modern materials.

Mind you, I still managed to take a lot of photos; the architecture is amazing and the geometrist in me loves the tile work.

The other feature of this part of the tour was a night at the yurt camp near Yangikasgan, and a (15 minute) camel ride. This too was all a bit too touristy (and male) for my taste – although – again – my reaction says more about my unrealistic expectations as it does about the experience itself.

So no, having now been I don’t feel the need to return. But I might pick up my patchworking again.

Central Asia Overland – ‘ello Uzbekistan!

Day one of the final part of our Central Asia Overland trip.

We’ve a free morning in Tashkent while Amanda (our Explore leader) goes to collect the new arrivals from the airport, and we start sight seeing this afternoon. It will be weird having new people in the group, plus we’ll be 20, which is a big (too big) group.

Tashkent feels very big and modern, a definite contrast to Kyrgyzstan, although some of the mainly Chinese places we stayed in in Xinjiang were similar, if not so big and not so western in terms of products. Tashkent is the first place we’ve had BBC/CNN news on the TV (plus dodgy Russian pop videos!!) and there are adverts for iPhones, Levis, Rimmel (Kate Moss again) on billboards and TV, and the person before us in our room here left behind Friday’s FT. Mind you, having access to international news is a mixed blessing in these times of financial meltdown …. I’ll have to work out the impact of the collapse of the Icelandic banks, and where that leaves my Icesave-ings…

Next stop after this internet cafe is Il Perfecto, for (what promises to be) a proper cup of coffee….

Central Asia Overland – Crossing Kazakhstan

We arrived in Taskent at 7pm last night having left Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) at 4am – a long day of sitting on the world’s highest coach seats, suffering the smelliest squat toilets of the entire trip, and spending hours negotiating the border formalities for a trio of ‘Stans.

Our one day in Kazakhstan started with a long wait to get through our exit/entry stamps at the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border (c6am) and ended with an even longer time at the Kazakh/Uzbek border c4pm.

That said, there were some key differences at the Kazakh/Uzbek border – we were the entertainment of the month for the Kazakh guys, who were fun rather than fierce as the leafed through dirty laundry and laughed at the half drunk bottles of vodka and whisky we were carrying, whereas on the Uzbek side of things the guards definitely had a more intimidating style of questioning, mainly focussed on how much cash we were carrying.

Still, the main “interrogator” was an English speaking chap and, after inspecting everything in my “handbag” (for wont of a better word) and checking and signing off my entry declarations in duplicate, he had a good look through the photos on my camera, which featured the long and bumpy roads and rainbows of our 12 hour journey through Kazakhstan, together with photos of Bishkek and the beautiful Ala Archa gorge walk. Definitely no pictures of any border crossings or military locations!

Travels ahoy…

I’ve been buried in OU Project Management M865 studies and working on the first assignment for what feels like an age. But, TMA 1 is done (all be the inevitable editing to get closer to the word limit – sigh) and I’ve decided that I need to have something Good on the horizon to keep me motivated. The Barbican flat buying looks like it’s going to take an absolute age, if indeed it comes to fruition (I’m keeping my head in the sand on that one a bit I fear), so that leaves the good old standby of holidays…..

So, I’ve dug out my bumf from plannings past, primed Hazel and we’re going to be looking at trips to China and the ‘Stans in 2005. The contenders are:

  • Something from Silk Road Tours (but – ouch – they’re expensive and maybe a bit too posh for our tastes and pockets)
  • Good old Intrepid Travel …. except that they aren’t running the *ideal* trip (Ancient Road of the Traders) in 2005 🙁 which leaves either China or Uzbekistan
  • Far Frontiers – again, expensive
  • Adventure Bound – aka The Imaginative Traveller … hmm and it looks like they only do Uzbekistan or Mongolia out of Central Asia. Although Jewel of the Silk Road looks interesting…
  • World Expeditions, another Aussie outfit, so that could be a good sign
  • CTS Horizons
  • China Holidays – but their Silk Road tour is only 9 days

Oooooooh – I think I’ve found it: Silk Road to Samarkand via Kashgar

… but still e.x.p.e.n.s.i.v.e and looking at the brief itinerary, there’s travel almost everyday, so maybe not so much time actually *in* places …. hmmm:

Day 1 Join Beijing
Day 2/3 Visit Forbidden City and Great Wall
Day 4/6 Overnight train to Xian, visit terracotta warriors
Day 7/10 Overnight train to Lanzhou, drive to Xiahe, visit Labrang Monastery
Day 11/12 Train to Jiayuguan and western extremity of Great Wall
Day 13 Drive to Dunhuang and Buddhist grottos
Day 14/15 Train to oasis town of Turpan
Day 16 Drive to Urumqi
Day 17/18 Day trip to Tian Shan Mountains, evening flight to Kashgar
Day 18 In Kashgar, visit Sunday market
Day 19 Drive to Naryn via Torugart Pass
Day 20 Drive to Bishkek
Day 21 In Bishkek
Day 22 Fly to Urgench, drive to Khiva
Day 23 In Khiva
Day 24 Transfer to Bukhara
Day 25 In Bukhara
Day 26 To Samarkand
Day 27 In Samarkand
Day 28 To Tashkent
Day 29 In Tashkent, trip concludes.